Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3782
Brecht’s status as Germany’s greatest twentieth century playwright is by now securely established. He joins the pantheon of his country’s most commanding dramatists, which includes Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Büchner, and Gerhart Hauptmann. Moreover, he is also a distinguished poet, with an astonishingly wide...
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Brecht’s status as Germany’s greatest twentieth century playwright is by now securely established. He joins the pantheon of his country’s most commanding dramatists, which includes Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Büchner, and Gerhart Hauptmann. Moreover, he is also a distinguished poet, with an astonishingly wide lyric range spanning folk ballads, Rimbaudesque prose poems, political epistles, and luminously concrete sonnets. Additionally, he is a provocative theorist of drama, whose concept of theatrical presentation has had enormous influence.
To address Brecht’s dramaturgy first: He had nothing but contempt for what he called illusionist, bourgeois, Aristotelian theater. He scorned all devices of composition and production that sought to seduce an audience into responding empathically to the events on stage, into identifying with one or more of the characters. He sought to produce the opposite effect, one of estrangement or distancing, which he called Verfremdung, the process of alienating. He wanted the audience not to identify strongly with the characters, not to be transported emotionally by the actions on stage. Instead, he wished to initiate contemplation and critical judgment in his spectators, to have them remain aware that they were witnessing “nothing but” a play on whose meaning they were invited to exercise their critical intelligence during the performance rather than after it.
To deliver his audience from what he regarded as the captivity of illusion and bring it to a state of social reform, Brecht rejected many of the hitherto unquestioned criteria of dramatic art. He sought to avoid a firmly coherent and climactic structure in his plays, instead unfolding the action in numerous loosely connected episodes that he termed “epic form.” He instructed his actors to remain detached from the personages that they portrayed, instead telling them to play openly to the public in the theater, making their roles commentaries rather than representations. He had brief synopses, often songs, at the beginning of each scene; they were intended to empty the following action of suspense. Instead of eliciting strong emotions to purge the spectators of pity and terror, Brecht sought to stress the unheroic, the grotesque, and the farcical, with his characters often speaking in colloquial, and even low, language.
Nonetheless, despite Brecht’s intense efforts to achieve distance and estrangement, to make his theater a school for educating the audience to revolutionary acts, he usually succeeded as a dramatist in proportion to his failure as a didactic theoretician. The differences between illusionist and epic theater turn out to be ones of degree rather than direct opposition. After all, in no theater does complete identification of the spectators with the characters occur, or they would rush on stage to save Desdemona from Othello. In no theater can there be complete detachment of the spectators from the drama, or they would doze off or walk out.
Brecht’s plays, despite his strenuous efforts to circumvent the emotional response of his audience by the negation of illusion, are charged with the energies of his moral and political passions. They have the effect of enthralling and, at best, deeply moving those who witness them. In his finest dramas, though he wished only to hone his audience to critical keenness, he also moved it to tears and wonder and laughter. Though he sought to shock his audience with sardonic humor and savage indignation, he could not help letting his compassion flood through self-imposed dikes of ferocious cynicism. Though he concentrated on such vices as greed, envy, brutality, and disloyalty in many of his works, he also rose above these pessimistic indictments. In such great achievements as The Good Woman of Setzuan, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Life of Galileo, he presented immortal images of vulnerability, decency, and sacrifice; he dramatized a world where sold souls do not always stay sold, and where the promptings of humaneness sometimes conquer the dictates of ideology. The disproof of much of Brecht’s theorizing, then, came through his art as a playwright—an art that richly gratified the audience’s hunger for sympathy, identification, and, thus, illusion.
Brecht is a divided, often enigmatic, writer whose works, for all of their extreme left-wing ideology, remain enticing and elusive. His basic vision of life is harrowing, fascinated by, in his early plays, cruelty, determination, bestiality, irrationalism, and blind instinctualism. A hysteria of violence hovers at the margins of his early dramas (as well as poems), an awareness that humankind’s will is weak and malleable and that its nature is savage, brutal, and often uncontrollable. Should a character speak of love, loyalty, friendship, honor, progress, or religion, the chances are that he is merely masking a corrupt and greedy deal.
