Katy Burnett

Commodity Theater


Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann, 1927
Economics is not concerned with things but with relations between persons, and in the final analysis between classes; these relations however are always bound to things and appear as things.
– Friedrich Engels, review of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy


One rainy afternoon in October 1924, 26-year-old Bertolt Brecht stops by a friend’s house for tea and meets her roommate, Elisabeth Hauptmann. She is reticent with him—she’s suffering from a cold—but he notices how closely she listens. It’s the same way he listens to people. Brecht calls her the next day. He demands to know why she was so rude. That evening they take a walk in the nearby Grunewald.

She’s bookish, quiet, and around his age, working as a freelance writer and translator. She’d moved to Berlin a couple years earlier for the cousin of a child she’d nannied. The relationship didn’t work out, but she was happy to have made it out of her sleepy North German hometown. She’s a methodical researcher, a native English speaker, her artistic instincts are good, and she’s flattered by Brecht’s attention and then respect. When they’re working together and she tells him no, he abandons an idea immediately.

Brecht finds a way to finagle her an assistant’s paycheck from his publisher. They begin a close writing collaboration that lasts for years and years, holed up in his studio on Spichernstraße, curtains drawn to discourage visitors, a red-shaded lamp, Brecht chewing a cigar, Hauptmann at the typewriter, skipping between projects, tossing ideas back and forth, brainstorming new money-making schemes, like writing pornographic poems for rich ladies.

Brecht is already cultivating a sharp instinct for collaborative work he would follow his entire career, a tendency that would attract and alienate people in equal measure. He recognizes talent quickly and understands there are things other people can do better than he can. Deference doesn’t hold him back from advancing his own thoughts—he often pushes harder just to see what response he gets—but the right conversation keeps an idea in a shifting state until it lands in the right form, leaving everyone happy and amazed.

He knew, after all, that engaging with others is more than theoretical, just as live performance exceeds a script. The friction of agreeing or disagreeing with a collaborator, loving them or feeling annoyed, is how learning happens, and the soil from which any project grows, whether or not these affective notes make it into the final piece.

By summer 1926 Brecht and Hauptmann are focused on a project inspired by the 1902 Frank Norris novel The Pit. It’s the centerpiece in a never-finished trilogy that traces California wheat to the Chicago wheat exchange to European dinner tables. The writers are interested in the seemingly arbitrary mechanisms that generate egregious wealth and famines alike. They hope to finish a play that ties together the fates of characters on different sides of the wheat exchange. At the center of Norris’ novel is a love story, but they are determined to set aside his bourgeois sentimentality to clearly represent the power structures at stake. Brecht and Hauptmann each write to family in America for literature, popular and technical, about commodity markets, and Hauptmann begins collecting articles from the European press. Brecht goes to Vienna to meet with a commodities market expert and ask for answers in person.

Neither Brecht nor Hauptmann, focused on the financial themes of their work, left any published notes about the commodity at the end of the wheat market. But bread itself is frequently invoked in stories of the hyperinflation of a few years earlier. Amid massive currency devaluation, the price of bread went from 250 marks in January 1923 to 200,000,000 marks in November 1923. Gustav Stresemann, elected as chancellor in August 1923, is credited with stabilizing the crisis by early 1924. A new plan for war reparations payments also allowed Germany stable access to American credit. By 1926, the economy had recovered, but after ten years of violence and instability, no one who had survived was the same.

Brecht and Hauptmann were not the only artists adapting inherited formal conventions to address Germany’s brittle economic realities and the way people lived within them. Nearby, the director Erwin Piscator’s theater was staging experimental pieces broken up with newsreel, and Walter Benjamin, with whom Brecht would later become close friends, was piecing together the collection of micro-essays published in 1928 as One-Way Street. “All close relationships are lit up by an almost intolerable, piercing clarity in which they are scarcely able to survive,” writes Benjamin in “The German Inflation.” “For on the one hand, money stands ruinously at the center of every vital interest, but, on the other, this is the very barrier before which almost all relationships halt; so, more and more, in the natural as in the moral sphere, unreflecting trust, calm, and health are disappearing.”

