Stefan Brecht with his wife, Rena Gill, in their West Village apartment.
Portrait of an avenue, by Stefan Brecht
By Ed Hamilton
On a clear spring day, as light streamed into the white-washed back room of St. Marks Church through the large barred windows, a crowd of perhaps 200 well-wishers gathered to honor Stefan Brecht, son of the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht. The occasion, hosted by the St. Marks Poetry Project on Saturday, March 31st, was the publication of not one, but two books by the prolific Brecht, both of them concerning the strip of Eighth Avenue that runs from Greenwich Village to 23rd Street in Chelsea. But more than that, the afternoon was a celebration of the life of a dedicated poet, photographer and historian of the alternative theatre near the end of a distinguished career.
Among the luminaries on hand were the writer and activist Grace Paley and her husband, the poet Robert Nichols; Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov of the Living Theatre; director Richard Foreman; actresses Kate Manheim, Black-Eyed Susan and Lola Pashalinski; painter David Remfry; and actor and playwright Wally Shawn. An Australian film crew was there to record the proceedings as part of a documentary about the Chelsea Hotel.
We go way back, said Wally Shawn, referring to Brecht and his wife Rena Gill. I wasnt old enough to be in the alternative theatre of the 60s. I wanted to be, but they wouldnt let me. I had to wait for the 70s. I was in Richard Foremans movie Strong Medicine with Rena in 1978.
Brecht is a slight, trim man of 83, his sparse hair still retaining a hint of its original dark brown color. As he sat in his chair near the front of the room, old friends and colleagues from the theatre world came by to say hi, trade memories and congratulate Brecht on the publication of his books. Though everyone told him to stay seated, at times he couldnt be kept in his chair, and he rose, slowly but steadily, to offer a smile and shake the hand of some warmly remembered acquaintance.
Though his mind is sharp, Brecht suffers from Lewy body disease, a form of Parkinsons Disease that affects the cerebral cortex, particularly the ability to speak and write. When interviewed, Brecht clearly understands the questions, but has trouble formulating a response. Often he begins a sentence, only to struggle for a word, leaving him unable to complete the thought.
Stefans always been a quiet man, says Brechts longtime attorney, Jerold L. Couture, though lively, smart, opinionated. And his opinions are good ones, well thought out as well.
Guests toasted Brecht with Chateauneuf du Pape. The mood, like the room, was festive and light. Photos from Stefans book were arrayed along one wall.
Stefan Brecht was born in 1924 in Berlin, Germany, and came to America with his family in 1942. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard, and moved to New York in the early 60s, becoming a critic and historian of avant garde theatre. Brecht marched beside the Bread and Puppet Theatre troupe, and documented Robert Wilsons group when they met daily in a loft on Spring Street.
Brecht has written poetry all his life. He self-published his first book of poetry, Poems, in 1975, which led to his big break when the book was spotted by editor Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who subsequently picked it up for his City Lights Pocket Series.
The recognition facilitated the publication of Brechts opus, a multi-volume history of the alternative theater, The Original Theatre of the City of New York: From the Mid-Sixties to the Mid-Seventies. Completed volumes include The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson (Suhrkamp, 1978); Queer Theatre (Suhrkamp, 1978); and the two-volume study: Peter Schumanns Bread and Puppet Theatre (Methuen, 1988). A hitherto untitled volume on the theatre of Richard Foreman (Methuen) is also scheduled for release.
Brecht currently lives in the West Village with his second wife Rena Gill, to whom he has been married for three years. (His first wife, Mary McDonough Brecht, who made costumes for the theatre, died in 1999.)
Two new books by Stefan Brecht, son of Bertolt Brecht, focus on the stretch of Eighth Avenue from the West Village to Chelsea: a book of photos, titled 8th Avenue, and a book of poetry, 8th Avenue Poems. Above is an image from 8th Avenue.
