The Life and Lies of — Bertolt Brecht?

Amnon Halel, whose notes to me from Israel always throw new light on the Hogwarts Saga, sent this last week about a possible source for the title of Rita Skeeter’s acid-pen biography The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Mr. Halel wrote:

When I read the title The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore in Deathly Hallows, I thought of John Fuegi’s famous biography of Brecht: “The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (1994). Both books are sensationalistic biographies that are hundreds of pages long, full of contempt for their subject, and each uses some  facts and evidence mixed in with strong biased interpretations and bad intentions to prove the man is not a hero but a liar.

I didn’t find any comparison or connection of these books on the Internet and I wonder what do you think? Is it just coincidence?

I asked Amnon to write up this catch as a post himself but he asked me to do it in return. Here, then, is a short survey of this fascinating possibility:

Going to The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht page, we read this ‘product description’ from the publisher:

Backed up by previously unpublished papers and interviews with Brecht’s colleagues and many lovers, this biography argues that Brecht was not in fact the author of the plays which have given him his iconic stature. “Mother Courage”, “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Good Person of Szechuan”, to name but a few of “his” most popular plays, were written (Fuegi calculates at least 80% of them) in a sex-for-text scheme by his mistresses, none of whom have ever received any recognition. Fuegi shows Brecht to have been personally offensive, politically slippery, sexually deranged, racist, an anti-Semite, a plagiarist, and mesmeric at the same time. Weaving together history and biography, the book offers encounters with Hitler the set designer, Kurt Weill, Charles Laughton (who lent Brecht his limo when he went to Hollywood), Rosa Luxemburg, Goebbels (who made up a third in a love triangle), Isherwood and Walter Benjamin.

The problem, as I’m sure you noticed, is that the book is not in print, costs more than $50 for a used paperback, and has been so disavowed by HarperCollins the publisher that an Amazon customer had to supply a photo of the cover for the page (I’m afraid the customer was this motivated because s/he hoped to unload the copy s/he has). Is the book as bad as all that?

I only found one review online and it is fairly damning: “Bertolt Brecht: the man who never was” The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (John Fuegi, Harper Collins. 732 pp., $39.95), Reviewed by Dave Riley. Here is Mr. Riley’s conclusion:

[F]or those willing to make the effort, Brecht comprehended how insidiously and pervasively manipulative cultural production had become under capitalism. His response was to do something about it by creating a theatre that sought to redefine the relationship between audience and performance.

This particular and significant achievement – resting primarily as it does on the content of his work rather than its style – seems not to have registered with some professors of literature such as John Fuegi. For him, this side of the fall of the wall, Brecht is open season. After being compared to Hitler and Stalin, the Bertolt Brecht in Fuegi’s new biography is portrayed as a misogynist and plagiarist whose major works were written by other writers. Fuegi insists that what we know as his plays were actually the work of women (and socialist feminists at that!): Elisabeth Hauptmann, Grete Steffin and Ruth Berlau – sometime lovers of Brecht who have not received appropriate recognition.

While the collective method of Brecht’s writing has always been acknowledged (as well as his penchant for lifting material from the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Rudyard Kipling, Francois Villon and Arthur Waley’s translations of traditional Japanese Noh plays) Fuegi’s determination to downsize Brecht’s primary and essential role in its creation is advanced through the most preposterous assertions.

In reviewing the book for the Australian recently, Michael Morley (professor of drama at Flinders University) was curt: “… we are asked to accept that he [Brecht] cheated his collaborators blind, caused Margarete Steffin to die of tuberculosis, was indirectly responsible for Ruth Berlau’s death in a hospital fire in 1974 (18 years after his own) and had so exhausted his stock of what a Victorian poet termed `faithful female friends’ that `by 1956, as in his teen years, his most trusted companion was a dog’. Thankfully, the author refrains at this particular juncture from explicitly suggesting bestiality.”

As founder of an outfit known as the International Brecht Society, Fuegi’s motives in generating his own highly original version of the Brecht story can only be described as dubious. His interpretation of the epoch in which Brecht lived is facile and couched in sternly judgmental terms that even insist that somehow Brecht was complicit in the rise of fascism and Stalinism and the Cold War extremes of Senator Joseph McCarthy!