While the market’s whims shape our own lives with devastating intimacy, the details that describe them hover in abstraction, far beyond the reach of individual people. They affect us as a mass. How does that look in a play, which starts from the material of specific lives, and to what extent do the artists trying to show it have to understand what’s going on themselves?

Brecht ends up abandoning Wheat. The challenge of representing the arcane workings of the market in a way theatergoers will understand had proven too frustrating. “I got the impression,” he reflects later, “that these processes were completely inexplicable, not graspable by reason, and therefore simply irrational. The way the world’s grain is distributed was absolutely incomprehensible. From every standpoint, aside from that of a few speculators, the whole grain market is a real swamp. The planned drama was not written, and instead I started to read Marx, and that’s how I read Marx for the first time.”

Though Brecht did not leave behind detailed notes on what he found in Marx, we know what he was trying to understand: the waves of crises that move through abstraction to show up so imminently in people’s lives. Marx provides a structuring principle to think through these crises, and leaves warnings against the dangers of mystification—warnings which must have relieved Brecht after his intense engagement with so many credulous economists.

Brecht is interested in bringing his characters and his audience to the limits of their knowledge, allowing them to see their own lives laid out for them differently, with or without the use of technical language. His characters also make choices with the little they understand. They attest to their own realities and make decisions based on that understanding. What to do next becomes a creative problem.

On a visit home in late 1926, he writes the better-read and more political Hauptmann asking for socialist and Marxist reading recommendations. Hauptmann tells him to start with Capital. Maybe if she’d named another book he would have discovered Marx some other way, but he trusts her, and the moment is right. Over the holiday he writes to her again, “I am now eight feet deep in Capital…”

Hauptmann’s recommendation changes the direction of Brecht’s life and work, not least because the critique of political economy allows him to grasp the structure beneath the market’s ever-shifting motion. Marx changes the way he thinks and writes and sees the world. Work he has already written suddenly makes sense: “When I read Capital, I understood my plays. Of course I didn’t discover that I’d written a heap of Marxist plays without knowing it, but that Marx was the only spectator for my plays that I’d found. They would be illustrative material for him.”

Unlike the hopeless study of commodity markets, reading Marx gives Brecht not only meaningful insight into his own work, but into the world that produced it. Marx informs his studies and the ideas he explores in his plays, which would continually return to questions of the social. Picturing Marx in the audience would influence his choice of teachers, collaborators, and comrades from that point on.


In 1926, Brecht meets Marxist sociologist Fritz Sternberg in Schlichters, a restaurant a short walk from his studio. Schlichters often hosts art shows and is the kind of place where people run into each other. Sternberg is about ten years older than Brecht and has recently published a book on imperialism. The professor remarks, there at the table, that he does not find that, at this point in history, a love relationship alone is enough to carry the action of a play. The writer agrees energetically and asks whether Sternberg would be willing to look at some unpublished manuscripts.

Brecht begins attending Sternberg’s lectures on Marxism and culture. He stops going at some point—he finds it hard to process ideas by listening, something in him demands dialogue—but he goes on meeting with Sternberg, along with a circle of other artists including Alfred Döblin, George Kaiser, and Leon Feuchtwanger. They keep returning to one question: how to make politically engaged art? When Brecht publishes A Man’s A Man late that year, he dedicates it to Sternberg, his “first teacher.”

Shortly thereafter, Brecht starts working with his friend Erwin Piscator’s leftist theater collective. He helps produce Leo Lania’s mostly forgotten Konjunktur (Boom), in which three foreign oil companies compete for drilling rights to a stretch of coast in Albania, exploiting workers and the environment along the way. The work poses similar representational challenges to Wheat, and in the theoretical fragment “On Subject Matter and Form,” Brecht tries to reconcile the topic’s representational limitations with his newfound Marxism.

