In the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" last year, the title character -- a tight-fisted war profiteer -- acknowledged pain exactly twice. The first time, having lost a son to a firing squad while bargaining over his ransom, Courage mouthed a silent scream. Later, having lost a daughter to what she regarded as inexplicable heroism, Courage sang a lullaby.

Both moments are fraught with the working-class cynicism and riveting theatricality that have made Brecht the most produced playwright on the planet after Shakespeare. But for the last six months, a reputation-shattering controversy has swirled around those scenes, as well as ones in "The Threepenny Opera," "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," "The Good Person of Setzuan" and virtually all the rest of Brecht's hugely influential 20th-century masterworks.

At the center of that controversy is an incendiary biography that was published in August: "Brecht & Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama," by University of Maryland professor John Fuegi. In heavily footnoted prose, Fuegi places the playwright on a moral plane with Hitler, Stalin and "Threepenny's" scoundrel Mack the Knife. But in the academic world, that's a minor charge next to the questions of authorship that Fuegi raises. It has hardly been a closely guarded secret that Brecht (1898-1956) -- a German middle-class sometime-Marxist who passed himself off as "Poor B.B." in shabby-looking clothes he ordered tailor-made from expensive cloth -- was a first-class jerk. But it has always been assumed that the jerk wrote brilliant, world-altering plays.

In his 732-page "pamphlet," Fuegi charges that the vast majority of Brecht's works were the creation, not of the man himself, but of a woman-dominated collective in which figurehead Brecht played a decidedly subsidiary role. In short, the oeuvre we know as Brecht isn't Brecht's.

Take, for example, "Mother Courage." The book asserts that none of the humanizing elements that make the play so powerful were put there by its misogynistic author. Rather, argues Fuegi, all evidence suggests they're the product of the sensibiliTempest Fuegities of two of Brecht's mistresses: Ruth Berlau and Margarete Steffin.

This assertion is barely a snowflake on the tip of Fuegi's bio-critical iceberg. After examining texts, letters and even comedy skits from the '20s through the '50s, the professor further maintains that Brecht worked the tubercular Steffin into an early grave and drove Berlau periodically insane while denying both women credit for their work; duplicated that pattern with other lovers, most notably Elisabeth Hauptmann, who not only suggested adapting John Gay's "Beggar's Opera" as "The Threepenny Opera," but also wrote "at least 80 percent" of the finished product; routinely stole royalties on those occasions when he did credit others; published under his own name dozens of shorter plays and stories written entirely by various lovers both male and female; and plagiarized from foreign works most of what he didn't steal from his associates.

As literary bombshells go, these pack considerable mega-tonnage. And they have not gone unchallenged. Theater Magazine, the academic journal of the Yale School of Drama, just published a special Brecht issue that includes a scathing review of "Brecht & Company" and a combative critical symposium on the question "Who Wrote Brecht and Does It Matter?" And while Fuegi's research has been praised by most mainstream critics, a number of influential Brecht scholars have been openly hostile.

Fuegi dismisses them as the "Brecht industry," which he says will look extremely foolish if his charges hold up. But he acknowledges that their antagonism contributed to his decision to take his manuscript to mainstream publisher Grove Press, rather than submitting it to a university press's peer-review process.

"The situation at the time I was going to press with the book," says Fuegi, "was that I did not know of one specialized Brecht scholar, male or female, on any continent, who would have authorized this book for publication if they'd been a reader."

Ironically, they may be responding to it for years to come.

Fuegi & Company On a recent afternoon, Fuegi is driving a borrowed car. The 58-year-old professor of comparative Germanic and Slavic literature is short, solidly built, with a graying beard and thinning hair. He is attired entirely in black from the frames of his thin metal glasses to his unpolished boots. On the way to what he terms the "cookie-cutter" split-level he shares in Adelphi with wife Jo Francis, he is chattering so amiably that it's hard to believe he's at the center of a nasty academic firestorm.

Arriving home, he's flustered briefly when he can't pry the unfamiliar car key from the ignition. His passenger spies a release button on the steering column, pushes it, and the key slips out.

"What do any of us do on our own, I wonder," deadpans Fuegi.

