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Bertolt Brecht is best known as a dramatist, but he also wrote poetry, novels, screenplays, dramatic theory, and essays on politics and society, as well as short fiction.
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Although of necessity outside Germany in exile for sixteen years, it was in Germany, not Scandinavia or the United States, that Bertolt Brecht was best received. In 1922, at the beginning of his career as a writer, he received the Kleist Prize for literature for his drama Trommeln in der Nacht (1922; Drums in the Night, 1961). Later, when he had made his home in what was then East Germany, he received the National Prize of East Germany, First Class, in 1951. His work was recognized again in 1954, when he became a member of the Artistic Advisory Committee of the East German Ministry of Culture. At the same time, he was also vice president of the German Academy of the Arts. In 1954-1955, he was awarded the International Stalin Peace Prize.
Brecht’s contribution as a dramatist has been compared to William Shakespeare’s. In all of his works, he was a master stylist with a socialist vision, who encouraged his readers and audiences to think with critical distance.
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Bertolt Brecht experimented with several literary forms, and his output in all genres was considerable. He wrote novels, short fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays. His novel Der Dreigroschenroman (1934; The Threepenny Novel) was translated in 1937; his short fiction is collected in Geschichten von Herrn Keuner (1930, 1958; Stories of Mr. Keuner, 2001); and many of his essays appeared in his three-volume Arbeitsjournal, 1938-1955 (1973; Bertolt Brecht Journals, 1993). Kuhle Wampe (1932; English translation, 1933) is an example of his fine work in film. An exhibit of Brecht’s works, on display in his final residence, includes more than thirty dramatic works, about thirteen hundred poems and songs, three novels, numerous screenplays, and more than 150 works of nonfiction.
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Bertolt Brecht’s influence on the contemporary theater—especially on the development of political drama—extends worldwide. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, his plays are the most frequently performed after William Shakespeare’s. Translated into many languages, they are included in the repertoire of theater companies throughout both Western and Eastern Europe and the United States. Among the prizes that Brecht received for his works are the Kleist Prize in 1922, the East German National Prize in 1951, and the International Stalin Peace Prize in 1954. Brecht formed the Berliner Ensemble in 1949 and made it into one of the best acting companies in Europe. In 1954, Brecht’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children was awarded first prize at the International Theater Festival in Paris. In the following year, his production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle received second prize at the same festival. These two productions contributed to Brecht’s international reputation as a director as well as a playwright.
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A prolific writer, Bertolt Brecht experimented with several literary forms and subjected nearly everything he wrote to painstaking revision. He first became known as a dramatist when he won the distinguished Kleist Prize in 1922 for his plays Baal (wr. 1918, pb. 1922; English translation, 1963), Trommeln in der Nacht (wr. 1919-1920, pr., pb. 1922; Drums in the Night, 1961), and Im Dickicht der Städte (pr. 1923; In the Jungle of Cities, 1961), and he remains perhaps best known for plays such as Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941) and his groundbreaking operas Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera, 1949) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (pb. 1929; libretto; Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1957). His longer prose works include the novels Der Dreigroschenroman (1934; The Threepenny Novel, 1937, 1956) and Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar (1956; the affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar). Brecht also wrote about eighty short stories, as well as essays in his Arbeitsjournal (1938-1955, 1973; work journal).
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Just as he would have it, Bertolt Brecht remains today a controversial figure. His literary works, his politics, and his biography spark disagreement, but one thing is clear: Brecht belongs among the great writers of the twentieth century, and certainly among the great modern poets. When Brecht died, Lion Feuchtwanger praised him as the only originator of the German language in the twentieth century.
Brecht was a bit of a showman (he was immediately recognizable in Berlin with his leather jacket, his proletarian cap, and his nickel-rimmed glasses), but he was always more interested in what people thought of his work than in what they thought of him. Eric Bentley, for example, has called Brecht’s Manual of Piety “one of the best of all books of modern poems.” Brecht’s initial success on the stage in 1922, the year in which he won the Kleist Prize, was echoed in 1928 with the sensational premiere of The Threepenny Opera in Berlin. Toward the end of his life, Brecht was awarded the East German National Prize (1951), the highest distinction conferred by the German Democratic Republic on one of its citizens. In 1954, he became vice president of the East German Academy of Arts. One year before his death, he traveled to Moscow to accept the Stalin Peace Prize.
