Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Bertolt Brecht studied philosophy and medicine in Munich, where a class with historian and drama researcher Arthur Kutscher influenced his career turn to poetry, dramaturgy, playwriting, and directing. Brecht’s first play, Baal (1918), addressed an argument from one of Kutscher’s classes, and this method of countering others’ work (and his own) the playwright pursued through many adaptations and re-drafts. In an adaptation of Christoper Marlowe’s Edward II, in 1924, Brecht first experimented with collaborations with other writers – past and present – on his works.
Edward II also marked Brecht’s directorial debut, which he later identified as the seed experience for his conception of epic or dialectical theater. This sociopolitical approach to all aspects of creating and presenting a dramatic work encourages a critical distance between the audience and the action on stage. Unlike the personal identification with and immersion in a work that Stanislavski sought for both actors and audiences, epic theater strove for “alienation,” order to convey knowledge about humankind via the work. In “A Dialogue about Acting” (1929), Brecht explained:
Spectator and actor ought not to approach one another but to move apart. Each ought to move away from himself. Otherwise the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking.
Neither the actor nor the spectator should “become” the character in Brechtian theater, which therefore features direct, “out-of-character” commentaries and addresses to the audience, songs that interrupt the action, comedy, and choruses that remark about action on the stage. “Instead of sharing an experience,” Brecht wrote, “the spectator must come to grips with things” (“The Epic Theatre and Its Difficulties,” 1927).
Over the 1920s into the early 1930s, Brecht worked as assistant dramaturge for Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, joined the collective of Erwin Piscator’s first theater company, and formed his own collective of writers and artists who contributed to the development of his works, including composers Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. This period saw the production, among other works, of Man Equals Man (1926), Threepenny Opera (1928), and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) – all plays marked by Brecht’s critques of war and capitalism. Though never a member of the Communist Party, Brecht found in reading Karl Marx “the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across”:
For a man with interests like his must of necessity be interested in my plays, not because they are so intelligent but because he is – they are something for him to think about.
The rising Nazi Party in Germany did not think much of Brecht’s works and politics, nor he of theirs. During the 1932 run of The Mother (1931), Nazi officials arrested the lead actor in an attempt to prevent the play from being seen. Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany in 1933 – the year The Roundheads and the Pointheads reached galley proof stage – and banned further productions of Brecht’s work. The playwright fled the country, spending six years in Denmark and one in Sweden until Hitler’s occupation of Denmark and Norway. During this exile he created some of his most pointedly anti-Nazi works, including Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1935-38), Life of Galileo (1937-39), Mother Courage and Her Children (1938-39), and The Good Person of Szechwan (1939-1942).
In May 1941, after a year in Finland, Brecht received his visa to travel to the United States. Over 1941-45, he continued to oppose Fascism and Nazism in his dramas, as well as pursuing his adaptations of earlier playwrights. In his sole Hollywood contribution, he wrote the script for German-Austrian director Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943), with a score by Hanns Eisler.
In the “Red Scare” environment of the postwar United States, Brecht encountered a newly unappreciative audience for his works: the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Along with 18 other Hollywood screenwriters, he was subpoenaed in 1947 to testify before this congressional body on his “revolutionary” writings and whether he was a member of the Communist Party. Brecht received criticism from fellow artists for appearing and testifying at all – which he did with irony, wit, and linguistic evasion. The day after his testimony, he returned to Europe.
Brecht ultimately settled in East Berlin, where he took over his own theater company, the Berliner Ensemble, in 1949. In his remaining years, he focused chiefly on directing and producing others’ works. He died of a heart attack in 1956.
All quotations by Bertolt Brecht are from Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic,
edited and translated by John Willett (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964/1992).