Brecht, Bertolt (1898–1956)
BRECHT, BERTOLT (1898–1956)EARLY SUCCESS AND ADOPTION OF MARXISM
THE LONG EXILE
RETURN TO BERLIN AND THE BERLINER ENSEMBLE
German author of plays, poetry, and novels.
Bertolt Brecht was born into a well-to-do middle class family in the Bavarian city of Augsburg where he grew up comfortably, like most children of his class. He had nearly finished secondary school, at the Königliches Realgymnasium, when World War I began. Brecht had been writing as well as publishing poetry for two years, and also a one-act drama, The Bible. Confident of becoming a German classic—as he assured his friends—he used to sing his rhymes for them, accompanying himself on his guitar. Though in a few poems he first celebrated the war, he soon turned against it and was nearly kicked out of school for an essay mocking Horace's famous praise of dying for the fatherland. After graduating in 1917, Brecht enrolled at Munich University to study medicine and philosophy, but preferred to attend drama courses and performances in the city's theaters. In early summer of 1918, Brecht finished his first major work for the stage, Baal.
Drafted into the army six weeks before Germany's capitulation, he served with a medical unit at Augsburg military hospital. During the brief revolutionary period that ended the war, he was elected to the Augsburg Workers and Soldiers Soviet, or so he claimed later. In 1918 he also wrote his famous anti-war poem, "Legend of the Dead Soldier," which the Nazis cited as evidence when they deprived him of German citizenship in 1935. At the age of twenty, Brecht had created his first dramatic masterpiece and a good deal of the poetry that would earn him his place among the greatest of German poets. Young Brecht was a charismatic performer of his poems, inventing melodies for them or singing them to popular tunes. Had he been born fifty years later, he might well have been tempted to make a career as a folk or rock singer.
During the Roaring Twenties, Brecht became an award-winning, if controversial, playwright and an acclaimed poet and lyricist. His first-ever produced play, Drums in the Night, at Munich in 1922, received the coveted Kleist Prize for Drama. A second play, In the Jungle, premiered in Munich the next year, causing a scandal, as did Baal at its premiere in Leipzig. Nevertheless, Brecht's adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II opened in Munich in early 1924, staged by Brecht himself, his first stab at the art that eventually would make him world famous. In 1924 he moved to Berlin, and though there were not that many productions of his plays, he was recognized as a major dramatist. Studying the texts of Karl Marx in the later 1920s, he adopted Marxist ideology as a basis and guide for his literary production. The musical The Threepenny Opera, written with the composer Kurt Weill, premiered in Berlin in 1928, to become the most popular German play of its time and, eventually, a most popular play worldwide.
By 1930, Brecht had developed a method of collective work; he fashioned his plays with teams of collaborators in an effort to break with the traditional concept of authorship; this has since been criticized as an indirect exploitation of his coworkers. He also evolved his concept of "Epic Theater," citing his and Weill's opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1931) as a case in point. The Great Depression and the concomitant rise of the Nazi movement led by Adolf Hitler motivated Brecht's alignment with the Communist Party, whose program corresponded, of course, to his Marxism. Consequently, he experimented with a sequence of Lehrstücke, plays that were supposed to not merely teach audiences but foremost their performers, who learn by enacting narratives of social and political conflict, The Measures Taken being a prominent and vehemently disputed example.
When Hitler took power in 1933, Brecht had to fear for his life and quickly left with his family, settling in Denmark where he spent six years before moving, in 1939, to Sweden, and then to Finland. When an entry visa for the United States finally arrived, the family traveled through the Soviet Union and sailed from Vladivostok to Los Angeles on 13 June 1941, only nine days before Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union. In the poem "To Those Born After" he noted: "changing countries more often than our shoes/We moved through the wars of the classes, in despair/When there was injustice only but no outrage about it." Nevertheless, during his Scandinavian years Brecht completed six of his major plays, along with hundreds of poems, a novel, and numerous writings on Epic Theater.
