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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2077
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.
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.
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