BORN: 1898, Augsburg, Germany
DIED: 1956, East Berlin, German Democratic Republic
GENRE: Drama, Poetry, Fiction
Drums in the Night (1922)
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1938)
The Good Woman of Szechwan (1943)
Mother Courage and Her Children (1949)
Bertolt Brecht. Brecht, Bertolt, Paris, 1954, photograph. Lipnitzki / Roger Viollet /Getty Images.
Bertolt Brecht’s status as one of the major playwrights of the twentieth century is largely uncontested. In addition to writing a significant body of plays that are performed all over the world, Brecht also developed in a number of theoretical writings his theory of ‘‘epic’’ or ‘‘didactic’’ theater, which he applied to the ‘‘model’’ productions of his own plays in the early 1950s. He hoped his plays would instruct as well as entertain. His goal was to make audiences think about what might be, rather than what was. His work, influenced by German social theorist Karl Marx, was often violent and chaotic. ‘‘Epic theater’’ became known throughout the world and would affect the work of generations of dramatists. In addition to being an influential playwright, Brecht is considered a poet of considerable power and originality. More recently, his prose fiction has attracted increased attention.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Controversial Pacifist. Eugen Berthold Brecht— he later dropped the first name and changed the spelling of the middle name—was born in Augsburg, Germany into a fairly well-to-do bourgeois family on February 10, 1898. His father, Friedrich Berthold Brecht, an employee of a paper factory, advanced to the position of business director; Brecht’s mother was Sofie Brezing Brecht. Brecht attended elementary and high school in Augsburg. Having failed to educate his teachers (as he put it), he began to write occasional poems. In 1914 he had a short play, The Bible, published in the school journal.
Although he wrote a few patriotic poems at the outbreak of World War I, Brecht’s antiwar sentiments developed early. His criticism of Horace’s dictum ‘‘Dulce est et decorum pro patria mori’’ (‘‘It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland’’) almost led to his expulsion from school. Various journals and newspapers printed poems and stories by the fledgling author, who liked to play the guitar, pursue amorous adventures, and roam through countryside, fairs, and pubs with a group of similarly dissatisfied friends.
Blacklisted by the Nazis. In 1917 Brecht moved to Munich, enrolled at the university, read many books, scouted the theater scene, became increasingly involved in literary circles, and tried his hand at several projects, among them one-act plays and a full-fledged drama, Baal (published, 1922; performed, 1923). Even the one-act plays written in 1919 exhibit features that were to become his trademark. The Beggar, or the Dead Dog, for example, confronts the extreme opposites of the social scale: the world of the emperor and the world of the beggar. In Lux in Tenebris Brecht uses the theme of prostitution on several levels for his attack on what he considers the physical, spiritual, and social corruption of the upper middle class, whose perversion of the spirit, language, and action is highlighted by parodying certain scenes from the Bible (which was to become one of his major literary sources) via the characters’ actions.
Shortly before the end of World War I, Brecht, who had enrolled in medical studies to avoid the draft, was called to military service nevertheless. As a hospital orderly he witnessed the suffering of victims of war and disease. He wrote the satiric ‘‘Legend of the Dead Soldier,’’ in which a corpse is revived to be declared fit for military service again. This antiwar ballad was sung in the fourth act of Drums in the Night (1922) and was one of the reasons Brecht was put on the blacklist of the Nazis (the socialist political party that would rise to power in the 1930s under Adolf Hitler) as early as 1923. After the war Brecht witnessed the turbulent beginning of the Weimar Republic (the post-World War I regime in Germany) and the power struggle among political parties.
Embracing Communism. Brecht wrote his first work of ‘‘epic theater,’’ the 1926 play A Man’s a Man. This is also one of a series of didactic (instructional) plays, works in which Brecht expressed his newfound commitment to the philosophy of communism. Less overtly political, and one of the playwright’s most popular productions, is the 1928 The Threepenny Opera, which also formed the basis of Brecht’s only novel. One of several collaborations with composer Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera is an extravaganza of humor, bitterness, and social criticism. Brecht based this drama on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Throughout his career, Brecht adapted the works of other authors, transforming them with modern and highly original interpretations. His literary knowledge allowed him to combine a wide range of influences in his work, including Spanish, Far Eastern, and Elizabethan drama, popular songs, folk literature, and films.
