Tuesday 24 October 2017

Obituary: Barbara Brecht-Schall

Daughter of Bertolt Brecht zealously defended her father's theatrical legacy

LOYAL: Barbara Brecht-Schall
LOYAL: Barbara Brecht-Schall

Barbara Brecht-Schall, the daughter of the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who has died aged 84, was possibly the world's most notorious literary heiress - a scourge of directors, actors and designers who, in her opinion, did not perform her father's plays as 'Papa' would have wanted.

In the post-war period, East Berlin produced the most exciting theatre in Germany, East or West. The source of that energy was Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble, the company he founded in 1949. Idealistic, leftist young directors and actors flocked to his theatre, which remained a place of artistic vitality even after his death in 1956.

Barbara Brecht-Schall inherited her father's literary estate, with her brother and half-sister, on the death of Brecht's widow, Helene Weigel, in 1971. Helene had been a powerful theatrical force in her own right and the three siblings agreed that Barbara was the best person to assume her mantle.

Although management of the theatre company had ostensibly passed from the family, she soon began asserting her authority.

In 1976 she ousted the theatre director Ruth Berghaus, wife of Brecht's last regular musical collaborator, Paul Dessau, because, it was said, she found her style too radical.

As time went on, it was noted that Berliner Ensemble productions had tended to ossify as Barbara, like Cosima Wagner at Bayreuth, refused to allow innovation in violation of her father's supposed wishes. Even Barbara Brecht-Schall later conceded that the 1980s had seen some "terrible productions".

Although Brecht had lived in East Germany , he retained an Austrian passport and a Swiss bank account. Before and after his death, his family had privileges shared by few fellow citizens and lived life at the heart of East Berlin's socialist bourgeoisie.

She was in New York when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. After German reunification, the Berliner Ensemble was privatised, but Barbara Brecht-Schall retained control of the performing rights to Brecht's plays and continued to involve herself to a degree that one collaborator described as "horrific".

In 1996 her influence caused the resignation of the Berliner Ensemble's co-director, Martin Wuttke.

In Marcel Ophuls's documentary about the reunification of Germany, November Days (1992), Barbara Brecht-Schall claimed that she had remained non-political throughout the communist era, a statement which Ophuls punctuated with a clip showing her in animated conversation with Erich Honecker, head of the East German Communist Party from 1971 until his forced resignation in 1989.

Barbara Marie Brecht was born in Berlin on October 28m 1930 to Brecht and his second wife Helene Weigel. Brecht himself was not Jewish, but Helene was, and when Hitler came to power in 1933 the family fled to America, where Brecht tried, with little success, to find work as a Hollywood screenwriter. Despite his well-chronicled philandering, Barbara Brecht-Schall recalled "a very good Papa… charming and very funny and immensely intelligent".

The Brechts returned to Berlin after the war, settling in the east of the city where Brecht established his theatre as a flagship for the new communist state of East Germany. In 1951 Barbara joined the company as an actress and in 1961 she married Ekkehard Schall, the theatre's leading actor.

Barbara Brecht-Schall's husband died in 2005. Their two daughters survive her. She died on August 31.

© Telegraph


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