Yet Brecht’s works also often have a raffishly humane aspect that charms and beguiles his public. Almost all of his characters find themselves repelled by their base instincts and seek a state of calm beyond the turmoil of their appetites. All of Brecht’s later characters, such as Galileo, Courage, Shen Te and Shui Ta, the two Annas in Die Sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger (pr. 1933, pb. 1959; The Seven Deadly Sins, 1961), and Puntila drunk and Puntila sober, are split, vacillating between reason and instinct, the true self and the pseudoself, survival and self-sacrifice. The mature Brecht often shows human impulses as healthy, kindly, courteous, and loving, while reminding the audience that society is selfishly competitive and ultimately evil.
The Threepenny Opera
First produced: Die Dreigroschenoper, 1928 (first published, 1929; English translation, 1949)
Type of work: Play
This work is a Marxist reinterpretation of John Gay’s ballad opera, starring a businessman-gangster.
The Threepenny Opera, written exactly two hundred years after John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728), follows its model closely in plot and in the names of its characters. Like Brecht’s Berlin, Gay’s eighteenth century London underwent a period of expansion and consolidation, with a Whig government rotten with corruption. Gay’s opera chiefly satirizes the aristocracy’s manners and morals, although it also mocks marriage, politics, theatrical conventions, the prison system, and many professions. By providing the highwayman Macheath with the dash of a courtier, and whores with the grace of ladies, Gay indicts the vices of the upper class without needing to bring a single upper-class personage on stage.
Brecht adopts Gay’s ironic inversion of high and low life but aims, in place of the no-longer-vital aristocracy, at Germany’s triumphant, smug, powerful bourgeoisie. The criminal highwayman Macheath is called “Mac the Knife” (Mackie Messer), and while he is a thief, arsonist, rapist, and murderer, he also has the habits of a middle-class entrepreneur, keeping books, worshiping efficiency, and insisting on business discipline by his gang. His thieves are in competition with big business and the banks; they are defeated by the more predatory, shrewder, better-financed Jonathan Peachum. As he stands before the gallows, in what seems to be his farewell address, Mackie laments that he is a small fish about to be swallowed by a bigger one:Ladies and gentlemen. You see before you a declining representative of a declining social group. We lower-middle-class artisans who work with humble jemmies on small shopkeepers’ cash registers are being swallowed up by big corporations backed by the banks. What’s a jemmy compared with a stock certificate? What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank?
In Brecht’s cynical, Marxist equation, the petty bourgeois equals the petty larcenist, while the tycoon finds his counterpart in Peachum, who licenses all the beggars in London and forces them to pay him 70 percent of their weekly take. Peachum transforms healthy men into deformed and pitiful creatures through the application of artificial limbs, eye patches, and the like—all carefully calculated to evoke the limited charitable impulses of the rich. Thus, if Mackie exemplifies the relationship between crime and business, Peachum highlights the relationship between the selfish capitalist ethic and the sacrificial morality of Christianity. Both Mackie and Peachum agree, in one of Brecht’s most famous statements, that eating comes first, then morality. Brecht suggests that Christianity and capitalism are really in the same ultimately corrupt league.
Brecht’s satiric attack on the bourgeoisie extends to its conventions of marriage, romantic love, and male camaraderie. Mac the Knife’s wedding to Polly Peachum is a typical middle-class banquet, featuring toasts, gifts, bad jokes, and gorging guests—except that it takes place in a stable and all the furnishings are stolen. Romantic love is reduced to lust and betrayal, with the relationship of Mackie and Jinny Jenny replete with pimping, whoring, sexual disease, and betrayal.