The trouble is related, he thinks, to the complaint Sternberg had made—a narrative focus on individuals and their relationships represented without history or context. “Here is an example: the extraction and use of petroleum represents a new thematic complex within which, upon closer inspection, entirely new kinds of human relationships become apparent,” he writes. Causality is important to note here: “The petroleum complex came first, and the new relationships are secondary.” An individual’s motivations, and by extension their relationships, are structured in turn by their relationship to the market.

Oil as a commodity held a changing position in Weimar Germany. Though most of the country’s energy needs were supplied by brown and black coal mined within its own borders, vehicles, including a beloved car Brecht had acquired through a lucrative copywriting gig, needed imported oil to run. Germany’s lack of oil would be of particular concern to Hitler, who featured development of synthetic fuel as a major part of his first four-year plan. For leisure, transport, and war, a consistent supply of oil would be necessary.

“In order to embrace the new subject matter,” Brecht picks up steam, “a new dramatic and theatrical form is needed…Petroleum balks at the five-act form, today’s catastrophes do not proceed in a straight line but in cyclical crises, the ‘heroes’ are different according to the different phases, are interchangeable, etc., the graph of human actions is complicated by human error, fate is no longer a coherent power, instead we find force fields with opposing currents, and the power blocks themselves show movement not only against one another but within themselves, etc., etc.”

Hugo Gellert, Commodities: The Two Factors of a Commodity: Use-Value and Value: from Karl Marx Capital In Pictures, 1933

Traditional narrative structures no longer apply in a society where the only certainty is perpetual crisis, and art must change to accommodate this reality. This includes drama built around simple empathy for characters: characters in a play about an oil well may invite simple emotional identification, but their proximity to the means of production determines everything about the course of their lives, including the way they relate to one another. To Brecht, the catharsis that theatergoers look for in a drama is a distraction from this materialist vision.

Brecht is beginning to develop his theory of the Lehrstück, or learning play. In the Lehrstück, a character expresses a standpoint, defined by work or class position, that troubles and illustrates their place in the collective. Brecht’s pedagogy is not intended to convey facts, morals, or analysis in any simple sense. He trusts his audience’s intelligence, and wants to provoke spectators into thinking about the play and about their own lives from a distanced, analytical perspective. He wants to engage them critically rather than letting them slip into passive enjoyment.

Brecht begins experimenting with strategies like distributing questionnaires at the end of a play. In 1930, a performance of his play The Yes-Sayer is staged for elementary school students at the Karl-Marx-Schule, a free experimental school in the working class neighborhood of Neukölln. In the play, a boy falls ill with a school group who have ventured into the mountains to secure life-saving medicine for someone in their community. The group asks whether he should be left behind, as would customarily be done, and the sick boy says yes. The performance leads to a lively classroom discussion. In conversation with student critique, Brecht writes The No-Sayer, a version of the play where the boy does not consent, resisting tradition.

The communal environment of the performance and audience is key: everybody is in a room thinking something through together, just like collaborators in a workshop or comrades in discussion groups. Learning isn’t just reading a book by yourself, it’s something that has to be tested and lived out. There’s an electricity to knowing things could turn at any second. Brecht likes quoting the eleventh of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”


In August 1928, Karl Korsch attends the debut of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, meeting Brecht himself at a gathering afterwards through the artist George Grosz. Korsch’s idiosyncratic work, along with his skepticism towards the Soviet Union under Stalin, had recently gotten him kicked out of the Communist Party of Germany. His book Marxism and Philosophy, through engagement with Hegel’s dialectics, argued that change in material conditions alone was not enough to change consciousness. Ideological struggle was needed to prepare the working class for revolution.

Korsch delivers lectures at the Karl-Marx-Schule, which provides instruction to students of all levels, from the young audience of The Yes-Sayer to advanced academics. Brecht begins sitting in. “That idiot,” complains musical collaborator Kurt Weill, “is taking Marxist classes every afternoon instead of writing his stuff.” As with Sternberg, Brecht soon transitions from attending Korsch’s lectures to meeting with his teacher in smaller informal discussion groups.

