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Berthold Brecht
Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, Augsburg, S. Germany 1898
(Born: Feb. 10, 1898, Augsburg, Germany. Died: Aug. 14, 1956, East Berlin),

"He made suggestions. We carried them out."
What Brecht wanted inscribed on his tombstone. [2]














2001 Berthold Brecht Bladerunner Environment Movement I Movement II Screenplay Third Reich Yacht Club

Written by Ty Narada

Brecht, the German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer, famous for redefining "Epic Theatre" that abandoned illusionary theatrical conventions: Reforged drama as a platform for social, ideological and left-wing propaganda. He believed that theater should not simply entertain, but should also convey a message. Brecht’s works exemplify frustration and discontent propelled by the traditional bourgeois values of his era. Through his leftist solutions, he encouraged audiences to ‘think’ rather than to identify. This technique later became known as the "Alienation Effect," through which he became the canonical ‘voice of his generation’. [7][6]

The Rising Gleam

Brecht began to write poetry as a boy, and published his first poems in 1914. After finishing elementary school he was sent to the Königliches Realgymnasium, where he gained fame as an "Enfant Terrible." "Games had to be organized according to his wishes…he did not mind showing that he was the boss’s son in order to get his own way." [2] From his earliest moments, Brecht assumed the passion of a reformer, not withstanding the liabilities of his age.


Brecht’s interest in political issues inspired him to found a literary magazine entitled "The Harvest" (Die Ernte) when he was 15. [2] Through this magazine, Brecht effectively purveyed his political views and enthusiasm for the ‘holy’ German imperial cause to a more mature audience. [2]


When Brecht turned 19, his family’s stable middle-class income allowed him to enroll as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in 1917. [8] During his time as a student, Brecht worked in an army hospital. It was his work in the army hospital that changed Brecht. He saw soldiers bloodied, maimed, and dead; undermined by monarchial claims of impending victory. Germany’s defeat at the end of World War I further aggravated Brecht’s disillusionment with the Government and this created feelings of betrayal. [6]

Brecht separated from military service to resume his medical studies, but abandoned them in 1921. During the Bavarian Revolution of 1918, Brecht wrote his first play, BAAL, which was produced in 1923. He joined the Independent Social Democratic party in 1919 that was a Communist organization.

Brecht was sensitive to a commonly-held sentiment among his generation, and those feelings of political betrayal inspired Brecht to pursue a more creative means of expression. It was ‘the artists’ during this period who were the radicals. Artists sought to motivate political and social change through art. At first, Brecht wrote plays and poetry that conformed to traditional bourgeois standards. His script for BAAL, produced in 1923, was his inaugural statement as a Playwright. The encouraging response to BAAL resulted in the additional works: "Drum in the Night" (1922), a collection of poems and songs called Die Hauspostille and his first professional production of "Edward II" in 1924. These collective works established Brecht as a playwright, but his heart aspired for greater reach and a larger audience. His solution was to relocate to Berlin.

BERLIN, 1924-33

Upon arrival to Berlin, Brecht worked for directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator while devoting most of his time to own production associates. In collaboration with famous composer Kurt Weill (q.v.) Brecht wrote the satirical, successful ballad opera Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera) and the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930; Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahoganny). He wrote "Lehr-stucke" ("exemplary plays") to the musical scores of Weill, Hindemith and Hanns Eisler, but they were badly didactic works for performance outside of orthodox theatre. During these years, Brecht began sketching his performance philosophies and adopted Marxism as his focal political premise.


Brecht’s first theory was that of "Epic Theatre;" an austere form of irregular verse fused with Marxist policy. He used various visual effects and emotionless line reading techniques to forward his message. This technique clarified a play’s intention by removing an actor’s emotional attachment to a character – this would enable a play’s message to register with an audience unfettered by aesthetic distraction. [6] Since political betrayal and social depravity were commonly held vexations, the ideology of Marxism was employed to illuminate a key social misdynamic: The opposition between the expropriator and the expropriated; between the capitalist and the worker whose property-rights, in his own labor, the capitalist exploits. [3]


"Epic Theatre" has its etymological development tiered in the ideological evolution of Brecht. While in Berlin, Brecht became friends with many members of the Dadaist movement; a movement that sought to destroy the "false standards of bourgeois art." Dadaism used the devices of derision and iconoclastic satire to condemn bourgeois artistic views. Brecht would not have been Brecht had he ignored this movement. Being attracted to higher ideals and toward the advancement of the Human Condition, Brecht's friendship with Karl Korsch transcended his short-lived infatuation with Dadaism. Retaining the most intriguing concepts in search of an end, Korsch, an eminent Marxist theoretician, infused Brecht’s existing views with utopian elements of Marxism. This ‘vision’ became the moral premise that would underscore Brecht’s continued work; Brecht became Communist by default. [6] In his own words, "Communism represented the scientific way of looking at the Universe." [3]

Karl Korsch had been a Communist member of the Reichstag who was expelled from the German Communist Party in 1926. [7] Brecht began his Marxist indoctrination by reading Karl Marx's Das Kapital and become Communist in 1929.


