(born ; 10 February 1898–14 August 1956) was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director. An influential theatre practitioner of the twentieth century, Brecht made equally significant contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production, the latter particularly through the seismic impact of the tours undertaken by the Berliner Ensemble—the post-war theatre company operated by Brecht and his wife and long-time collaborator, the actress Helene Weigel—with its internationally acclaimed productions.
From his late twenties Brecht remained a life-long committed Marxist who, in developing the combined theory and practice of his 'epic theatre', synthesized and extended the experiments of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold to explore the theatre as a forum for political ideas and the creation of a critical aesthetics of dialectical materialism. Brecht's modernist concern with drama-as-a-medium led to his refinement of the 'epic form' of the drama. This dramatic form is related to similar modernist innovations in other arts, including the strategy of divergent chapters in James Joyce's novel Ulysses, Sergei Eisenstein's evolution of a constructivist 'montage' in the cinema, and Picasso's introduction of cubist 'collage' in the visual arts.
In contrast to many other avant-garde approaches, however, Brecht had no desire to destroy art as an institution; rather, he hoped to 're-function' the theatre to a new social use. In this regard he was a vital participant in the aesthetic debates of his era—particularly over the 'high art/popular culture' dichotomy—vying with the likes of Adorno, Lukács, Bloch, and developing a close friendship with Benjamin. Brechtian theatre articulated popular themes and forms with avant-garde formal experimentation to create a modernist realism that stood in sharp contrast both to its psychological and socialist varieties. "Brecht's work is the most important and original in European drama since Ibsen and Strindberg," Raymond Williams argues, while Peter Bürger dubs him "the most important materialist writer of our time.
Collective and collaborative working methods were inherent to Brecht's approach, as Fredric Jameson (among others) stresses. Jameson describes the creator of the work not as Brecht the individual, but rather as 'Brecht': a collective subject that "certainly seemed to have a distinctive style (the one we now call 'Brechtian') but was no longer personal in the bourgeois or individualistic sense." During the course of his career, Brecht sustained many long-lasting creative relationships with other writers, composers, scenographers, directors, dramaturgs and actors; the list includes: Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau, Slatan Dudow, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau, Caspar Neher, Teo Otto, Karl von Appen, Ernst Busch, Lotte Lenya, Peter Lorre, Therese Giehse, Angelika Hurwicz, Carola Neher, and Helene Weigel herself. This is "theatre as collective experiment [...] as something radically different from theatre as expression or as experience."
There are few areas of modern theatrical culture that have not felt the impact or influence of Brecht's ideas and practices; dramatists and directors in whom one may trace a clear Brechtian legacy include: Dario Fo, Augusto Boal, Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook, Peter Weiss, Heiner Müller, Pina Bausch, Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill. In addition to the theatre, Brechtian theories and techniques have exerted considerable sway over certain strands of film theory and cinematic practice; Brecht's influence may be detected in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Lindsay Anderson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Joseph Losey, Nagisa Oshima, Ritwik Ghatak, Lars von Trier, Jan Bucquoy and Hal Hartley.
At sixteen, the first World War broke out; initially enthusiastic, Brecht soon changed his mind on seeing his classmates "swallowed by the army". On his father's recommendation, Brecht sought a loophole by registering for an additional medical course at Munich University, where he enrolled in 1917. There he studied drama with Arthur Kutscher, who inspired in the young Brecht an admiration for the iconoclastic dramatist and cabaret-star Wedekind.
From July 1916, Brecht's newspaper articles began appearing under the new name "Bert Brecht" (his first theatre criticism for the Augsburger Volkswille appeared in October 1919). Brecht was drafted into military service in the autumn of 1918, only to be posted back to Augsburg as a medical orderly in a military VD clinic; the war ended a month later.
In July 1919, Brecht and Paula Banholzer (who had begun a relationship in 1917) had a son, Frank. In 1920 Brecht's mother died.
