Bad Baal the Antisocial Man – Bowie, Brecht, and Baal (Part 1)

When it comes to Bowie’s characters, we all know the standard lineup: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, etc. Even Halloween Jack gets included in the list, and everything we know about him comes from a single lyric in “Diamond Dogs”. Countless articles and YouTube retrospectives over the years have told and retold the same legends behind each carefully crafted Bowie persona. I couldn’t tell you how many variations I’ve seen about the “surprisingly dark” origins behind the Thin White Duke… And yet, there remains a forgotten persona missing from the ocean of articles and retrospectives. One distinctly lacking in flash or glam. A demonic vagabond who has been lurking unnoticed in the shadow of Bowie’s meta-narrative, from his earliest days as a mime all the way to his final magnum opus. And unlike The Thin White Duke, this one’s “surprisingly dark origins” go far beyond cocaine and black candles.

BAAL

The subject of this play is the very ordinary story of a man who sings a hymn to summer in a tavern without selecting his audience – together with the consequences of summer, schnapps and song. The man is not a particularly modern poet. Baal has not been ill-favored by Nature. He belongs to the period of the play’s performance. Remember Socrates and Verlaine, with their lamentable skulls. Attention actors who love extremes, except when they can get by with mediocrity: Baal is neither a specially comic character nor a specially tragic one. Like all animals he is serious. As for the play, the author has thought hard and managed to find a message in it: it sets out to prove that you can have your cake if you are prepared to pay for it. And even if you aren’t. So long as you pay… The play is the story of neither a single incident nor of many, but of a life. Originally it was called Baal eats! Baal dances!! Baal is transfigured!!!

The prologue to the 1918 version of Baal by Brecht

No matter how you look at it, something about Baal will always feel… Off.

Like a morbid fascination, once I caught a glimpse I couldn’t look away, and to this day I’ve never encountered another work of theater so thoroughly off-putting – even the cover of the EP looks increasingly off the longer you look at it. (His hands are slightly too large and claw-like. Even the veins resemble the gnarled roots of a tree.) In my experience “Evil Dale” from Twin Peaks is the only entity that evokes a similarly uncomfortable gut feeling. After years of research, I feel I can finally articulate why this strange work of theater is so profoundly wrong, and how it goes about creating this effect.

Setting the Stage

This is going to be a multi part series, since this post on Brecht is going to be long enough on its own without even starting to get into how Brechtian theater manifested throughout Bowie’s entire career… But I promise that putting in the time to read this article will pay off in spades if you’re at all interested in learning more about Bowie’s artistic approach. From “Threepenny Pierrot”, to “Moon of Alabama” to “The Drowned Girl”, Brecht has been an ever-present influence throughout Bowie’s life, so it not only seems like something worth investigating, it seems like it’s something that Bowie wanted us to investigate.

A disclaimer before we fully dive in: Bertolt Brecht’s Baal is full of rape, murder, lumberjacks, bitter social/political commentary, barely any noticeable plot… And a handful of ballads. In this mini-series of posts, we will be taking a closer look at Brecht, Baal, and the revealing light they shine on Bowie’s particular brand of performance art. It also brings certain foreboding elements of this aforementioned meta-narrative into stark focus… In this first chapter, we will primarily cover Brecht, while our follow-up article will be applying his theatrical approach to Bowie’s work to see what kind of cool shit we can dig up in the process.


RCA Records Advance Release Fact Sheet, May 1982

David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal” was released in 1982, sandwiched between two mega-hit albums, Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance. The EP for Baal is essentially a cast recording for a TV production of an obscure German expressionist play from the 1920s that aired a grand total of ONCE on BBC-1, so it’s truly no surprise that it’s flown under the radar for so long. It took us some time to track the broadcast down, but the full Tele-play has been linked below.

Baal is a vagabond, a demonic inversion of the nature god Pan, who has been degraded into the lowest of mortal men. He spends his twilight years as a drunken poet, stumbling between small logging communities with nothing but a tin-stringed banjo on his back. All his time is spent drinking, fighting, singing, and sleeping with literally every woman and man he can get his hands on – his best friend Eckart, Eckart’s girlfriends, even the wife of his publisher is fair game to him. Perhaps a more flattering play would have been written about Baal, but he probably slept with the playwright’s mistress as well.