Exile and Productivity in the United States. In 1933 Brecht’s Marxist politics forced him to leave fascist Germany and go into self-imposed exile in Scandinavia and the United States. Later, the Nazi government annulled the playwright’s citizenship. While in exile Brecht became an anti-Nazi propagandist, writing for a German-language periodical published in Moscow and composing the 1938 drama Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. During this time Brecht also wrote what are critically regarded as his greatest works.
From the outbreak of World War II in 1939, until 1947, Brecht lived in the United States. In that time, he worked on several motion picture productions and wrote three plays. But his work in America was not warmly received, and Brecht did not receive the United States warmly, either. He never applied for citizenship. During the late 1940s and 1950s, the United States was in the initial stages of the so-called Cold War with the Soviet Union, and a feeling of extreme paranoia regarding the dangers of communism pervaded society and the government. It was perhaps inevitable that he would be called before the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about his communist connections. Almost immediately, he left the United States to return to Germany. When asked by a friend if he had indeed done anything “un-American,” Brecht is said to have replied, ‘‘I am not an American.’’ He chose to live in communist East Berlin. He and his wife Helene Weigel founded a theater company there, the Berliner Ensemble, where Brecht produced his own plays as well as adaptations of Shakespeare and Moliere.
Gradually, however, Brecht’s health began to fail. He died on August 14, 1956.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Brecht's famous contemporaries include:
Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934): Hindenburg was sixty-six when he became a national hero after commanding the German army to victory at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914. Named supreme commander of the German Army in 1917, Hindenburg was later elected second President of the German Republic in 1925. Despite his failing health, he was re-elected at age eighty-four, but was unable to stop Adolf Hitler from effectively seizing power. Upon Hindenburg's death, Hitler became the Fuhrer of Germany, effectively ending the Republic.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967): American writer and poet, best known for her wisecracks and sharp wit. Parker was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table and was nominated for two Academy Awards.
Karl Valentin (1882-1948): Comedian, author, and filmmaker, Valentin was a major influence on and active in the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s.
Max Schreck (1879-1936): Best remembered today as the titular vampire in the 1922 film Nosferatu, Schreck was also an experienced theater actor who appeared in several of Brecht's early plays.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965): English playwright, novelist, and short story writer. Maugham was one of the most popular authors of his era and one of the highest paid during the 1930s.
Karl Korsch (1886-1961): German Marxist theorist, he maintained a distance from established mainstream Communist doctrine of his time. He emphasized the need to adapt Marxism to the realities of the twentieth century.
Works in Literary Context
Brecht’s ability to express his political and philosophical views in fresh and formally ingenious ways is also observable in his poetry, which he produced throughout his career. In both poetry and drama he attained one of the most controlled and completely realized aesthetic visions in literature. During the last part of his life, Brecht returned to Berlin and formed his own company, the Berliner Ensemble, enabling him to implement his dramatic theories and gaining him the admiration of devotees of dramatic art.
Farcical Satire. In style, Brecht’s early works tend toward farcical satire; they show some influence of the Munich comedian Karl Valentin, whose witty dialog- sketches Brecht admired and with whom he had performed in sideshows at fairs. Brecht’s first full-fledged play, Baal, glorifies unfettered, amoral individualism, reflecting, to some extent, Brecht’s own lifestyle and his sympathy for such figures as Frank Wedekind, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Franpois Villon. It is both a literary and a social protest.
