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Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht (; German: [bʁɛçt]; 10 February 1898 – 14 August 1956), known professionally as Bertolt Brecht, was a German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet.
Living in Munich during the Weimar Republic, he had his first successes with theatre plays, whose themes were often influenced by his Marxist thought. He was the main proponent of the genre named epic theatre (which he preferred to call "dialectical theatre"). During the Nazi period and World War II he lived in exile, first in Scandinavia and then in the United States. Returning to East Berlin after the war, he established the theatre company Berliner Ensemble with his wife and long-time collaborator, actress Helene Weigel.
Life and career
Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht (as a child known as Eugen) was born in February 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, the son of Berthold Friedrich Brecht (1869–1939) and his wife Sophie, née Brezing (1871–1920). Brecht's mother was a devout Protestant and his father a Roman Catholic (who had been persuaded to have a Protestant wedding). The modest house where he was born is today preserved as a Brecht Museum. His father worked for a paper mill, becoming its managing director in 1914.
Due to his mother's influence, Brecht knew the Bible, a familiarity that would have a lifelong effect on his writing. From her, too, came the "dangerous image of the self-denying woman" that recurs in his drama. Brecht's home life was comfortably middle class, despite what his occasional attempt to claim peasant origins implied. At school in Augsburg he met Caspar Neher, with whom he formed a lifelong creative partnership. Neher designed many of the sets for Brecht's dramas and helped to forge the distinctive visual iconography of their epic theatre.
When Brecht was 16, the First World War broke out. Initially enthusiastic, Brecht soon changed his mind on seeing his classmates "swallowed by the army". Brecht was nearly expelled from school in 1915 for writing an essay in response to the line "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" from the Roman poet Horace, calling it Zweckpropaganda ("cheap propaganda for a specific purpose") and arguing that only an empty-headed person could be persuaded to die for their country. His expulsion was only prevented through the intervention of his religion teacher.
On his father's recommendation, Brecht sought a loophole by registering for a 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 Frank 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 Charlie 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.
Between November 1921 and April 1922 Brecht made acquaintance with many influential people in the Berlin cultural scene. Amongst them was the playwright Arnolt Bronnen with whom he established a joint venture, the Arnolt Bronnen / Bertolt Brecht Company. Brecht changed the spelling of his first name to Bertolt to rhyme with Arnolt.
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:
That year he married the Viennese opera-singer Marianne Zoff. Their daughter—Hanne Hiob (1923–2009)—was a successful German actress.
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.
Weimar Republic Berlin (1925–33)
In 1923 Brecht's marriage to Zoff began to break down (though they did not divorce until 1927). Brecht had become involved with both Elisabeth Hauptmann and Helene Weigel. Brecht and Weigel's son, Stefan, was born in October 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.
At this time Brecht revised his important "transitional poem", "Of Poor BB". In 1925, his publishers provided him with Elisabeth Hauptmann as an assistant for the completion of his collection of poems, Devotions for the Home (Hauspostille, eventually published in January 1927). She continued to work with him after the publisher's commission ran out.
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:
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." Inspired by the developments in USSR Brecht wrote a number of agitprop plays, praising the bolshevik collectivism (replaceability of each member of the collective in Man Equals Man) and red terror (The Decision).
In 1927 Brecht became part of the "dramaturgical collective" of Erwin Piscator's first company, which was designed to tackle the problem of finding new plays for its "epic, political, confrontational, documentary theatre". Brecht collaborated with Piscator during the period of the latter's landmark productions, Hoppla, We're Alive! by Toller, Rasputin, The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik, and Konjunktur by Lania. Brecht's most significant contribution was to the adaptation of the unfinished episodic comic novel Schweik, which he later described as a "montage from the novel". The Piscator productions influenced Brecht's ideas about staging and design, and alerted him to the radical potentials offered to the "epic" playwright by the development of stage technology (particularly projections). What Brecht took from Piscator "is fairly plain, and he acknowledged it" Willett suggests:
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 would later hold 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 attempts to portray the drama in financial transactions.
