Brecht and L.A. as Hell

In the 1930s and 1940s, Los Angeles became a haven for exiled European intellectuals on the run from or protesting fascism. Mike Davis traces their singular mark on the development of L.A.’s cultural self-mythology in his social history of Southern California, City of Quartz; here, the existential melancholia of playwright Bertolt Brecht captures the exiles’ typical dismay at the “anti-city” that was the antithesis of Europe, without history, urbanity, or a true intellectual scene:

“None of the anti-fascist exiles seemed more spiritually desolated by Los Angeles than the Berlin playwright and Marxist aesthetician [Brecht]. As he put in a famous poem:

‘On thinking about Hell, I gather
My brother Shelley found it was a place
Much like the city of London. I
Who live in Los Angeles and not in London
Find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be
Still more like Los Angeles.’

Yet Brecht’s desperate ennui was compounded out of strange contradictions. One moment he was complaining that his Santa Monica bungalow was ‘too pleasant to work in’, the next he was promoting Los Angeles as a ‘hell’ of Shelleyan proportions.

It borders on the absurd, as Lyon and Fuegi point out, ‘to imagine an original European like Brecht shopping in an American supermarket, or passing the California diver’s test, or in a drugstore picking up canned beer and running into Arnold Schoenberg’….

By the same token, however, it is odd that the creator of Mahagonny, who in Berlin favored lumpen demimondaines and working-class conversation, should have shown so little apparent interest in exploring Los Angeles’s alternative side: Boyle Heights dance halls, Central Avenue nightclubs, Wilmington honky-tonks, and so on. Real-life Mahagonny was always to hand, as was a thriving local labor movement, largely led form the left. But if the ‘stench of oil’ occasionally penetrated his garden in Santa Monica, Brecht fabricated the myth of the convergence of heaven and hell without really knowing what the ‘hellish’ parts of Los Angeles looked like.

—Mike Davis, City of Quartz

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