“Could there be anything more anachronous,” wrote Charles Marowitz about German playwright Bertolt Brecht‘s wartime sojourn in southern California, “than a fiery Marxist and anti-naturalistic poet-playwright making the rounds of Hollywood Studios hawking screen outlines to the likes of the Jack and Harry Warner and Harry Cohn? Brecht in Los Angeles was more than a fish out of water; he was more like a beached whale.”
Brecht hated L.A. In a poem, he compared it to Hell – this during the war, while Europe was one big battlefield and slaughterhouse. In southern California, he wrote, “something ignoble, loathsome, undignified attends all associations between people and has been transferred to all objects, dwellings, tools, even the landscape itself.” Apparently missing gray, grungy Berlin, he even accused the L.A. sun of shriveling writers’ brains. One perceptive biographer has described it this way: instead of approaching his new surroundings like a truly inquisitive writer, eager to plumb the heart and mind of a strange new place and perhaps even learn something from the experience and grow as a man and an artist, Brecht didn’t “examin[e] life in America to adjust his model of it” but was instead constantly eager to find things about the city, and the country, that confirmed his Marxist, anti-American biases.
“Dante himself could not have found an apter inferno for Brecht than Southern California,” critic John Simon has written, noting Brecht’s view of Tinseltown as “Tahiti in metropolitan form” and his view of America as a nightmare of capitalism, obsessed with buying and selling. In a poem called “Hollywood Elegies,” Brecht wrote: “Every day, I go to earn my bread / In the exchange where lies are marketed, / Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.” He managed to contribute to one film, emigre genius Fritz Lang’s 1943 anti-Nazi tale Hangmen Also Die!, although Brecht didn’t get screen credit.
With few exceptions, the people Brecht met on the West Coast, including fellow members of the emigrant community, couldn’t stand him. The novelist Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), according to Simon, “considered Brecht a party-liner and a monster.” Drama critic Eric Bentley said he lacked “elementary decency.” The poet W. H. Auden, who translated and collaborated with Brecht, labeled him “odious.” For Auden, Brecht was “one of the few people on whom a death sentence might be justifiably carried out”; the poet even added: “In fact, I can imagine doing it to him myself.” The philosopher Theodor Adorno “claimed that Brecht spent two hours a day pushing dirt under his fingernails to make himself look proletarian; George Sklar called him a ‘real Hitler,’ who reflected the very Germany he had reacted against.” Screenwriter Albert Maltz, a fellow Stalinist, “found him contentiously arrogant and made more repulsive by his bodily stench (he disliked bathing).” British actress Elsa Lanchester, who was married to Charles Laughton and who was no dummy, cannily observed that Brecht “was anti-everything, so that the moment he became part of a country, he was anti-that country.”
Yet while he savaged America in general and southern California in particular, Brecht said nothing negative about the USSR. Thanks to well-off and influential admirers of his work, he had managed to make it to America; but he made no effort to save anybody else from Hitler – or from Stalin.