Stefan Brecht

Stefan Sebastian Brecht (November 3, 1924 – April 13, 2009)

“This is a place to come to. To have come to and to leave or not to leave anymore.”

With these lines Stefan Brecht, Berlin-born son of Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel, began “Why Miami”, about a city he’d come to that year, 1957, as Instructor in Philosophy at U. Miami, a city he’d soon leave for Paris, for Hegel and Marx, the dialectic, at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Never submitted for publication, “Why Miami” is an occasionally lyrical, acutely critical, highly personal, description and reflection on a city: its streets, buildings, people, geography, history, dreams, desolations, its changing situation in a changing world, what it all means. It clearly and sometimes exuberantly delights in language. It is characteristic, in all these ways, of the later writings in which, through which, Stefan ultimately found his place and his lifework in the city of New York.

It’s the first piece of Stefan’s writing I know of in English; he’d arrived in the US, in California with his family, in 1941, to finish a last year of High School, a good long distance runner and quick learner of English, having come there from school in the countryside of Finland, school in Stockholm before that, and before that an island off Denmark, having left Berlin with his family in 1933 at the age of 8.

Stefan stayed at his family’s house in Sta. Monica, studied chemistry at UCLA until he was drafted (an entry in the Diaries of Christopher Isherwood, Sept. 24, 1944, has a colorful story of a sending-off party the night before his induction). The Army sent him to U. Chicago to learn Japanese and Chinese; because of migraine, Stefan received a medical discharge. He finished UCLA as a philosophy major. The following year, 1947, while Stefan was at Harvard courtesy of the GI bill, Bertolt Brecht was interrogated by HUAC; Stefan’s entire family left the US as rapidly as possible.

Stefan stayed. He finished his MA in 1948 with a thesis on Hegel, written in German. While writing his doctoral dissertation, also on Hegel, he travelled: to Andalusia, Provence and especially Paris, often with his first great love, a New Orleans Cajun, student of Proust; he visited Berlin; he hitch-hiked from Hoboken to Venice Beach or San Francisco.

While completing a doctoral thesis said, in 1959, to be the longest ever accepted at Harvard — a friend recalled helping deliver it in a wheelbarrow – he met Mary McDonough in South Boston. Attractive and talented, she stayed with him in Miami, a city he revisited, and in Paris where she learned costume design while he studied with Alexandre Koyré and Auguste Cornu at the Ēcole Pratique. They had two children there, in 1961 and 1963, married, decided to live in the US.

Stefan brought them to New York: where Warhol, John Cage, minimalists and op artists were pushing past Pollock and de Kooning, where Merce Cunningham was dancing, “happenings” began, Susan Sontag contended with Against Interpretation, including “Notes on Camp”. Housing was cheap, thanks to Black Power and white flight; the young Brechts arrived near the time of the Harlem riots.

Marx and Hegel were no less integral than before to Stefan’s way of seeing or sense of purpose, but here was the city to match his powers of observation: peace and civil rights marches carried theatre to the streets, while the Living Theatre, Bread and Puppet, Jack Smith, van Itallie, the Ridiculous theater, Sun Ra’s Arkestra, LeRoi Jones played in the many small corners of the downtown scene at night.

He was witnessing what he considered a radical break, the emergence of culturally revolutionary art radically new, and not derivative of Europe. He knew this “florescence” couldn’t last. In 1967 he began “writing up” notes he’d taken at a performance or rehearsal the night before; and by 1968 he’d joined the cast of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s Whores of Babylon. He wanted to give later readers a sense of what was taking place, through writing in detail and sometimes in language characteristic of the subject, writing from on-the-spot notes, sometimes from observing while performing with them.

Richard Schechner was the first to publish Stefan’s writing, an analytical piece on “The theatre of the ridiculous” in TDR (The Drama Review). Evergreen picked up his brief note on Sun Ra. TDR continued with articles on Grotowski, LeRoi Jones’ Slave Ship and Bread and Puppet. A description of Robert Wilson’s Deafman’s Glance appeared in NY and Paris; also in Paris, a description of Richard Foreman’s Vertical Mobility; and in Rome, Stefan’s Nuovo Teatro Americano, 1968-1973 carried play descriptions and commentary on The Living Theatre, The Open Theatre, and Schechner’s Performance Group, among others.