What stays with Brecht from Korsch is the dialectic, a towering and enigmatic concept taken up from Hegel that describes, roughly, the conflict between oppositions, and their resolution into a third thing—a process of continual transformation in the world. In the 1920s, Korsch writes and teaches Marx, especially his understanding of historical materialism, with an emphasis on Hegel’s influence.

Brecht, not a philosopher, tries to explain the dialectic for himself in many short theoretical pieces. In some of these fragments, he refuses to define it at all, even acknowledging that he doesn’t want to. He’d rather find it in practice than look for it in a prescription. In a piece from 1931 he finally concedes, “dialectic is a method of thinking, or rather, an interconnected sequence of intellectual methods, which permit one to dissolve certain fixed ideas and reassert practice against ruling ideologies.”

For Brecht, the dialectic happens in concrete terms. He is able to make sense of it through his own temperament and work habits. Walter Benjamin, by this time a friend, notes that Brecht’s behavior in discussion groups differs a great deal from his normal comportment in one-on-one conversations. These groups provide a stage for his “dramatic talent”: “When I asked Brecht about this, he maintained that what he said in a discussion of this kind, where between four and ten men were present, did not need to be his own opinion, any more than what he put in the mouth of a character in one of his plays. He said that he made some of these pointed remarks in order to provoke people, to draw them out, to make the situation more dramatic. And in fact he often succeeded in this. After such discussions we knew a great deal more about some people than before.”

Brecht consciously uses this understanding of the dialectic in his theater to reveal power relations and where they situate characters, yielding information about their allegiances and what they are inclined to do. “At the end of the day, we must get to the point of indicating how people will act when it is a question of changing the world,” he writes. “To that end we must divide them all into groups in such a way that interests [...] make themselves visible.”

The fluctuations of a commodity market are not visible on their own: they depend on the movements of interested parties to appear and, in turn, be represented. Through this realization, Brecht finds a simple way to structure scenes: “Seek out the situations in which the statements in question might appear. From what quarter might they appear, and for what purpose might they be uttered.”

As Brecht struggles with the dialectic, the world around him changes quickly. After a renegotiation of German reparations payments and the Wall Street crash of 1929, the American credit that had kept the German economy afloat dries up. The Nazis quickly begin gaining power. Brecht himself witnesses a police massacre of Communists from Fritz Sternberg’s third floor window. Fearing violence, the Social Democratic government had forbidden the usual May 1st demonstrations, but small groups of workers gather in different parts of Berlin anyway, including by the headquarters of the German Communist Party, just across from his teacher’s apartment. Sternberg recounts the moment in his memoir: “When Brecht heard the shots and saw that people had been hit, he went paler in the face than I had ever seen him. I believe it was not least this experience that increasingly drove him towards the Communists.”

Making radical art becomes an urgent problem for Brecht. He begins to write explicitly agitprop plays like The Mother, intended to be performed for free by and for workers. He also scripts and consults on Kuhle Wampe, or who owns the world?, a leftist feature produced by Communist studio Prometheus Film. A family struggling with unemployment is evicted from their apartment and relocates to a tent city of other unemployed workers. The daughter, after receiving little support from her family and boyfriend, finds home in the Communist youth movement.

The final scene, on the train back from a rally, shows what Brecht’s theoretical work on the dialectic looks like in practice. “In Brazil, they burned 24 million pounds of coffee,” a passenger with a newspaper reads out loud. When those around him respond in disbelief, the man keeps reading: because more coffee was produced than could be sold worldwide, the government has burned the surplus.

