BERTOLT BRECHT: A LITERARY LIFE
When I was growing up a decade or two before the Berlin Wall fell, it was fashionable - in fact, doctrinal - to say that Bertolt Brecht was the greatest dramatist of the 20th century. Here was the great left-wing playwright - resident for the 10 years after the war in grim old East Berlin - who was nonetheless the great iconoclast and innovator of the modern theatre, the man who had articulated the theory of the alienation effect, the playwright who not only talked about epic theatre but in plays like Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Galileo actually produced a variety of theatre that evoked the circus tents and wide open spaces of history.
A fascinating aspect of Brecht is that although he contributed to the arid avant-gardism of the Berliner Ensemble, he was a dazzling exponent of more conventional theatre. From his Weimar period to the end of his days he understood the weird affinity between populist theatre and a theatre that cuts a caper and turns everything on its head.
Stephen Parker, the sort of biographer who's very good if you are a graduate student, tells us how much Brecht hated expression at the time he was writing the hideously expressionistic Baal, and includes Karl Kraus saying to the Brechts of the Nazis, ''The rats are boarding the sinking ship.''
Of course Brecht, like Shakespeare, was a practical dramatic genius riven with contradictions. There's some fascinating correspondence between Einstein and Brecht at the time of Brecht's draft of Galileo in Denmark.
It's good to get some detail about the famous relationship between Brecht and Charles Laughton, his first Galileo, to whom he wrote a poem.
But there's too much, too solemnly enunciated, about how he sneered at Thomas Mann and resented Christopher Isherwood for offering to lend him money, as well as lots of Communist claptrap.
It's not hard to see how the wily, tough-to-the-point-of-ruthlessness Brecht became a Communist. He said the Nazis proletarianised him, "Not only have they robbed me of my house, my fish pond and my car but they've also stolen my stage and my audience."
He was a staggering genius. If he had embraced the far right, as he embraced the far left, we would revile him now. But we shouldn't be misled into thinking he was a less than great playwright because, in his politics, he chose the lesser of two evils.