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.

Biography

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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 idiosyncratic and equally indigestible to the official Soviet cultural apparatus, to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (before which he testified on October 30, 1947), and to the rigid party-liners who ran East Germany after World War II.

What does seem fundamental to Brecht’s vision and work is his derisive, cynical perspective on human nature. He is fascinated by human cruelty and sharklike bestiality, often depicting man as a predator motivated chiefly by his economic needs. Should a Brechtian character speak of love, loyalty, friendship, honor, progress, or religion, the chances are that he is merely masking a corrupt deal. Brecht’s Joan of Arc is an evangelical Salvation Army lassie in Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (1931; Saint Joan of the Stockyards, 1956). She tries to soften the heart of a Chicago meat magnate (well-named Pierpont Mauler) toward the plight of exploited stockyard workers; he tries to convince her of their alleged wickedness. In the end, starved and dying, sold out by her organization, she converts to the class struggle: “Those who are below are kept below/ so that those above may stay above/ and the vileness of those above is measureless.”

In his best plays, Brecht manages to rise above his mixture of cynicism-cum-Communism. In Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1938-1940; The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1948), the heroine, Shen Te, is naturally loving, kindly, selfless, and motherly; she fulfills herself by giving and thrives on sharing her feelings and goods. Unfortunately for her, the world repays her virtues with greed, betrayal, envy, spite, and ruthless exploitation. Hence, she must with increasing frequency call on the services of her calculating male “cousin,” Shui Ta, who meets the world on its own level of meanness and deception. Shui Ta turns out to be Shen Te masked, the other half of her personality that she needs to protect her interests, yet also the half that denies Shen Te her essential identity.

Brecht’s persistent return to characters of goodness, compassion, and vulnerability is perhaps illustrated in another parable play, Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (1944-1945; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948). Its coprotagonists are Gruscha, a kitchen maid in the mansion of a rich governor in Russian Georgia, and Azdàk, an alcoholic village scribe. Both perform impulsive deeds of kindness: Gruscha adopts the abandoned son of the governor’s wife when she flees during an uprising; Azdàk shelters a grand duke who has become an abject refugee in the same revolution. The scampish Azdàk is rewarded with a judgeship, which enables him to render verdicts combining the biting wit of Groucho Marx with the proletarian bias of Karl Marx. In the concluding courtroom scene, Azdàk awards Gruscha permanent custody of the boy, then flees the powerful vengeance of the boy’s birth mother. His brief days of judgeship are celebrated in a closing ballad as a “Golden Age when there was almost justice”—as happy a period, Brecht indicates, as man can realistically achieve in a society plagued by the defeat of decency.

In Mother Courage and Her Children, his most famous work, Brecht seeks to present a relentlessly Marxist indictment of the economic causes of war. In the drama’s atmosphere of rape, pillage, and meaningless murder, where Protestants and Catholics slaughter one another in the Thirty Years’ War, all human ideals degenerate into hypocritical cant, while heroism shatters into splinters of cruelty, madness, greed, or absurdity. The protagonist, owner of a canteen wagon who follows the close-to-endless war, is a shameless profiteer who cashes in on the troops’ needs for alcohol and clothes; repeatedly she is called “a hyena of the battlefield.”

Leben des Galilei (first version wr. 1938-1939; Life of Galileo, 1947) is in some respects a companion piece to Mother Courage and Her Children. Both dramas have protagonists who, like their creator, are egotistic opportunists, canny, shrewd, sometimes unheroic, and consistently self-divided. Brecht’s Galileo is not only a self-indulgent sensualist who loves to gorge himself with food and wine but also a masterly researcher and teacher, an intellectual locksmith picking at encrusted concepts as he elucidates his proof that the earth revolves around the sun. After the nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Brecht revised Galileo’s last long speech so that he would revile himself (that is, physics) for having failed to fulfill his/its duty to society, by having recanted his discoveries in fear of the Inquisition.

This altered ending may carry an autobiographical charge: The Galileo who lashes himself for his cowardice and lack of integrity may also be Brecht condemning himself for his foxy, slippery ethics. After all, Brecht usually put self-interested opportunism ahead of all other values. He spent his last years living affluently in East Berlin, presented by the Communist regime with his own theatrical company, the Berliner Ensemble, and with virtually unlimited time and means to stage his own plays. Concurrently, he was shrewd enough to place the copyright of his works with a West German publisher, to provide himself with ample Western currency and to obtain Austrian citizenship so he could travel freely to and from the East. Like Galileo, Brecht insists on defying easy categories of understanding.

Summary

Like his greatest characters—Shen Te, Gruscha, Azdàk, Courage, Galileo—Bertolt Brecht was 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 whole bitter pathos of Hitler’s demonic enmity to culture and Joseph Stalin’s betrayal of left-wing idealism. Wherever he was, however sour his circumstances, he managed to pour out an impressive volume of distinguished plays, poems, and provocative essays on dramaturgy at full pressure. Like his literary/scientific alter ego, Galileo, he employed his sly tenacity to persist in his work.

No theatrical practice since Henrik Ibsen’s, August Strindberg ’s, and Anton Chekhov’s has achieved as many masterpieces as that of Brecht: The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage and Her Children, and Galileo are assuredly among modernism’s dramatic peaks. The brilliant waywardness of Baal, profundity of In the Jungle of Cities, and poignancy of Saint Joan of the Stockyards are not far behind. Brecht’s only rival for reigning as the leading Western playwright of the middle and late twentieth century is Samuel Beckett.

Bibliography

Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Commentaries, 1943-1980. New York: Grove Press, 1981. Bentley is both the leading American drama scholar and the leading authority on Brecht in the United States. This anthology of his essays assembles articles from various periodicals, from several other Bentley books, and introductions to several plays.

Demetz, Peter, ed. Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. This collection, in the distinguished Twentieth Century Views series, includes several articles translated from the German and concerns itself with Brecht’s poetry and theories of drama as well as his plays.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. Esslin is a solid and diligent scholar who has assembled an enormous amount of information which he organizes clearly. Particularly valuable is a long reference section which includes a descriptive list of virtually all Brechtian works, a comprehensive bibliography, and a detailed list of all productions of Brecht’s plays in the United States up to the time of his death.

Hayman, Ronald. Brecht: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Hayman’s text is painstaking and comprehensively researched. While valuable for its multitude of facts, this book unfortunately blurs the dimensions of Brecht’s complex character and is generally unable to bring much light to an understanding of his works.

Lyons, Charles R. Bertolt Brecht: The Despair and the Polemic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. While Lyons’ style is sometimes opaque, he does demonstrate a trenchantly perceptive understanding of the Brechtian dramas he closely analyzes.

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