As you will see for yourself, Baal is the sort of project that seems deliberately designed to please no one.

Except for yours truly.

I don’t have a problem, I can stop any time I want.

(And that’s just some of the stuff I own that’s directly related to Baal. If I were to photograph my Brecht collection, I might as well just take a photo of an entire bookcase.)

Given my academic background in theater and a painfully uncool obsession with Brecht, I couldn’t have been more ecstatic when I first discovered the Baal EP floating around on Soulseek back in college… Of course Brecht and his specific brand of theater had long-since fallen out of vogue by the mid-2000s, so imagine my delight upon discovering that two of my geekiest interests had combined into a truly off-putting theatrical abomination!

Taking into consideration the relative obscurity of the play and its lack of marketability, Baal was something that Bowie could have just as easily not done at all. In fact, not doing it would have been far more consistent with his fervent push towards mass-market pop appeal. Baal was also scheduled to be his last record release under his contract with RCA, as he would be switching over to EMI for the rest of the 80s. One could speculate that leaving RCA with a market dud like Baal right before producing Let’s Dance for his new label might have been intended as a final “fuck you” to RCA, but knowing what I know about both Bowie and Brecht, it’s more likely that the timing of these productions are actually apart of a larger performance.

It’s worth mentioning that Bowie’s performance in Baal also came on the heels of his Broadway turn as John Merrick in The Elephant Man; however, for the sake of length we’ll be saving that for a future post on this same tangent. For now just bear in mind that John Merrick, a lovely man trapped in the body of a “monster”, is essentially the Anti-Baal when you consider the fact that Baal is truly a monster in a human skin suit.

The Beggar’s Opera

I have to admit that it took an exceptionally long amount of time for me to figure out how to put this blog post together. When it comes to artists like Brecht, or Shakespeare, (or Bowie), the more you know, the more difficult it is to talk about them in a way that will be able to give a sense of the bigger picture without boring 99% people… Unfortunately their artwork is such a tangle of meta-narratives and alternate versions, that it’s nearly impossible to do the material justice with anything short of a novel, so everything out there on the subject ends up either falls short of scratching the surface, or is way too long and complicated to appeal to anyone. Brecht, for his own part, has done precious little to help solve the problem:

The final texts of these plays often make Brecht’s evolution difficult to follow. He was a restless amender and modifier of his own work, so that any one of them may consist of layer upon layer of elements from different periods. “He is more interested in the job than in the finished work,” wrote Feuchtwanger in an article of 1928 called “Portrait of Brecht for the English.

Ralph Manheim and John Willet, Introduction to Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, Volume 1

This informative, but extremely dense article on Baal is a perfect example of what I mean, as well as a valuable piece of extra reading on this topic for those who want to sink their teeth further into it.

Having some foreknowledge about Brecht has given us a unique perspective through which we can understand Bowie’s artistic approach in a whole new light – however in order to decipher what any of that means, we will first have to go over some basics about Brecht and the type of theater he developed. If you can bear with me, I will do my best to not veer too hard into the dry academia that most discussion about Brecht is mired in.


Loving the Alienation

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German poet, playwright, and director who became one of the most important figures in European theater. His name has become synonymous with a specific brand of biting deconstructionist political theater that is more preoccupied with shocking its audience into action or evoking a particular mood than telling a linear story. Whether it’s rallying the proletariat into political protest, or even rallying its audience to get up and leave in the middle of a God-awful play, the viewer’s reaction is anticipated and incorporated within the performance itself – blurring the lines between where the stage ends, and reality begins.

Brechtian theater often spits and raves at its audience, convinced of the fact that 99% will walk away having missed the point entirely. The bulk of his plays always seem to anticipate the fact that no one is truly listening to them, and are typically just off-putting enough to ensure that most won’t want to look at them for very long either. However, for those who can see and hear what he’s doing, the surface veneer of angry cynicism often gives way to a desperate, heartfelt desire to communicate with you. Given the world in which Brecht was operating (Germany, 1919-1956), his compulsion to rave at the terrifying state of things is… Well, it’s pretty understandable.