Where the Sidewalk Leads
Brecht maintained a writing studio in the Chelsea Hotel in the seventies, eighties and nineties. Every morning, he walked up Eighth Avenue to Chelsea from his home in Greenwich Village, recording his journey in photographs. The photographs in 8th Avenue (Onestar Press, 2006) taken mostly in the spring and summer of 1985 with an Olympus 35mm camera are not what you might imagine, however. They are not street scenes or portraits of Chelsea neighborhood characters. They are instead photos of the sidewalk itself, the actual pavement over which Brecht walked.
The black and white photos, many of them taken in the hours before dawn, have a striking, abstract expressionist quality. These are painterly, poetic abstracts, says photographer Jean Pearson. They suggest lives and thoughts of poetry as well, and lead you to appreciate an aspect of humanity that you would most likely tend to overlook.
On viewing the photos closely, it becomes apparent that the sidewalk is not the monolithic entity it would seem at first glance. Cracks, potholes, crumbling pavement, repair work both professional and half-hearted, gum stains and graffiti, make it evident that this is a sidewalk that has long been neglected, and has consequently fallen into ruin. This leads the viewer to wonder about the people who used this sidewalk daily, who lived and worked here, and one soon starts to see evidence of their presence and their personalities.
What emerges is a portrait of a blighted community, which, as Brecht says, has been given up on by people who were more integrated into society. This was a rough neighborhood in the 80s where people would, Brecht says, Cut your throat if you spoke too loud. In one striking image suggestive of marital discord, shards of broken pottery litter the pavement in violent disarray, while in their midst lies a single crushed rose.
Eighth Avenue in Verse
It is only in Brechts poetry that we meet the people of the neighborhood themselves. For Brecht also recorded his daily journey in verse, and these poems have been collected in a new book, 8th Avenue Poems, by Spuyten Duyvil Press. In a straightforward, no-nonsense style, Brecht channels the unadorned essence of humanity in its naked struggle for survival on New Yorks mean streets. In these poems we encounter the junkies, the homeless and the trannies; the cleaning ladies cleaning and the young toughs preening.
The job of reading the poems fell to Brechts longtime friend Robert Nichols, a poet and one of the designers of Washington Square Park. These are a philosophers poems, Nichols points out. The poems of someone who thinks very deeply about things, but who also loves and is fascinated by the workings of language.
Brechts practiced method allows him to penetrate to the heart of these unfortunate people, to capture and bring back the very kernel at the core of their being, allowing us to grasp this kernel intimately by showing us that way down in the depths of our souls it is the most fundamental basis of our own struggle as well. Consider this passage from an untitled poem on page 72 of the book:
It is undoubtedly an American,
but a gross sight, he is defecating in a doorway,
his pants down decently in the back only,
in a crouch, ready to jump, peering about apprehensively,
his large face up and moving.
With no attempt to sanitize, but always with an eye for the true human pathos inherent in every situation, Brecht lets the scenes speak for themselves, and speak they do, most eloquently. They tell a tale of lives shaped in many instances warped and twisted by the exigencies of the harsh, Darwinian grind of the citys overwhelming, terrible/beautiful immensity:
In the street men carry the faces of Indians as though some upheaval
had brought to the fore in their faces the arched cheekbones, opaque
agate eyes, the wide expanses on skulls like boulders
of this race exterminated hereabouts and in the islands. (p. 76, untitled poem)
As Hannon Reznikov of the Living Theatre says of Brecht: In the realm of the artists search for truth, his is the most implacable. This is what I see, he says, This is what I observe. He looks closely. He does not compromise.
After the reading, Brechts son, Sebastian, a chocolatier who closely resembles his father, brought out several trays of his confectionary masterpieces. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with one guest raving that her piece was delicious, rich, with just the right amount of peanut butter, while another, the Australian filmmaker Michael Maher, claimed to have detected, a whiff of desiccated coconut, like a hint of the Caribbean.
At the end of the afternoon Brecht said he had enjoyed the party, but that he hoped it hadnt had what he called a taint of
terminus. He had struggled a bit with that last word, perhaps searching for a more common expression to convey the sentiment, but in the end he had nailed it down. And no, Mr. Brecht, it didnt have quite that taint. For one thing, we still have that Foreman book to look forward to.