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Definitive Big Biography

Theatre Writer Book

Stephen Parker , Bloomsbury Methuen Drama , June 17, 2015
Theatre Writer Book by Stephen Parker Stephen Parker is Professor of German at Manchester University. His biography of Brecht, 596 pages of text and 94 pages of notes, references and index, is subtitled “A Literary Life”. Parker’s subject was as much as poet as dramatist. The author’s background, literary rather than theatrical, means that he writes with authority on Brecht’s place within Germany in both its literary and political dimensions.

Parker traces Brecht’s early reactions to his dramatic predecessors. He favours Wedekind but views the still active Gerhart Hauptmann as of small relevance. He and Thomas Mann disagree and he lashes out at Rilke and all that the poet stands for. He clashes with Walter Benjamin over his interpretation of Kafka, denouncing it for “obscurantism”. Parker’s translation for Brecht’s view of Gottfried Benn after his political apostasy is “slimeball.”

Parker touches on Brechtian theory lightly but succinctly. He points out that Piscator preceded Brecht in the view that political theatre should discourage identification with character. The book’s richness of biographical detail shows that the forging of artistic originality is a process both gradual and multiple. In the 1920s Brecht is writing poetry virtually ever day. He is immersing himself in Kipling,Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson; although Parker does not mention it the same authors were crucial for the young Jorge Luis Borges, a continent away in distance but just a year apart in date of birth.

As for the making of the art Brecht critiques Kaiser’s “Von Morgen zu Mitternacht” adding the comment “I'm starting to turn classic”. It takes a German scholar to link an affinity with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Like Lichtenberg “Brecht delights in paradox and in mixing the abstract and the material, the serious and the humorous, the cerebral and the carnal”. For Parker form is the Brechtian route to the expression of feeling.

The arc of the life across continents in a book of this length is mapped out in fascinating detail. In the First World War Brecht is treating wounds with iodine, giving enemas and blood transfusions. When he acquires a car Georg Grosz comments on the speed and recklessness of his driving. Success comes early. After the premiere of “Drums in the Night” Herbert Ihering writes “Bert Brecht has brought to our age a new voice, a new sound and a new vision”. “The Threepenny Opera” over the years 1929-1933 has ten thousand performances with the royalties going for judicious safekeeping in Switzerland.

In these fragile but free days of Weimar Brecht is already subject to denunciation by Alfred Rosenberg. Parker traces the background lightly, describing the KPD’s grotesque policy of treating Social Democracy rather than Nazism as its primary enemy. Political writers, he shows, have as little insight of the future as anyone else. On 8th August Brecht buys a heavily borrowed house on the Ammersee. Six months later, the day after the burning of the Reichstag, he is on the train to Prague and the life of exile. On 10th May his books are up for public burning.

These years are hard. In October 1934 he is in London. After a Germany of kachelofen-warmed homes the houses of London are under-heated and freezing and “the English eat leather and grass”. Elsewhere, exile is perilous with German artists being caught up in the Moscow Trials that begin in 1936. Even Piscator, reveals Parker, is advised by no less than Wilhelm Pieck, KPD Chair, to better stay in Paris.

Bela Kun, the only politician Brecht knows well is under arrest. Brecht's own NKVD file declares him a Trotskyist. Brecht’s own escape to the USA has the utmost luck in its timing. The five-week sea journey out of Vladivostok starts two weeks before the invasion of Russia. In the same month the USA stops issuing visas to anyone connected to Germany.

The life in California has sparse joys. There is the mixing with the circle of emigres, the odd game of chess with Oscar Homolka but there is little money. A project with Billy Wilder fails to take off. For all the rancour over its credits for “Hangmen Also Die” the film’s royalties are worth ten thousand dollars and allow the move to a proper house and the purchase of a second-hand Buick. On 19th Jan 1944 Brecht is added to the FBI’s list for surveillance.

A high point of the years in America is the premiere of “Life of Galileo” to an audience that includes Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gene Kelly. But the relations with Orson Welles are more characteristic. In a letter to Charles Laughton Welles writes “Brecht was very, very tiresome today”.

Parker’s last hundred pages record the years of artistic triumph and acclaim. The setting is the cauldron of cultural politics of East Berlin, both ferocious and relentless. The battle against Formalism becomes all-out war. The ruling SED disapproves of meddling with classics and denies “Coriolanus” a performance. The premiere of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” receives, in Parker’s telling, a staggering fifty-six curtain calls. It is subject to a total media black-out in the city of its performance.

Parker’s literary criticism is both light and deep. He quotes the Latvian actress and director Asja Lacis on her observations on Brecht as a director “that was the beginning of gestural speech.” He reports that Brecht had read “Wallenstein” in adolescence and that “Mother Courage”- written at the time of Poland’s dismemberment- was principally a riposte to Schillerian idealism.

Parker interprets the period in the DDR via Brecht’s philosophical underpinning. Brecht’s dialectic is Hegelian rather than Marxist. Dialectical Idealism lacking Marxist chiliasm can explain that a reactionary bureaucracy may be a short-term necessity but a temporary state of affairs. But then Brecht was an artist, not a party member and never a Johannes R Becher. Again and again he returns, Parker relates, to Lucretius and classical notions of ataraxia. Chinese theatre is a seam of influence that runs through the work and Tao is as silently powerful in the man as Marx. Parker, making reference to Kafka and Brecht’s own physique writes “Brecht was a hunger artist of a very particular kind, a contrarian full of contradiction and paradox, whom not even the most perceptive observer could properly fathom.” Indeed, in Nietzschean terms, to be fruitful is to be rich in contradiction.

New sources of information on Brecht are unlikely to appear. Parker’s writing style is lucid and undogmatic. This book is set to be a standard.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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