While at the Schiffbauerdam Theater, Brecht trained many actors who were to become famous on stage and screen. Among them was Oscar Homolka, Peter Lorre, and the singer Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weil's wife. Brecht worked on a political film with Hanns Eisler, Kuhle Wampe; the name referred to an area of Berlin where the unemployed lived in shacks. The film was released in 1932 and was banned shortly afterward. [8] [Appendix 1]

During the Weimar Republic’s cultural years, Brecht’s avant guard approach to theatre was welcomed and embraced. His most famous reference works of Epic Theatre are "The Threepenny Opera", "Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahoganny", and a series of works entitled "Lehr Stucke" or "exemplary plays". [6] During this time, a new Nationalist movement was gaining popularity through violence, slick uniforms, zealous rallies and a magnetic leader whose oratory prowess and passionate appeals could seduce the support of industrialists and laypersons alike. This new movement was opposed to Brecht’s "leftist gutter art" and Brecht’s reaction was not one of silence.


On January 30th, 1933, Adolph Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany by a narrow margin. This single event unleashed sweeping social and political changes throughout Germany that were already in-place, awaiting legal sanction. This sanction came in the name of Der Fuhrer. 

Brecht’s options were reduced to self-imposed exile from Germany and he deported himself on February 28th, 1933 -- the day the Reichstag burned. [2]

Brecht relocated to Scandinavia where he remained, mainly in Denmark until 1941. [2] In Germany, his books were burned, his plays were banned and his citizenship was revoked. Although he was cut off from the German theatre, most of his great plays were written between 1937 and 1941, to include his major theoretical essays, dialogues and many of the poems found in the Svendborger Gedichte collection (1939).

His plays during this era became famous productions, produced by himself and others. Most notable are Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and Her Children), a chronicle play of the Thirty Years' War that explains how greedy small entrepreneurs make devastating wars possible; Leben des Galilei (1943; The Life of Galileo); The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943) and DER KAUKASICHE KREIDEKREIS (1944-45), which demonstrates that ownership inherently belongs to those who can make the best humane use of [any given resource]. [8]



Galileo deserves special attention in that such a profound statement was made when an intelligent scientist and inventor challenges the ruling global power, known for its ruthless theology and gladiatorial tolerance of the disenchanted. In this scenario, Galieleo as an old man, outwits the Inquisition: By recanting his heliocentric thesis, which proved that the Earth revolved around the Sun, he avoided torture and certain death. While under house-arrest, Galileo continued his scientific research under the noses of his jailers. [3] In Brecht’s presentation, the Church, rather than Galieleo proves to be the fool condemned.

Der gute Mensch von Sezuan

In 1943, Brecht wrote and produced The Good Woman of Setzuan, a parable play set in prewar China that examines how one may be virtuous while surviving in a capitalist world; Der Aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (1957; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui), a parable play of Hitler's rise to power set in prewar Chicago; Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1948; Herr Puntila and His Man Matti), a Volksstuck (popular play) about a Finnish farmer who oscillates between churlish sobriety and drunken good humor; and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (first produced in English, 1948; Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, 1949), the story of a struggle for possession of a child between its highborn mother, who deserts it, and the servant girl who looks after it. [7]

From Denmark, Brecht relocated to Finland, where he lived in Iitti in Villa Marlebäck as a guest of Finnish author Hella Wuolijoki. There Brecht wrote the play HERR PUNTILA UND SEIN KNECHT MATTI (1940) where he earned the jealousy of Wuolijoki due to rumors of Brecht’s womanizing affairs. From Finland, Brecht moved his family to Russia and from Russia, to Santa Monica in the United States


Brecht came to the U.S. in 1941. He worked in Hollywood making films but only achieved limited success as a playwright. His play Hangmen Also Die (1942) received limited acceptance. He wrote other works but they did not achieve anything near the acclaim of his earlier works. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee confronted Brecht. They accused him of being a Marxist, which he denied, and asked him for names of those who he knew to be Communists. Brecht provided many names, including Ronald Reagan. With a summons to appear before Congress, commensurate with the opening night of GALILEO in New York, Brecht intelligently fled to Switzerland, depriving himself of opening night but expediting his flight to freedom. [8]