This ready moral outrage contrasts sharply with his subject’s fascination with the ethics of capitalist society. Indeed, the bulk of Brecht’s plays and poems are parables in the mode of those of the New Testament. In casting Brecht as a hypocrite and charlatan, Fuegi’s core project is to make out that the Bertolt Brecht we think we know did not exist. Rather than a shock, it’s an embarrassing fantasy.

As Mr. Halel wrote, this is a decent match for Rita Skeeter’s post-mortem hatchet job on Albus Dumbledore — and the titles, of course, suggest a direct hit.There is an obvious difference, though.

However great Brecht’s artistry, the Stalin Peace Prize winner’s willingness to be used by and be a representative of great crimes against humanity are as difficult to overlook — and makes books claiming he was a thief and liar credible, alas — as if he were an accomplice of slavers, skinhead racists, or Islamic terrorists. Would we celebrate the magisterial poetry of a Pol Pot apologist? The moving novels of a Mao flag-waver? I have to doubt it.

With Brecht, we’re a long way from Albus Dumbledore. No, I don’t think the legendary playwright’s politics excuse a scurrilous biography if John Fuegi has indeed twisted the events and facts of Brecht’s life to fit his thesis. But equating Brecht with Dumby necessarily means putting the two lives in parallel. I cannot get the benign Fabian socialism of the Headmaster and the complicity with bone-crushing Stalinism of the real-world German artist to match up.

Back to the subject at hand, could Ms. Rowling have lifted the title of her Skeeter tell-all Dumbledore expose from The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht? Hard to say. Without having read more than one chapter of Rita’s book and not having access to John Fuegi’s biography of Brecht, I’m afraid that, short of confirmation from Ms. Rowling that I’m confident we will never receive, the link must remain only the remarkable and notable possibility that it is. We cannot be sure but the likenesses beyond the title are intriguing.

Your comments and correction are coveted as always. Great catch, Amnon!


  1. Fascinating. I’d never heard of this controversy, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Rowling had. We’ll probably never know, as you say, but the titles are too close to ignore. And I agree that there doesn’t seem to be any case that Dumbledore is a portrait of Brecht.

    I do have to take exception to the assessment of Brecht, however. The brush stroke seems a little broad, as it were. Just to refer to the wiki-link provided, Brecht was an intellectual Marxist and not a Communist–two very different things, the former being a complex, one dares say arcane, form of academic discourse in Weimar Germany. Nor does it seem accurate to describe Brecht’s adherence to Korsch’s dissenting dialectic philosophy–which was rejected by the Stalinists–as his embrace of ‘bone-crushing Stalinism.’

    Brecht’s major literary works were written before the partitioning of Germany. Also, the review above describes his ‘fascination with the ethics of capitalist society’–an odd theme for a bone-crushing Stalinist. So to simply connect his unquestionable attainment as the greatest German writer of the 20th century with Stalinism by comparing his work to something written by Pol Pot is dubious at best. And I fail to see how his political persuasion makes it ‘credible’ that he personally was a thief?

    Note that the article also says Brecht seems to have revoked his initial support for the SED; certainly the poem is remarkably harsh to have been written by a supporter–in fact, considering it was written by a Marxist, it seems like an out-and-out condemnation of the Communists.

    All this together leads me to suggest that ‘toady’ is far too reductive and unhelpful a word to describe this complex and remarkable literary giant.

    And, to be fair, Dumbledore heartily endorsed a horrific, tyrannical regime, even helping the dictator formulate his rationale for genocide and a reign of terror, and later revoked and regretted his endorsement, to actively work against it.

  2. Really, your response is one I thought the hyperbole of my post invited. Thank you for this spirited and thoughtful defense of a great playwright.

    The only literature class I took at UChicago — fall quarter first year! — was an upper level German class for graduate students reading ‘Kafka, Mann, and Brecht’ in translation. I was 17. The reading load was unbelievable even after my senior year at Exeter experience of reading all Shakespeare’s plays in a semester. I remember a graduate student — memorable, I think, mostly because he had a sense of humor — responding to a question about the latter part of Buddenbrooks, that the assigned reading “remained only an ambition.”

