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Discovering Brecht's Forgotten Manuscripts

Dunja Welke (tt)August 15, 2006

It happens rarely that 50 years after the death of a writer, new and important manuscripts are discovered. But this is exactly what happened in the case of the greatest dramatist of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht's letter to Helene Weigel, part of the Victor N. Cohen collectionImage: Akademie der Künste

Ahead of 50th anniversary of Brecht's death, the Academy of the Arts in Berlin and its Brecht Archive announced that Brecht's manuscripts, which were discovered in Switzerland several years ago, have been added to the archive's collection. This is the largest expansion of the internationally renowned archive since its founding in 1956. The archive is used by approximately 240 researchers every year.

Previously, it was believed that no new materials could be added to the archive of the most performed German dramatist in the world. But new Brecht materials include Brecht's and other author's manuscripts, his notebooks, contracts, documents, passports, check books, bills and letters that he wrote or received.

All of these, Brecht left with his friend, union leader and graphic artist, Victor. N. Cohen in 1949 in Goldbach on the Lake of Zurich. Brecht, 51 at the time, was living in Switzerland -- after years of exile in Scandinavia and the United States -- and preparing for his return to East Berlin. Cohen was a left-inclined Social Democrat who wrote articles for union newspapers and rand Social Democratic campaigns and referendums. He died in 1975.

But it was not until the late 1990s that Cohen's sons actually became aware of the valuable collection.

It's all Brecht!

Brechts finnischer Paß
Brecht's Finnish passportImage: Akademie der Künste

"They had to empty a warehouse, because their contract had expired," said Erdmut Wizisla of the Brecht Archive. "And Victor's stuff was there. When they opened it, they thought: Good god! This is all Brecht! And then they went on to the next box and found again -- all Brecht."

The negotiations with the owners lasted eight years. They were completed successfully because the Deutsche Klassenlotterie Foundation, the German Research Foundation and the Academy of the Arts agreed to jointly finance the purchase: 2,500 sheets of paper, which correspond to one fifth of Brecht's overall archival materials, and a typewriter now make up the Victor N. Cohen collection at the Brecht Archive.

Brecht's wife Helena Weigel, who meticulously collected Brecht's unpublished writings after his death, seems to have completely forgotten about the materials which were left in Switzerland. Brecht himself obviously didn't miss these materials after he returned to Germany. They document above all the time he spent in Switzerland, but also shed some light on his exile years in the United States and, to a lesser extent, his earlier periods.

New and spectacular

Dichter, Dramatiker und Schriftsteller Bertolt Brecht vor dem Untersuchungsausscuss in Amerika
Brecht left the US in 1947 after testifying before the Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington, DCImage: AP

The Swiss materials include two previously unknown drafts of the play "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," several short stories, an idea for a novel as well as political and theatrical essays. Among them is a prose text "My Unforgettable Character," in which Brecht, similar to what he did in the play the "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," makes a caricature out of Hitler.

The manuscripts also show that, while in the States, Brecht was involved with the Council for a Democratic Germany. This association of German emigrants was founded in 1944 in response to the National Committee Free Germany, which was based in the Soviet Union. Brecht composed opinions and letters, in which he urged prominent Germans -- such as writer Alfred Döblin -- to become engaged. The council was a temporary coalition which already during the war supported the idea of a unified Germany with the possibility of a sovereign inner and foreign policy.

Theater plans

Bertolt Brecht Grab Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Berlin
Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel are buried in BerlinImage: AP

The materials also show the enthusiasm with which Brecht was preparing for his work in the theater in post-war Germany. He corresponded with his friends and colleagues in Germany, directors, actors and German as well as Russian cultural officials. He wanted to adapt all his plays in view of the end of the war. "Arturo Ui" was the only play that Brecht believed -- because of its genre as a farce -- as fitting for the stage confrontation with the Nazi rule.

Despite the fact that Brecht's exile years were difficult and marked by lack of success, the 350 letters in the collection paint a picture of a self-confident and self-assertive poet.

Publications based on the new materials have already been announced. In addition to Brecht's letters to Helena Weigel from 1923 to 1956, German publishing house Suhrkamp is also planning to publish a 150-page-long appendix to Werner Hecht's 1997 chronicle, which documented Brecht's life from day to day.

Hecht sees a number of exciting challenges for Brecht researchers.

"It is, of course, peculiar that Brecht was caught in the interpretation struggle between the East and the West," Hecht said. "Now is the time to paint an objective picture of Brecht. That is why discoveries of this kind are of such great value."