Brecht spent the remainder of his life in East Germany. [6]


After 15 years of exile, Brecht returned to Germany in 1948 and spent a year in Zürich adapting Friedrich Holderin’s translation of Sophocle’s Antigone for the Swiss State. He produced the new version in 1948. Brecht wrote his most important theoretical work, the Kleines Organon fur das Theater in 1949 ("A Little Organum for the Theatre") that contains the essence of his dramatic theories. That essence states that a truly Marxist drama must avoid the Aristotelian premise that the audience should be made to believe that what they are witnessing is happening here and now. Brecht believed that if an audience could authentically experience the emotions of the past, that the heroic tales of Oedipus, Lear, or Hamlet, under Marxist ideology, would be invalidated. Marxism teaches that Human nature is not constant, but a result of changing historical conditions. Brecht argued that the theatre should not seek to make its audience believe in the presence of the characters on the stage; that the audience should not identify with them, but should follow the method of the epic poet's art. That art is to make the audience understand that what they view on the stage is a historic event; that the audience should view with critical detachment, the object from which "Epic," narrative and nondramatic theatre is derived. This effect he referred to as Verfremdungseffekt or The Alienation Effect: The effect is achieved through devices that remind the spectator that the play is ‘a demonstration’ of human behavior in scientific spirit, rather than with an illusion of reality. The theatre is only a theatre, and not the world itself. [7]


In 1949 Brecht went to Berlin to help stage Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder (with his wife, Helene Weigel, in the title part) at Reinhardt's old Deutsches Theater in the Soviet sector. This led to the formation of Brecht’s own Marxist theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble, and marked his permanent return to Berlin. Helene Weigel, his 2nd wife (1928), was his chief actress and continued as director of the company after Brecht’s death. Brecht experienced problems with the new DDR authorities in spite of his effort to write prose that pleased the censors: He was often suspect in eastern Europe because of his unorthodox aesthetic theories. He was also boycotted in the West for his Communist opinions. Covertly, Brecht’s verse cryptically expressed suspicions about the inhumanity of the East German regime. Brecht was triumphant at the Paris Theatre des Nations in 1955, and in the same year in Moscow, he received a Stalin Peace Prize. To assure his personal freedom of travel, Brecht became an Austrian citizen in 1950. [7][8]

The next year, Brecht contracted a lung inflammation disease and died of Coronary Thrombosis on August 14, 1956, in East Berlin.



"The contradiction between acting (demonstration) and experience (empathy) often leads the uninstructed to suppose that only one or the other can be manifest in the world of the actor (as if the Short Organum concentrated entirely on acting and the old tradition entirely on experience). In reality it is a matter of two mutually hostile processes that fuse in the actor’s work; his performance is not just composed of a bit of the one and a bit of the other. His particular effectiveness comes from the tussle and tension of the two opposites, and also from their depth." [Brecht] [1]

The actor’s feelings should not be fundamentally the same as those of his character. [3]


The V-Effekt (‘V’ for Verfremdung) a.k.a. ‘alienation technique’ means making the events on the stage seem strange and/or unfamiliar. [3]


"Only where the work appears in its familiar form does the world seem safe; unthreatened by the work of a ‘destroyer’." [Günther Rühle] [1]


"In Germany, the connection between theatre and politics has always been more prominent than in England." [3]


"The Brechtian theatre’s most fundamental principle is its commitment to social change. The dramaturgical principle [see Terminology] most basic to fulfilling this commitment is that theatre must attempt to present society and human nature as changeable." [1]


"We don’t want ‘characters’ in the literal sense of the word on our stage – that is, people with imprinted, unchangeable ‘particularities’ that at best unfold themselves monadically. What interests us about people is their way of behaving, the topical reactions of various historical periods." [Brecht] [1]


"Restoring the theatre’s reality as a theatre is now a precondition for any possibility of arriving at realistic images of human social life…Reality, however complete, has to be altered by being turned into art so that it can be seen to be alterable and be treated as such." [Brecht] [1]


"The dialectical approach treats social situations as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies [contradictions]. It regards nothing as existing except in so far as it changes, in other words, is in disharmony with itself. This also goes for those human feelings, opinions, and attitudes through which the form of men’s lives together finds its expression." [BT, 193] [1]


"Epic Theatre should have no truck with false objectivity." [2]


"The designer’s work begins with the first consultations with the director. Both people, director and designer, work out the production concept through numerous consultations…This work is the most important and brings the greatest responsibilities in the whole complex of theatre work since the production concept that is developed forms the foundation for all further work." [Brecht] [1]