Together the passengers struggle to understand the news item, expressing outrage, smug solidarity with the coffee burners, pronouncements on the correct preparation of coffee, back-of-envelope calculations, theories about colonial expansion and the world market. Tension rises among the young Communists as an older businessman proclaims, “so long as people can’t save their pennies, they can’t get ahead!” Some passengers scold the youth for engaging in political incitement on a Sunday, and the conversation turns to the intentional destruction of wheat and cotton going on in America. An excited man pitches a plot to create coffee plantations in southern Germany for eventual coffee independence.

“The two of us, we’re not going to change the world,” replies a drowsy passenger sadly. “Right,” says one of the young Communists, “you won’t change the world. And the lady there will not change it either, and that man either, and an apolitical person like you, not by a long shot. And this man here,” he indicates the businessman, “also won’t change the world. He likes it the way it is.”

The businessman smirks. “And who will change it?”

The camera cuts to the communist daughter’s best friend. Silent for most of the scene, she glares at him with pure hatred and speaks up. “Those who don’t like it!” The film ends.

Brecht distrusts feelings, but something interesting is happening here. Not liking the state of the world, even if you don’t have technical language to understand its problems, is a place to begin—a place to find other people and build things together. You can only go so far working alone. Sometimes it’s only when you explain to a friend that the landlord won’t fix your broken lock that you realize that this story can go in a demand letter. The conditions of your existence have become political.

Most of the characters in the train car don’t know what’s going on. Their only information source is a reported news piece. They get distracted, wander off on tangents, daydream. The young Communists and the businessman remain at the center of the scene. They are the only ones able to politicize coffee.

Our class positions are not just incidental, they shape how we see the world, and it is only in confrontation with others that this can become clear. Before the scene is through, the businessman accuses the youth of abuse for continuing to emphasize the facts around the production and destruction of coffee. The truth is something that can only be recovered and maintained through dialectical practice.

Politicization is a process that can only occur between more than one person, and as such it requires conflict. Brecht’s commitment to the dialectic, while unsentimental, anticipated affect. Once conflict arose, the theater—as agitprop, as pedagogical experiment, as arena for conversation of any kind—creates a space for it to play out.


We can’t know what direction Brecht’s art or politics would have taken had the 1933 Nazi seizure of power never happened. Brecht flees Germany with his family on February 28th, 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire. He spends the next several months bouncing between countries, frantically trying to secure funding as the German-language publishing industry closes to him and his friends. The material conditions of his work have changed. The Nazis officially ban his books that spring, including them in a mass book burning in Berlin on May 10th.

The bulk of Brecht’s correspondence begins around this time. In Berlin, most of his friends and professional contacts were at hand; he didn’t need to write them. He could not have known that they would end up needing one another so desperately. Brecht tries to negotiate with his publisher, organize writing sessions, cast performances in foreign cities. Money is extremely short.

In the summer, at the invitation of writer Karin Michaëlis, the Brechts settle in a house on a quiet, sandy island in Denmark. Elisabeth Hauptmann has stayed on in Berlin, dealing with Brecht’s affairs, shipping out his books, manuscripts, and personal items. Eventually she is interrogated by the Gestapo. Her sister in America intercedes, and she is able to emigrate. She stays in the US for the duration of the war. Fritz Sternberg escapes to the Czech Republic, then to Switzerland, then finally on to America as well. Karl Korsch joins Brecht in Svendborg in late 1933. He and his wife rent a house close to the Brechts.

Walter Benjamin also spends a few summers on the island. He and Brecht pass lots of time playing chess in the garden. Benjamin is the more ponderous player, stretching out his turn to distract his impatient opponent. The family playfully calls this strategy Benjamin’s “attrition tactics.” They don’t work: Brecht usually wins.

Benjamin writes enthusiastic pieces about Brecht’s art. “Benjamin understood Brecht far better than Brecht understood Benjamin,” recalls acquaintance Günther Anders years later. Through Benjamin’s criticism Brecht is able to see his own work more clearly and situate it in the world. The two make a lot of plans together, reading groups and magazines that never pan out. In exile, they help each other secure funding, translation, and performance opportunities.

