The German author Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is probably the greatest German playwright of the first half of the 20th century. His works were often considered controversial because of his revolutionary dramatic theory and his political beliefs.
Bertolt Brecht was born on Feb. 10, 1898, in Augsburg. The son of a Catholic businessman, Brecht was raised, however, in his mother's Protestant faith. In 1917 he matriculated at the University of Munich to study philosophy and medicine. In 1918 he served as a medical orderly at a military hospital in Augsburg. The unpleasantness of this experience confirmed his hatred of war and stimulated his sympathy for the unsuccessful Socialist revolution of 1919.
In 1919 Brecht returned to his studies but devoted himself increasingly to writing plays. His first full-length plays were Baal (1922) and Trommeln in der Nacht (1922; Drums in the Night). In September 1922 Drums in the Night was presented at the Munich Kammerspiele, where Brecht was subsequently employed as resident playwright.
Brecht's early plays, including Im Dickicht der Städte (1923; Jungle of the Cities), are works in which he gradually frees himself from the expressionist conventions of the avant-garde theater of his day, especially its idealism. He parodies and ridicules the lofty sentiments and visionary optimism of his predecessors (Georg Kaiser, Fritz von Unruh, and others) while exploiting their technical advances. Baal portrays the brutalization of all finer feeling by a drunken vagabond. In Drums in the Night, a drama on the returned-soldier theme, the hero rejects the opportunity for a splendid death on the barricades, preferring to make love to his woman. Such cynicism recalls Frank Wedekind, Brecht's most revered model. Jungle of the Cities decries the possibility of spiritual freedom and reasserts the primacy of materialistic values. In these two plays Brecht emphasizes the artificiality of the theatrical medium and disregards conventional psychological motivation.
In 1924 Brecht moved to Berlin and for the next 2 years was associated as a playwright with Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater. His comedy Mann ist Mann (1926; A Man's a Man) studies the social conditioning that transforms an Irish packer into a machine gunner and shows a development toward a terser, more intellectual style. By 1926 Brecht had begun a serious study of Marxism. Also during this period the director Erwin Piscator was teaching him much about the techniques of experimental theater (for example, the use onstage of films, projections, and slides).
Brecht collaborated with the composer Kurt Weill on Mahagonny (or Kleine Mahagonny), a play with music written for the Baden-Baden festival of 1927. They then wrote Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera), which was triumphantly performed in Berlin on Aug. 31, 1928. This was the first work to make Brecht famous.
Brecht based The Threepenny Opera on Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation of The Beggar's Opera (produced 1728) by the English dramatist John Gay. While adapting and modernizing Gay's balled opera, Brecht retained the main events of the plot but added topical satirical bite through his own lyrics. In this work he develops to its first high point his own special language—that peculiar amalgam of street-colloquial, Marxist-philosophical, and quasi-biblical diction laced with cabaret wit and lyrical pathos and bound together with the unrelenting force of parody. Brecht borrows freely from many sources—among them François Villon and Rudyard Kipling—but his undisguised plagiarism generally supports sharp parody.
Brecht wrote several more plays with music in collaboration with Weill and with Paul Hindemith. Notable are Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1929; The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) and Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis (1929; The Didactic Play of Baden: On Consent). The latter deals with the issue of "consent"— consent to the extinction of the individual for the sake of the progress of the masses. In Die Massnahme (1930; The Measure Taken), for which Hanns Eisler composed the score, Brecht publicly espouses Communist doctrine and concedes the necessity for the elimination of erring party members. The playwright's love of parody is well illustrated in Die Ausnahme und die Regel (1930; The Exception and the Rule) and in Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (1932; St. Joan of the Stockyards), in which a Salvation Army girl strives to save the souls of Chicago capitalists.
Brecht uses the term "epic theater" to characterize his innovative dramatic theory. His new type of drama is non-Aristotelian—that is, his aim is not to purge the audience's emotions but to awaken the spectators' minds and communicate truth to them. In order to achieve this end, drama must not hypnotize or entrance the audience but must continually remind them that what they are watching is not real, but merely a representation, a vehicle for an idea or a fact.
Brecht uses the word "alienation" (Verfremdung) to describe his method of helping the audience to be receptive to his dramatic intentions. His technique of alienation includes elimination of most conventional stage props, use of charts, slides, and messages flashed on screens, direct involvement of the audience through characters who step out of their roles to function as commentators, and many carefully planned incongruities. Finally, Brecht requires that actors work in a new way: they must not identify with the dramatic characters but, on the contrary, must always demonstrate that they are playing a role. Alienation is Brecht's fundamental dramatic device, and his parody is of course closely dependent on this technique.
From 1933 to 1948 Brecht was an exile, first in Scandinavia, then in the U.S.S.R., and after 1941 in the United States. In 1933 his books were among those publicly burned in Berlin. He continued to write in exile, and in 1936 he completed Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe (The Roundheads and the Peakheads) and Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (Fear and Misery of the Third Reich), which directly attacked Hitler's regime.
In 1939 Leben des Galilei (Galileo) opened the sequence of Brecht's great plays; there followed Mutter Courage (1939; Mother Courage), Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1941; The Good Man of Szechuan), and Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (1943; The Caucasian Chalk Circle). Other important works belonging to this period are Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1941; Puntila and His Man Matti) and Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (1941; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui).
These plays demonstrate that Brecht's power and depth as a dramatist are to a high degree independent of, and even override, his theoretical principles. They display an astonishing capacity for creating living characters, a moving compassion, technical virtuosity, and parodic wit. Mother Courage, a series of scenes from the life of a camp follower during the Thirty Years War, is often misunderstood because the overwhelmingly vital portrait of the central character arouses the audience's sympathies. But Brecht's actual concern was to demonstrate the self-perpetuating folly of Mother Courage's naive collaboration with the system that exploits her and destroys her family.
In 1948 Brecht settled in East Berlin, where he remained until his death. He and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, founded the Berliner Ensemble in September 1949 with ample financial support from the state. This group became the most famous theater company in East Germany and the foremost interpreter of Brecht. He himself devoted much of his time to directing. He wrote no new plays except Die Tage der Commune (1949; The Days of the Commune) but adapted several—among them Molière's Don Juan and Shakespeare's Coriolanus. There is some evidence that he modified his austere conception of the function of drama and conceded the importance of the theater as a vehicle for entertainment.
The lyric poetry Brecht wrote in these years shows a concern for personal rather than universal or mass experience. Recent criticism has increasingly recognized Brecht's eminence as a lyric poet. His verse of the 1920s, in particular Hauspostille (1927; Domestic Breviary), is iconoclastic balladry of a savagely satirical kind. However, his keen interest in Chinese and Japanese poetic forms led through the Svendborger Gedichte (1939) to the austere delicacy of the Buckower Elegien (1954). Brecht also wrote The Threepenny Novel (1934), which is based on The Threepenny Opera, and some skillful short stories, Kalendergeschichten (1949; Tales from the Calendar ). He died of a heart attack in August 1956.
The best book in English on Brecht is Frederic Ewen, Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art and His Times (1967). A good introduction, which points up the political issues sharply, is Martin Esslin, Brecht: The Man and His Work (1960). John Willett, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht (1959; rev. ed. 1967), concentrates on Brecht's technique and the writing and staging of his plays. Other useful works are Ronald D. Gray, Bertolt Brecht (1961), and Peter Demetz, Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962). Brecht's literary tradition is illuminated by Max Spalter, Brecht's Tradition (1967). His general importance in the modern theater is shown in Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times (1946) and What is Theatre? A Query in Chronicle Form (1956).