The play’s action follows a complicated network of double crosses: Macheath betrays Polly, Lucy Brown, and his gang; the whores betray Macheath twice; Peachum not only informs against Macheath but also sabotages his daughter’s chances for romantic bliss; and the plot climaxes with Mackie’s betrayal to the authorities by his supposed friend, the high sheriff of London, Tiger Brown. The Brown-Macheath friendship, added by Brecht to Gay’s plot, features a Kiplingesque ballad of their army bonding but is actually based on commercial advantage: Mackie gives Brown the goods on other criminals, while Brown, collecting a third of the reward, in turn provides police protection for Macheath.
Brecht sees every individual betrayed by an aggregation of other individuals, as well as by his own nature. Mackie, after all, commits consistent self-betrayals by following his compulsive libido and is brought down by his womanizing.
The Threepenny Opera is a second-rate achievement on Brecht’s part: Macheath is too winning a charmer to persuade the audience that he is a reprehensible criminal. More significantly, Brecht’s play fails to resolve a fundamental dilemma: Does human evil stem from an evil system (capitalism), or are there fundamental evils in human nature that systems merely reflect? The work’s glory is Kurt Weill’s brilliant music, which displays a high level of wit and rhythmic vitality. Thanks mainly to Weill, The Threepenny Opera is probably Brecht’s most frequently mounted play.
Mother Courage and Her Children
First produced: Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, 1941 (first published, 1949; English translation, 1941)
Type of work: Play
Anna Fierling, nicknamed Mother Courage, lives by the war as a small trader but pays her dues by losing all three of her children.
Brecht completed Mother Courage and Her Children in November, 1939, with its theme of the harrowing and devastating effects of a European war paralleling the outbreak of World War II in September of that year. Its world premiere did not take place until 1941, in Zurich, Switzerland, starring the fine actress Therese Giehse. In 1949, an even finer actress, Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, assumed the central role for what was to be her most celebrated triumph. The work’s subtitle, A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War, indicates that it deals with the feast of death that bore down on much of Europe from 1618 to 1648, solving no problems and settling no issues.
Having identified business with gangsterism in The Threepenny Opera, Brecht now identifies business with war. He seeks to present a relentlessly Marxist indictment of the economic causes of war. In his production notes, he states that the work is designed to demonstrate that “war, which is a continuation of business by other means, makes the human virtues fatal even to their possessors.” In the drama’s atmosphere of rape, pillage, and meaningless killing, with Protestants and Catholics slaughtering one another for a generation, all human ideals degenerate into hypocritical cant, while heroism shatters into splinters of cruelty, madness, greed, or absurdity. The play is bitterly pacifist, with all the featured characters living off the war yet remaining blind to the penalties that it demands, as most of them pay with their lives.
The play’s protagonist, Anna Fierling, is a canteen owner known more familiarly as Mother Courage. Brecht took the name from a character who appeared in two novels, Der abenteuerlich Simplicissimus (1688; The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912) and Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche (1670; Courage: The Adventuress, 1964), both written by the German novelist Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. Whereas Grimmelshausen’s heroine is a seductive, hedonistic, childless harlot of illegitimate but aristocratic birth, Brecht’s Courage is a salty, opportunistic, self-serving businesswoman, a shameless profiteer who cashes in on the troops’ needs for alcohol and clothing; another character calls her “a hyena of the battlefield.” Shrewd, sardonic, and skeptical, she is a full-blooded personification of her creator’s antiheroic view of life.
During twelve scenes that take place from 1624 to 1636, the reader/spectator follows Anna Fierling’s wagon as she makes her living from the war yet believes she can keep her grown children out of it. Each child is by a different father, and each represents one virtue in excess and is consequently killed by it. Swiss Cheese, honest but stupid, is entrusted with the cashbox as paymaster of a Protestant regiment; when he is captured by the Catholics, he refuses to surrender the money and is riddled by eleven bullets. His mother could have saved him, but only at the price of pawning her wagon, on which she and her daughter depend for their livelihood. The mother concludes prolonged bouts of bargaining with the realization, “I believe—I haggled too long.”
The other son, Eiliff, is brave—a virtue in wartime but a liability during an interlude of peace, when he murders innocent peasants who wished only to protect their cattle. He discovers that law and morality are relative, shifting their ground to accommodate society’s needs.