This collective adapted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Brecht's lyrics 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 the last years of the Weimar-era (1930–1933) in Berlin 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.
Nazi Germany and World War II (1933–45)
Fearing persecution, Brecht left Nazi Germany in February 1933, just after Hitler took power. After brief spells in Prague, Zurich and Paris he and Weigel accepted an invitation from journalist and author Karin Michaëlis to move to Denmark. The family first stayed with Karin Michaëlis at her house on the small island of Thurø close to the island of Funen. They later bought their own house in Svendborg on Funen. This house located at Skovsbo Strand 8 in Svendborg became the residence of the Brecht family for the next six years, where they often received guests including Walter Benjamin, Hanns Eisler and Ruth Berlau. During this period Brecht also travelled frequently to Copenhagen, Paris, Moscow, New York and London for various projects and collaborations.
When war seemed imminent in April 1939, he moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he remained for a year. After Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark, Brecht left Sweden for Helsinki, Finland, where he lived and waited for his visa for the United States until 3 May 1941. During this time he wrote the play Mr Puntila and his Man Matti (Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti) with Hella Wuolijoki, with whom he lived in Marlebäck.
During the war years, Brecht became a prominent writer of the Exilliteratur. He expressed his opposition to the National Socialist and Fascist movements in his most famous plays: Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and many others.
Brecht co-wrote the screenplay for the Fritz Lang-directed film Hangmen Also Die! which was loosely based on the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Deputy Reich Protector of the German-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man in the SS, and a chief architect of the Holocaust, who was known as "The Hangman of Prague." Hanns Eisler was nominated for an Academy Award for his musical score. The collaboration of three prominent refugees from Nazi Germany – Lang, Brecht and Eisler – is an example of the influence this generation of German exiles had on American culture.
Hangmen Also Die! was Brecht's only script for a Hollywood film. The money he earned from writing the film enabled him to write The Visions of Simone Machard, Schweik in the Second World War and an adaptation of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.
In 1942 Brecht's reluctance to help Carola Neher, who died in a gulag prison in the USSR after being arrested during the 1936 purges, caused much controversy among Russian emigrants in the West.
Cold War and final years in East Germany (1945–56)
In the years of the Cold War and "Red Scare", Brecht was blacklisted by movie studio bosses and interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Along with about 41 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers, he was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC in September 1947. Although he was one of 19 witnesses who declared that they would refuse to appear, Brecht eventually decided to testify. He later explained that he had followed the advice of attorneys and had not wanted to delay a planned trip to Europe. On 30 October 1947 Brecht testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. 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. HUAC vice-chairman Karl Mundt thanked Brecht for his co-operation. The remaining witnesses, the so-called Hollywood Ten, refused to testify and were cited for contempt. Brecht's decision to appear before the committee led to criticism, including accusations of betrayal. The day after his testimony, on 31 October, Brecht returned to Europe.
He lived Zurich in Switzerland for a year. In February 1948 in Chur, Brecht staged an adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone, based on a translation by Hölderlin. It was published under the title Antigonemodell 1948, accompanied by an essay on the importance of creating a "non-Aristotelian" form of theatre.
In 1949 he moved to East Berlin and established his theatre company there, the Berliner Ensemble. He retained his Austrian nationality (granted in 1950) and overseas bank accounts from which he received valuable hard currency remittances. The copyrights on his writings were held by a Swiss company. At the time he drove a pre-war DKW car—a rare luxury in the austere divided capital.
Though he was never a member of the Communist Party, Brecht had been schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch. Korsch's version of the Marxist dialectic influenced Brecht greatly, both his aesthetic theory and theatrical practice. Brecht received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.
Brecht wrote very few plays in his final years in East Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works. He dedicated himself to directing plays and developing the talents of the next generation of young directors and dramaturgs, such as Manfred Wekwerth, Benno Besson and Carl Weber. At this time he wrote some of his most famous poems, including the "Buckow Elegies".
At first Brecht apparently supported the measures taken by the East German government against the uprising of 1953 in East Germany, which included the use of Soviet military force. In a letter from the day of the uprising to SED First Secretary Walter Ulbricht, Brecht wrote 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."
