Life and career
Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Brecht studied medicine and worked briefly as an orderly in a hospital in Munich during World War I. After the war he moved to Berlin where an influential critic, Herbert Ihering, brought him to the attention of a public longing for modern theater.
During the postwar governments and then the Weimar Republic, Brecht met and began to work with Hanns Eisler — the composer with whom he shared the closest friendship throughout his life. He also met Helene Weigel, who would become his second wife and accompany him through exile and for the rest of his life. His first book of poems, Hauspostille, won a literary prize.
He married the opera singer and actress Marianne Zoff in 1922. Their daughter, Hanne Hiob, born in 1923, is a well-known German actress. One year later they had a son, Stefan. In 1930 Brecht married Weigel, and their daughter Barbara was born soon after. She also became an actress and currently holds the copyrights to all of Brecht's work.
Brecht formed a writing collective which became prolific and very influential. Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Emil Burri, Ruth Berlau and others worked with Brecht and produced the multiple Lehrstücke (teaching plays), which attempted a new dramaturgy for participants rather than passive audiences. These addressed themselves to the massive worker arts organisation that existed in Germany and Austria in the 1920s. So did Brecht's first great play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which attempted to portray the drama in financial transactions. He also worked in the theaters of Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator.
This collective adapted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Brecht's songs set to music by Kurt Weill. Retitled The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) it was the largest hit in Berlin of the 1920s and a renewing influence on the musical worldwide. One of its most famous lines underscored the hypocrisy of conventional morality imposed by the Church, working in conjunction with the established order, in the face of working-class hunger and deprivation:
The success of The Threepenny Opera was followed by the quickly thrown together Happy End. It was a personal and a commercial failure. The book was then claimed to be by the mysterious Dorothy Lane (now known to be Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht's secretary and close collaborator). Brecht only claimed authorship of the song texts. Brecht would later use elements of Happy End as the germ for his Saint Joan of the Stockyards, a play that would never see the stage in Brecht's life-time. Happy End's most redeeming quality was its inspired score by Weill, producing many Brecht/Weill hits like 'Der Bilbao-Song' and 'Surabaya-Jonny'.
The masterpiece of the Brecht/Weill collaborations, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), premiered in 1930 in Leipzig with an uproar, having Nazis protesting the opera in the audience. The Mahagonny opera would premier later in Berlin in 1931 as a triumphant sensation.
Brecht spent his last years in Berlin (1930-1933) working with his ‘collective’ on the Lehrstücke. These were a group of plays driven by morals, music and Brecht's budding Epic Theatre. The Lehrstücke often aimed at educating workers on Socialist issues. The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme), by far the most popular and scandalous of this series, was scored by Hanns Eisler. In addition, Brecht worked on a script for a semi-documentary feature film about the human impact of mass unemployment, Kuhle Wampe (1932), which was directed by Slatan Dudow. This striking film is notable for its subversive humour, outstanding cinematography by Günther Krampf, and Hanns Eisler's dynamic musical contribution. It still provides a vivid insight into Berlin during the last years of the Weimar Republic.
By February 1933, Brecht’s work was eclipsed by the rise of Nazi rule in Germany. Brecht would also have his work challenged again in later life by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) who believed he was under the influence of communism.
Nazi Germany and World War II
After Adolf Hitler won the election in 1933, Brecht perceived a great danger to himself and left for exile—to Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, then Russia and finally in the United States. In his resistance toward the Nazi and Fascist movements, Brecht wrote his most famous plays: Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, Mr Puntila and His Man Matti, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Sezuan, and many others. Brecht also wrote poetry which continues to attract attention and respect. He worked on a few screenplays for Hollywood, like Hangmen Also Die, though he had no real success or pleasure in this.