Fierling’s daughter, Kattrin, mute and disfigured, is the incarnation of kindness, compassion, and love, achieving allegorical grandeur. Yet in this merciless war she is shot down from the wagon’s roof by soldiers attempting a surprise attack, as she beats her drum to warn the besieged town and thereby save children’s lives. Her grand gesture succeeds, but at the cost of her life. The scene dramatizing Kattrin’s heroism has the prolonged excitement and suspense of melodrama, substituting passionate persuasion and spectator empathy for Brecht’s satiric dialectic and strategy of distancing.
Courage herself is one of Brecht’s most contradictory and perplexing characters. She is in turn admirable and despicable, with more extreme traits than any other of his protagonists. As Eric Bentley has pointed out, she is tough, honest, resilient, and courageous, but also cold, cunning, rigid, and cowardly. She concludes business deals in the back room while her children die, yet all of her transactions are undertaken for their sake. Her philosophy is to concede defeat on such large issues as the war itself, while trying to prosper as a small business entrepreneur. Brecht intends her as a vice figure in a morality play but cannot control his affection for her as she transcends his design. He tries to condemn her as a vicious Falstaff, yet his drama stresses her single-minded determination to survive.
While it is true that Courage has haggled while her children die, it is also true that her loss of them is desolately tragic. A pathetic victim of wrong dreams, she must end the play by harnessing herself to her inhuman fourth child—her wagon—to trudge after the troops as the stage begins to turn in an accelerating vortex of crazed misery. Both her smallness and her greatness are memorable in the last scene of this masterpiece.
First produced: Leben des Galilei, 1943 (first published, 1955; English translation, 1947)
Type of work: Play
One of history’s greatest scientists exhibits both admirable strengths and deplorable weaknesses.
Galileo (also known as The Life of Galileo) is the most heavily reworked of Brecht’s plays, occupying his interim attention during the last nineteen years of his life. He began writing it in German in 1938 while in Denmark, with the great physicist Niels Bohr checking the accuracy of Brecht’s astronomical and physical descriptions. This version was the one produced in Zurich in 1943. After he had moved to Southern California, Brecht befriended the actor Charles Laughton, and from 1944 to 1947 they collaborated on a new version in a unique mixture of mostly German and some English. This new text changes Galileo’s character from that of a guileful hero who recants to safeguard his scientific discoveries to a coward who betrays the truth and later castigates himself for having compromised his scientific calling. The explosion of the first nuclear bombs over Japanese cities strongly affected Brecht’s characterization of his protagonist. The Laughton version, starring Laughton in the central role, was produced in Los Angeles and then in New York in 1947, though with small success. In 1953, Brecht and some members of the Berliner Ensemble created a third version in German, using what they considered to be the best portions of previous texts. This construction was the one staged in 1955; it is generally regarded as the standard text.
Galileo is written in chronicle form, with fifteen scenes taking the scientist from 1609, when he is forty-five, to 1637, when he is seventy-four. In the first scene, he is a lecturer at the University of Padua, living with his daughter Virginia and housekeeper, Mrs. Sarti, whose intelligent son, Andrea, becomes his favorite pupil. Frustrated because he is underpaid, Galileo accepts better conditions at the court of the Medici in Florence. There his findings tend to prove the heliocentric theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, while the Church insists on adhering to the earth-centered Ptolemaic cosmology. The Holy Office forbids Galileo to pursue his research, but when a liberal mathematician becomes the next pope, Galileo resumes his work. His hopes for the dissemination of his theories are short-lived: He is summoned before the Inquisition, is threatened with torture, and recants his views. For the rest of his life, Galileo remains the Holy Office’s prisoner. When Andrea Sarti visits him in 1637, however, Galileo gives him the “Discorsi” to smuggle out of Italy, while also bitterly denouncing himself for his cowardice.