Social Concerns Brecht’s genius for artistic invention and his desire to motivate social concerns in the playgoer combine in his mature dramas to form a rich and varied view of existence. Through the crisis of its scientist hero, Galileo (1943) reexamines Brecht’s recurrent theme of the obstacles to social progress. Yet despite its focus on philosophical issues, critics find in this play a strong main character who, along with the protagonist of Mother Courage and Her Children (1949), enlists the spectator’s feelings as well as reason. In his mature works Brecht transcended the single-minded message of his earlier didactic pieces and achieved a more complex viewpoint than that permitted by the official policies and doctrines of communism.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Brecht returned often to the theme of class conflict between supposedly ''superior'' and ''inferior'' people, and the promotion of the causes of the lower classes. Other works that address these themes include:
The Plague (1947), a novel by Albert Camus. This novel explores the human condition by examining the reactions of the residents of a city during an outbreak of plague. Arbitrary class divisions disintegrate in the face of death, only to rear up again once the epidemic has passed.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a film directed by Charlie Chaplin. The darkest of Chaplin's comedies, this film centers on an unemployed banker who marries and murders wealthy widows in order to support his family. He justifies his behavior by saying that he is simply doing what businessmen and soldiers do every day.
Trainspotting (1993), a novel by Irvine Welsh. By presenting a story narrated from the point of view of heroin junkies, Welsh challenges the reader to identify with the lowest of lower-class characters in true Brechtian fashion.
Angels in America (1990), a play by Tony Kushner. Another work that focuses on a marginalized group, in this case gay men dealing with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Kushner was also heavily influenced by Brecht's use of multiple points of perspective and the chronicle play, all of which are in evidence in this epic work.
Works in Critical Context
The Threepenny Opera. Well known in Germany during his life, Brecht became recognized as a major dramatist by critics throughout Europe and the United States only after his death. His best-known plays, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children, are both considered highly influential on later dramatists. The Threepenny Opera was one of Brecht’s collborations with composer Kurt Weill. The musical comedy features the song ‘‘Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer,’’ translated in English as ‘‘Mack the Knife,’’ which became a jazz standard recorded by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. Though set in London, the play conveys perhaps like no other work of literature the moral malaise of the German Weimar Republic. As Ben Brantley writes, ‘‘the show’s real satiric targets were the middle classes of poverty-crippled, rudderless Germany in the 1920s.’’ The play is hard-edged and dirty, peopled by low-lifes—murderers, prostitutes, and thieves. As critic Arthur Lazere contends, ‘‘Brecht’s text is sardonic and brittle . . . every character would sell out any other if an advantage is to be gained.’’ As Brantley notes, ‘‘the play was designed to sustain an intellectual distance, to allow audiences to see their own reflections in vicious thugs, whores, beggars and policemen motivated by the same primal needs and instincts as themselves.’’ It was an immediate hit in Europe, but something of a flop at first in the United States. It was not until the 1954 off- Broadway production featuring famed German actress Lotte Lenya (Weill’s widow) that the play was hailed as a masterpiece in America.
Mother Courage and Her Children. In the program notes to a recently staged production of Mother Courage and Her Children by the New York Public Theater, artistic director Oscar Eustis called Brecht’s work ‘‘the greatest play of the twentieth century.’’ Certainly, it is among the most powerful anti-war works in literature, and was written in direct response to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. However, the play is also very long and difficult to stage, and successful productions are rare. The play hinges on the characterization of the character of Mother Courage herself, and the exact nature of the character is a matter of much critical debate. Some have branded Mother Courage as a greedy coward; others laud her practicality and toughness. Her ‘‘true’’ nature is complex, and thus hard to portray on stage.
Responses to Literature
1. Pick one of Brecht’s plays and analyze his stage directions. Do you feel they are effective? How do they complement the dialog? What sort of atmosphere do they create?
2. Write about Brecht’s time in exile. How did it affect his popularity? How did his writing change? Do you think his exile was beneficial or harmful?
3. Research Karl Marx and the tenets of Marxism. Analyze one of Brecht’s plays for its Marxist undertones. How does Brecht express his political views in the play?
4. Using his Writings on Theater as a starting point, summarize Brecht’s thoughts on epic theater. Which of his plays successfully implement these views?
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Denton, Martin. ‘‘Mother Courage,’’ NTTheatre.com. Accessed August 19, 2008. http://www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/archshow.php?key=275
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Brantley, Ben. ‘‘‘Threepenny Opera’ Brings Renewed Decadence to Studio 54,’’ New York Times. Access August 20, 2008. http://theater2.nytimes.com/2006/04/21/theater/reviews/21thre.html