What fascinated me most about this novel was its portrayal of Brecht as a philanderer and arch manipulator - a revolutionary for sure but hardly "loveable". It turns out that the great man was perhaps not quite the genius we have been led to believe he was. Feinstein suggests that Brecht's women supplied him with much of the work for which they received no credit.
The heroine of the story is Frieda Bloom, a Cabernet singer who shared the stage with the famous, Lotte Lenya, the wife of Brecht's key collaborator, Kurt Weill. Freida composes some of the songs incorporated into the plays, performs in others and works around the clock typing up and "improving" Brecht's manuscripts. In this she reminded me of Sophie Tolstoy - though I'm unsure whether Freida is a fictional character or was an actual person.
The other key women characters certainly were real and include Elizabeth Hauptmann, Helene Wiegel and Ruth Berlau.
A bit of research seems to support Feinstein's presentation of these talented women as being at least key creative collaborators, if not the actual authors of some of the works or roles in his plays.
She is purported to have composed the majority of the text as well as provided a German translation of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" on which the musical play is based, as working material for Brecht and Kurt Weill. She also wrote at least half of the Mahagonny-Songspiel, although she is uncredited.
Weigel became the artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble after Brecht's death in 1956. She was most noted for creating several Brecht roles, including: Pelagea Vlassova, "The Mother" of Brecht's eponymous play in 1932; "Antigone" in Brecht's version of the Greek tragedy; the title role in his civil war play, "Señora Carrar's Rifles" as well as the iconic "Mother Courage."
Became Brecht's lover in 1936, divorced her husband and threw herself into the collaboration with him acting as a secretary as well as writing, translating, photographing and directing. With Brecht she published the short story collection "Jedes Tier kann es." In 1940, she followed the Brecht clan to Sweden, Finland, the USSR and finally to the United States, where a rupture with Brecht took place in 1944. After the war, she followed the Brechts to Berlin but was blacklisted from the Berliner Ensemble by Weigel after Brecht's death in 1956. She died in the Charité hospital after setting her bed alight with a cigarette.
The novel itself moves rather clumsily from the collapse of the Weimar, through to the years of terror in Moscow, on to America at the time of the McCarthy trials and back to Berlin. In the last section Brecht is feted but shown to be increasingly disillusioned by the new worker's state in which he has become a hero.
For those who love Brecht's poetry (as I do)- and the fabulous songs they became under Kurt Weill - the book provides good background to "those dark times" which Team Brecht famously wrote about.
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