    At the end of that reading blitz, I wrote a paper on the Christian elements in Brecht’s major plays in contrast with his Marxism. I knew more about Marx than Christianity, I’m afraid, because in another course that quarter I had had to read the greater part of the Marx-Engels Reader (and knew even less than I do now about the life in Christ) but the German teacher gave me an A and asked confidentially if I was a believer. He thought I demonstrated that Brecht was not the cardboard Communist and enthusiastic Marxist many believed. At least, not in his staged works.

    I tell you that story only to say I understand that Brecht was not a Stalinist as such, but he does receive a pass from critics for his Marxist beliefs and support for the East German communist regime. I find this incomprehensible and inexcusable because of the people I have met who have lived and escaped like regimes, people, who, obviously, didn’t have Swiss bank accounts while decrying the excesses of capitalism and driving expensive cars around Berlin. The East German Socialists were worse in their way than the National Socialists of the decades prior; Brecht’s persecution by the latter does not justify his association with the former.

    Literary giant? A given. I regret the possibility that my comments will discourage readers from studying Brecht or staging his plays (as the comments inevitably will). The letter and poem quoted in the Wiki piece, though, don’t balance out. His public support and poetic defiance sum out to ‘toady,’ at best, and ‘man capable of the worst’ in all likelihood.

    Which brings us back to Dumbledore. You say he “endorsed a horrific, tyrannical regime” by which I’m guessing you mean his dreaming with Grindelwald privately of a Wizard takeover. I think you are matching my hyperbole to generate a parallel defense! Would that Brecht had only been a ‘fellow traveller Marxist’ who did not live in and lend his genius and reputation to support a living, life-destroying regime of which Grindelwald’s is only a fictional cartoon. Dumbledore turned from Grindelwald the moment he realized, at the death of his sister, what the reality of their dreams looked like.

    I suspect, though, that the slanderous bio (if indeed it is slander) and its title were a model for the Rita Skeeter Dumbledore take-down. It cannot be proven short of author confirmation but the ties are close enough (especially given Ms. Rowling’s political leanings to the left) that I think it a great catch.

    Thanks again, Mr. Pond, for the thoughtful corrective response.

  3. Tinuvielas says

    Thanks for these interesting viewpoints on Brecht! Since I have so far largely avoided Brecht (having been obliged to read and watch several tedious didactic plays in my school-days…), I can’t contribute much to the questions on the political stuff, except maybe that

    a) Contrary to US-allegations Brecht never joined the communist party, and

    b) from what I gather he seems to have managed as best he could in difficult times, seeking compromise in order to keep being published and being able to work in the theatre. This obviously included floating with the tide, especially after having been denied access to the allied part of Germany after the war.

    However, his poem “The Solution” seems to indicate some reservations to the official communist line. SED government had argued after the 1953 uprising that “the people would have to work hard to regain their government’s trust”. Brecht polemically asked in the poem whether it wouldn’t be easier if the government simply abolished the people and elected another?”

    Here’s a translation I found on the net:

    After the uprising of the 17th June
    The Secretary of the Writers Union
    Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
    Stating that the people
    Had forfeited the confidence of the government
    And could win it back only
    By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?

    That said, I find the similarity of titles intriguing. I’d guess JKR did run across it at some point – there’s hardly a field of writing that she didn’t use as soil to grow and fertilize her literary universe…

    I also think that Brecht is probably more known in England than in German – while having the reputation as the 20th Century greatest playwright (not author!!!), according to recent reviews very few people her actually read him or know anything about his life (– probably due to traumatic school experiences… P). In fact, the only version of his plays that I ever saw and actually liked a lot was “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, staged by a British Theatre Company on tour in Berlin! German theatre as a rule is more didactic, director-centred and experimental, as opposed to British theatre, which manages to be both critical AND entertaining. Entertainment is something the German avant-garde theatre studiously avoids… While in Britain there is a long tradition of “teach and delight”, in Germany there is often still a boring divide between “high” and “low” culture. In other words: Anything that entertains and sells can’t be art. That combined with Brecht’s didacticism hardly makes for a relaxed evening at the plays…

  4. N Leonard says

    The Fuegi biography of Brecht is great fun, and the most solid and interesting element of it concerns Brecht and women. Basically, his girlfriends wrote a lot of his stuff. As it happens, much of what they wrote is very good. Fuegi’s criticism does not take away at all from their value, as as texts written by Somebody. It just happens that the Somebody was mostly (depending on the text) not BB.

