German Playwright Brecht & Collaborators Provide Research Focus for ILC’s Hanssen

Paula Hanssen

Assistant Professor of German Paula Hanssen’s fascination with playwright Bertolt Brecht and his collaborators began when she was a graduate student at the University of Illinois.

Hanssen, who is also chair of the Department of International Languages & Cultures, knew that she wanted her doctoral dissertation to be on a 20th century German writer. Hanssen’s advisor helped her narrow her focus by suggesting she research one of the largely unheralded women who helped Brecht write his plays.

Sometime later, Hanssen found herself in the former East Berlin attempting to find information about Brecht collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann. Hauptmann is best known as co-author of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and translator of the libretto of John Gay’s 18th century Beggar’s Opera, on which The Threepenny Opera is based.

The Brecht archive yielded some information, but Hanssen needed more. Her next stop was the Elisabeth Hauptmann archive, part of the general literature archive at Berlin’s Academy of Arts. The timing turned out to be less than perfect. The Berlin Wall had fallen less than six months beforehand, and the chaotic effects of Germany’s changing political situation had trickled down to the academy. A staff member tried to discourage Hanssen from her task, telling her that the Hauptmann papers had not yet been archived and thus were not available for use. Hanssen insisted, however, that she needed to see the papers in order to do her dissertation, and she eventually got her way. The staff member led her to a cabinet and presented Hanssen with the Elisabeth Hauptmann archive.

“It was in brown paper and wrapped up like groceries,” laughed Hanssen, “but they brought me what I wanted to see.”

A treasure trove of correspondence

The treasure trove of correspondence provided invaluable clues about a talented woman who was reticent to take credit as Brecht’s editor and co-author. The information in the letters allowed Hanssen to complete her dissertation, aptly titled Elisabeth Hauptmann: Brecht’s Silent Collaborator.

Bertolt Brecht

Hanssen’s initial research whetted her appetite to know more about Hauptmann and other collaborators, both men and women, upon whom Brecht depended to formulate and help write his plays. The female collaborators, whose associations with Brecht often involved a complex web of creativity, intellectualism, sex, and communism, were especially intriguing.

“They all thought they were going to change the world.”

“They all thought they were going to change the world,” Hanssen said. “Elisabeth Hauptmann always said they wrote the plays for fun. They just enjoyed it so much.”

The fact that Brecht wrote his plays with others does not mean he lacked talent as a writer, Hanssen said. She pointed out that his acclaimed poetry—written for the most part without assistance—demonstrates his genius. For plays, however, he preferred group efforts.

Elisabeth Hauptmann

During her academic career, Hanssen has researched several Brecht collaborators. Elisabeth Hauptmann, however, whose association with Brecht started in the 1920s and continued until his death in 1956, remains her favorite research subject.

Hanssen said that Hauptmann, who left Germany in the 1930s to escape fascism, spent several years in St. Louis, where her sister lived. Hanssen said Hauptmann felt intellectually isolated during this period of exile. “It was hard for her,” she said. “Not too many people were interested in the affairs of the world, especially in Marxism or in communism.”

Hanssen said she was amused to discover a local newspaper article from 1934 in which German emigré Elisabeth Hauptmann shared some favorite recipes.

While she was in the U.S., Hauptmann continued to correspond with Brecht, who lived in several European countries during the 1930s. She eventually moved on to the New York area before joining Brecht and other German exiles in California. Hauptmann returned to Europe in 1949.

German playwrights are focus of current class.

Hanssen hopes to pass on her passion for Brecht through a class she is offering this semester. Brecht et al: Twentieth Century Plays. One of the main plays to be read and discussed by advanced students of German is Brecht’s leftist The Holy St. Joan of the Stockyards, for which Elisabeth Hauptmann was a major contributor.

“Because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I thought about that play a lot,” Hanssen said. “The play doesn’t mirror what’s happening here, but it would give students and me a way to talk about the stock market, the capitalist system—the positive and the negative.”

The International Brecht Society, for which she has served as secretary-treasurer since 2006, serves as Hanssen’s intellectual home. She said she enjoys attending and presenting at the society’s symposia as well as the opportunities generated by the meetings to discuss all things Brecht with like-minded scholars.

Hanssen said she will continue to conduct Bertolt Brecht-related research as time permits. A major project that she hopes to complete: publication of Elisabeth Hauptmann’s letters from exile, with an English translation, in St. Louis, New York, and California, as well as her descriptions in letters of her new country, East Germany–The German Democratic Republic.

It will be a labor of love.