Brecht, Bertolt

(Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, 1898-1956)
   Playwright, director, theorist. Brecht was among the most influential playwrights, and arguably the most accomplished, in 20th-century German theater. After his death, his influence gained such force that by the late 1970s most scholars and critics considered his plays indispensable to any repertoire or curriculum. His life and work betokened abundant contradictions. Though a devoted Marxist, he frequently ran afoul of the East German authorities whom he loyally served. Though feminist critics subsequently found his ideas helpful to their cause of discrediting male hegemony in theater research and criticism, he was an unrepentant philanderer and exploiter of female collaborators. While a modernist critic of Aristotelian formal tradition, his ideas were firmly rooted in 19th-century dialectical materialism and in anti-illusionism, largely a reaction to the influence of Richard Wagner. Through Brecht's career, however, there runs a remarkable thread of consistency.
   Brecht began conceiving of "his" theater in the mid-1920s, and he continued to develop a consonant set of positions to undergird it for the next quarter-century. By the time he published his Kleines Organon für das Theater (Small Organum for the Theater) in 1948, those ideas had matured into a fully realized philosophy, one that guided his efforts as a director until his death. In addition to his work as a theorist, he developed acutely polished playwriting skills and concomitantly became one of Germany's greatest modern poets. In many ways, Brecht followed the precedent Johann Wolfgang Goethe had established, beginning as a playwright and ultimately becoming a cultural figure with global significance.
   Brecht's gifts as a playwright came officially into public view when Herbert Ihering awarded him the Kleist Prize in 1922. Ihering was an early Brecht champion, recognizing in him a unique and powerful talent. He claimed that Brecht had changed the literary countenance of Germany—a claim many found exaggerated at the time. His earliest plays were derivative and inchoate; most regarded him as a provincial iconoclast whose early efforts, e.g., Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night) and Im Dickicht der Städte (In the Jungle of Cities) were inconsequential imitations of Frank Wedekind or Georg Büchner.
   Brecht arrived in Berlin in 1924 with Carl Zuckmayer to work for Max Reinhardt, but devoted most of his time there to an informal study of Marxism, seeking thereafter to apply Marxist concepts to what he considered a "non-Aristotelian" dramaturgy. The initial result was his 1926 Mann ist Mann (A Man's a Man) in Darmstadt, which featured a diffident stevedore named Galy Gay as a "charac-ter-as-construction," amenable to subsequent "deconstruction" since social forces had originally "assembled" him. In 1928 Brecht enjoyed his first Berlin hit with Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, an adaptation based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of two centuries earlier); it featured Kurt Weill's stunningly innovative music, but Brecht claimed credit for most of Threepenny's success — though his collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann had done most of the work on the libretto. Brecht's attempt to repeat the commercial success of Threepenny with Happy End in 1929 (again with Weill's music and Hauptmann's libretto, in the same theater under the same producer, with the same director and many of the same cast members) was a resounding flop. His 1930 attempt at opera with Weill, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Ma-hagonny) likewise failed. His numerous Lehrstücke, or didactic playlets, in the late 1920s manifested most directly his devotion to Marxist dogma. Of them the best is Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken, 1930), which infuriated orthodox Communist Party members because it portrayed party agitators as murderers.
   By the early 1930s, Brecht had also earned the vituperative enmity of the National Socialist Party. Nazi attacks on him and his wife Helene Weigel (whom he had married in 1928) accelerated as the financial crisis in Germany deepened. His 1931 production of Mann ist Mann in Berlin was more successful than its 1926 premiere, but it earned him little money. Brecht briefly went to Switzerland when the Nazis took power, but then settled in Denmark until 1939. During this period he traveled extensively, with trips to New York, London, Paris, and Moscow in hopes of promoting his stage works. His returns to Denmark, however, provided him the most fruitful period in his playwriting career. At one point he was working on a dozen projects, many of which became his greatest plays. His repeated attempts to get them produced met with little success, however; Die Rundköpfe und Spitzköpfe (Roundheads and Peakheads) premiered in Copenhagen, and two years later his series of scenes about life in Nazi Germany titled Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (Fear and Misery in the Third Reich) ran briefly in Paris.
   When Germany initiated hostilities in 1939, Brecht found a brief refuge in Sweden and later in Finland, but by 1940 he wrote desperate pleas to friends and German exiles in the United States asking for help getting him and his family to America by way of the Soviet Union. He made it to Santa Monica, California, in 1941, where he rewrote several works. In that year the Zurich Schauspielhaus premiered his Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children); Zurich premieres of Das Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo) and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Setzuan) followed in 1943.
   After the war, Brecht left the United States in the wake of anti-communist hearings in Washington, where in 1947 he had testified as an "unfriendly witness" before the House Un-American Activities committee. He continued to revise plays and imagine new productions for them after returning to the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin, where he actively pursued the possibilities of establishing working conditions he had long desired. In February 1948 he staged his adaptation of Antigone in Chur, Switzerland; in June of that year, he premiered Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (Mr. Puntila and His Servant Matti) in Zurich; and the same year, Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle) premiered in Minnesota. None of these productions generated the notoriety he sought. A reworked version of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, retitled The Private Life of the Master Race, opened in New York, but its impact was minimal. Brecht and actor Charles Laughton attempted to rework Galileo for American audiences, and Laughton premiered the play in Hollywood and later in New York. But critics could not understand it, and audiences did not respond to it.
