Bertolt Brecht: A Life
The Leverhulme Trust
Amount of Award
Brecht Archive, Berlin and Brecht Research Centre, Augsburg
Summary of project
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is one of those rare iconic figures whose relentlessly energetic renewal of art, achieved through the extraordinary vitality of his iconoclastic challenge to the old, has left its indelible mark on modern theatre and poetry. In the decades after his death, Brecht's achievements came to be viewed alongside those of other modern icons such as Picasso in painting and Wagner in music. Their works and personalities have proved a source of enduring fascination and controversy, provoking responses that range from adulation to vilification. The fiercely competitive world of the arts market demands that their status should be subjected to regular scrutiny. No other iconic artist has attracted such extremes of adulation and vilification as Brecht. The enfant terrible of the Weimar Republic, he courted controversy with his aggressive attacks upon the 'bourgeois' institution of the theatre. He spent the Nazi years in exile as a bitter and outspoken enemy of the regime. In US exile he was viewed as an apologist of Stalin, in Moscow as a Trotskyist. In the Cold War, there was outrage in the Federal Republic of Germany when he opted for the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Brecht was boycotted in the Federal Republic, while East Berlin became the platform for Brecht's transformative impact on poetry and world theatre with the dazzling productions of the Berliner Ensemble.
Latterly, Brecht's reputation has been challenged on account of his exploitation of female collaborators and as a Marxist who opted for the failed GDR in the Cold War. These challenges to his reputation are the starting-point for my project, which will scrutinise Brecht's life and art afresh after the Cold War. In recent years, a new material base for research has been created in Germany with the 30-volume edition of Brecht's works, the two-volume chronicle of his life and the five-volume Brecht handbook. I aim to distil this and other materials into a new Life, which will strip away layers of ideological preconceptions, myths and legends in order to recover Brecht the artist and to re-evaluate his political positions. Particular attention will be paid to the pre-Marxist Brecht during his early years in Augsburg and Munich, when he revered the playwright and poet-performer Frank Wedekind and worked with the comic actor and writer Karl Valentin. These relationships and Brecht's early works reveal a vitalist, even Nietzschean, artist. Recovery of that figure will be a key concern. By working against the grain of the 'inevitability' of his conversion to Dialectical Materialism, my study will engender a fresh emphasis upon such seminal artistic experiences. This emphasis yields a first working hypothesis to be tested in my study, namely that throughout Brecht's life the vitalist artist co-existed, chameleon-like, with the practitioner of the Marxist dialectic. This fresh emphasis will inform my understanding of the dynamic of Brecht's artistic trajectory. My aim, then, is to produce a biography in English that is at once up-to-date materially and conceptually, discriminating in artistic and political judgements, and apt to recover Brecht's beguiling personality.
Publications and other outputs
Preliminary studies dealing with Brecht's medical history are being prepared for publication.They will be followed by the publication of the literary biography in c 2013.