As a quick aside – apparently Brecht was getting pretty popular in the 1920’s, and one day a certain art student applied to work for him as a set painter, but was ultimately turned down. That one horrid little art student then went on to commit mass genocide, and Brecht ended up in political exile… At the very least, his character judgment was spot on!

While a good percentage of Brecht’s professional life saw him trying to get his plays produced wherever he could while living in political exile, he experienced a massive popular resurgence following the end of World War II. In 1949 Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel established their theater company, The Berliner Ensemble, which would stage landmark productions of Brecht’s plays, many of which would be exported abroad to great acclaim. Following Brecht’s death in 1956, the Berliner Ensemble would also stage premiere productions of many of Brecht’s unperformed works.

English-language adaptations of his plays also experienced better fortunes around this time. A massively successful production of Brecht’s musical The Threepenny Opera opened Off-Broadway in 1954 (introducing American audiences to the soon-to-be pop-music standard “Mack The Knife”), and was followed by a Broadway production of Mother Courage and Her Children in 1963 (staring Anne Bancroft and Gene Wilder, and directed by Jerome Robbins of West Side Story fame). These helped inspire a whole new wave of American Musical Theater, including such classics as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Chicago, Evita, and pretty much everything Stephen Sondheim has ever written. Meanwhile, across the pond in England, Brecht’s influence could be felt in landmark plays like John Osborn’s Look Back In Anger and Edward Bond’s Saved, which helped kick off England’s own wave of Brechtian theater (and of which Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man was later a part of). The Royal Shakespeare Company would also become a devout practitioner of Brecht’s methods.


Brecht’s theatrical works span a vast range of genres and styles including expressionism, vaudeville, classical tragedy, musical theater, and opera (of both Western and Eastern traditions). However, the central pillar of Brecht’s theater to which all other devices revolve around, is the Verfremdungseffekt, or in translation, the Alienation Effect. The goal of the Alienation Effect is to “alienate the audience” by making them actively aware of the storytelling/performance mechanisms being employed, so that they can be entertained AND critically engaged.

Brecht wrote a LOT of theory about what this Alienation Effect was and how it could/should be achieved; however, much of this theory becomes meandering and self-contradictory, so in my experience it’s much better understood through example:

  1. Imagine you’re at play about a bunch of rich nobles fighting over who gets to inherit the family empire, only in this production the stagehands are fully visible moving all the scenery and props on and off set in-between action.
  2. At first this might be a little distracting from fully immersing yourself in the play; however, as it progresses you start to notice the disparity between the richly-attired nobles within the play and the sparsely-dressed stagehands doing all the physical labor on the outside. You might pick up the stagehands’ increasingly disgruntled expressions vs. the inept and ineffectual nobility, and you actually get excited to see how each transition will comment/reflect upon the play.
  3. Paradoxically, because these normally hidden elements are now exposed in the open, they too become part of the presented spectacle – and can also be used as element of discourse. Drawing attention to the normally unseen stagehands becomes a conscious device to explore the power dynamics between working and ruling classes (as per the intent of our hypothetical playwright and director). I can’t stress enough that this also means that these now-exposed elements must be considered with the same deliberate artistic intent as all other aspects of the spectacle. As such, there are no “arbitrary” decisions, even choosing to leave something to chance is still a choice under this method, and should not be taken for granted.
  4. After the play has ended, hopefully you’re even a little pissed-off about those screwy power dynamics you watched play out, and are thinking about how they might extend from off the stage and out into the real world around you.
  5. Maybe you even go so far as to recognize how you’re also stuck in a similar thankless cycle and it’s time to BREAK THE HELL OUT OF YOUR OWN CRAPPY PLAY! AIEE!

This philosophy of showing rather than telling is exemplified in Life of Galileo, one of Brecht’s most acclaimed works. This tale of scientific discovery vs religious inquisition is also one of Brecht’s most ‘traditional’ works of theater, relegating most of its Epic/Alienation devices to Galileo’s on-stage demonstrations of various scientific proofs and inventions which are usually directed to his students or to fiery religious officials wanting to string him up for suggesting that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In a meta sense, this also amounts to Brecht demonstrating his own revolutionary theatrical techniques within the confines of a traditional play for a traditional audience, in hope that this new language could be better understood via practical application.