Some time in either 1920 or 1921, Brecht took a small part in the political cabaret of the Munich comedian Karl Valentin.. Brecht's diaries for the next few years record numerous visits to see Valentin perform. Brecht compared Valentin to Chaplin, for his "virtually complete rejection of mimicry and cheap psychology" Writing in his Messingkauf Dialogues years later, Brecht identified Valentin, along with Wedekind and Büchner, as his "chief influences" at that time:
Brecht's first full-length play, Baal (written 1918), arose in response to an argument in one of Kutscher's drama seminars, initiating a trend that persisted throughout his career of creative activity that was generated by a desire to counter another work (both others' and his own, as his many adaptations and re-writes attest). "Anyone can be creative," he quipped, "it's rewriting other people that's a challenge." Brecht completed his second major play, Drums in the Night, in February 1919.
In 1922 while still living in Munich, Brecht came to the attention of an influential Berlin critic, Herbert Ihering: "At 24 the writer Bert Brecht has changed Germany's literary complexion overnight"—he enthused in his review of Brecht's first play to be produced, Drums in the Night—"[he] has given our time a new tone, a new melody, a new vision. [...] It is a language you can feel on your tongue, in your gums, your ear, your spinal column. In November it was announced that Brecht had been awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize (intended for unestablished writers and probably Germany's most significant literary award, until it was abolished in 1932) for his first three plays (Baal, Drums in the Night, and In the Jungle, although at that point only Drums had been produced). The citation for the award insisted that:
In 1923, Brecht wrote a scenario for what was to become a short slapstick film, Mysteries of a Barbershop, directed by Erich Engel and starring Karl Valentin. Despite a lack of success at the time, its experimental inventiveness and the subsequent success of many of its contributors have meant that it is now considered one of the most important films in German film history. In May of that year, Brecht's In the Jungle premiered in Munich, also directed by Engel. Opening night proved to be a "scandal"—a phenomenon that would characterize many of his later productions during the Weimar Republic—in which Nazis blew whistles and threw stink bombs at the actors on the stage.
In 1924 Brecht worked with the novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger (whom he had met in 1919) on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II that proved to be a milestone in Brecht's early theatrical and dramaturgical development. Brecht's Edward II constituted his first attempt at collaborative writing and was the first of many classic texts he was to adapt. As his first solo directorial début, he later credited it as the germ of his conception of 'epic theatre'. That September, a job as assistant dramaturg at Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater—at the time one of the leading three or four theatres in the world—brought him to Berlin.
In 1924 Brecht's marriage to Zoff began to break down (though they did not divorce until 1926). Brecht had become involved with both Elisabeth Hauptmann and Helene Weigel. Brecht and Weigel's son, Stefan, was born in October of 1924.
In his role as dramaturg, Brecht had much to stimulate him but little work of his own. Reinhardt staged Shaw's Saint Joan, Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters (with the improvisational approach of the commedia dell'arte in which the actors chatted with the prompter about their roles), and Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author in his group of Berlin theatres. A new version of Brecht's third play, now entitled Jungle: Decline of a Family, opened at the Deutsches Theater in October 1924, but was not a success.
|'In the asphalt city I'm at home. From the very start|
|'Provided with every last sacrament:|
|'With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy|
|'To the end mistrustful, lazy and content.|
|Bertolt Brecht, "Of Poor BB".|
In 1925 in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit ('new objectivity') had given its name to the new post-Expressionist movement in the German arts. With little to do at the Deutsches Theater, Brecht began to develop his Man Equals Man project, which was to become the first product of "the 'Brecht collective'—that shifting group of friends and collaborators on whom he henceforward depended. This collaborative approach to artistic production, together with aspects of Brecht's writing and style of theatrical production, mark Brecht's work from this period as part of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. The collective's work "mirrored the artistic climate of the middle 1920s," Willett and Manheim argue:
with their attitude of 'Neue Sachlichkeit' (or New Matter-of-Factness), their stressing of the collectivity and downplaying of the individual, and their new cult of Anglo-Saxon imagery and sport. Together the 'collective' would go to fights, not only absorbing their terminology and ethos (which permeates Man Equals Man) but also drawing those conclusions for the theatre as a whole which Brecht set down in his theoretical essay 'Emphasis on Sport' and tried to realise by means of the harsh lighting, the boxing-ring stage and other anti-illusionistic devices that henceforward appeared in his own productions.