As his understanding of what he was observing and writing about grew, Stefan conceived of what was to become his major work: The Original Theatre of the City of New York, from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Nine books were projected for the Original Theatre series: “1, Robert Wilson; 2, Queer theatre; 3, Richard Foreman’s diary theatre. Theatre as personal phenomenology of mind; 4, Morality plays. Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre; 5, Theatre as psycho-therapy for performers. A, Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre. The Beck’s Living Theatre; B, Richard Schechner’s Performance Group. Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Repertory Company. With notes on Grotowski and Andre Serban; 6, The 1970s hermetic theatre of the performing director. Jared Bark. Stuart Sherman. John Zorn. Melvin Andringa. With appendices on Ann Wilson, Robert Whitman and Wilford Leach; 7, Theatre as collective improvisation. The Mabou Mines; 8, Black theatre and music. With notes on the Duo Theatre and M. van Peebles; 9, Dance. Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, Douglans Dunn. With a note on Ping Chong.”

His research became increasingly exhaustive, his manuscripts extensive, and only three books were completed: Queer Theatre and The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson in 1978, and a two-volume Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre in 1988. Manuscript exists for a book on Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre; Methuen, publisher of the series, plans to publish when it is edited. Notes remain for some of the others projected.

Remembering Stefan and his work, John Bell, former puppeteer with Schumann, now a Fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and Director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, U. Connecticut, writes:

“I think that Stefan Brecht’s histories of New York City avant-garde theater constitute a remarkable and invaluable contribution to the study of twentieth-century culture. Anyone in the coming centuries who wants to know what the ”original theatre of the City of New York” (as Stefan put it) was actually like will have to consult Brecht’s trenchant and incisive writing. Brecht’s version of theater and performance history was created outside of the academy, and thus thankfully avoided the salient problems of academic writing. Instead, Brecht approached his work from all directions: as a cultural philosopher, as a totally focused audience member, and as a performer and company member who understood all the different paths that lead to performance.

“Brecht’s two-volume analysis of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater is unique not simply because no one in western culture ever paid so much close attention to puppet shows, but because Brecht’s careful attention to performance, process, and Schumann’s thinking about his work is done with as much focus and attention as Bread and Puppet gives to its own work. Brecht notes, explains, and analyzes the details of the early-60s milieu of the downtown New York performance scene, and the ways Schumann and his colleagues created their work within it, but he also is in a position to deeply understand the nature of Schumann’s traumatic experience of World War Two, and what that means to his work, as well as the importance of the romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin to Schumann’s dramaturgical and visual language.

“This rare ability to understand theater both as a viewer and a performer also informs Brecht’s stunning accounts of Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam and the other creators of what Brecht termed ‘queer theatre’ (one of the very first articulations of the queer aesthetic); as well as his attention to the work of director Robert Wilson. Eschewing contemporary academia’s passion for dueling with critical theory, Brecht is relentless in recording and evoking with words what exactly transpires in theater, and then in stepping back and articulating in a very personal way (because after all, he was right there: onstage, offstage, in the audience, and in the dressing rooms) what it all meant to him–a philosopher and poet who understood deeply what theater in the twentieth century could do.

“Some readers and writers are put off by Brecht’s styles and methods: his meticulously detailed observations, his deep understanding and references to poetry and philosophical writings–in short, the ways that his theater history writing delves so deeply into its material, engaging it in a loving and often combative embrace. It just isn’t normally done these days. But Brecht felt his subject matter, the ‘underground and radically non-literary’ director’s theater that emerged in ‘the American renaissance of painting and dance in New York City during the 1960s,’ was worthy of the depth of attention he could give it, and in fact he was right.”

Throughout his life, Stefan was a reader – of history, sociology, archaeology, science, the occult, literature, comic books – and a “casual” writer of “poem-like things.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti noticed his self-published 1976 collection and a year later produced an edited Stefan Brecht/Poems for City Lights’ Pocket Poet series. In correspondence Ferlinghetti noted, “His poems articulated an ironic, conflicted urban consciousness almost as if he put into words the wood-block drawings of Franz Mazareel…” and added, “He didn’t want any reference to his father in our bookblurb.” Poet Michael Heller recently wrote,

I will miss Stefan Brecht. His work was filled with a beautiful and moving intelligence, highly original in its seemingly self-effacing form. As though to throw his readers off, he once wrote “dictation spells me,” but every line of the work gleams with his acute awareness and sensitivity, a humanity that both comprehends and mysteriously celebrates.

