Bertolt Brecht Biography

Bertolt Brecht Biography

Bertolt Brecht is arguably the most revolutionary force in twentieth-century theater. His most famous concept is verfremdungseffekt (sometimes translated as the “alienation” effect), and it completely changed the way artists thought about and created theater. The key to this concept was that Brecht did not want audience members’ emotional involvement to prevent them from thinking about the social and political issues presented in a play. More importantly, he wanted thoughtfulness to incite action and participation. Through music, song, and vaudeville-style theatrics, Brecht’s “epic theatre” becomes a world where actors acknowledge the artifices of the medium and communicate directly with the audience. His ideas challenged the dominance of realism and forever altered traditional notions of what theater could be.

Facts and Trivia

  • One of Brecht’s famous plays, The Threepenny Opera, was based on a ballad opera written two hundred years earlier.
  • Brecht’s work was enormously collaborative, bearing the influence of his wife, Helene Weigel, and his troupe, The Berliner Ensemble.
  • Another of Brecht’s key theatrical tactics was “historicization,” which used events from the past to create parallels to contemporary issues. His important play Mother Courage and Her Children is considered a quintessential example of this technique.
  • Brecht was singled out by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his socialist leanings and was blacklisted in Hollywood.
  • Brecht’s plays continue to be produced in numerous versions and languages around the world. The Threepenny Opera was revived on Broadway in 2007, starring Alan Cumming and pop singer Cyndi Lauper.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Brecht is generally considered not only Germany’s leading dramatist but also one of the central influences on Western theater since World War II.

Early Life

Even though Eugen Berthold (later Bertolt) Brecht composed several ballads in his early twenties that told of his having been descended from shrewd, ruthless, guileful peasants, his genealogy was solidly middle-class and could be traced back to the sixteenth century. His father, Berthold Friedrich Brecht, was the managing director of a paper mill in Augsburg, a sleepy town of ninety thousand, forty miles northwest of Munich. He was Catholic, and his wife Sophie was Protestant; both Berthold and his younger brother, Walter, were reared in their mother’s faith and primarily by her—the father was a workaholic. Brecht’s boyhood and adolescence were marked by self-confidence, quick-mindedness, cunning, and vitality—all characteristics that stood him in good stead throughout his life. His skill in manipulating people and suppleness in pursuing his goals were also evident from his youth.

During World War I, Brecht began medical studies at the University of Munich to delay an early conscription; however, the only medical lectures he attended were those dealing with venereal diseases. Instead, he studied theater history with a Professor Artur Kutscher and made an idol of Frank Wedekind, who not only wrote notorious, Expressionistic plays advocating sexual liberation but also composed and sang ballads with aggressive bravado. Imitating Wedekind, Brecht created and bawled out his own ballads, performing in the coffeehouses and cabarets of Munich. In 1918, he wrote his first play, Baal (English translation, 1963), about an amoral bohemian bard-balladeer who cruelly exploits and then discards friends and lovers of both sexes. Baal’s only care is for the natural world, whose beauty he celebrates in rawly eloquent lyrics. That same year Brecht began writing Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night, 1961), a powerful pacifist drama whose protagonist is a disillusioned veteran returning to a Berlin dominated by war profiteers.

Perhaps the best of Brecht’s early works was Im Dickicht der Städte (1923; In the Jungle of Cities, 1961), in which two men engage in a seemingly motiveless duel of wills. Shlink, a Malaysian lumber dealer, seeks to buy Garga’s soul but is himself shown to be a victim—one whose skin has been so toughened by life that he can no longer feel; he stages his battle with Garga to penetrate his own shell of indifference.

Life’s Work

Moving to Berlin in 1924, Brecht became a celebrated personality in that city’s culturally brilliant postwar jungle. He shortened his first name to “Bert” and established for himself a part-intellectual, part-proletarian persona. His trademarks were a seminarian’s tonsorial haircut, steel-rimmed spectacles, two days’ growth of beard, a leather jacket, a trucker’s cap, a cheap but large cigar, and chronic rudeness. People found him either charismatic or repulsive; many women found him irresistible. He charmed the beautiful singer-actress Marianne Zoff in the early 1920’s. They married in November, 1922, had a daughter in 1923 but separated that year, and divorced in 1927. Brecht was to have many mistresses, of whom the most cherished were Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, and Ruth Berlau.

The most significant woman in Brecht’s life was the Vienna-born actress Helene Weigel, who was Jewish, strongly Marxist, and staunchly feminist. They met in 1923, married in 1929, and had a son, Stefan, in 1924 and a daughter, Barbara, in 1930. Weigel’s marvelously expressive face and superbly disciplined acting skills caused many theater critics to consider her the finest actress of her time on the German-speaking stage. Her greatest successes were in the title roles of Brecht’s Die Mutter (1932; The Mother, 1965) and Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1940; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941).

A central problem for students of Brecht is his adherence to Communism and its effect on his work. What is clear enough is that, from youth on, he revolted against the middle-class values that led Germany to a wasteful war, bitter defeat, extreme socioeconomic disorder in the 1920’s, and the National Socialist ascension to power, under Adolf Hitler, by the early 1930’s. What is also certain is that Brecht read Karl Marx’s writings with close attention in the middle-to-late 1920’s. What attracted him to Marxism was largely its hostility to the selfishness and arrogance of Germany’s business and military circles. The anarchic individualist in him delighted in this bitter opposition to the ruling classes, and, though Brecht’s membership in the Party remains uncertain—did he join it in 1930? later? never?—one cannot doubt his commitment to Marxism from the late 1920’s until his death. His adherence to Communism remained, nevertheless, consistently...

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