It's a joke. And then again it isn't, because for comparatists like Fuegi nothing happens in a vacuum; every action, thought and inspiration connects to others, often across cultural boundaries. Ask Fuegi about the Japanese prints temporarily cluttering his dining room table -- views by various artists of carp swimming upstream -- and he'll say that their theme, borrowed from the Chinese, has to do with the struggle of civil servants to pass their exams. This observation leads in turn to a discussion of Fuegi's conviction that a Japanese print was the direct inspiration for a scene in a film by Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein.

"As a filmmaker," says Fuegi, who won a Danish TV award last year for "Red Ruth," a documentary about Brecht's mistress Berlau, "I can see it's a direct steal; {Eisenstein's} just picking it up verbatim."

Debatable certainly, but stated with absolute surety by a man who went to the trouble of learning Russian so he'd be able to read Eisenstein's untranslated manuscripts -- a skill that later enabled him to challenge Soviet bureaucrats who denied him access to Brecht archives. "It all hangs together," he says. "At least in my mind."

Fuegi claims he even grew up "interconnected," by which he means he was raised in a cockney area of wartime London by a German Swiss father and a Welsh mother. "We were technically enemy aliens," he says. "So I got used to looking at things in a fairly complicated way even as a child."

He remembers noting as an 8-year-old that when he and his father went to pick up the family's ration coupons, everyone seemed alarmed at his father's name. "Adolf Fuegi," he realized, "combined all three Axis powers: the Adolf making him clearly German, especially with his Swiss accent, the 'i' at the end of Fuegi making the surname look Italian, and the pronunciation 'Fuji' sounding Japanese."

By the age of 12, the budding comparatist was skipping school "to sit at the bookshelf at Foyle's in London, or go to the National Gallery," and two years later he dropped out entirely. But by 1967 he'd earned his doctorate in the United States, and a year later, having long been "bowled over" by the works of the late poet-playwright-director widely credited with having reinvented 20th-century theater as a political force, Fuegi helped found the International Brecht Society (IBS). From 1969 to 1989, he served as managing editor of its Brecht Yearbook, publishing "the best scholarship we could find from all over the world."

Dawning Realization

But from the very beginning of his tenure at the IBS, there was a problem: His own research was contradicting the articles being submitted to him for publication. For example, he spoke to Elisabeth Hauptmann, then living in East Berlin, and director Benno Besson, who'd worked at the Berliner Ensemble while Brecht was in residence, and they told him face to face that they, not Brecht, had written and staged the "Don Juan" that historically has been attributed to Brecht.

Over time, as Fuegi examined "whether the Brecht label might be a borrowed tag, sewn into garments manufactured by Hauptmann or various others," he began to question nearly all of Brecht's claims of authorship. The professor was coming to see the "oddly mesmeric" playwright's interaction with his literary harem (which included not only Hauptmann, Berlau and Steffin, but also two wives and dozens of lesser lovers), in "sex-for-text" terms. Brecht bed-hopped among his collaborators and then, says Fuegi, having fulfilled his part of the bargain, took credit for their work, which he now thought of as his own intellectual property. And, Fuegi asserts, they put up with it out of love, insecurity, political solidarity or simply because it was smart business. After all, by the late '20s, a play or story by the self-promoting Brecht commanded a fortune, while the same work by an unknown Hauptmann would earn only a pittance.

Much of this sounds like gossip, no matter how well documented, which may explain why, when Fuegi began publishing his findings piecemeal in academic journals, they didn't cause much of a stir. Fuegi says scholars kept treating each individual instance of theft or plagiarism he uncovered as an odd aberration in Brecht's otherwise distinguished career. So rather than have his research nickel-and-dimed to death, he decided to husband his findings and put everything between the covers of a single volume, a "group biography" where, instead of bringing figures like Hauptmann and Steffin onstage in bit parts, he could give them speaking roles.

He could also, being a comparatist, bring to bear a post-glasnost understanding of the effect of social forces in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia on the intensely political theater of "Brecht." And he could discuss "gender dynamics, sex roles and our changing sense of who the good guys and bad guys really were." In fact, even that doesn't describe how broadly inclusive Fuegi considers the canvas of "Brecht & Company" to be.

"What it attempts," he says matter-of-factly, "is a biography of the first half of the 20th century. That's the '& Company.' "

The Fight

There are those who think Fuegi is overreaching a bit, and that he has seriously misinterpreted the data he's uncovered. His basic argument has naturally brought him into collision with Brecht's estate. And scholars -- some of whom, notes Fuegi, have published translations or new editions of works with only Brecht's name on the cover -- are practically lining up to comment on his research. In essence, the academic peer-review process that didn't occur before publication is now happening quite publicly after it.

