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Bertolt Brecht’s Baal and the Anti-heroes of Decadence

Fig. 1: Brecht, Baal, cover of the first edition (Potsdam: Kiepenheuer Verlag, 1922)

In his new book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music Alex Ross suggests that Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal was inspired in part by the violent and dysfunctional relationship of Rimbaud and Verlaine. Curious as this connection might seem, Brecht was indeed an avid reader of French Decadent poetry and this influence shaped his play as well as Brecht’s image as enfant terrible of the early decades of twentieth-century German theatre. Ross’s book is about ‘a musician’s influence on non-musicians - resonance and reverberations of one art form into others’.i Brecht’s early lyrical theatre equally was prone to inter-artistic exchange influenced by his fondness of poetry and music visible in his own production of verse and collaboration with composer Kurt Weill (1900–1950) during the 1920s and 1930s.

When Bertolt Brecht wrote the first version of his play Baal, he was only twenty years old. The protagonist Baal is a romantic anti-hero, a decrepit poet at war with bourgeois society and values. The play lacks a clear synopsis and instead shows episodic scenes of Baal debauching and compromising others around him. Baal’s own dissolution, dying alone in the wood after having murdered his friend and having seduced one too many virgins, was partly inspired by Brecht’s fascination with lyrical figures such as fifteenth-century poet François Villon, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Contemporary critic Alfred Kerr was instrumental in revealing the connection. As one of the most influential critics of the Berlin theatre scene before 1933, Kerr had little appreciation for Brecht’s work. Kerr criticised Brecht for the unacknowledged borrowings from Rimbaud and Karl Anton Klammer’s translations of Villon. Brecht in return had very little patience for Kerr. In a letter to journalist Egon Erwin Kisch Brecht vents his frustration:

I’m aghast at your standing up (or falling down) for that melodious old lecher [Kerr]. If Kerr were different, you say, he simply wouldn’t be the leading critic of his bourgeois epoch. Well, mightn’t that be all to the good? […] As you have no doubt learnt from Kerr, I’m an assiduous plagiarist.ii

Fig. 2: Bertolt Brecht sitting at his desk in Santa Monica, 1947.

The ‘Baal-ish feeling’: Brecht and Decadence

Brecht’s ‘Baal-ish feeling for the world’iii reflected the period between 1917 and 1923 in which he witnessed the decay and transformation of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Weimar Republic. Political decadence, processes of disintegration, were all around the young Brecht growing up in between the two World Wars. Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht was born in 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, into a mixed Catholic and Protestant family. After finishing his school education, the young Brecht was keen to avoid the army and enrolled as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich in 1917. In Munich he started mingling with theatre artists, playwrights and scholars such as Professor Artur Kutscher, Frank Wedekind and Hanns Johst. While Brecht never finished his medical training, he did do some military service as a medical orderly. During the war, though, he had begun to write newspaper articles, under the name Bert Brecht, and he wrote his first play, Baal, in 1918, which however was not produced until 1923. The play’s subject was based on the work of Hanns Johst who was an Expressionist novelist and playwright and later became the Nazi’s Poet Laureate and president of the (purged) Prussian Academy. Brecht undertook to write a ‘counter-play’ to Johst’s Der Einsame (The Lonely One), an emotionalized account of the life of the nineteenth-century dramatist Christoph Dietrich Grabbe, which the Munich Kammerspiele were presenting at the time. Through his playwriting Brecht became increasingly involved in the theatre and cabaret world.

In 1919, Brecht had joined the Independent Social Democratic party and become friends with the writer Lion Feuchtwanger. Brecht’s first-produced play - Drums in the Night - was premiered to rave reviews in 1922 (a year before his Baal premiered) at the Munich Kammerspiele, where he worked as a dramaturg and director. By 1924, Brecht and Feuchtwanger had collaborated on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II - the first of many classic texts Brecht adapted. The same year, he went to work at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin - then one of the world’s leading theatres - and around this time he published his first book of poems. In the early 1920s, Brecht also started using the first name Bertolt. He would later produce many well-received plays, not least The Threepenny Opera, adapted from The Beggar’s Opera with Weill.

Baal came to lay the foundations of Brecht’s aesthetics. The principle of alienation, artistic collage and critical interrogation of literary materials were core to Brecht’s later conceptualization of the Epic Theatre which he summarized in A Short Organum for the Theatre. Another important strand of Brecht’s aesthetics is of course his commitment to socialism, which also came to define his awareness and definition of decadence. Brecht had long been a student of Marxism, but by the mid-1920s this interest was leading him to write political dramas such as Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, also with Weill. In fear of Hitler, Brecht fled from Germany in 1933, first to Scandinavia, then, in 1941, to California, writing poems and plays (such as Galileo and Mother Courage and Her Children) all the while. After the war, in 1947, he left the US to return to Europe.

