Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


BERTOLT BRECHT (1898-1956)

one of the most prominent figures in the 20th-century theatre, Bertolt Brecht (Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht) was born in Augsburg, Bavaria on February 10, 1898. He drifted towards the literary arts at an early age, writing poetry as a boy and even had a few poems published in 1914. He was an indifferent student, however, and was very nearly expelled from Augsburg Grammar School for taking a dismissive, anti-patriotic tone when given an assignment to write an essay with the title "It is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one's country."

In 1917 Brecht enrolled as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he would attend Arthur Kutscher's theatre seminar. Although Kutscher had a reputation as something of a theatrical guru, Brecht was unimpressed. He went so far as to harshly criticize one of the instructor's favorite plays, Hanns Johst's The Lonely One, a biographical drama about the life of nineteenth century dramatist C.D. Grabbe. The impetuous young Brecht suggested that he himself could write a better play on the same subject. The result was Brecht's first play, Baal, an effort that Kutscher considered vile and nauseating.

In 1918, Brecht's studies were temporarily interrupted when he was conscripted and had to serve as a medical orderly in World War I. During this period, he wrote his second play, Drums in the Night, which tells the story of a soldier who returns home from the war to find his fiancée engaged to a war profiteer. This was the first of Brecht's plays to be performed, and his theatrical theories had, apparently, already begun to take shape, for he filled the auditorium with banners instructing the audience not to become too emotionally involved in the proceedings. Drums in the Night, which premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele in 1922, drew rave reviews from Herbert Ihering, and even earned Brecht the Kleist Prize, Germany's highest award for dramatic writing. Thus Brecht, from the very beginning, found himself in the spotlight. That same year, the promising young dramatist married the opera singer and actress Marianne Zoff. Their daughter, Hanne Hiob, born in 1923, would become a famous German actress.

The following year (1923) saw a production of Baal, the play Brecht had written for Arthur Kutscher's theatre seminar. John Fuegi paints a picture of Brecht's mindset during this early production: "Typical of Brecht's working method in Leipzig, and indeed of what was to become a lifetime practice, were his individual sessions with actors outside the formal rehearsal period and his disregard for the original text of the play. Each day the text would be viewed afresh as Brecht the director denounced (half in jest but half seriously) Brecht the playwright. "How could anybody write such shit?" he would ask rhetorically, and would scribble new lines, new scenes, new acts and insist these be learned immediately. So changing would the chameleon be, that Brecht the theorist would openly fight with Brecht the director, Brecht the poet, Brecht the playwright and Brecht the blatant womanizer. No one could predict which Brecht would predominate at any given moment. But somehow, out of the cacophony of the Brechts arguing with one another would come a production that worked as a unified artistic whole as each contributed a valuable piece to the final mosaic" (Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, According to Plan). He goes on to describe the overall atmosphere of the production, saying "At the first run through of Baal (and this would be the case in virtually all subsequent Brecht productions) chaos reigned. Totally swept up by the brutal Bohemian atmosphere of the play, the cast behaved as if they all were drunk. Many in fact were drunk and liquor bottles piled up in every corner backstage."

In 1924, after receiving productions of The Jungle of Cities at Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater and Edward II at the Prussian State Theatre, Brecht moved to Berlin, a move he deemed necessary to continue his dramatic career. During the next few years, Brecht produced a string of well-received plays, the most popular of which was probably The Threepenny Opera, which he adapted from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera along with composer Kurt Weill. In fact, The Threepenny Opera would go on to become the biggest theatrical hit in Berlin during the 1920s and helped lead the way in a worldwide resurgence of the popularities of musicals in general. (It would also do much to fatten the playwright's checkbook!) Brecht also published his first book of poems, Hauspostille (Domestic Breviary), which won a literary prize. However, even as his literary fame was soaring, Brecht found his interests shifting towards politics. In 1927, he had begun to study Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and by 1929 he had embraced Communism. His solidifying political beliefs would soon become evident in his plays as well. Another Brecht/Weill collaboration, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, caused an uproar when it premiered in Leipzig in 1930 with Nazis protesting in the audience.

