Bertolt Brecht - A Literary Life by Stephen Parker

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Bertolt Brecht - A Literary Life by Stephen Parker

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: The first English language biography in two decades of the playwright, poet and personality Bertolt Brecht. Told in staggeringly minute detail, this is an academically accomplished and fantastically researched look into the life and work of a fascinating man.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 704 Date: November 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
ISBN: 978-1474240000

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Drawing on letters, diaries, and unpublished material, Stephen Parker offers a rich and detailed account of Brecht's life and work, and paints a new picture of one of the twentieth century's most controversial cultural icons – a man whose plays are performed more in Germany than Shakespeare's. Examining Brecht's beginnings in Bavaria, through the First World War and onto the beginnings of a career. Then, Brecht's journey through Weimar Germany where he became a political artist, struggling with the fascists who would eventually drive him to exile in Denmark, and onto life in the US – suspected of being a Soviet agent, before the eventual return to Germany, and a later life plagued with illness. This is a fascinating book about the man, his work, and the climates in which he wrote and influenced his work, as well as providing insights into the thought processes, health, and women who filled the world of Brecht.

I first encountered Brecht when I was sixteen, playing the role of Mr Peachum in a school production of The Threepenny Opera. Rather a leftfield choice for a school play, I was excited about the large amount of grime that existed in Brecht's world – no jazz hands here, but prostitutes, murderers, and thoroughly immoral characters. I had no idea what was going on, but it was certainly different – and I then progressed to studying Brecht throughout my final two years at school. I found the plays hugely challenging, but also very, very enjoyable – and whilst I can't deny that some of the concepts went straight over my head, I try to see performances of Brecht whenever they crop up in my vicinity.

Stephen Parker's book is, to put it mildly, detailed. Even in paperback it's a weighty tome, and there are very few areas of Brecht's life or work that are left uncovered – and I've no doubt that this book will prove one of the definitive books on Brecht, and a must read for students and scholars in the area. The people Brecht surrounded himself with where such strong characters that they make for fascinating reading – from the overlooked Elisabeth Hauptmann to the talented and celebrated Helene Weigel.

Praise aside – this isn't an easy read – making no secret of the fact that this is a book designed for use in academia, rather than for a straightforward read through. As a result, the book doesn't have much of a flow to it, and the academically dry nature can be a tad much at times. As a reference book on the life and work of Bertolt Brecht though? This book is superb, and I wish it had been around when I was studying Brecht all those years ago. Thanks to the publishers for the copy.

For further reading, I would recommend a book vastly different to Bertolt Brecht – A Literary Life, in Diaries Volume 1 by Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood is a very different person to Brecht – gay, English, and thoroughly opposite in terms of writing styles, Isherwood's diaries reflect the turbulent times that Brecht was living through, but through another set of eyes – reflecting life in America during and after the Second World War.

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