In 1938, the House of Representatives established the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) at which numerous public figures were grilled about their suspected subversive communist ties and activities. Most famous was the “Hollywood Ten”, a group of movie screenwriters and directors who refused to answer questions, were convicted of contempt of Congress, and subsequently jailed.
Playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht left Germany in 1933 soon after Hitler took power, spending a number of years living mostly in Scandinavian countries. In 1941, Brecht and his family moved to Santa Monica, California. In September 1947, Brecht was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC, being listed as an “unfriendly witness”. He was not expected to attend. However, on 30 October 1947, Brecht testified before the HUAC. Surprisingly, when asked if he was at any time a member of the communist party of any country, Brecht responded to the question (albeit nervously). His answer was “no”.
In the 2008 documentary Theater of War, about The Public Theater’s production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage and her Children, Brecht’s daughter Barbra Brecht-Schall referred to her father during the HUAC testimony as “that old fake”. Brecht accepted the offer of a translator to be present, often pretending to not completely understand the questions he was being asked. Brecht-Schall said “His English was better than that! His grasp of English was very good”, confirming her father was giving a “performance” to the HUAC by saying “If you answer badly, you can’t be asked so much”.
Brecht’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee about the subject matter of his plays and poetry, his associates, his travels to Moscow, and whether he attended Communist Party meetings, reads like a comedy script akin to Abbott and Costello’s Who’s On First?
MR. STRIPLING: Mr. Brecht, since you have been in the United States,
have you attended any Communist Party meetings?
MR. BRECHT: No, I don’t think so.
MR. STRIPLING: You don’t think so?
MR. BRECHT: No.
THE CHAIRMAN: Well, aren’t you certain?
MR. BRECHT: No-I am certain, yes.
THE CHAIRMAN: You are certain you have never been to Communist
MR. BRECHT: Yes, I think so. I am here six years-I am here those-I
do not think so. I do not think that I attended political meetings.
THE CHAIRMAN: No, never mind the political meetings, but have you
attended any Communist meetings in the United States?
MR. BRECHT: I do not think so, no.
THE CHAIRMAN: You are certain?
MR. BRECHT: I think I am certain.
THE CHAIRMAN: You think you are certain?
MR. BRECHT: Yes, I have not attended such meetings, in my opinion.
(Bertolt Brecht Testimony, HUAC, 30 October, 1947)
It is no accident Brecht left the US for Zurich the very next day.
Theatre buffs and those interested in history may be like to hear some excerpts below of Brecht’s testimony to the HUAC. Enjoy the performance!