Galileo tells Andrea that, had he resisted the Inquisition, “scientists might have developed something like the physicians’ Hippocratic oath, the vow to use their knowledge only for the good of mankind.” This unequivocal self-condemnation sharpens the split nature of the great scientist. For Brecht, Galileo is not only a masterly scholar and teacher, an intellectual locksmith picking at rusty incrustations of Ptolemaic tradition, but also a self-indulgent sensualist who loves to gorge himself with food and wine. After his recantation, his disciples are disillusioned with their master. Responds Galileo drily, “Unhappy the land that needs a hero.” Such a view echoes Brecht’s own sentiments, and his Galileo is in important respects a canny self-portrait. Like Galileo, Brecht employed all of his cunning and compromised with the authorities so that he could persist in his work. Moreover, the Galileo who lashes himself for his failure of nerve may represent Brecht’s self-evaluation and self-condemnation. For one brief stage in his foxy life, Brecht may have been seized by the seductive notion of absolutely intransigent morality. It did not last.
Galileo is the subtlest of Brecht’s dramas, challenging readers and audiences with its muted, yet constrained, force and its divided focus: It is a play about both the suffocation of free intellectual inquiry and the alleged sociopolitical irresponsibility of purely scientific inquiry. Next to Courage, Galileo is the most complex of Brecht’s characters, compassionate to his students yet brutal to his pious daughter, brilliantly charismatic yet also selfishly opportunistic, driven by a Faustian passion for knowledge yet gluttonous for personal comforts. The play is marvelously organic, with each scene serving an indispensable purpose, each character integrated meaningfully into its structure, while the language unites historical accuracy with elegant irony. It is one of the wonders of the modern theater.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
First produced: 1948 (first published, 1949; first produced in German as Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, 1958)
Type of work: Play
In this mellow morality play, virtue and justice triumph in an otherwise harsh world.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is Brecht’s most cheerful and charming play, offered as a moral lesson with deference to the techniques of both the Oriental and the Elizabethan theater. Its structure is intricate, and more distanced, or epic, than that of any other Brechtian play. Several plots run through it, all merging at the end.
Plot 1 is set in the Russian province of Georgia, where members of two collective farms meet to resolve a dispute about a tract of land. Plot 2 is a story of flight. The peasant Grusha is forced to flee a Caucasian city as a result of usurpation and revolt. Having saved the abandoned child of the dead governor’s wife, she risks her life for her maternal instinct, passing over dangerous bridges, marrying an apparently dying man (who then revives to plague her), and almost sacrificing her lover, Simon, who is returning from the civil war. After two years, a counterrevolt returns the governor’s party to power, and the governor’s widow claims her estate, which she can obtain only as the mother of the legal heir. Her soldiers find Grusha and the infant and bring them to trial. As the storyteller, who distances the text in epic fashion, sings, “She who had borne him demanded the child./ She who had raised him faced trial./ Who will decide the case?”
The judge is Azdak, one of the finest rogues in dramatic literature. Plot 3 features him as a brilliant Lord of Misrule. Having been appointed magistrate as a consequence of a prank, he used bourgeois, Marxist legal chicanery to pass down antibourgeois, Marxist legal decisions. He is a drunk, lecher, and monumental bribe taker, yet he always manages to arrive at humane and fair decisions, acting according to the spirit of justice while ignoring the letter of the law.
In plot 4, the play’s separate actions neatly converge, finding their moment of impact in a marvelous courtroom scene. Azdak awards Grusha the child in a chalk-circle test that enacts the biblical legend with inverse results: The woman who has been a nurturing mother obtains custody rather than the biological but unfeeling mother; moreover, Azdak divorces Grusha from her husband so that she and Simon can marry. The disputed land is awarded to the fruit growers, who can use it better than its previous, goat-breeding owners.
The play is a parable that poses and resolves a set of basic issues: legal justice versus practical justice, morality versus expediency, reason versus sentiment, and, as stated, the claims of the adoptive mother versus those of the natural mother. Yet the work is singularly lacking in didacticism and offers a wealth of theatrically striking episodes, while the lyrical language of the storyteller’s narration is suitably balanced by starkly realistic, earthy idioms.