    Interestingly, a lot of “Brecht’s” work shows deep understanding for the situation of women. Ah, you might say, what insight!

    As a human being, BB comes across as a thorough Shit; but then, hardly the first creative type in that category. “Painters and poets and such horses’ necks…”

  5. Brecht a great playwrite? Well, when did he write a play? But seriously the critics of Fuegi’s “hatchet job” have strange habit of denying charges which have not been made. It seems to be the basic technique of Fuegi’s critics, then and now.

    What these gentlemen fail to acknowledge is Fuegi’s way to follow the money. Brecht operated the system, and he got real good at this. And what is this system? In Germany it is not the author holding the copyright but his publisher. If you are a German author you negotiate for royalties and advances, not the ownership of your own work. The real bad guy in the Brecht saga is Suhrkamp and his legal department. Brecht obviously had so little to do in terms of writing stuff that he could concentrate all his energies in exploiting commercially the situation to his own advantage. I know of other German writers of talent statue and character, say Vigoleis Thelen or Wolfgang Koeppen, both of them true nobel price material, if Germany ever had one, who rather published nothing at all than expose themselves to the commercial meat grinder of German publishing houses. And they needed the money. True. We have their statements on this.

    So Brecht was streetsmart (good for him) and scrupulous (bad for his co authors), that’s the long and short of it.

    michael sympson

  6. I have read The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht (1963), by John Willett; Bertolt Brecht in America (1982), by James K. Lyon; Brecht, A Biography (1983), by Ronald Hayman; Living for Brecht: The Memoirs of Ruth Berlau (1985), by Ruth Berlau; Bertolt Brecht, Chaos According to Plan (1987), by John Fuegi; a chapter from Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals (1988); the novel Loving Brecht (1992), by Elaine Feinstein; Brecht and Company (1994), by John Fuegi; Brecht (1998), by Hans Mayer; Bertolt Brecht, A Literary Life (2014), by Stephen Parker. I need to read other biographies on Brecht such as Brecht, Then and Now, by John Willet (1995); Brecht: A Biography, by Klaus Wölker (1979); and Brecht Chronik 1898 – 1956, by Werner Hecht (1997), which surely deserve to be read.
    There are many coincidences between the biographies or texts written by Lyon, Hayman, Fuegi, Johnson and Parker, especially in relation to the important collaborations of Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarette Steffin, Ruth Berlau and Hella Wuolijoki. It is not seen anywhere that Brecht recognized these collaborations neither nominally nor financially, much less his heirs. The accusations that some critics such as Brigitte Pätzold and others have launched against John Fuegi are the expression of the rage they feel at seeing their hero Brecht unmasked because Fuegi does not make the claims they impute to him. Contrary to what some of these critics of Fuegi say, he provides a huge amount of data obtained from his inquiries into the manuscripts of the Brecht archive in the GDR and from hundreds of interviews with relatives in the United States, in both Germanys and in the USSR. Fuegi studied declassified FBI reports, and analyzed the “Brecht files” made available to him by Brecht’s son, Stefan, at Harvard University. It also stings Fuegi’s critics that he defended Stalin’s regime “through thick and thin” during the purges of the 1930s and in the repression of the 1953 workers’ demonstrations in various cities of the GDR. It is also annoying to know that Brecht sold better in the western sector than in the GDR, that he had a checking account in Switzerland, that he and his wife Helene Weigel ran the Berliner Ensemble company with a luxury budget in an impoverished country. Nor do I think that Fuegi can be accused of “homophobia” just for having shown that Brecht had bisexual relationships in his youth. The biographies of Brecht written by Fuegi, as well as his superb documentary Red Ruth, are a fair vindication of those women who dedicated a lot of time to see Brecht’s works completed.
    Julián Herrero Muñoz

Speak Your Mind