On most of our marketing materials for this production of The Good Person of Szechwan, you’ll find at least five names. Bertolt Brecht, obviously, is the writer of the play in the original German. This production is using an adaptation by Tony Kushner, as translated by Wendy Arons, and Eric Ting is directing. Legally, we also need to include that this production is “presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.”
Five names, and none are these: Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau—both of whom are credited (rarely in publicity materials) as “collaborators” on not just The Good Person of Szechwan, but many of Brecht’s other plays and poems. Just how much authorship credit we can give to them is up for much debate, since Brecht himself didn’t acknowledge them as co-authors at the time, and as his career progressed he and his publishers increasingly left their names off of credits.
The “Brecht Factory” was well known as a writing collective, and wasn’t the first or last collaborative project that Brecht would be involved in. Through the years, his partners (with actors, writers, poets, composers, dramaturgs, and playwrights) and their importance to his writing would change as their relationships to Brecht changed: whether strictly professional, intellectual, romantic, or a combination thereof. His three most famous female collaborators—Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau, and Elizabeth Hauptmann—chose to prioritize Brecht’s work over their own literary pursuits, at least for significant periods of time (over a decade for Steffin, almost 20 years for Berlau).
“I would so love to be productive myself, but … whenever I begin something I worry that people will say I didn’t write it myself. And so I stop. Or I think it’s no good.” (Letter from Steffin to Knut Rasmussen, 5 June 1940, cited by Hauck 36, N92).
Brecht & Steffin began work on Good Person in 1938 (many of the first writings of the story are in both of their handwriting). During this time, the extended Brecht family fled Nazi Germany, first to Scandinavia and then later to the United States. Ruth Berlau soon joined the collective, and helped Brecht finish Good Person in 1941, after Steffin’s death.
My general is fallen
My soldier is fallen
My pupil has left
My teacher has left
My nurse is gone
My nursling is gone.
~Bertolt Brecht’s second poem in the collection about Margarete Steffin:
Nach dem Tod meiner Mitarbeiterin M. S.
[after the death of my colleague M. S.]
1933: Brecht & his family (incl. Margarete Steffin) flee Nazi Germany to Denmark. Ruth Berlau meets Brecht during their time there
1935: Brecht stripped of German citizenship
1941: Steffin dies in Moscow. Brecht & his family (incl. Ruth Berlau) settle in Santa Monica, CA
1943: The Good Person of Szechwan premieres in Zurich
1944: Ruth Berlau has a child with Brecht; the child does not survive
1947: Brecht is subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On the same day of this interrogation, Brecht leaves the U.S.
1949: Brecht and Helen Weigel found the Berliner-Ensemble, a state-subsidized theatre company which will eventually become the most highly regarded progressive theatre in Europe
1955: Brecht receives the Stalin Peace Prize
1956: Brecht dies of a heart attack at age 58
The details about a collective of three people writing this play with only one name author credit is particularly interesting to consider in light of the plot of Good Person. In the play, Shen Te finds more success in her business and personal life by creating a male persona “Shui Ta” that allows her to protect her own interests. Did Brecht’s collaborators make the same bargain by willingly surrendering their own names in order for their work to find success?
“I wrote to Brecht that I have a chance to work in New York. It was also important to me that I was independent and earned my living by myself and was not always treated as an appendage to Brecht.”
(from her book Living for Brecht: The Memoirs of Ruth Berlau)
In his polarizing book “Brecht & Co: Sex, Politics, and the Making of Modern Drama” John Fuegi called The Good Person of Szechwan a play that “shouts the agony of Steffin, who lived much of her life as an author wearing a male disguise.”
Perhaps those who collaborated with Brecht on Good Person and other endeavors understood perfectly the risks and rewards of allowing an alter ego to take the brunt of the responsibility, blame, and glory. Each of the artists in Brecht’s orbit (male and female, lovers or not) surely found new depths of creativity by collaborating with him, and as such many of their relationships spanned decades, countries, and the rise and fall of political peril. It’s well-established that Brecht did not work alone on his most successful works. But how much did his collaborators make Brecht the artist he became? Didn’t Ruth and Margarete shape The Good Person of Szechwan at least as much as those credited on our marketing?
Let’s at least say their names here, shall we?
Margarete Steffin was a German actor and writer, one of Bertold Brecht’s closest collaborators, as well as a prolific translator from Russian and Scandinavian languages. Born to a proletarian family, at the age of fourteen she went to work for the phone company but her interest in Social Democratic politics got her fired. In 1931, she took a diction class from Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel. She was introduced to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, playing a maid in Die Mutter (1932). In 1933 Brecht and Weigel went into exile in Denmark. Steffin entered an arranged marriage to a Danish citizen to stay as Brecht’s secretary and followed the Brechts to Finland and Moscow when war broke out. She died from tuberculosis (age 33) in 1941 in Moscow while awaiting an American visa.
Ruth Berlau was a Danish actor, director, photographer and writer, known for her collaboration with Bertolt Brecht and for founding the Bertolt-Brecht-Archiv in Berlin. Born to a merchant family, she learned French at a convent school, but had to drop out due to a pregnancy at the age of thirteen. She studied acting and established her Danish reputation playing Anna in Brecht’s Drums in the Night. During her teenage years, she financed a bicycle tour of France, by writing up a somewhat fictionalized account of her travels for a Danish newspaper. In 1930, she toured the Soviet Union by bicycle, and on her return joined the communist party. Later she took part behind the front lines in the Spanish civil war.In 1933, she met Brecht on the island of Fyn, and within two years had become his lover. In 1936, she divorced the doctor Robert Lund and threw herself into a collaboration with Brecht, acting as a secretary as well as writing, translating, photographing and directing. With Brecht, Berlau published the short story collection Jedes Tier kann es. In 1940, she followed the Brecht clan to Sweden, Finland, the USSR, and finally to the United States. In New York, she gave birth to her only child (Brecht’s fifth child), who was premature and only lived for a few days. After the war, she followed the Brechts to Berlin, but was blacklisted from the Berliner Ensemble by Weigel, after Brecht’s death in 1956. She died in 1974 (aged 67) in a hospital accident after falling asleep with a lit cigarette.