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Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (February 10, 1898 - August 14, 1956) was an influential German dramatist, stage director, and poet of the 20th century.


His life and career

Brecht was born in Augsburg, Bavaria, studied medicine and worked briefly as an orderly in a hospital in Munich during World War I. After the war he moved to Berlin where an influential critic, Herbert Ihering , brought him to the attention of a public longing for modern theater. Already in Munich his first two plays, Baal and Drums in the Night, had been performed, and he got to know Erich Engel , a director who worked with him off and on for the rest of his life. In Berlin, In the Jungle of the Cities starring Fritz Kortner and directed by Engel became his first success.

During the postwar socialist governments and then the Weimar Republic, Brecht met and began to work with Hanns Eisler -- the composer with whom he shared the closest friendship throughout his life. He also met Helene Weigel , who would become his second wife and accompany him through exile and for the rest of his life. His first book of poems, Hauspostille won a literary prize.

Brecht formed a writing collective which was prolific and very influential. Elisabeth Hauptmann , Margarete Steffin , Emil Burri , Ruth Berlau and others worked with Brecht and produced the multiple Lehrstücke (learning plays) which were an attempt at 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 his first great play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which attempted to portray the drama in financial transactions. He also worked in the theaters of Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator .

This collective also created the story for, and Brecht wrote songs and engaged Kurt Weill to compose, The Threepenny Opera -- the largest hit in Berlin of the 1920s and a renewing influence on the musical worldwide. This was followed by Mahagonny, less of a success and eclipsed by the dawn of fascist rule in Germany. After Adolf Hitler won the elections, Brecht was in great danger and left for a long exile -- in Denmark, Finland, then England and finally in the United States.

In exile and in active resistance of the Fascist movement, Brecht wrote his most famous plays: Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, Puntila and Matti, his Hired Man, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Person of Sezuan, among many other works. He also wrote many poems which have continued to attract notice to this day. He participated some in screenplays for Hollywood, for instance Hangmen also Die, but had no real success or pleasure in this.

After World War II he was hounded by the HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee) and left the United States. He came to Switzerland where he adapted Antigone and then was invited to Berlin by East Germany. Horrified at the reinstatement of Nazis into the government of the western portion of Germany, Brecht made his home in the east. He had not been a member of the communist party, but had been deeply schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch. He saw the goal of communism as the only reliable antidote to militarist fascism and spoke out against the remilitarisation of the west and the division of Germany.

He was almost as uncomfortable for his East German hosts as for the West Germans across the iron curtain. Brecht was a scruffily dressed person and he invented designer stubble - he always looked as though he had shaved three days earlier. As a result, security guards once excluded him from a reception being given in Berlin in his own honour.

Brecht also found the experience of living in a Stalinist state far different than what he imagined in exile, when he composed works such as Die Massnahmen ["The Measures"] that glorified the self-denying infallible vanguard party [or, more concretely in Die Massnahmen, that justified the stupid political decisions made by the Comintern that resulted in the spectacular failure of the revolution attempted in Shanghai in 1927]. Brecht's showed his more sober appreciation of the impossibility of socialism without democracy in a piece he wrote while living in Berlin in the 1950s, after the state suppressed a workers' revolt in 1953:

Die Lösung

   Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
   Ließ der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbands
   In der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen
   Auf denen zu lesen war, daß das Volk
   Das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt habe
   Und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
   Zurückerobern könne.  Wäre es da
   Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
   Löste das Volk auf und
   Wählte ein anderes?

The Solution

   After the uprising on June 17th
   The Secretary of the Writers Union
   Had flyers distributed in Stalin Way that said
   That the People had frivolously
   Thrown away the Government's Confidence
   And that they could only regain it
   Through Redoubled Work.  But wouldn't it be
   Simpler if the Government
   Simply dissolved the People
   And elected another?

Although he lived in the DDR, Brecht's work was never published there - the copyright was held by a Swiss company and he received valuable hard currency remittances. He used to drive around East Berlin in a prewar DKW car - a rare luxury in the austere divided capital.

The Berliner Ensemble, that world famous theater which toured and was the most influential theater of the postwar decades, was given to his wife: the actress Helene Weigel. She ran it as a theater devoted primarily to the plays and praxes developed by Brecht until her death in 1971. Brecht wrote few plays in his last years in Berlin, none of them as famous. Some of his most famous poems though, including the "Buckower Elegies", were from this time.

Brecht died an early death at the age of 58 in 1956 (of a heart attack), leaving a legacy which has been taken up by nearly every country in the world, particularly those where political activity is occurring. One of his wishes for his gravestone was: "He made suggestions; we took them on." In fact, on his grave at the Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichswerder Cemetery in Berlin there is only a boulder with his name.

Had he wanted to use it, one of his late poems could have served as a fitting epitaph:

   Und ich dachte immer, die allereinfachsten Worte
   Müssen genügen. Wenn ich sage, was ist
   Muß jedem das Herz zerfleischt sein.
   Daß du untergehst, wenn du dich nicht wehrst.
   Das wirst du doch einsehn.
   And I always thought that the simplest words
   Must be enough. That when I say how things are
   Everyone's heart must be torn to shreds.
   That you'll go down if you don't stand up.
   Surely you see that.

Theory of theatre

Brecht also created his own theory of theatre, the so-called "epic theatre": a play should in his opinion not make you put yourself in the position of the persons on the stage, but make you think about their actions. For this purpose, he employed the 'Verfremdungseffekt' (alienation effect), e.g. actors talking to the audience or actors showing that they are acting (and not impersonating the person they are playing). He was famous for putting up signs with the writing "Glotzt nicht so romantisch!" ("Don't stare that romantically!") in one of his first stagings. This way of producing has proven both fruitful and confusing to those who try to produce his works or in his style. His theory of theatre has heavily influenced modern theatre although it is believed that the effect of the epic theatre wears off after watching a few plays of this style. Some of his innovations, though, have become so commonly taken on that one hardly remembers the lack of them before him.

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 theatre (at the time) and created a uniquely political theatre that involved the audience in meaning-making. Moreover, he was one of the first theatre practitioners to incorporate multimedia into the semiotics of theatre.

Notable quotations: see Bertolt Brecht at Wikiquote.

Last updated: 12-17-2004 01:47:13