To Brecht decadence was connected to Marxist ideals. On 10 September 1938 he notes in his diaries:

in literary articles in journals edited by marxists the concept of decadence is appearing more and more frequently of late. i discover that decadence includes me. this is naturally of great interest to me. a marxist actually needs the concept of decline. it serves to identify the decline of the ruling class in the political and economic spheres. it would be stupid for him to refuse to recognise decline in the artistic sphere […] my first book of poetry, the DEVOTIONS FOR THE HOME, is undoubtedly branded with the decadence of the bourgeois class. [spelling as in the original]iv

A diary entry of the previous July further illuminates the connection between social decline and artistic decadence - vital ingredients to his play Baal. Writing on 24 July 1938 Brecht deliberated:

there are concepts which are difficult to defend because they spread such boredom whenever they arise. like DÉCADENCE. there is naturally such a thing as the literature of the decline of a class. in it the class loses its serene certainty, its calm self-confidence, it conceals its difficulties, it gets bogged down in detail, it becomes parasitically culinary, etc. but the very works which identify its decline as a decline can scarcely be classed as decadent. but that is how the declining class views them. on the other hand the FEAST OF TRIMALCHIO exhibits all sorts of signs of formal decadence. and if [Goethe’s] ELECTIVE AFFINITIES is not decadent, WERTHER is.v

It seems with Baal, which celebrates the anarchy of the individual and freedom of art, Brecht is closer to an understanding of decadence as a disintegration of form than he might have liked. In 1938 Brecht referred to his play as ‘always a torso, and then it was operated on several times […]’.vi [This needs a footnote] This analogy seems fitting as the play underwent a number of revisions to transform a lyrical play into one developing the epic model. In a note on 10 February 1922, in an early version of the artistic intuition that later became Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect or defamiliarisation) Brecht notes:

I hope in Baal [...] I've avoided one common artistic bloomer, that of trying to carry people away. Instinctively I've kept my distance […]. The spectator's ‘splendid isolation’ is left intact; it is not sua res quae agitur; he is not fobbed off with an invitation to feel sympathetically, to fuse with the hero and seem significant and indestructible as he watches himself in two different versions. A higher type of interest can be got from making comparisons, from whatever is different, amazing, impossible to overlook.vii

The distancing or even repelling of the audience, which was key to Brecht’s theatre and writing aimed at attracting an intellectual as well as an emotional response to art. This seems a familiar decadent strategy that also seemed to cement Rimbaud and Verlaine’s notoriety and make readerships over centuries curious to explore their work.

‘The Brechtian Tale of Decadence’:viii Sources for Baal

While today Baal is still portrayed as a comedy, yet it has not lost its vehemence in portraying decay, terror and bestiality in view of the state of the world. The titular Baal Brecht recovered from the classical demonic deity Baal is linked to other variants of Christian devil figures such as Beelzebub and Lucifer. In Brecht’s own words: ‘“Baal eats! Baal dances!! Baal is transfigured!!!” There’s a bandit in it, a monstrous hedonist, a dumpling, a May-crazed man with immortal bowels!’ix Despite being written in 1918, Baal did not receive a theatrical performance until 1923, when it opened on 8 December at the Altes Theater in Leipzig. Brecht wrote a revised version with Elisabeth Hauptmann in 1926 for a brief production at Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater in Berlin. It opened on the 14 February for a single matinée performance. Brecht drafted the second version of the play after a storm of criticism damned it for its unperformability. This second version was ‘purged of Verlaine’.x

A comparison of the opening scenes of the play’s versions might explain the attraction the young Brecht found in French nineteenth-century role models Verlaine and Rimbaud. The Urbaal, as the first version is known, contained a considerable amount of amalgamated verse by Verlaine and Rimbaud in it. The original opening of the Urbaal even included a direct reference to Verlaine. Introducing Baal, the prologue of the 1918 version reads:

 […] The man is not a particularly modern poet. Baal has not been handicapped by Nature. He belongs to the period of the play’s performance. Remember Socrates and Verlaine, with their lamentable skulls. For actors (who love extremes, except when they can get away with mediocrities), Baal is neither a specially comic character nor a specially tragic one.xi

This reference was cut in the later 1926 version of the prologue:

This dramatic biography shows the life story of the man Baal as it took place in the first part of this century. You see before you Baal the abnormality trying to come to terms with the twentieth-century world. Baal the relative man, Baal the passive genius, the whole phenomenon of Baal from his first appearance among civilized beings up to his horrific end, with his unprecedented consumption of ladies of high degree, in his dealings with his fellow-humans. This creature’s life was one of sensational immorality. In the stage version it has been considerably toned down.xii

The following scene at the beginning of the play illustrates Brecht’s liberal approach to ‘borrowing’ as a form of creative destruction. The scene is set at a bourgeois dinner table, at which a young man and lady, the merchant Mech, the literary critic Dr Piller, and economist Pschierer are congregated. Over dinner they seek ways to fund Baal’s career while discussing his poetry:

Baal wards off the speech with a gesture; he eats.

Piller I shall write an essay about you. Have you any manuscripts? I have the backing of the press.

A Young Man How, my friend, do you get that accursed naïve effect? It’s positively Homeric. I consider Homer one, or rather one of several, highly civilized adapters with a penetrating delight in the naïveté of the original folk sagas.

A Young Lady You remind me more of Walt Whitman. But you’re more significant. That’s what I think.

Another Man I’d say he had something rather more of Verhaeren.

