Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life

Charles Lupia

In his near-600 page biography of Bertolt Brecht, Stephen Parker attempts to repair some of the damage recently done to that playwright-director’s reputation.  A few years back, John Fuegi, head of the Brecht society published BRECHT AND COMPANY, which almost demolished much of the Brecht worship.

Fuegi took Brecht to task for not sufficiently criticizing the Nazis and Communists.  He cited Brecht’s constant philandering.  But most damaging was his assertion that much of merit of Brecht’s plays and short story was due to such girlfriend-collaborators as Elisabeth Hauptmann and Margarete Steffin.

In BERTOLT BRECHT: A LITERARY LIFE, Stephen Parker places the playwright in proper perspective.  He does not sugarcoat Brecht.  He acknowledges that Brecht’s adulteries seriously tried his marriage with the Communist actress Helene Weigel.  He recognizes that Brecht was less than financially generous with his many collaborators.  But Parker is also aware that the astonishing achievements of this rare genius were essentially his own.

The Parker biography brings to the table new data, including information from previously withheld medical documents.  Brecht was chronically ill much of his life.  At the age of twelve, he suffered rheumatic fever, which permanently enlarged his heart.  His poor health thereafter kept him away from many sports and other physical activities.  He was frequently hospitalized with renal or other problems.

By the time Brecht was running the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950’s, his health was in shambles.  Fascinated with Hegel, he bought a house overlooking that great philosopher’s grave.  Soon enough, Brecht would join Hegel in the same cemetery.

Brecht’s serious illnesses may have caused him to vigorously pursue women.  This gives him a curious resemblance to John F. Kennedy, another chronically ill twentieth century celebrity.  But unlike Kennedy, the German playwright developed essentially a harem of left-wing female intellectuals.

From the time he was sixteen, in 1914, Brecht closely experienced the catastrophes of the twentieth century.  Because of his ill health and medical education, his own military involvement in World War I was limited to his work as a medical orderly.  Yet many of Brecht’s friends and classmates were killed in that war.  This caused Brecht to be a pacifist for the remainder of his life.

The other catastrophes followed.  In the 1920’s Weimar Brecht struggled financially through the excessive inflation.  When Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht and his family left Germany for Denmark.  

The Brecht family was chased out of many countries as the Nazi power grew, changing, as Brecht said in a poem, countries more often than he changed shoes.  Brecht wound his way to Hollywood in the early 1940’s, trying to work as a scriptwriter.  When World War II ended, and the Cold War began, Brecht fell increasingly under F.B.I. scrutiny.


Brecht has had many detractors for his failure to publicly criticize the Soviet Union, even despite his private misgivings.  Yet Parker’s book shows that Brecht’s choices were quite limited.  In 1947 he fled the U.S., barely escaping being arrested and then deported by J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I.  He then wished to quietly do his writing in Zurich, Switzerland, but Swiss authorities let him know that they would tolerate his presence only for a short time.  He considered going to the western part of occupied Berlin, but the U.S. government blocked his entry there.

Brecht made his final home in Communist East Berlin.  Here he ran the best theatre company in Europe, the Berliner Ensemble.  But here he was also in constant conflict with German Democratic Republic bureaucrats.  A number of his plays were suppressed, and never shown in his lifetime.

Poet-turned-U.S. Secretary of State Archibald MacLeish, in giving information to the U.S. government, held that he didn’t consider Brecht to be Communist.  It appears that Brecht never fully embraced Communism, despite his Communist Wife and his Marxist analysis of history.  He never joined the Party, although he certainly was a Socialist.

History has not favored Brecht’s political opinions.  The Soviet bloc collapsed in the late 1980’s, and contemporary China seems far removed from Socialism.  Yet it can be said that Brecht was a genuine seeker after truth and social improvement.

Finally, this book gives us pleasant glimpses into some of Brecht’s interests.  He was close friends with the philosopher Walter Benjamin, and went with Benjamin to meetings of the Berlin Philosophical Society.  A bit surprising are Brecht’s closely-related interests in Chinese philosophy and alternative medicine. 

Especially as a former medical student, Brecht was frustrated by the mediocre treatment mainstream doctors often gave him.  He often resorted to alternative treatment.

These unexpected insights give further dimension to an artist who remains a major force in the theatre and literature.