Alienating Brecht

Brecht: The Man and His Work

by Martin Esslin
Doubleday, 400 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The Collected Works of Bertolt Brecht: Volume I, Plays

edited by Ralph Manheim, edited by John Willett
Pantheon, 441 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht; drawing by David Levine

It is nice to see a new edition of Martin Esslin’s Brecht: The Man and His Work. This book has always provided the first essential of a critical biography, which is plain statements of fact about the life and work of the man concerned. When a biographer withholds such factual information or glosses it over—which he usually does because he finds it damaging to his hero or his own arguments—the result is always as untrustworthy as a lawyer’s plea or a lover’s vows, though, of course, like these it may have the charms of audacity and romance.

But when we are given the facts, the matter is different. Having stated them, the biographer has the right to reach his own conclusions about them, because he has made it possible for us to reach our conclusions too. This honest method pays a bonus in that it allows us to disagree with the author continuously while feeling grateful to him continuously: he never arouses the indignation one feels for the biographer who suppresses and distorts the facts.

Such honesty demands courage. In Brecht’s case it almost demands heroism. It is hard to imagine a sleazier, nastier, more opportunistic life than Brecht’s, but this is only my personal conclusion, drawn from Mr. Esslin’s facts. Mr. Esslin’s conclusion, which is also drawn from Mr. Esslin’s facts, is friendlier, more sympathetic, more affected by admiration, more inclined (in my opinion) to romance.

He tells us, for example, that Brecht inherited on both his paternal and maternal sides a strong peasant shrewdness, and that much of his behavior may be explained by an abundance of “canny peasant blood.” This may be perfectly true, for all I know: I have no idea what blood does to people, or what messages run in the veins of peasants, aristocrats, stockbrokers, bank robbers, clergymen, myself, and others. But when a man is born and bred in Augsburg, the son of a father who is managing director of a paper mill and of a mother who is the daughter of a bureaucrat from the Black Forest, I think we should study his environment and his upbringing first of all and not be too ready to let his blood run away with us. Similarly, I think that prenatal receptiveness is too difficult a quantity to assess and that we should not, as Brecht did, attribute to gestation in dank umbrage a coldness of character that may have developed much later:

I, Bertolt Brecht, am from the black forests.
My mother carried me, as in her womb I lay,
Into the cities. And the chill of the forests
Will stay within me to my dying day.

This was written about 1927; a poem of 1951, when Brecht had been a Communist for many years, looks back differently:

I grew up as the son
Of well-to-do people. My…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.