Piller Verlaine! Verlaine! Even in physiognomy. Don’t forget our Lombroso.

Baal Some more of the eel, please.

The Young Lady But you have the advantage of greater indecency.

Johannes Mr Baal sings his songs to the lorry-drivers. In a café down by the river.

The Young Man Good God, none of those poets are even in the same category. My friend, you’re streets ahead of any living poet.

The Other Man At any rate he’s promising.

Baal Some more wine please.

The Young Man I consider you a precursor of the great Messiah of European literature whom we can undoubtedly expect within the very near future.

This scene satirises the perverse value attached to art through bourgeois institutions. Baal is ‘more artistic’ because he even exceeds Verlaine in indecency.

Brecht casts Verlaine as Baal’s direct ancestor, artistically and even in appearance. To this caricature assembly of bourgeois figures, an artist has to be destitute and morally dubious in order to qualify as the admired outsider - a role that was perfected for Verlaine by his biographers and admirers. Baal, living in an attic, symbolically eats his literary idols and re-moulds them for his own purpose (a decadent technique Oscar Wilde was criticized for as well). Amongst these are the cornerstones of late-nineteen century aestheticism: Walt Whitman, Belgian symbolist Émile Verhaeren, Verlaine.

Bad Baal and his descendants


Figs. 3-5 from left to right: Bowie’s ED cover, back; Bowie as Baal in the 1982 BBC adaptation; Below: Bowie as Baal, EL cover.

The way in which Baal goes against all possible rules of society does indeed resemble the unconventional lives of Rimbaud, Verlaine and Co. Baal’s allure continued to attract artists such as controversial German film maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who played Baal in a televised version directed by Volker Schlöndorff in 1970. In 1982, musician and actor David Bowie starred in the title role for a BBC television production of Baal, directed by Alan Clarke. John Willett, the editor of Brecht’s letters in English, provided the English translation and screenplay. Bowie's recordings of the play's five songs were released as an EP. Bowie was no doubt attracted to the character of Baal as an incarnation of the poète maudit he himself aspired to represent in his own creations, most notably Ziggy Stardust and Station To Station’s rock star-as-dictator The Thin White Duke.

I hope this post has given an idea of the unlikely genealogy of Brecht’s Baal from Verlaine  to Bowie. Brecht’s Baal remains to this day a powerful parable on the paradoxical forces of creation and destruction for which Rimbaud and Verlaine’s lives became templates in mainstream culture. The decadent energy these poets embody until today is preserved in Brecht’s text which in turn served as a foil for contemporary songsmiths such as Bowie to set a monument to their own larger-than-life stardom. Baal is the élan vivant, the epitome of the creative force which destroys in order to create. Baal is also a symptom of Brecht’s view on the decay of culture in an increasingly austere society. To give the last word to Brecht: ‘Baal’s art of life is subject to the same fate as any other art under capitalism: it is attacked. He is anti-social, but in an antisocial society.’xiii

Katharina Herold


Katharina Herold is a theatre director and lecturer in Victorian and Modern Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford. She is author of a chapter on German Decadence in Socio-aesthetic Histories: Vienna 1900 and Weimar Berlin’, in Decadence and Literature, ed. by Jane Desmarais and David Weir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) and she is a member of the AHRC-funded Decadence and Translation Network.


i Alex Ross, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020), p. 13.

ii Bertolt Brecht, letter to Egon Erwin Kisch, January 1939, Bertolt Brecht Letters, ed. by John Willett (London: Methuen, 1990), pp. 295–6.

iii John Willett, ‘Introduction: The formative decade’, Bertolt Brecht Letters, pp. 11–16 (13).

iv Bertolt Brecht, Bertolt Brecht Journals 1934–55 ed. by John Willett (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016 E-book), p. 16.

v Bertolt Brecht, Bertolt Brecht Journals 193455 ed. by John Willett (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016 E-book), p. 10.

vi   Bertolt Brecht, Bertolt Brecht Journals 193455 ed. by John Willett (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016 E-book), p. 17.

vii Bertolt Brecht, notebook entry 10 February 1922, cited in Brecht on Theatre, ed. by John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 9.

viii Howard Taubman, ‘Theater: Brechtian Tale of Decadence: “Baal” Is Presented by Circle in the Square, Mitchell Ryan in Title Role at Martinique’, The New York Times, (7 May 1965). 

ix Brecht, letter to Casper Neher, May 1918, Bertolt Brecht Letters, pp. 46–7 (47).

x Bertolt Brecht, letter to Jacob Geis, 1919, Bertolt Brecht Letters, p. 55.

xi Bertolt Brecht, Brecht Collected Plays: One, trans. By Peter Tegel (London: Methuen, 1994), p. 367.

xii Bertolt Brecht, Brecht Collected Plays: One, trans. By Peter Tegel (London: Methuen, 1994), pp. 367–8.

xiii Brecht, ‘Bei Durchsicht meiner ersten Stücke'. Foreword to Stücke I, reprinted in Brecht Collected Plays: One, trans. by Peter Tegel (London: Methuen, 1994), pp. 370–1.

Posted on:Wednesday 10th March, 2021