Berlin plunks down $7 million to buy Brecht's literary archives

December 15, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht never had any modest doubts about the value of his work, but even he might have been surprised at the $7 million or so being paid for his literary archives.

The city of Berlin has agreed to pay Brecht's heirs a reported 11 million marks, about $7 million at today's rates, for the collection of manuscripts, correspondence, notebooks and diaries.

Like Baltimore's H. L. Mencken, Brecht, the author of the modern stage classics "The Threepenny Opera," "Mother Courage" and "Galileo," seemed to save every scrap of paper he ever wrote a word on.

And he wrote a lot of words -- at least 40 stage plays or adaptations, several movies, hundreds of poems and one novel, not to mention journals, letters, political essays, criticism and a virtual encyclopedia of the theory and practice of theater.

"He was finding the words, the forms and the images for the disastrous history of Germany between the first World War and the aftermath of Stalin's death," said the editors of the English version of Brecht's collected poems.

"He was writing the tragedy of our time."

For its 11 million marks, Berlin gets about 60,000 pages of the manuscripts of plays, prose, poetry, essays, notebooks and journals; 11,000 letters to and from Brecht, more than 400 boxes of films and 20,000 photographs.

The contract made with Brecht's daughter, Barbara Brecht-Schall, as representative of the heirs, also includes 3,500 volumes from his working library, 150 books he owned as a youth in Augsburg, his birthplace, and about 100 texts he took with him into exile in Sweden.

A communist sympathizer all his life, but apparently never a party member, Brecht was an exile from Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1947. He lived in Sweden, Finland and the United States.

He worked on at least one Hollywood film, "Hangmen Also Die," and produced an American version of "Galileo" in Los Angeles with Charles Laughton in the title role as the 17th-century Italian astronomer proscribed by the Inquisition.

He testified ambiguously and some say slyly satirically before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, then returned to communist East Germany. He lived somewhat uneasily in the increasingly repressive East Germany until his death in 1956.

With his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, Ms. Brecht-Schall's mother, he organized the renowned Berliner Ensemble, which still produces his plays in Berlin.

Ms. Brecht-Schall proved to be a talented capitalist bargainer in the "long negotiations."

In announcing the acquisition, the city neglected to report the cost: The worth is in its revelations of the source of Brecht's works, a press release said. Two reliable Berlin newspapers reported the price tag.

Werner Hecht, an essayist for Der Tagespiegel, the sober morning paper, said the 11 million marks were only a fraction of the value of the archive.

A single sheet with a handwritten poem had brought 12,000 marks, about $7,600, at auction, Mr. Hecht said. He essentially agreed with the city: The value is in the use.

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