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...

(The entire section is 2077 words.)

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

During the 1920’s Brecht established his reputation in Berlin with a series of popular political plays that attacked capitalism. These included The Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930). As the National Socialist (Nazi) Party rose to power, he began writing openly Marxist plays, such as The Mother (1932). After Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the country in 1933, Brecht fled to Denmark. In Germany his writings were burned and his citizenship was withdrawn. Although he was a Marxist, Brecht did not join the Communist Party because he disagreed with the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism and he felt betrayed by the Soviet Union’s intraparty purges.

As German military power grew, Brecht fled again in 1939—first to neutral Sweden, later to Finland. He remained in Finland until 1941, when his family fled to the United States. During his exile years Brecht wrote anti-Nazi plays, such as The Private Life of the Master Race (1945), and drafts of several of his most important works, including Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) and his anticensorship play, The Life of Galileo (1943).

Brecht spent the war years with German compatriots in California, writing for Hollywood, but without significant success. These efforts focused on adapting an English version of The Life of Galileo for actor Charles Laughton and in drafting The...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Bertolt Brecht began studying medicine at the University of Munich in 1917, but a year later he was called up for military service as a medical orderly. He married Marianne Zoff in 1922, but they were divorced in 1927. Brecht left Munich for Berlin in 1924 and began an intensive study of economics and Marxism in 1926. After his divorce, he married the actress Helene Weigel, one of the best interpreters of his plays. Because of Nazi resentment against him and his work, Brecht and his family had to leave Germany in 1933, and they lived mostly in Scandinavia until they came to California in 1941. On October 30, 1947, Brecht was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and left the United States for Europe the next day. He settled in East Berlin in 1949 and formed the Berliner Ensemble acting company. Brecht died on August 14, 1956, of coronary thrombosis.

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg in Southern Germany on February 10, 1898. Between 1908 and 1917, Brecht attended Realgymnasium (high school) in his hometown, but he was almost expelled in 1916 for writing a pacifist essay (pacifism is a constant theme in his works). After leaving high school in 1917, he enrolled at the University of Munich to study medicine. In 1918, he was called for military service and worked as an orderly in the venereal disease ward of the Augsburg military hospital. After the war, he lived in Munich as a freelance writer. In 1922, he married Marianne Zoff but was later divorced from her in 1927. Brecht established himself in Berlin at the Deutsches Theater in 1924, where he worked under Max Reinhardt...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht was born into a comfortable middle-class home. His father, the manager of a paper factory, was Catholic; his mother, Protestant. Brecht was reared in the Lutheran faith. Before long, he turned strongly against religion, but the language of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible continued to influence Brecht throughout his life. A local Augsburg newspaper carried his first poems and essays in 1914, under the pen name “Berthold Eugen.” Brecht dropped the mask in 1916 with the publication of his poem “Das Lied der Eisenbahntruppe von Fort Donald” (“Song of the Fort Donald Railroad Gang”), in the same local paper.

A restless and arrogant student (“I did not succeed in being...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Even though Bertolt Brecht (brehkt), born Eugen Berthold Brecht, composed several ballads in his early twenties that told of his having been descended from shrewd, ruthless peasants, his genealogy was solidly middle class and could be traced back to the sixteenth century. He was born on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Germany. His father, Berthold Friedrich Brecht, was managing director of a paper mill in Augsburg. The father was Catholic, and his wife, Sophie, was Protestant; both Bertolt and his younger brother, Walter, were reared in their mother’s faith and primarily by her. Brecht’s boyhood and adolescence were marked by self-confidence, quick-mindedness, cunning, and vitality—all characteristics that kept him in good...

(The entire section is 1298 words.)

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like his greatest characters, Shen Te, Grusha, Azdak, Puntila, Courage, and Galileo, Bertolt Brecht is a survivor. He survived fifteen years of exile in the 1930’s and 1940’s; he survived harrowing stresses of migration, poverty, personal crises, grubby internecine rivalries, the bitter pathos of Adolf Hitler’s demonic enmity toward culture, and Joseph Stalin’s betrayal of left-wing idealism. Wherever he was, however sour his circumstances, he managed to produce an impressive volume of distinguished plays, poems, and provocative essays on dramaturgy at full steam. Like his literary/scientific alter ego, Galileo, he employed his sly tenacity to persist in his work.

No theatrical writer since Henrik Ibsen, August...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The reigning figure of international twentieth century theater is Bertolt Brecht (brehkt), who was born Eugen Berthold Brecht in the Bavarian city of Augsburg in 1898. Brecht came from bourgeois origins. His father began as a clerk in a paper mill and rose through the ranks to become its manager. Brecht completed his secondary education in Augsburg’s Realgymnasium in 1917, after being threatened with dismissal the preceding year because he had written a pacifist essay during wartime. Brecht’s pacifist sentiments, which eventually led to his being awarded the International Stalin Peace Prize in 1954, remained strong throughout his life and are at the thematic center of much of his writing.

Upon completing...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Drama for Students)

Born Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht on February 10,1898, in Augsburg, Germany, Bertolt Brecht is regarded as a founding father of modern...

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Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Drama for Students)

Brecht was born Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany. He was the son of a Catholic father,...

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Bertolt Brecht Biography

(Drama for Students)
Bertolt Brecht Published by Gale Cengage

Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany. He was the son of a Catholic father, Friedrich Brecht, who...

(The entire section is 515 words.)