- Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life by Stephen Parker
While his title casts this biography as a study of Brecht the poet, author Stephen Parker investigates Brecht the patient. Previous biographers have discussed Brecht’s health, but tended to frame his illness as external to his art. Parker, on the other hand, takes a holistic approach by discussing Brecht’s chronic ailments as a profound influence on his identity and Weltanschauung (world view). Through close examination of new and existing information about Brecht’s medical history, Parker presents a somatic analysis of his subject that roots his artistry, relationships—and even Epic theory—in Brecht’s fragile health and visceral aversion to emotional intensity.
Admired for previous books on German literature, including a study of the literary journal Sinn und Form, Parker is also known for his scholarship exploring the intersection of Brecht’s physical condition and artistic output. In Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, Parker sets Brecht’s life story against momentous historical events and lays the groundwork for a layered critical analysis of Brecht’s plays, poetry, and evolving politics. The Augsburg years unfold in “Lyrical Awakening,” as Brecht copes with illness and his mother’s death, and, galvanized by war, finds his calling and voice. “Dramatic Iconoclast” follows Brecht’s meteoric rise in Berlin, interwoven with his theatrical triumphs, innovative theories, and complex sexual, familial, and professional relationships. While Parker is frank about Brecht’s unconventional marriages, multiple affairs, and duplicitous behavior, he doesn’t engage in past arguments about exploitation or what percentage of his plays was written by which of his collaborators. He does offer additional insights on the nature of those relationships, especially Brecht’s remarkable symbiosis with Elisabeth Hauptmann. Ultimately, Parker leaves no doubt that Brecht was the creative force and primary writer, while his collaborators functioned as researchers, translators, typists, and sounding boards. With such impressive support, Brecht the artist flourished. Brecht the patient, however, veered at times toward collapse, his success bedimmed and work disrupted by kidney disease and carditis.
In the sixteen years of exile portrayed in “Chastened Survivor,” Parker reminds us that despite poverty, commercial failure, and government surveillance, Brecht’s health was relatively stable and he was at his most productive; thus even at his professional nadir, his art was at its zenith. Once the war ended, Brecht and his family returned to Berlin. Parker describes this period in the book’s final part, “Contentious Master,” with the help of new evidence from German Democratic Republic archives and Stasi files, revealing the army of East German bureaucrats and apparatchiks that Brecht clashed with just to find a theatre. Some biographers have pointed to the playwright’s Austrian passport, Swiss bank account, and West German publisher as Brecht gaming the system, but Parker sees these alliances as [End Page 102] an escape hatch. In Parker’s impressively sourced account, Brecht’s ensuing fight for more freedom, organizing of progressive forces, and eventual triumph over party wonks is nothing short of thrilling. That Brecht produced virtually no new work in this period is no wonder; he was too busy directing—and protecting—the great plays he had sacrificed to create.
As an insight into Brecht’s early notions of epic theatre, Parker includes a letter Brecht wrote to his son. Composed during his exile, the letter explicates his generation’s response to the Great War as “the seminal experience” of their lives. The war’s carnage required the adoption of what Brecht termed an “INSENSITIVITY (indestructibility, resilience) which greatly pre-occupied us when we were young.” He goes on to say that he and his friends had “treated the subject of insensitivity, coming out of a great war, quite personally. How could one become insensitive? The difficulty, not immediately apparent, was that society, awakening in us the wish to be insensitive, simultaneously made productivity (not only in the artistic sphere) dependent on sensitivity, i.e. the productive person had to pay the price of vulnerability” (1). Yet war was not the sole reason for the playwright’s aversion to the sensitivity...