Brecht settled with his family in Hollywood, hoping to write for the motion picture industry in which many of his European friends were employed. Though he devised numerous scenarios, only one resulted in a released film, Hangmen Also Die (1943, directed by Fritz Lang), though the final screenplay differed vastly from Brecht's script. He mainly devoted his energy to projects for the stage, determined to make a career in the American theater since, at least until 1944, there was hardly assurance that he might be able to return to a Germany not ruled by the Nazis. Three of his plays received professional productions, only one of them on Broadway, but they found no commercial success. He had occasion to truly influence only the staging of Galileo, with Charles Laughton, whose performance he later described as a model for Epic acting.
After Germany's defeat, Brecht immediately revived old contacts and prepared his return to Europe. In 1947, he had to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington; the next day he flew to Paris to take residence in Switzerland where, for the first time since he had left Germany, he directed again, his version of Antigone, with his wife Helene Weigel (1900–1971) in the lead. In 1948, he was invited to stage his Mother Courage and Her Children in East Berlin. After the production's and Weigel's (as Courage) sensational success, Brecht was invited to set up his own company. At last his greatest wish had been fulfilled and he moved to East Berlin, where the newly established (East) German Democratic Republic's politics were in accord with his socialist convictions.
Brecht devoted his remaining seven years entirely to his theater, as playwright and, first of all, as metteur-en-scène. His Berliner Ensemble was to become the prototype of an Epic Theater, the model that he hoped would revolutionize the way theater was done in Germany. He based the company's work on concepts he had formulated in texts such as A Short Organum for the Theatre and The Messingkauf Dialogues, yet he greatly adjusted them in his practice. A given play's narrative in a particular interpretation, what Brecht called "the fable," was at the core of his directorial approach; his work with actors focused on creating with them the appropriate "gestus," the bodily and vocal manifestation of their character's socially conditioned behavior, for each moment and line of text. The staging was expected to "tell the fable" as clearly as possible in visual terms. The smallest details of performance were constantly scrutinized and many times revised to better serve the fable's presentation. Brecht always encouraged his actors to offer their own inventions and solutions, demanding: "Don't tell me, show me!"
The ensemble had been invited to the "Théâtre des Nations" festival in Paris in 1954 and subsequent years (winning the festival's prize several times), and also to London. As a result soon after his death in August 1956, the influence of Brecht's theater became palpable all over Western Europe. By the turn of the twenty-first century, his practice and commitment to a socially active theater that investigates the individual's role and struggles with society has been absorbed and further augmented by theater artists all over the world; he also is the only German playwright who attained a permanent place in the international repertoire. His collected works amount to thirty volumes, texts ranging from plays to poetry, novels, short stories, theoretical writings and numerous letters; he was unquestionably one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century.
Shortly before his death, Brecht wrote a poem about not needing a gravestone. If people should need one for him, he said, it should be inscribed: "He made suggestions. We/Have accepted them."
Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Edited and translated by John Willett. New York, 1964. Translations of various writings on Epic Theatre, among them "The Short Organum for the Theatre," with editorial notes.
——. The Messingkauf Dialogues. Translated by John Willett . London, 1965.
——. Werke: Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. 30 volumes. Berlin and Frankfurt, 1988–2000.
Hecht, Werner. Brecht Chronik. Frankfurt, 1997. The most comprehensive collection of data, professional and personal facts from Brecht's life.
Mews, Siegfried, ed. A Bertolt Brecht Reference Companion. Westport, Conn., 1997. A collection of essays that deal with Brecht's work and its reception by the world theater.
Thomson, Peter, and Glendyr Sacks, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge, U.K., 1994. A collection of assessments of all aspects of Brecht's work, as a writer as well as a stage director and theoretician of the theater.
Willett, John. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. London, 1959. The seminal work on Brecht's theater, commenting on plays as well as on his directorial practice as it was observed by the author in Berlin.