In 1929, Brecht married Helene Weigel (he had divorced Marianne Zoff in 1927) who had already borne him a son, Stefan. The new couple also had a daughter, Barbara, who was born shortly after the wedding and who, like Brecht's other daughter, would go on to become an actress (she would also inherit the copyrights to all of Brecht's literary work). During this period, he also formed an influential writing collective which aspired to create a new theatre for participants rather than for passive audiences. In 1932 he worked on a script for a semi-documentary feature-length film about the suffering caused by the then-rampant mass unemployment that was plaguing Germany. This film, Kuhle Wampe was effective in its subversive humor and still provides a vivid insight into the final years of the Weimar Republic.

In February 1933, however, Bertolt Brecht's career was suddenly and violently interrupted as the Nazis came to power in Germany. The night after the Reichstag (German parliament building) was burned down, Brecht wisely fled with his family to Prague. His books and plays were soon banned in Germany and those who dared stage his plays found their productions unpleasantly interrupted by the police.

The exiled dramatist bounced around from Prague to Vienna to Zurich to the island of Fyn to Finland, where he lived for a while in Villa Marlebäck as a guest of the Finnish author Hella Wuolijoki. There Brecht and Wuolijoki wrote the play Mr Puntila and his Man Matti (1940). During this period of exile, while Brecht awaited a pending visa to the United States, he also completed the plays Mother Courage and her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1941), and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Uri (1941).

In May of 1941, Brecht finally received his U.S. visa and relocated to Santa Monica, California, where he attempted to become a Hollywood screenwriter, but his unusual concepts were mostly dismissed by Hollywood producers who couldn't seem to comprehend his artistic visions (or, as a result, take him seriously). His only comparitively successful Hollywood film was Hangmen Also Die (1943), an apocryphal version of the assassination of Nazi leader and "Hangman" Reinhard Heydrich, who died from the bullets of unidentified resistance fighters. The money Brecht received from this film allowed him to write The Visions of Simone Marchand, Schwyk in the Second World War and his adaptation of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

Unfortunately, Brecht's stay in America would not be as successful or as lengthy as he might have hoped. In 1947, during the years of the "red scare," the House Un-American Activities Committee called the playwright to account for his communist activities. Originally, Brecht was one of several witnesses who had refused to testify about their political affiliations. But on October 30, 1947, he appeared before the committee, wearing overalls, smoking a cigar, cracking jokes, and making constant references to the translators who transformed his German statements into English ones he could not comprehend. Although he outwitted his investigators with half-truths and skilful innuendo, Brecht feared the irrational political climate, and shortly after his testimony took a plane to Switzerland, not even waiting to see the opening of his play Galileo in New York.

On October 22, 1948, after 15 years of exile, Bertolt Brecht returned to Germany, settling in East Berlin where he was welcomed by the Communist cultural establishment and immediately given facilities to direct Mother Courage at the Deutsches Theater. The following year he founded his own company, the Berliner Ensemble, and in 1954 he was rewarded with his own theatre--the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Brecht quickly discovered, however, that the German Democratic Republic was not quite his ideal brand of Communism, and he was often at odds with his East German hosts. He did not care to keep up appearances, and because of his scruffy, unshaven appearance, East German security guards once excluded him from a Berlin reception being held in his own honor.

Brecht wrote very few plays in his last years in Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works, although he did make some attempts at a play following the careers of Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and he was said to be contemplating a play in response to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the time of his death. In addition, he wrote some of his most famous poems during these last years, including the "Buckower Elegies." In 1955, Brecht received the Stalin Peace Prize. The following year, he contracted a lung inflammation and died of a coronary thrombosis (heart attack) on August 14, 1956.

As James K. Lyon points out in Brecht Unbound, "Brecht appears to have been someone whose death did more to advance his career than any single act of his life. Almost from the moment of his funeral, officials in East Germany began a process that rapidly transformed him from a troublemaker into an almost saintly literary classic, while West German intellectuals, theater people, and publishers who discovered and promoted his works quickly laid the foundation for a 'Brecht industry' that still flourishes today. In the process, and despite a propensity for causing trouble long after his death, Brecht became, depending on how one views it, one of the most dominant influences on, or obstacles to, the development of German theater and literature in both Germanys for the next two-and-a-half decades."