   A 1949 Mother Courage production in Berlin, however, finally provided Brecht with what amounted to a triumphal return. It was the first time he had had a hit in 20 years. When Brecht finally got the working situation he wanted in East Berlin, his success was absolute, resounding, and a complete vindication of the failures and frustrations he had experienced since 1928. Mother Courage, which premiered at the Deutsches Theater on 11 January 1949, made an enormous impact, despite the songs that "interrupted" the traditional narrative flow of the action, the projections which stayed in view throughout a scene, and the emphasis on "pastness" in the play that constantly reminded audiences they were watching a reflection of reality in a theater, not reality itself. The acting (particularly that of Weigel in the title role) furthermore lacked all bombast; indeed, it recalled the Meininger attention to detail. Brecht's ideas about acting had developed while he was in the United States, where the Stanislavsky "Method" was becoming extremely influential, but in Germany, bombast and declamation still held sway. Brecht rejected both approaches and sought a third style of acting—one that was "realistic" but at the same time not Naturalistic.
   Brecht's rejection of the Stanislavsky Method was tantamount to heresy, since Stanislavsky was the "approved" orthodoxy in the Soviet sphere of influence. Brecht was a Marxist who agreed in principle with the East German party's agenda, but he had an artistic agenda of his own. He wanted a theater that was "epic," meaning it concentrated on thought, employing narrative devices at the expense of plot, and the "plot" of a Brecht play was merely a series of often disconnected scenes. Brecht consciously sought to tie events together so that, he said, "the knots are strikingly noticeable." Unsubtle, obvious scene connections were necessary "illusion breakers," jarring the spectators out of their empathy and forcing them to contemplate what they had just seen on the stage. Instead of implicating spectators in the action, Brecht wanted to turn them into critical observers. Many such "epic" conventions manifested Brecht's rejection of Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or unified work of art. Brecht was convinced that "fusing" disparate production elements produced a kind of passivity in the spectators, diminishing their capacity for action once outside the theater. Sympathy for or identification with a character was a process Brecht dismissed as a form of hypnosis, representing outdated effects the bourgeois theater had used for years. Brecht's productions subjected incidents and characters to the process of Verfremdung, usually translated as "alienation."
   Such viewpoints contravened those of the East German leadership, who echoed Soviet demands for "socialist realism." Many in the leadership could not understand why Mother Courage did not see the error of her ways and reject her life as a camp follower to become more politically engaged at the play's conclusion. Had she learned nothing from her sufferings? Brecht answered that if Mother Courage herself had learned nothing, surely the public could learn something by watching her. While the East German regime sought to establish the Soviet model of realism based on melodrama, Brecht sought a new, far more modernist theater practice. He believed historical processes, social dynamics, or even full personalities could be realized only in the abstract. Socialist realism wanted audiences to identify with characters and sought to prevent critical detachment; Brecht considered socialist realism "un-Marxist and reactionary" (Martin Esslin, Brecht: A Choice of Evils, 4th ed. [London: Methuen, 1984], 189). The party continued its generous patronage of Brecht and his Berliner Ensemble, but as the 1950s progressed, it endeavored to limit the number of new productions the company presented. In 1949 the company premiered 14 new productions and in 1950 there were 16; this declined to 11 in 1951, 7 in 1952, and just 5 in 1953.
   In June 1953, workers revolted against the East German state in Berlin; Soviet tanks crushed the uprising, but Brecht publicly shared the party's conviction that "outside agitators" had influenced the workers and that "unrepentant Nazi sympathizers" had started it. On 17 June 1953, one of many dates that would mark the GDR's penchant for violent repression of its own citizens, Brecht sent a letter of support to Walter Ulbricht, reiterating his agreement with party goals.
   In 1954 Brecht's status rose within the East German state enormously and unexpectedly: Mother Courage made guest appearances in Bruges, Amsterdam, and Paris, where Mother Courage won first prize for the best play at an international theater competition; Brecht and Erich Engel won first prize for directing. When the East German authorities later that same year placed the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm at Brecht's exclusive disposal, he seemed well on his way to realizing his goal of transforming the German theater, removing all vestiges of illusionism, and implementing altogether new criteria for acting and stage design. He died only two years later, but many of his anti-illusionistic ideas had already taken firm root in German theater consciousness.
   Brecht had several affinities with Friedrich Schiller's conception of theater as a moral institution. The mission of "his" epic theater was entirely moral and didactic, yet dedicated to the "discovery" of means to eliminate causes of oppression. That was the basis of the Verfremdungseffekt, because only through the "effect of distancing" could anyone—artist, spectator, or performer—discover the means by which such elimination of oppression could take place. That approach prompted critics in the East to accuse him of "formalism " and "cosmopolitanism." In West Germany, there were several organized boycotts of theaters attempting to produce his plays. Ultimately Brecht triumphed over his many foes, though he did not live to see and enjoy the full effects of his triumph.
   See also Baal.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Brecht,Bertolt — Brecht (brĕkt, brĕKHt), Bertolt. 1898 1956. German poet and playwright who developed “epic drama,” a style that relies on the audience s reflective detachment rather than the production s atmosphere and action. His works include The Threepenny… …   Universalium

