Bertolt Brecht – A Literary Life. By Stephen Parker

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Bertolt Brecht – A Literary Life. By Stephen Parker


Mon, 14/04/2014 - 11:35


Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht
14 April, 2014

THE German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht lived in Camden: in Calthorpe Street in 1934, and two years later in Abbey Road. He went to an International Writers’ conference at Friend’s House in 1936, and wrote poems about Caledonian Market (now Caledonian Park, off Market Road, N7):

By the stall with the phosphorescent fish
Underneath old socks you see a hat.
Yer won’t get a new ’un for under seven bob, mate.
This one’s just a florin and not too bad at that.

(John Willett’s translation)

Moreover, the first performance of a full-length play here by Brecht was at Unity Theatre, Goldington Crescent, in 1938. So Brecht’s Camden credentials are strong.

Ruth Fischer, sister of the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler, one of Brecht’s closest collaborators – herself once a leading German Communist – famously denounced Brecht as “a minstrel of the GPU (Soviet Secret Police)”.

This accusation – an attempt to purify herself in the USA – was, of course, ridiculous. Yet an oversimple and exaggerated sense of Brecht as a political writer is still widespread.

It is perhaps a result of the bourgeois Brecht’s own super-anti-bourgeois rhetoric, adopted in theory and practice (including dress) – and of his utopian and dogmatic belief that the emancipation of the working-class would lead to the emancipation of all.

He also accepted (despite his protests at the execution of several of his friends and colleagues in the Soviet Purges) the Soviet Union as the main enemy, not only of fascism, but of capitalism in any form.

This hard public face of Brecht tends to cover up his humane side – his profound empathy, his humour, and above all his poetry.

Playwriting was Brecht’s profession. That is how he earned his living, but more and more people are discovering that his poetic achievement is equally great, if not greater. Of course, there is poetry in the plays, but there are five volumes of poetry.

All human life is to be found in Brecht’s own life, and some seemingly inhuman. Conventional sexual morality didn’t apply, or he was no hypocrite.

His women were the new liberated women of their time, as was his devoted, long-suffering wife, Helene Weigel, who – though sometimes treated like a doormat – was anything but, and who Brecht loved and appreciated like no other, because they not only shared their children, but that “third thing” (which Brecht insisted had to be in any relationship of two) – in their case the theatre – which was their joint mission.

Stephen Parker, Professor of German at Manchester, has written an extraordinary work about a man he also repeatedly finds extraordinary, giving his long book unusual liveliness and spontaneity.

A life of anyone is both arithmetic (adding up the facts) and algebraic (trying to understand the emotions) . Arithmetically, this is by far the fullest of any English-language source, and it is the fullest biography in any language, making good use of the magnificent chronology of Brecht’s life of over 1,300 pages by Werner Hecht.

However, it is its algebra that makes this book unique. Parker has discovered, or uncovered, the fact that Brecht was a sick man from a very young age. He had chronic cardiac and renal problems throughout his youth, forcing him to his sickbed for long periods. At the same time, he was a natural intellectual gang leader for his friends and admirers in his home town of Augsburg, and a magnet for girls.

It is Parker’s highly plausible notion that Brecht’s phenomenal fertility in both intellectual production and sexual activity somehow compensated for his cruel lifelong handicap, which eventually killed him before he was 60.

For instance, Brecht never had an appetite for food, which he remarked was never a pleasure for him, because of digestive problems.

Deprived of one primary pleasure, his possible over-indulgence in another becomes more understandable. Such behaviour inevitably led to Brecht’s deceiving his wife about his unfaithfulness. This formidable woman, and great actress, came to accept it: she had more important things to do, not least with him. She later told their daughter that her father was a very faithful man, but unfortunately to more than one woman.

Among many striking things about Brecht was his ability to return to reason, even after a trauma, like being thrown out of rehearsals for his play, The Mother, at the largely communist Theatre Union in New York in 1935, when some “comrades” thought he behaved like Hitler.

Parker’s treatment of Brecht’s last years in the German Democratic Republic (not his first choice: he would have preferred Switzerland or Munich), is more detailed than ever before, benefiting from material inaccessible before the Wall came down in 1989.

It is a grim story. Brecht was up against the cultural bureaucrats of the new communist regime, who regarded him as moderniser and a formalist (in other words, decadent and pro-Western), whereas their allegiance was to Soviet-style socialist realism and the classics. They even suppressed some of his work, denouncing it as “pacifist”.

In the end, Brecht won, mainly through the brilliance of his theatre, starting with Helene Weigel in Mother Courage and her Children, and including performances of other plays in Milan, Paris, and ultimately – a month after Brecht’s early death – in London in 1956.

Bertolt Brecht – A Literary Life. By Stephen Parker, Bloomsbury, £30.

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