Criticism has focused as much on the tone of "Brecht & Company" as on its content. Theater Magazine Editor Erika Munk notes that "Fuegi's first page describes a photo taken when Brecht was 2 years old, standing with 'a tiny hobby horse, and a whip big enough for a real horse,' " and then accuses the professor of recycling that image relentlessly to establish that "nothing Brecht does, from infancy on, can be any good." She also accuses him of rehashing, often inconsistently, every piece of anti-Brecht gossip published since 1944.

Eminent British scholar John Willett, who in 1983 was among the first to write about possible Hauptmann authorship of several of Brecht's "Berlin Stories," and who has since had numerous disagreements with Fuegi, sounds decidedly weary in his contribution to the magazine's symposium. Citing a "history of anti-Brecht propaganda that goes back to the Cold War," he wonders whether parading what he calls "lesser, or more ambiguous figures from the work point of view" contributes to understanding the plays themselves.

Fuegi hasn't been shy about responding. He got the New York Times to run an apologetic Editor's Note after assigning "Brecht & Company" to a reviewer who had a clear conflict of interest (his own Brecht tome had been negatively reviewed by Fuegi). And he's written sharp letters to the editor "correcting" reviews that have presumed to correct him.

On the other hand, he happily points to what he views as progress: bibliographies that mention collaborators for works where "B.B." once stood alone, and scholars who've rallied to his cause or simply accepted his evidence as persuasive. Pulling the latest edition of the "Cambridge Companion to Brecht" from its place in his pleasantly cluttered study -- an upstairs room packed with hundreds of volumes of literary criticism including one shelf heavy with what he calls "my own sins in various forms" -- he smiles as he reads its author credit for "The Threepenny Opera." Hauptmann is listed first, Brecht second.

Still to be determined is what effect any of this will have on actual productions of the plays. Responding to the second half of Theater Magazine's symposium question -- "Who Wrote Brecht and Does It Matter?" -- director Carey Perloff writes about staging the Hitler-as-Al-Capone satire "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" before she knew the details of Margarete Steffin's role in researching and structuring the play. Then she muses about whether her approach today would change. "This is a very unfashionable point of view," she writes, "but ... I'm not sure that my path of exploration would be radically different. The text is the text, wherever it came from."

And the quality of the text -- or rather, texts -- is perhaps the one thing that is not in dispute here. Fuegi and all his critics agree that the works they're discussing are among the most important crafted in this century, and that Brecht's character (or lack of it) and his unwillingness to share credit with others does not alter their brilliance. "I'm not sure even now," he explains, "that I'm all that interested in him. What interests me is the work. Surely, we're not going to suddenly decide they're worse plays."

He has, however, taken his case to the general public, not to scholars accustomed to dealing with "swinish genius" as a concept. Why should playgoers care about Fuegi's revelations if the plays are likely to be produced much as they were before, and none of the collaborators is still alive? For audiences, isn't this whole question just an academic dispute -- rather like arguing over whether the Sixth Earl of Whatsis really wrote Shakespeare?

Fuegi thinks there is a difference. He suggests audiences might well want to reevaluate, say, "The Good Person of Setzuan," a play in which a "good" prostitute named Shen Te overcomes her neighbors' prejudice by disguising herself as Shui Ta, a ruthless businessman. "I would hope," says Fuegi, "that the audience would now more clearly hear the voice of Margarete Steffin, the co-author of that work, in Shen Te, and that they would hear Brecht very clearly in Shui Ta." If patrons also note that Shen Te's lover runs off with all of her money, which "describes pretty well Brecht's behavior," that won't bother Fuegi either.

"I don't want to suggest a direct one-to-one relationship between lives and works of art. It seldom is that simple. But hearing the voice of a Steffin who needs to disguise herself as a man to get her writing into print -- that's what I hope an audience in the future will hear in that play.

"There will always be some who'll be outraged," he continues. "And there'll be others who'll be rather encouraged. Who'll say that if in fact 80 percent of a work like 'Threepenny Opera' -- part of the best work produced in the 20th century, or indeed, in any century -- was done by a woman, well, that's interesting. That's empowering. At this point, it just has to shake its way out."