Cold War and East Germany
In the years of the Cold War and "red scare", the House Un-American Activities Committee hounded Brecht for his communist allegiances, and he was soon blacklisted by movie studio bosses. Brecht, along with about 9 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers, was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC in November of 1947 (The so called Hollywood Ten). He had pledged not to testify but did so anyway. Unlike the ten others who went before him, he was not cited for contempt. He testified that he was not a member of the communist party there or abroad, and was thanked by the Vice Chairman Karl Mundt for cooperating. By this time, Brecht had left the US and was running the Berliner Ensemble theatre in East Berlin. He had lived for many years in Moscow after 1933, but not in the other countries mentioned. In April of 1941, he acquired a visa at the US consulate in Finland to come to the US. He then traveled across the USSR by rail to Vladivostok during June. He was allowed to travel in the Soviet Union while officially an enemy alien from Germany when Germany attacked the USSR that same month. Citizens of the Soviet Union could not travel as freely. He arrived in the US in July of 1941 and took out papers to become a citizen in December, but never acted on them. He was regularly in touch with the Soviet Vice Counsel over the next seven years. His talent was as a playwright and poet and one would expect him to have worked in New York, but instead he stayed in Hollywood, where he had few notable accomplishments.
Leaving the United States for Europe, Brecht came to Switzerland, where he adapted Sophocles' Antigone, and then was invited to Berlin by East Germany. Horrified at the reinstatement of former Nazis into West Germany's government, Brecht accepted the offer and made East Berlin his home.
While Brecht's communist sympathies were a bane in the United States, East German officials sought to make him their hero. Though he had not been a member of the communist party, he had been deeply schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch, and his communist allegiances were sincere. He claimed communism appeared to be the only reliable antidote to militarist fascism and spoke out against the remilitarization of the West and the division of Germany. Brecht used Korschs’ version of the Marxist dialectic in both his aesthetic theory and practice in a central way when presenting his plays.
But Brecht proved to be almost as uncomfortable for his East German hosts as for the West Germans across the iron curtain. Brecht did not keep up appearances — he was scruffily dressed and always had a stubbly, unshaven face. East German security guards once excluded him from a Berlin reception being given in his own honor.
He also found the experience of living in a Stalinist state far different from what he had imagined in exile, when he composed works such as Die Massnahme ("The Measure"), which glorified the self-denying infallible vanguard party, or, more concretely, in Die Massnahmen, which justified the political decisions made by the Comintern that resulted in the spectacular failure of the revolution attempted in Shanghai in 1927.
Although Brecht lived in East Germany, a copyright on his writings was held by a Swiss company and he received valuable hard currency remittances; he remained an Austrian citizen. He used to drive around East Berlin in a pre-war DKW car — a rare luxury in the austere divided capital.
Brecht wrote very few plays in his last years in Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works. Some of his most famous poems, however, including the "Buckower Elegies", were from this time. Brecht died in 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 58.
In his will he provided instructions that a stiletto be placed in his heart and that he be buried in a steel coffin so that his corpse could not be eaten by worms. He is buried in the Dorotheenfriedhof in Berlin.
Brechtian is a term used by drama critics in regards to anything recalling Brecht's particular style and approach to theatre. He is one of only a handful of authors whose names have become adjectives (see Joycean, Kafkaesque, Orwellian and Pinteresque).
Brecht left the Berliner Ensemble to his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, which she ran until her death in 1971. Perhaps the most famous German touring theater of the postwar era, it was primarily devoted to performing Brecht plays.
His son, Stefan Brecht, became a poet and theatre critic interested in New York's avant-garde theatre.
Theory of theatre
Brecht wanted to answer to Lenin’s question ‘Wie und was soll man lernen?’ ('How and what should we learn?'). He created an influential theory of theatre, the epic theatre, wherein a play should not cause the spectator to emotionally identify with the action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage. He believed that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to use this critical perspective to identify social ills at work in the world and be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change.
Hans Eisler has noted, these plays resemble political seminars. Brecht described them as "a collective political meeting" in which the audience is to participate actively. One sees in this model a rejection of the concept of the bureaucratic elite party where the politicians are to issue directives and control the behaviour of the masses.