"We develop pretty much from nothing, exploring the most varied possibilities. One speaks the text; moves around within the situations. Slowly one tries to find out what is interesting. That is then kept, other things are let fall. Characters are then developed, and also the blocking." [Brecht] [1]


"I am interested in creating a realism on stage that is grounded in the selections of natural elements but from which the accidental has been removed on the basis of intuition, through the ordering of realism’s critical, political, compositional, coloristic, and poetical elements…[I have] gradually attempted to free myself from cultural and theatrical influences, with the goal of arriving at the utmost simplicity and the utmost rigor, that is, a scenery whose elements have been restricted to the absolute minimum and in which the lighting, the stage, the gestures, the playing spaces accommodate and ally themselves to the performances and gestures of the actors." [Brecht] [1]


"Brecht’s productivity for the theatre did not consist primarily in the writing of plays, but rather in thinking through the contemporary usefulness of received performance forms, the availability of structurally new subject matter, and the clarification of the relationship between the performance process and a democratic audience, or, more precisely, an audience to be democratized." [Günther Rühle] [1]


Brecht wanted to create a theatre for those who produce it…requiring audience participation [2] "…theatre deliberately aimed at changing the attitudes of audiences." [3]


Brecht's works have been translated into 42 languages and has sold over 70 volumes. He wanted his theater to represent a political lecture hall rather than a palace of illusions. He aimed to take emotion out of the production, persuade the audience to distance themselves from ‘the make-believe characters’ and to make the actors dissociate themselves from their roles. With this accomplished, the political truth would be easier to comprehend. [8]

Brecht, no matter how dishonest and self motivated, played an important role in post World War I Germany. He was a major voice of his generation and an innovator of his art.


The theater of Germany, as well as throughout the world, now focuses on sending a message along with entertaining. And though it may be difficult to recognize Brecht as a role model, we must remember him and his works and the effect his works have had on modern culture in both social and political thought. [6]

Brecht was first, a superior poet with a command of many styles and moods. As a playwright he was an intensive worker, a restless piecer-together of ideas that were not always his own (The Threepenny Opera is based on John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and Edward II on Marlowe), a sardonic humorist and a man of rare musical and visual awareness. Conversely, he was not as capable at creating living characters or giving his plays the tension and shape that less politically regimented productions afford. As a producer, Brecht liked lightness, clarity and a firmly-knotted narrative sequence. He was a perfectionist who forced the German theatre against its nature, to underplay. As a theoretician he drew principles from his preferences, even from his faults. [7]


Dramaturgie = a collection of critiques, position papers and/or practical statements on how a theatre company can improve it’s efforts. Invented by Lessing when he wrote a series on the Hamburg National Theatre that he called the Hamburger Dramaturgie. [1]


[1] Brecht and the West German Theater by John Rouse © 1989
UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106

[2] Bertolt Brecht by Ronald Speirs © 1987
MacMillan Publishers Ltd., Hampshire, London RG21 2XS

[3] Brecht, The Dramatist by Ronald Grey © 1976
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK CB2 1RP

[4] Bertholt Brecht and the Theory of Media © 1989
University of Nebraska Press

[5] Brecht by Jan Needle and Peter Thomson © 1981
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL 60637

[6] http://www.acs.appstate.edu/~brantzrw/B_Brec.htm

[7] Encyclopaedia Britannica © 1995

[8] Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto © 1997

[9] The Brecht Memoir by Eric Bentley © 1985
PAJ Publications, New York, NY 10013


Brecht’s friendship with the writer Lion Feuchtwanger was an important literary inspiration to Brecht’s playwriting ambition(s). Feuchtwanger encouraged the young dramatist and advised him on the discipline of playwriting. In 1920 Brecht was named chief adviser on play selection at the Munich Kammerspiele. As a result of a brief affair with a Fräulein Bie, Brecht's son Frank was born and in 1922 he married the actress Marianne Zoff. In 1924 Brecht was appointed a consultant at Max Reinhardt's Deutches Theater in Berlin. Brecht’s success started with TROMMELN IN DER NACHT (1922) and continued with DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER after John Gay’s The Beggar´s Opera, which he made with composer Kurt Weil. [8]

Reviewed sources, not cited

[10] Berthold Brecht by Claude Hill © 1975
Twayne Publishers, Boston, MA

[11] To Brecht and Beyond by Darko Survin © 1984
The Harvester Press Limited, Sussex, England

[12] The Other Brecht by Marcel Marien © 1937
University of Wisconsin Press

[13] Bertholt Brecht by Martin Esslin © 1969
Columbia University Press