When he’s visiting, Benjamin has time and space to work and read, but joins the Brechts for dinner, board games, trips in Brecht’s unreliable Ford, walks along the beach. At night, Hitler’s voice over the radio. “The newspapers arrive so late you have to pluck up your courage to look at them,” Benjamin writes.

There is often honest disagreement and even antagonism between the two that can leave Benjamin annoyed or hurt. They differ on interpretations of Kafka and Baudelaire. It is a testament to the strength of their friendship that respect and generosity remain consistent between them.

Brecht and Benjamin, 1934

1938 is the last summer they spend together. By early 1940, Benjamin is working on what will become his famous Theses on the Concept of History, inspired partially by conversations with Brecht. He hopes to send his friend an early copy, but suddenly threatened by censorship, their mail connection breaks down. On September 26th, 1940, rather than falling into the hands of the Nazis, Walter Benjamin ends his own life.

After a harrowing flight across the Soviet Union, Brecht and his family land in Los Angeles on July 21st, 1941. Brecht first hears of Benjamin’s death a few days later. He writes a poem to remember his friend.

To Walter Benjamin Who Killed Himself While Fleeing from Hitler
Tactics of attrition are what you enjoyed
Sitting at the chess table in the pear tree’s shade.
An enemy who could drive you from your books
Will not be worn down by people like us.

These few lines are terse with specificity. Play, concentration, long afternoons. A garden where something happened. An affectionate reference to “your books”: Benjamin famously fretted over his books, some of which Brecht was able to save for him in Denmark. Only threat of death could make him leave them. But the less sentimental Brecht also worried about transport logistics of his own library, felt pain and irritation in its absence. He remembers Benjamin’s anxiety and stubbornness with love.

Passively wearing the enemy out, implies the last line, is not enough. In Brecht’s grief he recognizes that his friend’s fate could just as easily have been his own. He stands ambiguously in solidarity with the dead while suggesting that somebody, somewhere could have prevented their passage. The friends’ work had failed to halt fascism but maybe someone else’s work could. This looks like despair, but even in his darkest, most personal work, Brecht leaves an opening.

What remains, after years of conversation, is the memory of a summer’s day in the garden of a house in a neutral country. Two friends could still briefly share what safety and stability there was to go around, some measure of the peace that had allowed them to think.

There are certainly reasons for Brecht’s reputation as a frosty high modernist. But the way he lived and thought and made work shows how much he learned from other people, how much he respected and valued his relationships, how they made his work possible. “We easily forget that human education proceeds along highly theatrical lines,” writes Brecht in 1939. “In a quite theatrical manner the child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later.” This “theatrical” emotive register may well be formed by an ideology that must be challenged. But art and education provide time and space for that development, and they land best where there are relationships to support them.

“It is no different with grown-ups,” Brecht goes on. “Their education never finishes. Only the dead are beyond being altered by their fellow human beings.” It’s unstated, but this movement may flow the other way: the dead can still alter us, whether or not we knew them personally, when we see them in our own political tradition, or through art. With their help we can still find opportunities to stay open, learn, experiment, and change course, in a spirit of warmth as well as of critique.


I’m indebted to Ermut Wizisla’s Brecht and Benjamin, Pamela Katz’s The Partnership, John Fuegi’s Brecht & Co., Monika Domman’s “Bühnen des Kapitalismus: Der Getreidehandel als Wissensobjekt zwischen den Weltkriegen” for most biographical details that made it into this piece. I also consulted Elisabeth Hauptmann’s Lesebuch and Fritz Sternberg’s Der Dichter und die Ratio for personal memories of Brecht. I’m grateful to Dr. Loren Kruger, who introduced me to Brecht many years ago, and to editors Cat and James, Rick Prelinger, and Misha Crafts for their sensitive and informed notes. Finally, I want to thank friends and comrades from my reading groups and tenant union who have contributed so much to my own political and intellectual development, and Udo Kriegsmann for caring for the graves of Brecht, Hauptmann, and the other comrades in the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof.

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