  • Brecht, Bertolt — orig. Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht born Feb. 10, 1898, Augsburg, Ger. died Aug. 14, 1956, East Berlin, E.Ger. German playwright and poet. He studied medicine at Munich (1917–21) before writing his first plays, including Baal (1922). Other… …   Universalium

  • Brecht, Bertolt — (1898 1956)    poet and dramatist; perhaps the twentieth century s most influential playwright. He was born in Augsburg, and his early writings appeared when he was sixteen in the Augsburger Neueste Nachrichten. Beginning medical studies in 1917… …   Historical dictionary of Weimar Republik

  • Brecht, Bertolt — ► (1898 1956) Poeta y dramaturgo alemán. Puso sus obras teatrales al servicio de un ideario político de carácter socialista. Inició su producción teatral con La boda de los pequeños burgueses (1921) y La redada (1921). En esta primera etapa… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Brecht, Bertolt — (1898–1956)    German playwright, poet and theorist of theater and literature, Brecht was a committed Marxist who sought to apply Marxist ideas to the theater. His most famous plays include Mother Courage, St. Joan of the Stockyards, The… …   Historical dictionary of Marxism

  • Brecht, Bertolt —    см. Брехт, Бертольт …   Энциклопедический словарь экспрессионизма

  • Brecht — Brecht, Bertolt …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Bertolt Brecht — (1954) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Brecht — Bertolt Brecht (1948) Das Brecht Denkmal von Fritz Cremer vor dem Berliner Ensemble Berto …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Bertolt Brecht — Saltar a navegación, búsqueda Bertolt Brecht Bertolt Brecht en 1948. Nombre Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brechter Han Culen …   Wikipedia Español

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