This method of dialectical engagement was how Brecht believed art could be utilized to inspire practical social and political change within its audience.

Brecht eventually named this style of performance the Epic Theater. By “Epic” he didn’t mean huge explosive action like you might find in big Hollywood blockbusters (though a few of his war satires certainly have their moments). Instead he used the word in a more Homeric sense (i.e. the epic poetry of the Iliad and Odyssey) in terms of “scope” and maintaining a detached, wide-angled view on the action. It’s not that you’re not supposed to feel for, or emotionally relate to the characters in Epic Theater, it’s that unearned emotion and blind sentiment are to be avoided at all costs, so that the full range of a situation can be experienced with something resembling objective clarity.

Other hallmarks of the Alienation Effect/Epic Theater include:

  • exposed elements of stage facade, like lighting equipment, edges of sets, visible stagehands or musicians
  • half-curtains with names of locations painted on them used used in lieu of more “realistic” scenery; sometimes objects like an uneven pool table can be made to represent a ship tossed about in a tempest
  • Placards describing the plot of a scene displayed while it unfolds on stage, robbing the action of traditional suspense (sometimes actors will also step forward to spoil this info before a scene begins)
  • Actors break character mid-scene to directly address the audience, or another actor out-of-character, sometimes directly contradicting the thoughts/behavior of the character they’re playing
  • Musical numbers inserted outside of the play’s action, breaking normal dramatic flow while also commenting on the situation at hand (a device lifted for Chicago and Cabaret, and any number of Sondheim musicals)
  • Action unfolds in ways that undermine the traditional rise-and-fall of dramatic tension (i.e. unexpected/unexplained gaps of time in-between scenes; sudden jumps in character, location, and story focus; and would-be-climactic events happening off-stage, undermining our expectations)

As convoluted and out-there as some of these devices might sound, in practical execution they’re actually not too far removed from the sort of theater performed back in the day of Shakespeare. They also should seem just a bit familiar to anyone who’s read our earlier write-up on Outside/Leon.


Playing Baal

Sometimes Baal plays dead. The vultures swoop. Baal, without a word, will dine on vulture soup.

So that brings us to Baal. Baal is a cruel, jagged-edged knife of a play, one that’s never been interested in making friends. Brecht doesn’t expect his audience to identify with the titular Baal, so much as we’re supposed to recognize that the character’s wretched, debauched state is symptomatic of a culture that’s grown sick in its opulence and disregard for it’s spiritual well-being. Baal’s animalistic nature is repeatedly mentioned throughout the play, and his name is even belted out like a goat’s “baa!” All these references to goats conjure up clear mythological similarities to Pan. Hell, you can practically hear cloven hooves clacking on the floorboards as Bowie crosses the stage.

On the surface, the story is a simple one, but all the characters’ motivations make little sense, and as a result, the audience is usually stranded somewhere between boredom and bafflement. It’s only when you realize that there is this whole extra-dimensional element that is impacting the characters on the stage, that some semblance of an actual story finally starts to come to light.

This dramatic biography by Bertolt Brecht 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 dealing with his fellow humans. This creature’s life was one of sensational immorality. In the stage version it has been considerably toned down. The performance begins with Baal’s first appearance as a poet among civilized beings in the year 1904. As a preliminary you will see Baal in the round from several aspects and hear from his own lips how he used to perform his famous Chorale of the Great Baal, accompanied on his unique invention, the Authentic Tin-stringed Banjo.

Prologue to the 1926 Version, by Bertolt Brecht

Brecht is essentially applying the Canaanite totemic deity of Baal to embody the spirit of the Bohemian forest that is being chopped down around him as industrialization takes over. Like the black forest, Baal’s spirit has become sick and polluted. His very existence is now a vulgar, twisted, affront to the modern world. With the setting taking place among small logging communities in the woods, the presence of a drowned girl in the ballads, its similarities between the biblical Abduction of Dinah – all of it seems to evoke a sense of unease similar to whatever dark entity has been lurking in the woods of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Like the old pagan gods, Baal is an ever-evolving entity. The ancient Egyptians, for example, didn’t just forget to write a Bible for their deities, they intentionally chose not to, because their gods were considered to be living, evolving entities who were able to manifest in our world through the medium of art that humans created of them. To write one “all-encompassing” book would not only fall miserably short of the bigger picture, it would also bind the very idea of the gods to a singular fixed place in time, trapping them and cutting off their ability to evolve.

