Brecht, Bertolt

views updated Jun 27 2018

Bertolt Brecht

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'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.


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 Führer 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 play-wright, 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.

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 Molière.

Gradually, however, Brecht's health began to fail. He died on August 14, 1956.

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 François 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.

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.


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.

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 under-tones. 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?



“Brecht, (Eugen) Bertolt (Friedrich) (1898–1956).” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 56: German Fiction Writers, 1914–1945. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. James Hardin, University of South Carolina. The Gale Group, 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 124: Twentieth-Century German Dramatists, 1919–1992. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Wolfgang D. Elfe, University of South Carolina, and James Hardin, University of South Carolina. The Gale Group, 1992.

Esslin, Martin. “Criticism by Martin Esslin.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Gassner, John. “Drama and Detachment: A View of Brecht's Style of Theatre.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“The Good Person of Szechwan.” Drama for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale, 2000.

“Mother Courage and Her Children.” Drama for Students. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 1999.

“Overview of (Eugen) Bertolt (Friedrich) Brecht.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Pres, Terrence Des. “Poetry in Dark Times.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“The Threepenny Opera.” Drama for Students. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Barthes, Roland. Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1972.

Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Commentaries: 1943–1980. New York: Grove Press, 1981.

Cook, Bruce. Brecht in Exile. New York: Holt, 1983.

Eddershaw, Margaret. Performing Brecht. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Fuegi, John. Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Giles, Steve. Bertolt Brecht and Critical Theory: Marxism, Modernism, and the Threepenny Lawsuit. New York: P. Lang, 1998.

Giles, Steve, and Rodney Livingstone, eds. Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays. Rodopi, 1998.

Mews, Siegfried. A Bertolt Brecht Reference Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Szczesny, Gerhard. The Case against Bertolt Brecht, with Arguments Drawn from His “Life of Galileo,” trans. Alexander Gode. New York: Ungar, 1969.

Thomson, Peter, and Glendyr Sacks. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Thoss, Michael. Brecht for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1994.

Web Sites

Denton, Martin. “Mother Courage,” Accessed August 19, 2008.

Lazere, Arthur. “The Threepenny Opera,” Accessed August 19, 2008.

Brantley, Ben. “‘Threepenny Opera’ Brings Renewed Decadence to Studio 54,” New York Times. Access August 20, 2008.

Bertolt Brecht

views updated May 29 2018

Bertolt Brecht

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.

Early Works

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).

Plays with Music

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.

Dramatic Theory

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.

Major Dramas

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.

Other Works

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 TheThreepenny Opera, and some skillful short stories, Kalendergeschichten (1949; Tales from the Calendar ). He died of a heart attack in August 1956.

Further Reading

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). □

Brecht, Bertolt

views updated May 14 2018


German playwright, poet, and theatrical reformer Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht (1898–1956) developed theatre as a forum for critical reflection on society in order to advance his Marxist beliefs. Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, on February 10, Brecht studied medicine in Munich and briefly served at an army hospital in World War I. During the early 1920s, he developed an anti-bourgeois attitude and studied Marxism. Brecht lived in Berlin from 1924 to 1933, where he collaborated with composer Kurt Weill (1900–1950) and developed his theory of "epic theater" and his austere, irregular verse. In 1933, Brecht went into exile, spending six years in the United States (1941–1947), where he did some film work in Hollywood. During exile, Brecht wrote most of his great plays, essays, and poems, while his work was being burned in Nazi Germany. In 1949, he moved back to Berlin and despite the controversial communist ideals of his work, he enjoyed great success. Brecht died of a heart attack in East Berlin on August 14.

Technology and Communication

Brecht realized that the emerging technologies of film and radio provided important opportunities for rethinking the formal properties of communication. He was aware of the ways in which new technologies construct their audiences in modes of reception ranging from passive, which he disliked, to active and participatory, which he favored and encouraged. Reception and representation were key to Brecht's idea of what he termed "communication with consequences." He believed that audiences perceive the real causality of the story being told only if the devices of the media solicit active inquiry.

Although he felt the new media had great potential to liberate people, Brecht also maintained that radio ignored the possibilities of organizing its listeners as suppliers of ideas. If radio were to change its focus from distribution to communication, turning listeners also into speakers, then it might generate positive social change. He did not foresee the use of radio for propaganda by right-wing (as well as leftist) ideologues. Brecht, like director Erwin Piscator (1893–1966), felt that film could be used positively within theater, and he was interested in the way new technologies of communication reconfigured content. Developments within filmmaking, for example, inspired his notion of Gestus, actions that are both simply themselves and emblematic of larger social practices.

In some of his productions, Brecht projected subtitles in advance of scenes to announce the plot to the audience. By abandoning the tension and surprise, this "communication with consequences" focused the audience on the more important task of thinking critically, socially, and politically. Distancing the audience from his plays was also crucial to his Marxist drama. Unlike the Aristotelian premise that the audience should be made to believe that what they are witnessing is happening here and now, the Marxist premise that human nature is historically conditioned required an "epic theater," which gave the audience critical detachment. This was Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) that portrayed action in a "scientific spirit" and reminded the viewer that theater is not reality.