For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself, which he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as distancing effect, estrangement effect, or alienation effect). Such techniques included the direct address by actors to the audience, transposition of text to third person or past tense, speaking the stage direction outloud (Brecht on Theatre, 138), exaggerated, unnatural stage lighting, the use of song, and explanatory placards. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience's reality was, in fact a construction and, as such, was changeable.
Another technique that Brecht employed to achieve his Verfremdungseffekt was the idea referred to as historification. The content of many of his plays dealt with fictional tellings of historical figures or events. His idea was that if one were to tell a story from a time that is contemporary to an audience, they may not be able to maintain the critical perspective he hoped to achieve. Instead, he focused on historical stories that had parallel themes to the social ills he was hoping to illuminate in his own time. He hoped that, in viewing these historical stories from a critical perspective, the contemporary issues Brecht was addressing would be illuminated to the audience.
In one of his first productions, Brecht famously put up signs that said "Glotzt nicht so romantisch!" ("Don't stare so romantically!"). His manner of stagecraft has proven both fruitful and confusing to those who try to produce his works or works in his style. His theory of theatre has heavily influenced modern theatre, though it is believed that the effect of the epic theatre wears off after watching a few similar plays. Some of his innovations, though, have become so common that they've become theatrical canon.
Although Brecht's work and ideas about theatre are generally thought of as belonging to modernism, there is recent thought that he is the forerunner of contemporary postmodern theatre practice. This is particularly so because he questioned and dissolved many of the accepted practices of the theatre of his time and created a uniquely political theatre, that involved the audience in understanding its meaning. Moreover, he was one of the first theatre practitioners to incorporate multimedia into the semiotics of theatre.
Because several Brecht works were not performed until long after they were written, the dates below show both the year they were written, followed by the year they were first produced.
- Baal (1918/1926)
- Drums in the Night (Trommeln in der Nacht, 1918-20)
- In the Jungle of the Cities/ In the Swamp (1921-23)
- Man is Man (Mann ist Mann, 1924-25)
- The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper, 1928)
- Happy End (1929)
- Lindbergh's Flight (Der Lindberghflug, 1929)
- The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Die Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, 1928-29)/(1930)
- The Baden Lehrstück on Consent (1928-29)
- He Who Says Yes (Der Jasager, 1929)
- Saint Joan of the Stockyards (Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe, 1929/1959)
- He Who Says No (Der Neinsager, 1930)
- The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme, 1930)
- The Mother (Die Mutter, 1930/1932)
- The Exception and the Rule (Die Ausnahme und die Regel, 1930-31)/(1936)
- A short play about the exploitation of men. The characters undergo harsh treatment from a wealthy merchant with a lucrative interest in the imaginary deserts of Yahi.
- The Seven Deadly Sins (Die Sieben Todsüden der Kleinbürger, 1933)
- The Roundheads and the Peakheads (Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe, 1931-36)
- Fear and Misery in the Third Reich (Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches, 1935-38)
- Señora Carrara's Rifles (Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar, 1937/1937)
- based loosely on J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea, but relocated by Brecht in the Spanish Civil War
- Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, 1939/1941)
- The Trial of Lucullus(1939)
- Galileo (Leben des Galilei, 1938/1943)
- The Good Person of Sezuan (Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan, 1940/1943)
- Puntila and His Man Matti (Herr Puntila und sein Mann Matti, 1941)
- The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941/1961)
- Schweik in the Second World War (1941-44)
- The Visions of Simone Machard (1941-44) with Lion Feuchtwanger
- The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis) (1944-45)
- The Days of the Commune (1948-49)
- The Tutor (1950)
- Martin Esslin (1971) Brecht: The Man and His Work
- Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, eds. (1994) The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, Cambridge University Press
- John Willett, trans and ed. (1992) Brecht on Theatre, The Development of an Aesthetic, Hill and Wang, New York
- Žižek, S. (2000) The Fragile Absolute, or Why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For, London and New York: Verso. p. 147