In 1925, Brecht also saw two films that had a significant influence on him: Chaplin's The Gold Rush and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Brecht had compared Valentin to Chaplin, and the two of them provided models for Galy Gay in Man Equals Man. Brecht later wrote that Chaplin "would in many ways come closer to the epic than to the dramatic theatre's requirements. They met several times during Brecht's time in the United States, and discussed Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux project, which it is possible Brecht influenced.
In 1926 a series of short stories was published under Brecht's name, though Hauptmann was closely associated with writing them. Following the production of Man Equals Man in Darmstadt that year, Brecht began studying Marxism and socialism in earnest, under the supervision of Hauptmann. "When I read Marx's Capital", a note by Brecht reveals, "I understood my plays." Marx was, it continues, "the only spectator for my plays I'd ever come across.
|'For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.|
|Erwin Piscator, 1929.|
The emphasis on Reason and didacticism, the sense that the new subject matter demanded a new dramatic form, the use of songs to interrupt and comment: all these are found in his notes and essays of the 1920s, and he bolstered them by citing such Piscatorial examples as the step-by-step narrative technique of Schweik and the oil interests handled in Konjunktur ('Petroleum resists the five-act form').Brecht was struggling at the time with the question of how to dramatize the complex economic relationships of modern capitalism in his unfinished project Joe P. Fleischhacker (which Piscator's theatre announced in its programme for the 1927-28 season). It wasn't until his Saint Joan of the Stockyards (written between 1929-1931) that Brecht solved it. In 1928 he discussed with Piscator plans to stage Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Brecht's own Drums in the Night, but the productions did not materialize.
1927 also saw the first collaboration between Brecht and the young composer Kurt Weill. Together they began to develop Brecht's Mahagonny project, along thematic lines of the biblical Cities of the Plain but rendered in terms of the Neue Sachlichkeit's Amerikanismus, which had informed Brecht's previous work. They produced The Little Mahagonny for a music festival in July, as what Weill called a "stylistic exercise" in preparation for the large-scale piece. From that point on Caspar Neher became an integral part of the collaborative effort, with words, music and visuals conceived in relation to one another from the start. The model for their mutual articulation lay in Brecht's newly-formulated principle of the 'separation of the elements', which he first outlined in "The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre" (1930). The principle, a variety of montage, proposed by-passing the "great struggle for supremacy between words, music and production" as Brecht put it, by showing each as self-contained, independent works of art that adopt attitudes towards one another.
In 1930 Brecht married Weigel; their daughter Barbara Brecht was born soon after the wedding. She also became an actress and currently holds the copyrights to all of Brecht's work.
Brecht formed a writing collective which became prolific and very influential. Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Emil Burri, Ruth Berlau and others worked with Brecht and produced the multiple teaching plays, which attempted to create a new dramaturgy for participants rather than passive audiences. These addressed themselves to the massive worker arts organisation that existed in Germany and Austria in the 1920s. So did Brecht's first great play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which attempted to portray the drama in financial transactions.
This collective adapted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Brecht's songs set to music by Kurt Weill. Retitled The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) it was the biggest hit in Berlin of the 1920s and a renewing influence on the musical worldwide. One of its most famous lines underscored the hypocrisy of conventional morality imposed by the Church, working in conjunction with the established order, in the face of working-class hunger and deprivation:
The success of The Threepenny Opera was followed by the quickly thrown together Happy End. It was a personal and a commercial failure. At the time the book was purported to be by the mysterious Dorothy Lane (now known to be Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht's secretary and close collaborator). Brecht only claimed authorship of the song texts. Brecht would later use elements of Happy End as the germ for his Saint Joan of the Stockyards, a play that would never see the stage in Brecht's lifetime. Happy End's score by Weill produced many Brecht/Weill hits like "Der Bilbao-Song" and "Surabaya-Jonny".
