Real cause of Brecht's demise revealed
11 Nov 2010
A dogged piece of detective work by a University professor has uncovered the truth about how one of the world's greatest playwrights died 54 years ago.
Rumours have long surrounded the official version of Bertolt Brecht’s death from a heart attack in 1956 in Communist East Berlin.
But Professor Stephen Parker, from The University of Manchester, has now proved that the iconic German poet, playwright and theatre director suffered as a child in the early 1900s from undiagnosed rheumatic fever, then a poorly understood condition.
Brecht was simply labelled a nervous child with an enlarged heart, but his condition caused a lifetime of suffering and eventual death.
When Professor Parker, who is writing a book on the life of the German, spotted an obscure note about Brecht’s childhood diagnosis of an enlarged heart buried in the vast 30-volume edition of Brecht's writing, he set to work in the archives.
His findings, pieced together from archival documents – including a 1951 x-ray report as well as published sources - open up a wholly new way of looking at Brecht’s life and work, not least his cultivation of a macho image as a serial womanizer who in photographs famously pitted himself against boxers.
The research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, finds that rheumatic fever attacked the boy’s heart and his motorneural system, triggering chronic heart failure and Sydenham’s chorea, manifest in erratic movements of the limbs and a facial grimace.
Professor Parker, who is based at the University's School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, said: “Brecht could easily have died in childhood. As he aged, he became susceptible to other bacterial infections such as endocarditis, infection of his diseased heart.”
Professor Parker's detective work unearthed a further document which reveals that this was compounded by repeat urological complaints deriving from an unpleasant urethral stricture. Again, this had previously gone unnoticed by Brecht’s biographers. The cardiac and urological problems conspired to cause fatal heart failure.
He said: “Brecht was a physical mess, whose chronic conditions would eventually kill him. Yet he had an extraordinary poetic and theatrical talent, which enabled him to transform his wretched physical weakness into a peerless strength.
"Drawing together documents from the archives and published sources, we can now be sure that virtually all his life he suffered from an organic condition, which proved fatal as heart failure.
"What appears astounding today is that Brecht’s condition was never properly diagnosed. This might explain certain anxieties: fearing he would be buried alive, he ordered that his main artery should be severed after his death”.
"I never believed his problems were merely the result of neurosis - as some have argued - it's just that no-one had ever taken the trouble to investigate his medical history."
He added: "Brecht’s symptoms are consistent with rheumatic fever.
“A sore throat, followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, which were more than just ‘nerves’. His brother described his appearance as strange, uncanny and threatening. The chorea re-surfaced at times of stress in adult years.
"During the early twentieth century, there was no firmly established diagnosis of rheumatic fever - but that changed in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a very common disease which often went undiagnosed, but with antibiotics it has now nearly died out in the developed world.
"These findings do not detract from the greatness of Brecht's work, far from it. We now know more about the man and that is surely an important step forward."
Notes for editors
Professor Stephen Parker is available for interview
Images are available
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Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
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