The Nuanced Life and Art of Elisabeth Hauptmann (1897- 1973)

Pamela Katz - The Partnership - Elisabeth Hauptmann

Editor's Note: Pamela Katz is a screenwriter and novelist whose most notable work in film include "Rosenstrasse," "The Other Woman," and "Hannah Arendt." Katz teaches screenwriting at NYU's Tisch Graduate Film Program and lives with her family in New York City and Berlin. She is most recently the author of The Partnership. Katz joins Signature to share the story of Elisabeth Hauptmann, a tireless source of creative verve and input behind a wealth of plays in Weimar Germany, and a complex woman whose legacy defies the reductive stereotypes (martyr! heroine!) with which many are quick to label her. 

Tim Burton's new film about Margaret Keane, the woman whose husband took credit for her paintings of sad, big-eyed children, is a fascinating and moving story, offering yet another staggering example of a man taking credit for a woman’s work. Think Sofya Tolstoy, Emma Darwin, Alma Hitchcock, and don’t forget Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin. Think especially about Bertolt Brecht and the many gifted women with whom he worked.

Come to think of it, Brecht may have set a record for the man with the most women to be thought of as "behind" the man, though neither he, nor these women, saw it that way.

Bertolt Brecht was a playwright and poet who, together with composer Kurt Weill, created the legendary The Threepenny Opera. This 1928 piece transformed musical theater for all time, and brought the most popular song in history, "Mack the Knife" into the world.

Woven into this partnership were several women whose creative brilliance also made Threepenny, and many other works, possible. The least known, Elisabeth Hauptmann, was the most essential to Brecht’s work and legacy.

As with all his female colleagues, Brecht’s attraction to Hauptmann was provoked by her penetrating intelligence. The power of their work came about because of the intense feelings they had for each other, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. The merging of his artistic endeavors with hers was erotic for him and, for as long as she could withstand his demanding nature, also for Hauptmann.

And let’s be clear about this "merge." Hauptmann, whose mother was American, wrote the English lyrics for the "Alabama Song." (Brecht barely spoke the language at the time.) She discovered, translated and helped to adapt Gay’s "Beggar’s Opera," the English play upon which the dazzling successful Threepenny was based. She wrote the book for Happy End (a musical play with the song "Surabaya Johnny"), and then rewrote it to become "Brecht’s" St. Joan of the Stockyards. She discovered and translated a Japanese parable for Brecht and Weill’s The Yes-Sayer, and her brief biography of the aviator Charles Lindberg became the basis for the duo’s play about him as well. All this was in addition to the dramaturgy, research, editing and even secretarial tasks she performed for Brecht.

From 1924 until they fled Germany in 1933, Hauptmann’s contribution to Brecht’s work never ceased. It was renewed in the ’50s when she returned to Germany to be a part of the controversial Berliner Ensemble -- she edited his collected Werke after he died. Most significant, her enormous labors on his behalf continued long after their relationship as lovers was over.

But when it comes to artists, once sex enters the picture, the word exploitation is not far behind. And Hauptmann has been particularly misrepresented as a besotted woman devoting herself to a fame-hungry and cruel lover. No one was more aware of this stereotype of naïve femininity than Hauptmann herself, and she wrote many witty short stories that parodied these simple portrayals of innocent young women. She famously begins a story lampooning her own title: "The Lord is thy Master (Er soll dein Herr sein) is one of the few sentences in the Bible that so many men take to heart … all stupid men do so -- and almost all intelligent women.”

Hauptmann’s combination of icy wit and pathological modesty was tantalizing. In addition to publishing under Brecht’s name, she also used pen names for stories even when he was not involved. On another occasion, she dressed up as her main character and published a photograph of herself along with the story. She rarely leapt from behind the scenes to claim the spotlight, but when she did, it caught everyone by surprise.

She was complicated.

She did believe that her work with Brecht was guided by a higher principle -- the promotion of justice. But although she adhered to the Marxist principal of collective work among equals, she also insisted that Brecht’s genius set him apart, and above, the others.

I can already see eyes rolling, but wait.

Hauptmann waged an enduring battle with her relationship to work, love, fame and the political role of art. For her, these elements were inextricably intertwined. Sometimes she felt that taking credit for work done within a collective signified a capitalist approach to art. Other times, especially in exile in America, she desperately needed public recognition in order to earn a living.

Her authentic complexity has made it possible for others to use her as a simplistic symbol of their own beliefs. She is, by turns, either a lovesick woman exploited by the egomaniac Brecht, or a Marxist champion fighting for justice. But she was far too unique to be cast as either a martyr or a heroine.

For my part, I believe she was an artistically courageous woman who hoped her talents would help to make the world a better place. She sincerely longed to be part of a collective that was bigger than herself -- one devoted to the ideals of political theater -- and in this she wholly succeeded. But without denying the passion she felt for Brecht early in their relationship, she still dismissed the stereotypes that came with the sacrifices she chose to make. In a letter to Brecht, she revealed her essential nature better than anyone else ever has: "When the time comes that I don’t have anything left to give, they can bury me."