Critical inquiry that exposed the oppression and inequalities of capitalist production was central to Brecht's view of the potential of new technology. Spectators were able to regard the situations of the characters and the actions of the dramas as indicative of class warfare, thus underscoring the social, rather than psychological, genesis of the human condition.

Changing Views About Science and Technology

In a radio speech on March 27, 1927, Brecht stated, "It is my belief that [man] will not let himself be changed by machines but that he will himself change the machine; and whatever he looks like he will above all look human." In the same talk, he argued that this new human would be acutely aware that guns can be used for him or against him, houses can shelter or oppress him, and that live works can discourage or encourage him. To this neutralist position, Brecht added a general element of optimism. He argued that science could change nature and make the "world seem almost habitable," by overthrowing the oppressive religious mystification of experience that taught people to tolerate their fate.

Brecht realized that developments in science and technology were driving and shaping society, and he believed that these changes had to be reflected in the theatrical presentation of human transactions. His epic and dialectical theater with its emphasis on critical inquiry highlighted the increased responsibility created by new technological powers. Brecht's characters were never products of metaphysical forces, and their actions were not fated. Rather, they grappled with personal responsibilities shaped and conditioned by the larger world.

Brecht's Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo) shows not only this fallible, striving quality of his characters, but also captures his growing unease about the human and social consequences of modern science and technology. The original 1938 version of the play portrays Galileo as a cunning, noble, and brave seeker of truth who brings light to an age of darkness. The bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, however, caused Brecht to revise the play. In this later version, Galileo is portrayed as a coward who quickly recants the truth at the sight of torture devices. He practices science only for his own gain, without regarding the possible harms or benefits to humanity. Brecht, despite his deep distrust of religion, even allows the Church to eloquently and persuasively defend its position. Ultimately, Galileo is portrayed as the initial instigator of a tradition that leads to the horrors of atomic weapons. In the play's final scene, Galileo denounces himself, because he sought knowledge for self-aggrandizement and not for the good of humanity. Brecht shows that the pursuit of truth absent considerations of the good led to the split between science and society that culminated in the use of atomic weapons on civilians. Science brings darkness rather than enlightenment.

Brecht saw the unbridled quest for knowledge and its potentially destructive consequences as a pressing concern of his age. Just as he satirized the "resistible" rise of Hitler, Brecht wanted to show how the exercise of critical thinking and personal responsibility could resist the rise of destructive technologies. Using irony, humor, and skepticism, he cautioned that human society must morally progress in order to understand and wisely direct the rapid advances in science and technology. As Brecht wrote in Leben des Galilei:

May you now guard Science's light
 Kindle it and use it right
 Lest it be a flame to fall
 Downward to consume us all


SEE ALSO Science, Technology, and Literature.


Brecht, Bertolt. (1981 [1938]). Leben des Galilei [Life of Galileo], eds. H. F. Brookes and C. E. Frankel. London: Heinemann. An examination of the problems that face scientists and the spirit of free inquiry when challenged by the requirements of government and official ideology.

Brecht, Bertolt. (1970–1987). Collected Plays 7 vols., eds. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. London: Methuen.

Esslin, Martin. (1971). Brecht: The Man and His Work, rev. ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Willett, John. (1959). The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. London: Methuen.

Brecht, Bertolt

views updated May 29 2018

Brecht, Bertolt (1898–1956) German playwright, poet, and drama theorist. One of the most influential dramatists of the 20th century, his controversial early plays, such as Baal (1918), won praise for their radicalism. In the 1920s, Brecht developed his distinctive, politicized theory of epic theatre. An attempt to move away from Western theatrical realism, it encouraged audiences to see theatre as staged illusion via a range of “alienation” techniques. Music played an important part in this foregrounding of artifice. Brecht's major works were written in collaboration with composers: Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1927); Hanns Eisler, The Mother (1931); and Paul Dessau, The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948). With the rise of Hitler in 1933, Brecht's Marxist views forced him into exile. While in the USA, he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) and The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943). In 1949, Brecht returned to East Germany to direct the Berliner Ensemble.

Brecht, Bertolt

views updated May 18 2018

Brecht, Bertolt (b Augsburg, 1898; d Berlin, 1956). Ger. dramatist and theatrical producer whose radical outlook had enormous influence before and after Nazi régime in Ger. After 1948 his Berliner Ens. fathered a sch. of realistic theatrical experiment. He provided libs. (though his authorship is now being questioned) for several mus. works by Kurt Weill, chief among them Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) (1928) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) (1927–9). Also wrote libs. for Hindemith, Eisler, Wagner-Régeny, Dessau, and Sessions.

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Bertolt Brecht

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