Das Denken gehört zu den größten Vergnügungen der menschlichen Rasse.
Thinking is one of the greatest pleasures of the human race.
- Leben des Galilei; Life of Galileo, Scene 3
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)
Brecht is the most important playwright of the 20th century, unless you prefer Samuel Beckett. (Brecht and Beckett have points in common: both mistrusted psychology, both used stylisation in their plays and both were great admirers of the comedians Charlie Chaplin and Karl Valentin).
Most of Brecht’s plays from 1924 onwards were written in collaboration with others including Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau, Emil Burri, Slatan Dudow and Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, and in collaboration with composers such as Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau.
Brecht’s co-authors contributed willingly to the informal ‘Brecht collective’ because they believed in collective action as a political principle. This is based on the idea that working in a collective is liberating and can be more fruitful than individual work. Collective artistic labour also disrupts individualistic notions of intellectual property.
Brecht’s early work could be described as Expressionist; only in the mid 1920s did Brecht become a socialist. Around this time his style changed radically. From the mid-1920s onwards Brecht began to develop a form of theatre called ‘epic theatre’ which was intended to change the world by helping audiences to become more critically aware. Brecht criticised traditional theatre which for him was based on the Aristotelian principle of catharsis. Brecht saw this as a form of passive consumption; he claimed that he did not want to entertain people, but to make them think. In fact he did both.
Around 1937 Brecht listed some common misconceptions about epic theatre, including the claim that it combats emotion. Brecht denies this: he states that epic theatre does explore emotions, but it also goes beyond emotions. Epic theatre should bring more reason into theatre practice (on this point see Brecht, Werke, Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, vol. 22:1, pp. 315-16).
Brecht’s epic theatre breaks with traditional dramatic notions of character, showing human beings to be constantly changing and contradictory. As Jan Knopf puts it, Brecht was always more interested in attitudes (Haltungen) and forms of social behaviour than he was in characters (Knopf (2000), p. 72). Epic theatre is a theatre of conflicting interests in which social contradictions are unpacked, whilst his shorter ‘learning plays’ (Lehrstücke) practice new dialectical ways of thinking. Brecht thought that literature should be judged in terms of its practical use value for the present day.
Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt is very hard to translate. It could be translated as ‘estrangement effect’, or ‘distancing effect’, or ‘defamiliarising effect’ because ‘Verfremdung’ means the process of making something appear strange or foreign, as if it came from a long way away. It bears comparison with the concept of ostranenie (‘making strange’) developed by the Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky. However as Jan Knopf points out (see below, Knopf (2000), pp. 79-80), Verfremdung is intended to promote critical insight, and it is therefore different from ostranenie, which is intended to promote unprejudiced sensory perception. Translating Verfremdung as ‘alienation’ risks confusion with Marx’s term Entfremdung (‘alienation’). This is a completely different term which describes how workers become alienated from their own being when they no longer gain profit from their own labour.
Brecht was born in Augsburg in Bavaria. In 1917 he trained as a medical student in Munich and immediately after the end of the war he worked as a medical orderly in Augsburg. In 1919 he participated in Karl Valentin’s cabaret in Munich. He left university in 1921 and married Marianne Zoff, an opera singer, in 1922. In 1924 Brecht moved to Berlin where he lived with Helene Weigel. He divorced Zoff in 1927 and married Weigel in 1929. When Hitler came to power in 1933 Brecht moved to Paris and then to Denmark, moving to Sweden in 1939, to Finland in 1940, and to Los Angeles in 1941. During his period of European exile in the thirties Brecht was in close contact with the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin. In 1947-48 Brecht spent a year in Switzerland and in October 1948 Brecht returned to Berlin where he founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949.
Brecht’s work draws on a number of influences including Luther’s Bible, the comic novels of Grimmelshausen and Jaroslav Hašek, as well as a tradition of radical German drama that includes J.M.R. Lenz, Georg Büchner and Frank Wedekind. Brecht’s most famous successor was the East German dramatist Heiner Müller.
Brecht’s plays include:
Die Kleinbürgerhochzeit; A Humble Wedding
Mann ist Mann; Man is Man
Die Dreigroschenoper; The Threepenny Opera (written and performed 1928)
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny; Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (written 1928-29, performed 1930)
Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe; Saint Joan of the Stockyards
Die Maßnahme; The Measures Taken (written and performed 1930)
Die Mutter; The Mother
Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe; Round Heads and Pointed Heads
Die Sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger; The Seven Deadly Sins of the Bourgeoisie
Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches; Fear and Misery of the Third Reich
Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar; Señora Carrar’s Rifles
Leben des Galilei; Life of Galileo
Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder; Mother Courage and Her Children (written 1939, performed 1941)
Das Verhör des Lukullus; The Trial of Lucullus
Der gute Mensch von Sezuan; The Good Person of Szechwan (written 1938-41, performed 1943)
Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti; Mr Puntila and his Man Matti
Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Der kaukasischer Kreidekreis; The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Die Tage der Commune; The Days of the Commune
Turandot oder der Kongress der Weisswäscher; Turandot, or the Whitewashers’ Congress
Brecht produced work in many other genres/media:
Dreigroschenroman; Threepenny Novel (written 1933-34; published 1934)
Kalendergeschichten; Calendar Stories (written 1935-46, published 1949)
Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner; Stories of Herr Keuner (1949)
Buch der Wendungen; The Book of Changes (written 1934-40)
Flüchtlingsgespräche; Refugee Dialogues (written 1940-44, published 1961)
Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar; The Business Deals of Mr Julius Caesar (written 1937-39, unfinished)
Kuhle Wampe (1932)
Murderers are on Their Way (1942, never released)
Hangmen also Die (1942)
Picture Book: Kriegsfibel; War Primer (written 1940-45; published 1955)
Please click on the above links for further information.
Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine (eds.), Brecht in Perspective (Harlow: Longman, 1982)
David Bathrick, The Powers of Speech: The Politics of Culture in the GDR (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Chapter 6: ‘Patricide or Regeneration?: Brecht vs. Brecht in the 1980s’, pp. 151-64
Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. by Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998)
Laura Bradley, Brecht and Political Theatre: ‘The Mother’ on Stage (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006)
Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang; London: Eyre Methuen, 1987)
Peter Brooker, Bertolt Brecht: Dialectics, Poetry, Politics (London: Croom Helm, 1988)
Keith A. Dickson, Towards Utopia. A Study of Brecht (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)
Steve Giles, Bertolt Brecht and Critical Theory: Marxism, Modernity and the Threepenny Lawsuit, 2dn revised edn (Bern: Peter Lang, 1998)
Steve Giles and Rodney Livingstone (eds.), Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays, German Monitor 41 (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1998)
Robert Gillett and Godela Weiss-Sussex (eds.), “Verwisch die Spuren!” Bertolt Brecht’s Work and Legacy: A Reassessment (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2008)
Philip Glahn, Bertolt Brecht, Critical Lives (London: Reaktion, 2014)
Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Winchester and Washington, DC: O Books, 2008), Chapter 4: 'Alienation Affects', pp. 97-118
Kevin Hilliard, ‘Tableaux of Suffering: Brecht and the Theatre of Pity’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 61 (1992), 48-64
Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (London and New York: Verso, 1998)
Zheng Jie and Fang Jianjun, ‘Language and Consciousness: Brecht’s Language Strategy and Confucius's “Rectification of Names”’, German Quarterly 86:1 (2013), 72-89
Loren Kruger, Post-Imperial Brecht: Politics and Performance, East and South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Roswitha Mueller, Bertolt Brecht and the Theory of Media (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989)
Jan Needle and Peter Thomson, Brecht (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981)
Matthew Philpotts, The Margins of Dictatorship: Assent and Dissent in the Works of Günter Eich and Bertolt Brecht (Oxford and Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 2003)
Heinz Politzer, ‘How Epic is Brecht's Epic Theatre?’, Germanic Quarterly 23 (1962), 99-114
Ronald Speirs, Brecht's Early Plays (London: Macmillan, 1982)
Ronald Speirs, Bertolt Brecht (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987)
Martin Swales and Erika Swales, ‘Metonymic Cohabitation: on Women Figures in Brecht’, German Life and Letters 53:3 (2000), 387-93
Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Stephen Unwin, A Guide to the Plays of Bertolt Brecht (London: Methuen, 2005)
Manfred Wekwerth, Daring to Play: A Brecht Companion, ed. and intro. by Anthony Hozier; trans. by Rebecca Braun (New York: Routledge, 2011)
John J. White, Bertolt Brecht’s Dramatic Theory (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004)
Biographies in English
Ronald Hayman, Brecht: A Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983)
Hanns Otto Münsterer, The Young Brecht, trans. and intro. by Tom Kuhn and Karen Leeder (London: Libris, 1992)
Stephen Parker, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014)
Erdmut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht – the Story of a Friendship, trans. by Christine Shuttleworth (London: Libris, 2009)
Further Reading in German
The standard edition of Brecht’s works in German is: Bertolt Brecht, Werke, Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (BFA) in 30 volumes, edited by Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei and Klaus-Detlef Müller (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp; Berlin: Aufbau, 1988-2000)
Werner Hecht, Die Mühen der Ebenen. Brecht und die DDR (Berlin: Aufbau, 2014)
Joachim Lang, Neues vom alten Brecht. Manfred Wekwerth im Gespräch (Berlin: Aurora, 2010)
Jan Knopf, Bertolt Brecht (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2000)
Jan Knopf (ed.), Brecht-Handbuch, 5 vols (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2001-2003)
Jan Knopf, Bertolt Brecht. Lebenskunst in finsteren Zeiten. Biografie (Munich: Hanser, 2012)
Manfred Wekwerth, Mut zum Genuss: Ein Brecht-Handbuch für Spieler, Zuschauer, Mitstreiter und Streiter (Werder: Kai Homilius, 2009)
Web Links in English
Revision notes on Epic Theatre for GCSE Drama students
Website of International Brecht Society (IBS)
Writing Brecht project at the University of Oxford
List of English Translations of Brecht
Helene Weigel describes Brecht’s aims
International Brecht Society Symposium on 'Recycling Brecht', June 25-29, 2016, Oxford, UK
Web Links in German
Berlin theatre founded by Brecht in 1949
Brecht publication in German, available free in PDF format on request
Brecht sings his song ‘Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens’ (‘Song about the inadequacy of human effort’) from the Threepenny Opera
Brecht reads one poem and sings three songs
20th Century >