With that in mind, of course a maligned nature spirit like Baal would absolutely refuse be bound within a single play, so Brecht created Baal in such a way that its characters and “story” morph and change over time. It was written and rewritten many times – multiple scenes, songs, even its title was changed, added, and switched around. (Hello cut up techniques!) The final product is essentially modular, and, in a similar fashion to Woyzeck or Candide, a director can pick and choose from a huge list of scenes, and as such, it is rare that any two productions will be the same. Not unlike Bowie himself, Baal is a slippery trickster that is constantly changing his skin.


Here is the full-length 1982 television production of Baal:

I have also added the full broadcast to my Dropbox in case you want to download it. Since Dropbox can have issues when multiple people try to download or view something at once, here it is on MEGA as well.

The standard Baal EP can be found on Spotify, Youtube Music, etc etc. Googling it thankfully brings up plenty of options.

NOTE: Bowie’s television production of Baal received a unique translation by John Willett, chief editor of Brecht’s works in English, supposedly based on the original 1919 version of the text, which to this day remains unpublished.


Perversion & Inversion: A Story Told Within Negative Space

(All quotations and scene descriptions in this section are pulled from “Bertolt Brecht Collected Plays Vol.1” by Manheim & Willett)

Truthfully, had I only seen the TV production and nothing else, then I probably would have overlooked it, as it isn’t particularly interesting when taken purely at face value. Even when taking the different versions of the play into account, the end product is still more impressionistic than straightforward. However, the further you dig, the more something resembling a story begins to take form, but not at all in the way that you’d normally expect. With Baal, Brecht has essentially taken the theatrical narrative device and inverted it upside down, so that the actual heart of the story exists outside of the text on the page.

The changes that Brecht made to the text over time, and the options for performance that he’s left us with, are anything but arbitrary. The act of tracing where these changes happen, and the implications laid bare by them is how the meta-narrative at the heart of the story reveals itself – one far more harrowing and engaging than the “straightforward” play happening on the stage.

Instead of his words telling a comprehensive story, their purpose is to carve out a shape from the negative space. In this way, not only is the character of Baal a perversion of Nature, the play bearing his name is a perversion of the theatrical medium itself. The heart of Baal is absent – its existence is entirely within the parts left unsaid.

Shape-Shifting as a Storytelling Device

“Though Baal at first appears to have little structure, so that Brecht could change scenes around, or add or delete them without greatly affecting the play’s character, there are nine basic scenes which recur in the same order in every version, together with four others which are cut only in the 1926 text. They are:

  • [1] The Opening Party Scene
  • [2] Baal and Johannes
  • [3] The First Tavern Scene
  • [4.i] Baal and Johanna, After the Seduction
  • [4.iii] First Scene With Sophie
  • [6] Second Ditto – May Night, Under Trees
  • [7] Night Spot Scene
  • [8] Baal and Eckart
  • [15] Baal reading a poem to Eckart who speaks of his girl
  • [17] Baal reads “Death in the Woods”
  • [18] Last Tavern Scene, with the Murder of Eckart
  • [20] The Two Policemen
  • [21] The Death Scene in the Forest Hut

This section will get a bit wordy, but for those who haven’t completely tuned out yet, I’ve chosen to include a few scenes with significant changes below to provide an example of what I mean. Even if you didn’t quite catch everything from the tele-play (I know it took me awhile to make sense of it myself), there are still some revealing implications brought to light:

  • [Scene 1 – Dining Room]
    • In the first two versions it is a grand party: full evening dress. The host and other guests are not named; the host’s wife is not mentioned. Unspecified poems by August Stramm, Novotny, and A. Skram are read; Baal, who is a clerk in the host’s office, calls the last drivel. The servants try to throw him out, but he fights them off, saying “I’ll show you who’s master.”
    • The 1922 version is virtually the same as the final text, less of the character of Pschierer and everything between the first remark of the Young Man and the last remark of the Young Lady. The scene ends, after Piller’s last jibe, with Johannes asking Baal if he may visit him and Emilie saying, “I’m sorry for him.”
  • [Scene 4 – Baal’s Garret Baal and Johanna sitting on the edge of the bed.]
    • Essentially the final version, though in 1918 Johanna is called Anna. Instead of asking Baal if he still loves her she asks “Do you love me?” In a small voice, breathlessly
  • [Scene 4.iii]
    • Sophie Dechant in 1918 appears dressed in white. She is an actress, on her way to play (presumably Hebbel’s) Judith. Much of the final version is there – Baal calling her a white cloud, her reference to Baal’s ugliness, her virginity, her declaration that she loves him – up to the point where Baal’s mother comes in, accusing him of having whores in his room. He says Sophie is to be his wife, and asks her if she will. A piano is playing all the time, off.
    • In 1919 the scene has been largely rewritten. Sophie ceases to be an actress and takes her eventual form. Baal still says she is to be his wife, but no longer asks her.
    • By 1922 the mother is cut out of the play. Baal’s long opening speech, which originally introduced another scene with his mother is added to this one. Johannes makes his brief appearance. Sophie’s name is changed to Barger, and there is no mention of her becoming Baal’s wife. Instead of the piano, there is intermittently a beggar’s hurdy-gurdy playing Tristan.
  • [Scene 15 – Country Road. Willows].
    • 1918 and 1919 (slightly lengthened) versions show Eckart talking about his pale-faced girl as an experience of the past; Baal recites to him is not “The Drowned Girl” (as in the 1922 text) but “The Song of the Cloud in the Night” (in the collected poems).
  • [Scene 17 Maple Tree in the Wind]
    • In 1918 the scene is set outside a country tavern. The text is almost word for word the same as in the final version, apart from some slight variations in the poem “Death in the Woods,”until what is now the end of the scene. Thereupon Baal says “I’ll go and get one” (i.e., a woman) and breaks into the dance which has started inside the tavern. There is almost a fight with the man whose partner Baal pulls away from him, then Baal suddenly crumples and leaves.
    • In 1919 the setting becomes “Maple Tree in the Wind,” and the dance episode is detached to make a separate short scene, which Brecht dropped in the third version.
  • [Scene 18 Tavern]
    • The 1918 and 1919 versions are almost identical apart from the absence of Johannes from the former and certain differences in the arrangement of the verses. Baal here arrives on top of his form, having sold a book of his poems to a publisher. ‘I want meat! What’s your name, kids, and what’s your price? I’m as choosy as a vicar. But watch what I can do. I’ll pay for everything!’ He orders champagne (in the final version an allusion to this is left after the third verse of the Ballad) and, with Luise on his knee (who does not yet look like Sophie), sings an obscene, blasphemous, and largely untranslatable song about the Virgin Watzmann, whose character was even then unexplained, sings in lieu of “There are plenty of trees you can turn to”:
      • When the hatred and venom he’s swallowed
        Are more than his gullet can take
        He may well draw a knife from his pocket
        And languidly sever his neck
    • At the end of the scene, before Baal attacks Eckart, Eckart tries to get Luise off his lap, saying, ‘Oh rubbish! Gentlemen! Let’s drink to fair shares between brothers!’
    • There is a draft of January 1920, showing the waitress with Sophie’s features and Baal a wreck, as in the 1922 text, which also substitutes the new dialogue between Baal and Eckart at the end.
  • [Scene 21 – Wooden Hut in the Forest]
    • This scene has remained essentially unchanged from the 1918 version, apart from Baal’s last speech, which both there and in 1919 runs:
      • Dear God. Gone. (Groans) It’s not so simple. My God it’s not so simple. If only I. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Not much help. Dear God. Dear God. (Feverishly) Mother! Send Eckart away! Oh Mary! The sky’s so damned near. Almost touch it. My heart’s thumping out of me. One. Two. Three Four. (Whimpers, then all of a sudden, loudly) I can’t. I won’t. It’s stifling here. (Quite distinctly) It must be clear outside. I want to. (Raising himself with difficulty) Baal, I want to go out. (Sharply) I’m not a rat. (He tumbles out of bed, and falls) Hell. Dear God! As far as the door! (He crawls to the threshold) Stars… hm. (He crawls out)
    • In the 1922 version the five invocations of God and one of Mary are replaced by the three invocations of “Dear Baal”.

