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|Subject: John Willett, Scholar and Translator of Brecht|
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Date Posted: August 30, 2002 6:08:45 EDT
John Willett, an English author, translator and cultural historian and one of the world's leading authorities on Bertolt Brecht, died on Tuesday in London, where he lived. He was 85.
Along with Ralph Manheim, Martin Esslin and Eric Bentley, Mr. Willett was one of the people primarily responsible for bringing Brecht to the attention of the English-speaking world and for assuring his position as a seminal theatrical figure of the 20th century.
He and Mr. Manheim edited, translated (with the help of other translators) and annotated a series of volumes of Brecht's plays, prose and poetry, in itself a monumental literary feat. The Willett-Manheim volumes are standard texts in the performance and study of his work.
"Bertolt Brecht Poems, 1913-1956," edited by Mr. Willett and Mr. Manheim (with the cooperation of Erich Fried), is a collection of 500 poems, most of them unpublished during the writer's lifetime. In his review in The New York Times Book Review in 1980, Stephen Spender said that the book "shows convincingly" that Brecht's oeuvre "is one of the major poetic achievements of the present century." He added, "The editing, with excellent notes, excerpts from Brecht's own views about poetry and Mr. Willett's concise introduction, is exemplary."
In his books and essays, Mr. Willett often found himself reevaluating Brecht. In his introduction to "Bertolt Brecht Diaries, 1920-1922," he looked back on the early Brecht when he was "unknown outside a small circle of Augsburg and Munich friends," but "already had a strong sense of his own significance." The Brecht of this period, he said, was unlike the "ruthless cynic of `The Threepenny Opera' " or the Marxist of later years. Instead he was "ebullient, enjoying words for their own sake, caring little for other people's feelings or interests and less still for social or humanitarian causes."
Mr. Willett was also a leader in recognizing the work of Brecht's "silent collaborators," in particular the writer Elisabeth Hauptmann, who made her own contribution to "The Threepenny Opera," among other plays.
His knowledge of Brecht came from first-hand experience as well as scholarly research. In 1956, he wrote an unsigned article about him for The Times Literary Supplement of London. That led to a meeting with Brecht and to his working with him on the visit to London that year by the Berliner Ensemble. Three years later, Mr. Willett published his first book on the playwright, "The Theater of Bertolt Brecht."
Mr. Willett was also an expert on the Weimar Republic, which he analyzed in his book "Art and Politics in the Weimar Period." In a lecture in 1991 during a Weimar festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., he vividly characterized the nature of the time as marked by "stress and passion." This atmosphere, he said, was exemplified by the painter George Grosz's statement "I felt the ground shaking beneath my feet, and the shaking was visible in my work."
After graduating from Oxford University, Mr. Willett studied music and stage design in Vienna and thought about becoming a stage designer. After service in the British Army during World War II, he worked as a journalist and eventually became the assistant to Arthur Crook, editor of The Times Literary Supplement.
Mr. Willett is survived by his wife, Anne, a son and daughter.
In his obituary of Mr. Willett in The Guardian, Richard Boston recalled their first meeting, in the mid-1960's. Mr. Boston had come to The Times Literary Supplement to be interviewed for a job. He was greeted by Mr. Crook, who, as always, was fastidiously dressed. Over by a window was a man, informally attired, whom Mr. Boston assumed was there to wash the windows.
"I was disconcerted," he said, "when the window cleaner chipped in with comments about Beckett, Sartre, Ionesco, Brassens and Jacques Tati," and, presumably, Brecht. Mr. Boston concluded, "John could have been a great cultural panjandrum had he not been disqualified by his lack of pomposity."
Mr. Willett remained unpretentious in his approach to his favorite subject. Confronted by those who were critical of Brecht's art because of his politics, he advised: "Read the poems, sing the songs, stage the plays. And treat them on their own merits."
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