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date: 27 November 2020

Brecht, Bertolt

The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre

Phyllis Hartnoll,

Peter Found

Brecht, Bertolt [Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht] 


German poet and dramatist, who in 1918 was studying medicine in Munich when he wrote his first play Baal, not performed until 1923. His early writings are indebted rather to Expressionism than to the Marxism which was to provide the political mainspring of his work. The first of his plays to reach the stage was Drums in the Night (1922). This sober and somewhat cynical study of a soldier returning from the war proved a great success. It was taken to Berlin, where in 1924 Brecht settled as assistant to Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater. His next plays, In the Jungle of Cities (1923), Edward II (based on Marlowe, 1924), and Man is Man (1926), were less successful, but marked the beginning of his attempt to develop his own form of epic theatre, with its hotly debated ‘distancing techniques’ (alienation). Throughout his career he undertook much theoretical writing, and his aesthetic position was given its most definitive form in Kleines Organon für das Theatre (1949). In 1928 Brecht married his second wife Helene Weigel, who appeared in many of his plays, and had his first great success in the theatre with The Threepenny Opera at the Berlin Schiffbauerdamm. This very free adaptation of Gay's The Beggar's Opera had music by Kurt Weill, who also collaborated with Brecht on the operas Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1927) and Happy End (1929) and the opera-ballet The Seven Deadly Sins (1933). Weill's wife Lotte Lenya [Karoline Blamauer] (1900–81) appeared in most of these works. In the 1930s Brecht wrote a number of short didactic plays or Lehrstücke, the best of which were probably The Exception and the Rule (1938) and St Joan of the Stockyards, not staged until 1959 but considered by many the first work to show his full stature. When Hitler came to power in 1933 Brecht went into exile—first to Switzerland, then to Denmark and Finland, and finally in 1941 to the USA. During these years he wrote what are generally considered his best plays—Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), The Life of Galileo, The Good Person of Setzuan (both 1943), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1954)—which combine maturity of vision and depth of expression with a wider sympathy for the human predicament. During the same period he also wrote more overtly political plays such as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1958). In 1949 Brecht returned to East Germany and founded with Helene Weigel the Berliner Ensemble. His last years were spent mainly on revivals of his own plays and adaptations of foreign ones, among them Shakespeare's Coriolanus (as Koriolan) and Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer (as Trumpets and Drums). (All his adaptations were so different from the originals that they constituted virtually new works, particularly his Marxist version of Gozzi's Turandot, begun in 1930, taken up again in 1954, and left unfinished at his death.)

While few would now dispute Brecht's greatness as a playwright, there remains strong disagreement between those who regard him as a great Marxist writer and those who see him as a great writer in spite of his Marxism; equally, his aesthetic theories are seen both as essential and as obstructive to his creative work. His presentation of ‘epic’ as a necessary alternative to ‘dramatic’ theatre remains, however, persuasive. Writers described by others as his disciples tend to disclaim his direct influence; but he has undeniably helped to liberate the English-speaking theatre from the constraints of the well-made play. Most of Brecht's plays have now been seen in English, the first being Señora Carrar's Rifles in 1938.