November 12, 2010 / 5:49 PM / 8 years ago

Child illness behind Bertolt Brecht's sudden death

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A professor at Manchester University in Britain says he has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht.

Professor Stephen Parker, an expert on modern German literature, said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

Researching for a biography on Brecht, best known for works such as “Mother Courage” and “The Threepenny Opera,” Parker came across an obscure note about the author’s childhood diagnosis with an enlarged heart, one symptom of rheumatic fever.

He decided to look into the playwright’s medical history, uncovering archival sources including an x-ray report from 1951.

At the time of Brecht’s childhood, rheumatic fever was common, but often left undiagnosed.

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis that affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections that plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

In a potentially sinister twist, the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors.

Parker said it may have been held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

The revelations about Brecht’s condition and his death shed new light on his life, according to Parker.

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

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