Without a doubt, Brecht is best known for his concept of the epic theater and his staging and acting technique of Verfremdung (alienation). He sought the intellectual rather than the emotional engagement of the audience, and his propensity for didactic structure rather than sentimental discourse is evident in his poetry as well. Brecht embraced Karl Marx’s thesis that “it is not a matter of interpreting the world, but of changing it.” His anti-Aristotelian theater concentrated on the factual and sober depiction of human and social conflicts, but with humorous alienation and alienating humor. To do serious theater today without acknowledging Brecht in some way is nearly impossible.
An assessment of Brecht’s achievements cannot overlook his relation to literary tradition. Brecht “borrowed” freely from his predecessors, and he frequently chose the forms of parody or satire to make his readers aware of historical change and social contradictions. His candid speech did not always win favor: Because of his antiwar poem “Legende vom toten Soldaten” (“Legend of the Dead Soldier”), which was appended to his play Drums in the Night, Brecht was high on the Nazis’ list of undesirables. It must be ranked among Brecht’s accomplishments that, with his pen, he fought doggedly against the forces of evil and injustice which he saw embodied in the figure of Adolf Hitler and in the Nazi regime. The intensity and range of Brecht’s voice as an essayist and dramatist have long been recognized; in contrast, because of the publication history of his poetry, it is only since Brecht’s death that the power and scope of his lyric voice have begun to be appreciated.
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Consider the unfairness involved in the considerable criticism of Bertolt Brecht’s Communist convictions while Europe was being wracked by Fascist and Nazi forces.
With such organizations as the House Committee on Un-American Activities so important in the 1950’s, why was 1956 such an unfortunate time for Brecht to die?
Consider Brecht’s place among the poets of Germany.
What traits dominate the mother figure in Brecht’s plays?
What explanation might be given for the extraordinary popularity of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera in the United States?
Did the success of Brecht’s most important plays result because of, or in spite of, his relentless hostility toward business?
Which merits of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo give this play a chance to remain “one of the wonders of the modern theater”?
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064
Bartram, Graham, and Anthony Waine, eds. Brecht in Perspective. London: Longman, 1982. Thirteen excellent essays by highly qualified scholars. The topics range from German drama before Brecht through Brecht’s manifold innovations to Brecht’s legacy for German and English playwrights. Indispensable reading for understanding the broader context of his works.
Bentley, Eric. Bentley on Brecht. New York: Applause, 1998. Noted Brecht scholar subsumes two earlier works on the German poet-playwright covering his knowledge of Brecht from 1942-1948. Cogently examines Brecht’s stagecraft and dramatic theory, his position as a poet, his influence, and fifteen of his plays (including their production). Contains personal reminiscences and includes an index to Brechtian works and characters and two bibliographies.
Cook, Bruce. Brecht in Exile. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982. A series of essays that covers Brecht’s life in exile in America from 1933 until 1956. Briefly mentions that although Brecht had become quite skilled in the short story, he never mastered the novel. Discusses the story “The Augsburg Chalk Circle” as the source for the play The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Dickson, Keith A. Towards Utopia: A Study of Brecht. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978. Contains a nine-range discussion of the short fiction, with analyses of three stories from Tales from the Calendar: “The Experiment,” “The Heretic’s Coat,” and “Caesar and His Legionary.” Places Brecht’s works in the context of literary, philosophical, social, and political history. German quotations are translated at the end of the book.
Eddershaw, Margaret. Performing Brecht: Forty Years of British Performance. London: Routledge, 1996. Analyzes how British performances from the 1950’s to the 1990’s have been influenced and shaped by Brecht’s dramatic theories, his own practice and productions, and changing views of the plays’ meanings. Included are case studies of three 1990’s productions.
Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. 1960. Rev. ed. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1971. A lucidly written biography. Emphasizes that Brecht’s lasting fame is mainly attributable to his masterful use of language, not to the intended message of the works, which often has the opposite of the desired effect. The reference section includes a useful descriptive list of Brecht’s principal works.
Fuegi, John. Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama. New York: Grove, 1994. Fuegi has respectable academic credentials: He is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Maryland, founder of the International Brecht Society, and has had two previous books on Bertolt Brecht published. According to Fuegi, his newest work, dealing at great length not only with Brecht but also with a wide circle of his associates and collaborators, is the result of twenty-five years of research. It is bound to create intense controversy among Brecht scholars and critics. For a review of this work see Magill book review.
Fuegi, John. Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, According to Plan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. While concentrating on the dramatic works, Fuegi stresses the enormous contribution made by Brecht’s loyal collaborators, including Elizabeth Hauptmann, who may actually have written most of “The Beast.” Contains a detailed chronology in the appendix.
Giles, Steve, and Rodney Livingstone, eds. Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1998. A collection of essays on Brecht written one hundred years after his birth. Bibliography.
Hayman, Ronald. Brecht: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983. A lengthy, dispassionately objective biography with many interesting details. Hayman skillfully integrates the facts of Brecht’s private life with the discussion of his works. Opens with a chronology and a list of performances.
Hill, Claude. Bertolt Brecht. Boston: Twayne, 1975. An overall introduction to Brecht’s life and work. The only references to the short fiction are brief mentions of the Keuner stories and of the story “The Augsburg Chalk Circle” as the source for The Caucasian Chalk Circle. However, this is a good introduction to Brecht’s work written for the general reader.
Jameson, Frederic. Brecht and Method. New York: Verso, 1998. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A challenging study of Brecht as a modernist and postmodernist thinker by a noted neo-Marxist critic and theorist. Jameson discusses Brecht’s dialectical method, his relationship to the montage theory of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, and the relationship between his theory and his practice.
Martin, Carol, and Henry Bial. Brecht Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2000. Collection of protean essays in three sections: Brecht’s key theories, his theories in practice, and, most successful, the adoption of his ideas internationally.
Mews, Siegfried, ed. A Bertolt Brecht Reference Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. An indispensable guide for the student of Brecht. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Speirs, Ronald, ed. Brecht’s Poetry of Political Exile. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A collection of essays that examine the poetry Brecht wrote while in exile from Germany during World War II.
Thomson, Peter. Brecht: “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Plays in Production series. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. An examination of the stage history and dramatic production of Mother Courage and Her Children, the conclusion of which was written by Viv Gardner. Bibliography and index.
Thomson, Peter, and Glendyr Sacks, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge Companions to Literature series. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. This extensive reference work contains a wealth of information on Brecht. Bibliography and index.
Völker, Klaus. Brecht: A Biography. Translated by John Nowell. New York: Seabury Press, 1978. Translation of Bertolt Brecht: Eine Biographie. Munich: Carl Hanser, 1976. A positive portrait of Brecht, with emphasis not necessarily on the major works. Interspersed with appropriate lines of Brecht’s poetry. Good photo section, name index, and title index.
Walker, John. “City Jungles and Expressionist Reifications from Brecht to Hammett.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Spring, 1998): 119-133. Discusses how the fiction of Brecht and Dashiell Hammett presents the urban landscape as technological anti-utopia and primeval jungle. Discusses the urban jungle metaphor as background for both expressionism and noir. Argues that Hammett reproduces the model of human relations in Brecht’s fiction.
Weideli, Walter. The Art of Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Daniel Russell. New York: New York University Press, 1963. One of the few studies of Brecht to mention his short stories. Suggests that the stories in Calendar Tales constitute a kind of popular almanac containing Brecht’s rules of conduct. Contends Brecht reduces various heroes of history to a common denominator in the collection.
Willett, John. Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1998. A comparative analysis of the works of Brecht. Bibliography and index.
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