In the 1930’s, Brecht was STILL playing with Baals:

“Around 1930 – the dates and also the intended arrangement of the fragmentary typescript are uncertain – he planned a number of linked [didactic playlets] about the character he now called Bad Baal the Antisocial Man. Here he thought of making Baal appear in various guises–

guest/ whore/ judge/ dealer (bulls)/ engineer (only concerned with experiment)/ suppliant – in need of help (exploiting other people’s wish to be exploited)/ nature-lover/ demagogue / worker (strikebreaker)/ mother/ historian/ soldier / lover/ as priest/ as civil servant/ The 2 Coats

— But apart from a reception where Baal is guest and Baal Chorale is sung this plan has very little to do with the play. The writing is deadpan, with strange word order and virtually no punctuation apart from full stops. Brecht’s aphoristic alter ego Herr Keuner appears, and the only Baal character apart from Baal himself is Lupu. Some idea of the style can be got from the beginning of “Bad Baal the Antisocial Man and the Two Coats,” which is one of the few complete episodes:

  • BAAL: all night I have been going in increasing cold through the forests towards where they get darker. the evening was icy. the night was icier and a crowd of stars disappeared in a whitish fog towards morning. today the bushes occupy the least space of the entire year. whatever is soft freezes. whatever is hard breaks.
  • THE LEFT HAND CHORUS:
    • the best thing is
      the cold comes before the warmth
      everything makes itself as small
      as it can. everything is
      so sparingly silent only
      thinking becomes im-
      practicable and then
      comes the warmth
  • THE POOR MAN: it is cold. i have no coat. i’m freezing. perhaps that grand gentleman can tell me what i can do against the cold. good day sir…”

For those who may be familiar with Bowie’s very early work, the above scene may bring to mind 2 early songs of his, specifically “Sell me a Coat” and “Please Mister Gravedigger


Epilogue: The Drowned Girl

While I plan to fully dive into the Bowie end of the pool in our next article, I figured it’d be a good way to round out this post by briefly touching on how Baal‘s musical influences make an unexpected appearance in Bowie’s final masterpiece, Blackstar. Specifically, the ballad of “The Drowned Girl”:

This particular song both looks (and sounds) a bit familiar to another more recent Bowie release, specifically “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)”. Bowie only ever had a handful of albums released on the 10″ format, and only Baal and Sue share the faux 78-rpm aesthetic, so we’d be remiss to not infer some relationship between the two.

Like much of the material on the Baal EP, “Sue” is also a surprisingly dark song with violent undertones, which paints a vivid portrait of a man fleeing the scene of a crime after murdering his lover – presumably in a fit of jealous rage. The song’s jazz orchestra arrangements are very similar to those throughout the Baal EP, especially during the more quiet sections of its bridge. Lyrical similarities and associations abound too: “Sue, I pushed you down beneath the weeds,” certainly evokes the image of the decaying corpse Baal sings about in “The Drowned Girl”. As one begins to trace the underlying themes within Baal, it appears that the only hint of humanity left within this monster is a howling undercurrent of longing and despair. Baal is cursed to roam the land, forever compelled to sing confessional ballads about the rape and murder of a young girl that haunts him, even though it happened so long ago that he can no longer recall her face.

If that wasn’t enough to spark a connection on its own, the liner notes for the Baal EP contain an oddly specific mention of “Brecht’s attic room, with its books and papers, its skull, its portrait of the French poet Vertaine,” which recalls to mind both the attic room of the tortured painter in Bowie’s “Look Back In Anger” video and, perhaps more cryptically, Bowie’s attic from the “Blackstar” video, along with the imagery of the old man hunched over his books, papers and skull in the video for “Lazarus”.

These recurrences are only the barest tip of the knife-point — all of which begs the question: What could possibly have been so important about Brecht or this little play to warrant such a prominent spot in Bowie’s final statement, much less throughout his entire career?


Oh Moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have dollar or you know why

Until Next Time,
&D