On March 24, 1927, a writer and a composer met in a cafe in Berlin to discuss the prospect of working together. This fact unto itself is not particularly notable, as the Weimar Republic had made Berlin a hotbed of artistic activity. However, though no one knew it then, these two young men would go on to radically reshape musical theater. Their names were Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. When they met, they were 29 and 27 years old, respectively. Though they only worked together for roughly five years, they would produce one of the most successful pieces of theater in European history: The Threepenny Opera. In her engaging new book, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, Pamela Katz investigates the tempestuous alliance between Brecht and Weill, as well as the support they received from the women in their lives, all set against the backdrop of a volatile and precarious nation. By skillfully weaving together social, artistic, political, and personal narratives, Katz reminds us that no artist works in a vacuum.
(Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2015)
While much has been written previously about Brecht and Weill, The Partnership is unique in that it attempts to contextualize the artists in three significant ways: in their relationship to one another; in their collaboration with three strong, intelligent women; and in the singular political and artistic climate of the Weimar Republic. To do so, Katz examines a wealth of sources, including newspaper articles, radio interviews, essays, reviews, professional correspondence, personal letters, and, of course, the artists’ works. Katz utilizes this tremendous volume of material to create a vivid and almost cinematic depiction of the two men. As a screenwriter and novelist, Katz has a facility for the dramatic that she employs to great effect. She frequently speculates on people’s thoughts, emotions, and reactions, making the book eminently readable and entertaining. For instance, this is Katz playfully recounting the artists’ first meeting: “As he shook Brecht’s hand, Weill must have [...] been grateful for the pungent smell of the cigar smoke. It was far more pleasant than the pronounced body odor wafting from the playwright.” The Partnership, though dense, is never stodgy.
From the outset, the relationship between Brecht and Weill was tenuous. “They acknowledged each other as equals,” observes Katz, “but both were accustomed to having the final word, and the balance of power was the as yet unspoken question in the room.” Brecht (whom Katz characterizes as “the cigar-chewing writer of acid poetry”) was chiefly concerned with making sure his work aroused and inspired political action, whereas Weill (to Katz, “the bespectacled, erudite composer”) sought to reinvent opera for the twentieth century. Though their goals and temperaments differed sharply, Katz contends they were not as dissimilar as they appeared to be: “They both wanted to expose the hypocrisy of society and its institutions, they both wanted to reflect mankind in a satirical mirror, and they both consciously used textual and musical means to heighten the power of their work.” Katz maintains that they were both too inspired by the other’s talents and ideas not to try and work together.
Working in the cooperative art form of musical theater meant that Brecht and Weill had to interact not just with one another but with numerous other artists to see their visions realized. Though many actors, designers, musicians, directors, and producers contributed to Brecht and Weill’s success, Katz highlights the three women who were indispensable to the playwright and the composer: Weill’s wife, actress Lotte Lenya; Brecht’s wife, actress Helene Weigel; and the writer Elisabeth Hauptmann, who was Brecht’s secretary, translator, and lover, among other things. All three were unquestionably modern women who sought to create their own identities—they were not focused solely on fulfilling the traditional female roles of wife and mother. “Hauptmann, Weigel, and Lenya would have been outcasts,” Katz points out, “but in the Weimar Republic, they had the chance to become artists instead.” Of the three, Lenya was the most outspoken, and Katz quotes her frequently. Her perspective on Weill and Brecht, and their work, is invaluable. (Lenya on the eventual dissolution of the partnership: “Kurt simply wasn’t interested in composing Karl Marx.”) Weigel, though less often quoted directly, is ever-present, as she acted on stage in Brecht’s works when she wasn’t busy managing his hectic home life. Hauptmann’s contributions are more difficult to identify, due to Brecht’s habit of using her work without crediting her, but no less important. All three of these women were powerful artists in their own right, and Katz successfully demonstrates throughout The Partnership how necessary they each were to Brecht and Weill, both personally and professionally.
That these five revolutionary young artists converged in 1920s Germany wasn’t merely chance. Katz stresses the vital importance of the Weimar Republic’s inimitable atmosphere, particularly in Berlin. According to Katz, the unstable political climate during this period, along with the government and the populace’s strong commitment to artistic freedom, was crucial to Brecht and Weill’s collaboration. To Katz, they did not just become partners in the Weimar Republic—they became partners because of it:
The simmering competition between these two very different and strong-willed men was insignificant compared to the political, social, and cultural forces they were both determined to fight. Even if the issue of creative control was slowly seeping into their partnership, this was still far less toxic than the poisonous undercurrents plaguing Germany in 1927.
Consequently, the failure of the Weimar Republic, which gave way to the Third Reich, marked the end of Brecht and Weill’s partnership. “Once the unique environment of Berlin between the wars dissolved,” Katz asserts, “the artistic revolution that brought Brecht and Weill together ceased to exist.”
The Partnership isn’t without flaw. Katz’s focus on Lenya, Weigel, and Hauptmann comes at the expense of other artists who were equally influential to Brecht and Weill. Caspar Neher, for example, was a childhood friend of Brecht’s who went on to become a successful set designer in Germany. Neher worked on nearly all of Brecht and Weill’s productions, including Threepenny, and should definitely be included among the key figures of The Partnership. Though Katz mentions him occasionally, his exclusion from the subtitle exposes the limitations of delineating such a complex system of influence and inspiration. Any lines that are drawn are, ultimately and necessarily, arbitrary. Brecht and Weill’s accomplishments, or any artist’s achievements for that matter, are too intricate and multifaceted to be reduced to a simple list. That being said, Katz’s attempt to provide a deeply personal and decidedly political framework in which to view Brecht and Weill is largely successful. She reminds us that art is not independent of its time or circumstance. It is a product of uncountable factors, only some of which can be credited to the individual artist. Brecht and Weill’s work may be timeless, but its creation certainly was not.