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Breaking the illusion

Understanding the man, the writer, the revolutionary on a visit to Bertolt Brecht's house

Bertolt Brecht’s grave at the Dorotheenstädtische Cemetery in Berlin. Photo: Alamy
Bertolt Brecht’s grave at the Dorotheenstädtische Cemetery in Berlin. Photo: Alamy

I had waited long to see Bertolt Brecht’s house. My introduction to the playwright had come in India, through performances by Indian theatre groups—Pu La Deshpande’s Teen Paishacha Tamasha, a Marathi production of The Threepenny Opera; two versions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle—M.S. Sathyu’s Urdu/Hindi Sufaid Kundali and Badal Sircar’s Bengali Gondi; and an English staging of the The Life Of Galileo.

Brecht meant a lot to anyone who was interested in theatre in the India of the late 1970s, when writers like Sircar shattered the illusion that traditional theatre had created, breaking the barrier that separated the actors from the audience. Brecht’s influence was evident. Alienation was his invention, making the audience focus on the ideas, and not only the story.

Influenced by Marxist thought, Brecht had lived through tumultuous times in Germany but stayed in exile in the US during World War II, writing for Hollywood. He returned to East Germany after the war ended, only to ridicule the Communist Party for betraying the ideals of revolution in his famous poem, Die Lösung (The Solution).

Going to Chausseestraße 125 in Berlin to see Brecht’s house was a kind of pilgrimage for me. I joined an elderly German couple in the reception to wait for the tour—which takes only eight visitors at a time—to begin.

There were a few photographs on the wall, but the captions were in German. A documentary, which too was in German, played on television. The few books and posters were also in German. The room looked austere, cold and unfriendly. I sat quietly.

The couple I was with could not speak English, so when the guide came, she decided to offer the commentary only in German. They were two, I was one. Looking at my crestfallen face, she conceded she would say a little in English.

Bertolt Brecht’s statue in front of the Berliner Ensemble. Photo: Alamy

Upstairs, there were his typewriters—an Olivetti 22 on one desk, a Royal on another. There was an image of Confucius and a Mao poem on a wall. There was the Bible, and a poster for peace by Pablo Picasso. The walls were lined with books, nearly 4,000 of them, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin’s philosophical notebooks, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There were masks from Japan’s Noh theatre and a little wooden statue a student had made, the only image of Brecht in the house. From the windows one can see the Dorotheenstädtische Cemetery, which houses the graves of Germany’s most famous artists and philosophers including Brecht and his wife, actor and creative director Helene Weigel. The Berliner Ensemble, a theatre company started by the two of them, was also nearby.

They weren’t poor, by any means. The apartment was spacious, with large windows and Weigel also maintained a conservatory. In the kitchen, I saw elegant utensils and Bohemian porcelain. Weigel had refined taste; she was from Vienna, the guide told us. She liked her phone near her bed; Brecht kept his phone far from his bed. They lived on different floors, sharing the kitchen and living area.

I entered the room where Brecht had died in 1956—it was bare. His beret and stick were still in there, as were yellowing copies of the International Herald Tribune. Brecht lived in what used to be East Berlin, and the Tribune was an American paper. How did he manage to get copies during the Cold War, I asked. There was no Berlin Wall at that time—it was built only in 1961—the guide reminded me. “Besides, Mr Brecht was a man with means," she added.

He was also a man with an attitude, the kind I find is sorely needed at the start of this new year, as rabid nationalism spreads all over the world. In 1947, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was determined to root out communism from American cultural life. He was repeatedly asked if he wrote revolutionary poems.

Yes, he said. His poems and songs were written for the fight against Hitler, so they could be considered revolutionary, because he worked for the overthrow of that government. The audience laughed; he had turned a congressional inquisition into performance theatre.

The visit gave me insight into this remarkable man’s cosmopolitan taste and curiosity about the wider world, revealing a composite personality, influenced by reason and faith. He abhorred the cult surrounding demagogues and ridiculed a society’s yearning for a leader. In The Life Of Galileo, Andrea laments, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero." And Galileo replies, “No, unhappy is the land that needs a hero."

He wrote those words in 1938, a year before Nazis overran vast parts of Europe. As I looked out of the window at the trees in the cemetery where great thinkers were laid to rest, I reflected on how relevant those words are even today.

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