The masterpiece of the Brecht/Weill collaborations, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), caused an uproar when it premiered in 1930 in Leipzig, with Nazis in the audience protesting. The Mahagonny opera would premier later in Berlin in 1931 as a triumphant sensation.
Brecht spent his last years in the Weimar-era Berlin (1930-1933) working with his ‘collective’ on the Lehrstücke. These were a group of plays driven by morals, music and Brecht's budding Epic Theatre. The Lehrstücke often aimed at educating workers on Socialist issues. The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme) was scored by Hanns Eisler. In addition, Brecht worked on a script for a semi-documentary feature film about the human impact of mass unemployment, Kuhle Wampe (1932), which was directed by Slatan Dudow. This striking film is notable for its subversive humour, outstanding cinematography by Günther Krampf, and Hanns Eisler's dynamic musical contribution. It still provides a vivid insight into Berlin during the last years of the Weimar Republic.
By February 1933, Brecht’s work was eclipsed by the rise of Nazi rule in Germany. (Brecht would also have his work challenged again in later life by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which believed he was under the influence of communism.)
During the war years, Brecht expressed his opposition to the National Socialist and Fascist movements in his most famous plays: Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Sezuan, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and many others.
In the years of the Cold War and "red scare", the House Un-American Activities Committee called Brecht to account for his communist allegiances, and he was soon blacklisted by movie studio bosses. Brecht, along with about 41 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers, was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC in September 1947.
Initially, Brecht was one of 19 witnesses who declared that they would refuse to testify about their political affiliations. Eleven members of this group were actually questioned on this point but, as Brecht later explained, he did not want to delay a planned trip to Europe, so he followed the advice of attorneys and broke with his earlier avowal. On 30 October 1947, he appeared before the committee and testified that he had never actually held party membership.
During his appearance before the committee, Brecht wore overalls and smoked an acrid cigar that made some of the committee members feel slightly ill. He made wry jokes throughout the proceedings, punctuating his inability to speak English well with continuous references to the translators present, who transformed his German statements into English ones unintelligible to himself.
Brecht's decision to testify led to criticism, including accusations of betrayal. The remaining witnesses, the so called Hollywood Ten, refused to testify and were cited for contempt. HUAC Vice Chairman Karl Mundt thanked Brecht for cooperating. The day after his testimony, on 31 October, Brecht flew to Europe.
In Switzerland, Brecht composed an adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone, which was performed at Chur. It was based on the translation by Hölderlin, but was considerably modified. It was published under the title Antigonemodell 1948, accompanied by an essay on the importance of creating a 'non-Aristotelian' form of theatre. He was subsequently invited to return to Berlin by the Communist regime in East Germany. Horrified at the reinstatement of former Nazis into West Germany's government, Brecht accepted the offer and made East Berlin his home in 1949. He was enticed by the offer of his own theatre (completed in 1954) and theatre company (the Berliner Ensemble). He retained his Austrian nationality (granted in 1950), however, and overseas bank accounts from which he received valuable hard currency remittances. The copyrights on his writings were held by a Swiss company. He used to drive around East Berlin in a pre-war DKW car—a rare luxury in the austere divided capital.
While Brecht's communist sympathies were a bane in the United States, East German officials sought to make him their hero. Though he had not been a member of the Communist Party, he had been deeply schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch, and his communist allegiances were sincere. He claimed communism appeared to be the only reliable antidote to militarist fascism and spoke out against the remilitarization of the West and the division of Germany. Brecht used Korsch's version of the Marxist dialectic in both his aesthetic theory and practice in a central way when presenting his plays.
Brecht wrote very few plays in his last years in East Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works. Instead, he dedicated himself to directing plays and developing the talents of the next generation of young directors and dramaturges, such as Manfred Wekwerth, Benno Besson and Carl Weber. Some of his most famous poems, however, including the "Buckower Elegies", came from this era. One of the poems in the "Buckower Elegies," Die Lösung (The Solution) was Brecht's later commentary on the uprising of 17 June 1953 in East Germany:
Brecht had previously supported the measures taken by the East German government to crush the uprising, including the use of Soviet military force; he even wrote a letter on the day of the uprising (17 June) to SED First Secretary Walter Ulbricht stating that, "History will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The great discussion [exchange] with the masses about the speed of socialist construction will lead to a viewing and safeguarding of the socialist achievements. At this moment I must assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany".
