Stefan Brecht: Poet, philosopher and theatre historian who struggled to escape his father's shadow
Friday 22 May 2009
In international literary and theatrical circles, not merely in German ones, the weight of the Brecht surname is considerable. As the son of the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the actress Helene Weigel, Stefan Brecht knew a few things about bearing the burden of that name. In many ways, his life ran counter to that of his often absentee father's, yet their lives had parallels, with shared interests in creative writing and the theatre.
In late 1922, the 24-year-old playwright Bertolt Brecht wed the Austrian actress and singer Marianne Zoff. Their daughter, Hanne Marianne Brecht, was born the following March. The marriage was not to last, however, because the year after his daughter's birth, Brecht met the actress Helene Weigel in Berlin. Their son, Stefan, was born there in March 1924. Brecht eventually extricated himself from his first marriage and wed Weigel in 1929. In 1930, Stefan's sister, Barbara, came along.
As a Marxist and an agitating thorn in the side of the far right, Brecht's position in Germany was untenable by 1933. Earlier that year the police had broken up a performance of one of his plays in Erfurt. The signals were plain. Therefore, on 26 February 1933, the day before the infamous Reichstag fire, Brecht, Weigel, their children and several friends fled to Prague, before the family settled in Svendborg on the Danish coast.
Brecht's productivity during the succeeding years speaks volumes for his drive; his plays, by this point, had been staged internationally. He nevertheless remembered his son, as the 1934 "Kleine Lieder für Steff" (Little Songs for Steff) attested. In the summer of 1941, after much travelling, the Brechts finally arrived in California and settled in Santa Monica. Stefan's parents' marriage would always remain fraught; bourgeois conformity was not for the playwright.
The US was the place where Stefan Brecht put down his roots. In 1943 his older half-brother, Frank Banholzer (by Bertolt's teenage sweetheart Paula Banholzer), fell on the Eastern Front. As the only surviving son, Stefan was excused overseas duty after joining the US Army in 1944.
Unlike his mother and father, Stefan chose not to return to Germany after the War. On Weigel's death in 1971, he became joint recipient of the Brecht estate with his sister, Barbara Brecht-Schall, and his half-sister, Hanne Hiob.
Stefan obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard and went on to teach at the University of Miami. After moving back to Europe, he researched Hegel and Marx at L'École pratique des hautes études, part of the University of Paris. On his return from France, he made Manhattan his home, and pursued his interests in theatre, especially with regard to New York's burgeoning experimental and avant-garde scene, which took off during the 1960s and 1970s. His marriage to Mary McDonough, a theatrical costume designer, foundered.
Brecht's devotion in chronicling New York theatre led to a projected multi-volume work called The Original Theater of the City of New York: From the Mid-Sixties to the Mid-Seventies. Much remains unpublished, but volumes appeared covering the director Robert Wilson and the German-born Judith Malina's company, The Living Theatre, while book two was subtitled Queer Theatre.
Stefan Brecht's writings as a poet, originally self-published, were picked up and published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Pocket Poets imprint as Stefan Brecht: Poems (1977). 8th Avenue Poems (2006) arose out of a time when he was a resident at New York's myth-making Chelsea Hotel (and also gave rise to a companion book of photographs entitled 8th Avenue). Some of his poetry also appeared in German imprints.
Two children from his marriage to Mary McDonough, Sarah and Sebastian, survive him, as do Michael Böhm – a son from another relationship – and his wife Rena Gill.
Stefan Sebastian Brecht, theatre historian, philosophy professor and poet: born Berlin 3 November 1924; married Mary McDonough (marriage dissolved, one son, one daughter), Rena Gill; died New York 13 April 2009.
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