Peter Hacks

Dramatist influenced by Brecht
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The Independent Online

Peter Hacks, playwright: born Breslau, Germany 21 March 1928; married Karin Gregorek; died Berlin 28 August 2003.

With 50 plays to his name, Peter Hacks was one of the best-known contemporary German dramatists. He was a disciple of Bertolt Brecht and a Marxist who sought accommodation with the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) of East Germany, and his works were admired in the West as well as the East.

Hacks was born, in 1928, in Breslau, the son of a lawyer. He was part of the forced German evacuation of Silesia at the end of the Second World War, when the area was taken over by the Poles. He completed his grammar-school education in Wuppertal, West Germany, going on to university in Munich, where he studied sociology, philosophy, German and theatre.

In 1951 he gained his doctorate and moved to the left politically. He did not, however, join the Communist Party. His shift to the left is partly explained by his feeling of guilt because of Nazi crimes. He found work in the theatre and for radio, and in 1954, his first play, Eröffnung des indischen Zeitalters ("Opening of the Indian Era"), about Columbus, was performed in Munich. It earned him an award and a job offer from Brecht, whose theatre, Berliner Ensemble, was in East Berlin.

Hacks decided to take up the offer and left the Western "rotten apple" for the (Eastern) German Democratic Republic (GDR), in 1955. Apart from his enthusiasm for Brecht, it appeared that West Germany was veering to the right. The Communist Party was about to be banned. On the other hand, there was a political thaw in the Soviet bloc after the nightmare years of Stalin.

Hacks wanted to write serious comedies and didactic plays using Brecht's techniques. His Columbus play was followed by Die Schlacht bei Lobositz ("The Battle of Lobositz", 1956), set against the background of the Austro-Prussian battle of 1756. In 1957, Der Müller von Sanssouci ("The Miller of Sanssouci"), another historical play, was ready.

Although Hacks always regarded himself as a Marxist writer, the SED took a different view. He was one of a number of writers attacked in December 1965 for their "sceptical", "anarchistic", "nihilistic", "liberal" and even "pornographic" tendencies. In 1963, Hacks's Die Sorgen und die Macht ("The Anxieties and the Power") was banned from the Deutsches Theater, in East Berlin, and the director lost his job. The play was about the attempts of a GDR brick factory to reach its production targets by manufacturing poor quality goods. The same fate befell Moritz Tassow (1965), about post-war land reform, with the left-radical swineherd of the title as its main character.

Both were comedies, both had happy endings, but this was not enough to pacify SED critics. Hacks took the hint and returned to historical dramas and mythology with comedies such as Die schöne Helena ("The Beautiful Helen", 1964), Amphitryon (1968), which got its first performance in West Germany, Omphale (1970), which explores a Hercules legend to dissect male and female social roles, and Adam und Eva (1973), an interpretation of Adam's fall from grace. His best-known work was Ein Gespräch im Haus Stein über den abwesenden Herrn von Goethe ("A Conversation in the Stein Home about the Absent Mr Goethe", 1976), a hilarious, satirical monodrama.

Some would say that Hacks's own fall from grace came in 1976, when he joined other SED loyalists in defending the expulsion of their colleague Wolf Biermann from the GDR. More than 80 well-known GDR writers had condemned Biermann's expulsion. Despite Hacks's loyalty, he was the subject of secret police interest at various times in his career. His fellow writer Erwin Strittmatter, an informer, gave negative reports on him in the early 1960s. However, another informer reported, in 1980, that Hacks had supported the Soviet action against the scientist Andrei Sakharov, who had urged a boycott of the Moscow Olympics of that year. Hacks attacked Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the great German writer and peace activist Heinrich Böll.

Hacks was also known for his children's books, essays and his reworking of foreign writers. He was the recipient of several prizes in both East and West, including the prize for children's literature of the Frankfurt book fair in 1998.

Hacks was married to the actress Karin Gregorek, who had performed in his plays.

David Childs