In the poem entitled "Poor Bertolt Brecht", Tikva Levi writes:

Poor Bertolt Brecht came from the black forest
a poet of the forest that chilled him to the very bone

In his early plays, Brecht experimented with dada and expressionism, but in his later work, he developed a style more suited his own unique vision. He detested the "Aristotelian" drama and its attempts to lure the spectator into a kind of trance-like state, a total identification with the hero to the point of complete self-oblivion, resulting in feelings of terror and pity and, ultimately, an emotional catharsis. He didn't want his audience to feel emotions--he wanted them to think--and towards this end, he determined to destroy the theatrical illusion, and, thus, that dull trance-like state he so despised. He envisioned the theater as more of a debate hall than a place of illusions.

The result of Brecht's research was a technique known as "verfremdungseffekt" or the "alienation effect". It was designed to encourage the audience to retain their critical detachment. His theories resulted in a number of "epic" dramas, among them Mother Courage and Her Children which tells the story of a travelling merchant who earns her living by following the Swedish and Imperial armies with her covered wagon and selling them supplies: clothing, food, brandy, etc... As the war grows heated, Mother Courage finds that this profession has put her and her children in danger, but the old woman doggedly refuses to give up her wagon. Mother Courage and Her Children was both a triumph and a failure for Brecht. Although the play was a great success, he never managed to achieve in his audience the unemotional, analytical response he desired. Audiences never fail to be moved by the plight of the stubborn old woman.

Explaining his technique in A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht says, "In order to produce A-effects [alienation effects] the actor has to discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself. His muscles must remain loose, for a turn of the head, e.g. with tautened neck muscles, will 'magically' lead the spectators' eyes and even their heads to turn with it, and this can only detract from any speculation or reaction which the gesture may bring about. His way of speaking has to be free from parsonical sing-song and from all those cadences which lull the spectator so that the sense gets lost. Even if he plays a man possessed he must not seem to be possessed himself, for how is the spectator to discover what possessed him if he does?... His feelings must not at bottom be those of the character, so that the audience's may not at bottom be those of the character either. The audience must have complete freedom."

Renate Rechtien points out that it was not just his theatrical theories that Brecht was concerned with. He was equally political. "Brecht was always at odds with the prevailing official affirmative notion of culture," She says, "and continuously sought to challenge, undermine and transform it. Forged as a means of transforming society, art ... was understood by Brecht to be more than simply a superstructural affirmation of reality. Brecht defined its role as active and critical appropriation of reality, with the artist confronting, exposing and acting upon real societal contradictions with a view to bringing about social change" (Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays) And it is true that, in his resistance against the Nazi and Fascist movements, Brecht wrote his most famous plays: Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, Mr. Puntila and has man Matti, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Sezuan, and many others. Astrid Herhoffer agrees that "Brecht commits himself in his work to the cause of the humiliated and the offended, and it is in this political commitment that lies the strength of his literary work" (Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays).

Bertolt Brecht's theories and personality were so dominating in his time, that the term "Brechtian" has come to be used by drama critics in regards to anything reminiscent of Brecht's particular style and approach to theatre.

Brecht's other plays include (in order of production):

  • Drums in the Night (1922)
  • Baal (1923)
  • In the Jungle of the Cities (1923)
  • Edward II (1924)
  • The Elephant Calf (1925)
  • Man Equals Man (1926)
  • The Threepenny Opera (1928)
  • Happy End (1929)
  • Lindbergh's Flight (1929)
  • He Who Says Yes (1929)
  • Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930)
  • He Who Says No (1930)
  • The Measures Taken (1930)
  • The Mother (1932)
  • The Seven Deadly Sins (1933)
  • The Roundheads and the Peakheads (1936)
  • The Exception and the Rule (1936)
  • Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1938)
  • Señora Carrara's Rifles (1937)
  • The Trial of Lucullus (1939)
  • Mother Courage and Her Children (1941)
  • Mr Puntila and His Man Matti (1941)
  • Life of Galileo (1943)
  • The Good Person of Sezuan (1943)
  • Schweik in the Second World War (1944)
  • The Visions of Simone Machard (1944)
  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945)
  • The Days of the Commune (1949)
  • The Tutor (1950)
  • The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1958)
  • Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1959)


BERTOLT BRECHT RESOURCES

Back to 20th Century Theatre