In Augsburg, a simple plaque, written by an unknown worker is displayed on the house where Brecht lived and worked. It reads:
Where is Augsburg? The city which is silent about its great son.
His son, Stefan Brecht, became a poet and theatre critic interested in New York's avant-garde theatre.
Brecht has been a controversial figure in Germany, and in his native city of Augsburg there were objections to creating a birthplace museum. However, by the 1970s, Brecht's plays had surpassed Shakespeare in the number of annual performances in Germany.
Brecht's influence can be seen in the cinema. Such filmmakers as Lars Von Trier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Nagisa Oshima, Ritwik Ghatak and Jean-Luc Godard were influenced by Brecht and his theory of the Verfremdungseffekt. Often mis-translated as the 'Alienation effect', it is a process of emotionally distancing the audience from the on-stage action. Ghatak first translated Brecht into Bengali, before then making use of some of his key theories in the later films Cloud-Capped Star and Subarna-Rekha.
Above all things that theatre was and what he wanted theatre to be, Brecht believed that the theatre's broadest function was to educate. "It is the noblest function that we have found for 'theatre'".
Brecht wanted the answer to Lenin’s question ‘Wie und was soll man lernen?’ ('How and what should one learn?'). He created an influential theory of theatre, the epic theatre, wherein a play should not cause the spectator to emotionally identify with the action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage. He believed that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to use this critical perspective to identify social ills at work in the world and be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change.
Hans Eisler has noted that these plays resemble political seminars. Brecht described them as "a collective political meeting" in which the audience is to participate actively. One sees in this model a rejection of the concept of the bureaucratic elite party where the politicians are to issue directives and control the behaviour of the masses.
For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself, which he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as distancing effect, estrangement effect, or alienation effect). Such techniques included the direct address by actors to the audience, transposition of text to third person or past tense, speaking the stage direction out loud, exaggerated, unnatural stage lighting, the use of song, and explanatory placards. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience's reality was, in fact a construction and, as such, was changeable.
Another technique that Brecht employed to achieve his Verfremdungseffekt was the principle of historicisation. The content of many of his plays dealt with fictional tellings of historical figures or events. His idea was that if one were to tell a story from a time that is contemporary to an audience, they may not be able to maintain the critical perspective he hoped to achieve. Instead, he focused on historical stories that had parallel themes to the social ills he was hoping to illuminate in his own time. He hoped that, in viewing these historical stories from a critical perspective, the contemporary issues Brecht was addressing would be illuminated to the audience.
In one of his first productions, Brecht famously put up signs that said "Glotzt nicht so romantisch!" ("Don't stare so romantically!"). His manner of stagecraft has proven both fruitful and confusing to those who try to produce his works or works in his style. His theory of theatre has heavily influenced modern theatre. Some of his innovations have become so common that they've entered the theatrical canon.
Although Brecht's work and ideas about theatre are generally thought of as belonging to modernism, there is recent thought that he is the forerunner of contemporary postmodern theatre practice. This is particularly so because he questioned and dissolved many of the accepted practices of the theatre of his time and created a political theatre that involved the audience in understanding its meaning. Moreover, he was one of the first theatre practitioners to incorporate multimedia into the semiotics of theatre.
The birth of Brecht's theories, centering around his writing of Baal and In the Jungle of Cities, was the core of the plot of the play The Concrete Girl by Bertolt Brecht written by Josh Morrall and Simon Farid. Set in 1921, when Brecht was 23, the short play featured an actor portraying Brecht on stage as a tortured, young, famine stricken writer, recently arrived in Berlin. In order to inspire himself to finish a play he is writing (the fictitious, supposedly 'lost' play The Concrete Girl) Brecht summons Frank Wedekind from his grave. Brecht hopes Wedekind will aid him in the writing of the play, but is ultimately left feeling discouraged, and burns the work, setting the tone for his early theory and later works.