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  • A Bookshelf of Brecht
  • George Hunka (bio)
BOOKS REVIEWED: Stephen Parker, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014; Philip Glahn, Bertolt Brecht, London: Reaktion Books, 2014; Brecht on Theatre (third edition), edited by Steve Giles, Tom Kuhn, and Marc Silberman, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015; Brecht on Performance, edited by Steve Giles, Tom Kuhn, and Marc Silberman, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Last December, actress Tonya Pinkins abandoned a Classic Stage Company production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children just days before it was scheduled to open; Pinkins and the white director of the play, Brian Kulick, had sparred over Pinkins’s interpretation of the role, and apparently the creative differences became irreconcilable. In a statement released by Playbill, Pinkins said,

When Black bodies are on the stage, Black perspectives must be reflected. This is not simply a matter of “artistic interpretation”; race and sex play a pivotal role in determining who holds the power to shape representation. A Black female should have a say in the presentation of a Black female on stage. . . . As we enter 2016, the collective White creative community has a responsibility to bring as many ‘others’ into the room, both onstage and offstage, before, during and after decisions are made. Only then will the beauty of global humanity be heard, seen, and finally understood, so that the truth wipes away the misconceptions and misappropriations that cause the fear which foments violence around the globe.

Brecht himself would possibly have relished the controversy. Sixty years after his death in 1956, many of the issues that Pinkins cites were at the center of the playwright’s dramatic and theatrical work: the representation of race on stage; the collaborative process of artmaking and the investiture of authority among individual artists; the power structure behind theatre production; the sustainability of a utopian vision; and, of course, the materialist economics that serves as the [End Page 123] underpinning of institutions like subsidized theatres. In the past few years, the publication of a slew of new books about his life and work and the completion of Methuen’s English-language series of Brecht’s plays indicates the continuing, even increasing, appeal of these plays, poems, and essays in a globalized capitalist system and in a world where income inequality grows alarmingly on a daily basis.

That, at any rate, is the work. Two biographies published in 2014 take a closer look at the artist. The portrait that Stephen Parker provides is the most comprehensive and elegant in the English language, superseding Frederic Ewen’s 1967 biography and John Fuegi’s controversial and iconoclastic 1994 Brecht & Co. Parker had at his disposal a mass of archival material unavailable to either Ewen or Fuegi, and this fully-sourced portrait (the notes and bibliography take up almost a sixth of the book) is likely to be the standard for decades to come. Parker’s subtitle emphasizes the focus of the biography on Brecht as primarily a literary author rather than a stage director or theatrical craftsman, carefully interpreting the writing in the light of Brecht’s personal experience and vice versa. For example, he makes a strong argument for the primacy of the first 1938 version of Galileo, written during Brecht’s exile in Denmark, as an examination of the intellectual revolutionary in extremis, calling it “the most crucial work in Brecht’s intellectual biography. Not only is it, behind the mask of Galileo, his most personal play; the philosophical and dramatic problems which Brecht addresses are of fundamental importance for our understanding of his life’s work,” Parker writes.

Unique to Parker’s account is his emphasis on Brecht’s somatic life, especially his research into the heart ailments that plagued Brecht from his childhood on. He sees—as do many other Brecht biographers—a duality of experience between appetite and asceticism, emotion and intellect, but Parker’s research uncovers Brecht’s attitude towards his various health problems as a central theme in both life and work and a controlling element of this duality. Afraid of straining his heart, Brecht adopted an attitude after the First World War of profound distance from emotional engagement...


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pp. 123-128
Launched on MUSE
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