Brecht's subsequent commentary on those events, however, offered a very different assessment—in one of the poems in the Elegies, "Die Lösung" (The Solution), a disillusioned Brecht writes a few months later:
Brecht died on 14 August 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 58. He is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery on Chausseestraße in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin, overlooked by the residence he shared with Helene Weigel.
According to Stephen Parker, who reviewed Brecht's writings and unpublished medical records, Brecht contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which led to an enlarged heart, followed by lifelong chronic heart failure and Sydenham's chorea. A report of a radiograph taken of Brecht in 1951 describes a badly diseased heart, enlarged to the left with a protruding aortic knob and with seriously impaired pumping. Brecht's colleagues described him as being very nervous, and sometimes shaking his head or moving his hands erratically. This can be reasonably attributed to Sydenham's chorea, which is also associated with emotional lability, personality changes, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and hyperactivity, which matched Brecht's behavior. "What is remarkable," wrote Parker, "is his capacity to turn abject physical weakness into peerless artistic strength, arrhythmia into the rhythms of poetry, chorea into the choreography of drama."
Theory and practice of theatre
From his late twenties Brecht remained a lifelong 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.
Epic Theatre proposed that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage. Brecht thought that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation and to be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change in the world outside. 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. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience's reality was equally constructed and, as such, was changeable.
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.
One of Brecht's most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as "defamiliarization effect", "distancing effect", or "estrangement effect", and often mistranslated as "alienation effect"). This involved, Brecht wrote, "stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them". To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor's direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense in rehearsals, and speaking the stage directions out loud.
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 Theodor W. Adorno, György Lukács, Ernst Bloch, and developing a close friendship with Walter 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."
Brecht was also influenced by Chinese theatre, and used its aesthetic as an argument for Verfremdungseffekt. Brecht believed, "Traditional Chinese acting also knows the alienation [sic] effect, and applies it most subtly.... The [Chinese] performer portrays incidents of utmost passion, but without his delivery becoming heated." Brecht attended a Chinese opera performance and was introduced to the famous Chinese opera performer Mei Lanfang in 1935. However, Brecht was sure to distinguish between Epic and Chinese theatre. He recognized that the Chinese style was not a "transportable piece of technique," and that Epic theatre sought to historicize and address social and political issues.
Brecht used his poetry to criticize European culture, including Nazis, and the German bourgeoisie. Brecht's poetry is marked by the effects of the First and Second World Wars. Many of the poems take a Marxist outlook.
Throughout his theatric production, poems are incorporated into this plays with music. In 1951, Brecht issued a recantation of his apparent suppression of poetry in his plays with a note titled On Poetry and Virtuosity. He writes:
Brecht's most influential poetry is featured in his Manual of Piety (Devotions), establishing him as a noted poet.
Brecht's widow, the actress Helene Weigel, continued to manage the Berliner Ensemble until her death in 1971; it was primarily devoted to performing Brecht's plays.
Besides being an influential dramatist and poet, some scholars have stressed the significance of Brecht's original contributions in political and social philosophy.
Brecht's collaborations with Kurt Weill have had some influence in rock music. The "Alabama Song" for example, originally published as a poem in Brecht's Hauspostille (1927) and set to music by Weill in Mahagonny, has been recorded by The Doors, on their self-titled debut album, as well as by David Bowie and various other bands and performers since the 1960s.
Brecht's son, Stefan Brecht, became a poet and theatre critic interested in New York's avant-garde theatre.
Brecht in fiction, drama and film
Collaborators and associates
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."
List of collaborators and associates
Plays and screenplays
Entries show: English-language translation of title (German-language title) [year written] / [year first produced]
Brecht wrote hundreds of poems throughout his life. He began writing poetry as a young boy, and his first poems were published in 1914. His poetry was influenced by folk-ballads, French chansons, and the poetry of Rimbaud and Villon.
Some of Brecht's poems
Essays, diaries and journals
Drama, poetry and prose