Stefan’s poems appeared, through the next decade or so, in Exquisite Corpse, Asylum, Confrontations, and Tyuonyi, among other journals, and were anthologized, most notably in Best Poems of 1988 (Ed., John Ashbery). In 1981 in the DDR there appeared Gedichte, a small collection of his German poems. “Paradiso, Lines from a New Translation” showed up in a Dante issue of Studies in Medievalism, in 1983.

In 1985 he planned 8th Avenue Poems, making a xeroxed version showing each poem superimposed onto photos he was taking of the pavements; he set this aside, felt the poems needed more work. By the end of the decade, feeling pressure of time, he no longer took the time to send poems for publication although he continued to write them. Many remain unpublished.

During the 1980’s, following separation from Mary in about 1979, his writing and a new relationship with clothing designer and performer Rena Gill had come to be the center of his life. The frequent travels that continued through the 1970’s gave way to more time at his typewriter: but not to a steadier focus on editing the mss. he’d written for the next in his series, the Foreman book. He made some major digressions.

He wrote a book about Goya’s 22-print set, “The Disparates”. Discussions of each print, which comprise most of the book, are light and incisive and read almost like conversation, including as they do the comments and arguments of other writers. He wanted a collaborator to discuss composition; none appeared, and the book remains on hold.

Somewhat as part of his consideration of the milieu of his subject Richard Foreman Stefan took up the idea of a “New American Art”, and wrote a collection of essays under that title exploring, through considerations of leading artists, his view that the “relative” reality of abstract expressionism and minimalism broke with an “ontological dualism” of space and matter in European art.

In reading Gertrude Stein as part of his research on Foreman’s influences, Stefan found himself formulating a theory of how it was she came to write in her elliptical Tender Buttons style. This, plus a discussion of the interconnectedness of her work with that of Picasso, forms another book, one which he was unable to finish because of the 2001 onset of an illness that slowly took his life.

Despite this illness, a form of Parkinson’s which rendered him first unable to organize and later unable even to speak, he was able to review his by now much larger collection of 8th Avenue Poems, which were published in 2006.

The photographs he’d taken of the sidewalks came out that year separately as 8th Avenue, the only published evidence of his active interest in the visual arts. Stefan’s friend, poet Robert Nichols remarked that they “looked like Australian aboriginal paintings, which though they look like abstracts are actually maps of physical and spiritual landscapes recognizable to someone in that culture and locale.” Tim Maul, an artist and critic who lives in New York, wrote of them:

“For a two year period between 1985 and 1987, historian and poet Stefan Brecht photographed the sidewalks, pavement, and curbing along Eighth avenue from his home near 12th St. to his office in the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd St. As a set of pictures they recall Sol Lewitt’s photographs of walls, Vito Acconci’s early ‘street works’ and Douglas Huebler’s studies in temporality. Yet these black and white 35mm images are neither diaristic conceptual art nor grimy reportage, defying easy categorization…. Brecht’s keen powers of observation combined with a fascination with archeology, the excavation of secrets, is apparent in the forensic crime-scene clarity of every exposure. Looking down through a lens, the commonplace warps into the alien- I cannot open the pages of this book without seeing a planet surface or ocean floor. Aerial photography is also a strong influence, be it the ruins of Berlin, the plains of Nazca, or dubious ‘crop circles’ in the form of manhole covers. These surfaces, gain an almost occult significance as if the city offered its palm to be read by Brecht the prognosticator… Acting upon impulse, Stefan Brecht left us an engrossing archive documenting one man’s movement through a city in the space of pages, which is what I believe poetry often does.”

In a German obituary for Stefan, Holger Tesche said of 8th Avenue Poems: “These are short, unsentimental poems on the outcasts and the forgotten in New York. Insofar went Stefan Brecht in the footsteps of his father.” With equal truth, Heller spoke of Stefan as “a flaneur of subtle penetrating insight” and continued, “His city – New York City – his ‘poet’s estate,’ is bathed in ‘the morning star’s ambiguous light,’ in which every mote scintillates, throwing off shards of sadness, beauty and hope.”