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.
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.
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.
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).
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...
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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...
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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)....
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