Thursday, August 2, 2007
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)
We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.
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Brecht is perhaps the most influential German dramatist and poet of the twentieth century. He was born in Augsburg in Bavaria. He studied as a medical student and worked briefly as an orderly in a hospital, in Munich, during World War I. Following the war he moved to Berlin where an influential critic, Herbert Ihering, brought him to the attention of a public longing for modern theater. Already in Munich his first two plays, Baal and Drums in the Night, had been performed and he got to know Erich Engel, a director who worked with him off and on for the rest of his life. In Berlin, In the Jungle of the Cities starring Fritz Kortner and directed by Engel became his first success.
In Berlin, during the postwar socialist governments and then the Weimar government, Brecht met and began to work with Hans Eisler -- the composer with whom he shared the closest friendship throughout his life. He also met Helene Weigel, who would become his second wife and accompany him through exile and for the rest of his life. His first book of poems Hauspostille won a literary prize. Brecht formed a writing collective which was prolific and very influential. Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margerita Steffin, Emil Burri, Ruth Berlau and others worked with Brecht and produced the multiple Lehrstucke (learning plays) which were an attempt at a new dramaturgy for participants rather than passive audiences. These addressed themselves to the massive worker arts organisation that existed in Germany and Austria in the twenties. So did his first great play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which attempted to portray the drama in financial transactions. He also worked in the theaters of Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator. This collective also created the story for, and Brecht wrote songs and engaged Kurt Weill to compose, The Threepenny Opera -- the largest hit in Berlin of the twenties and a renewing influence on the musical worldwide. This was followed by Mahagonny, less of a success and eclipsed by the dawn of fascist rule in Germany. As soon as Hitler won the elections, Brecht was in great danger and left for a long exile -- through Denmark, Finland, then England and finally in the United States.
In exile and in active resistance of the Fascist movement, Brecht wrote his most famous plays Galileo Galilei, Mother Courage and Her Children, Puntila and Matti, his Hired Man, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Person of Sezuan (among many other works). He also wrote many poems which have continued to attract notice to this day. He participated some in screenplays for Hollywood, for instance Hangmen also Die, but had no real success or pleasure in this. After World War II he was hounded by the HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee) and left the United States. He came to Switzerland where he adapted Antigone and then was invited to Berlin by East Germany. Horrified at the reinstatement of Nazis into the government of the western portion of Germany, Brecht made his home in the east. Although he never in his life was a member of the communist party, he saw the goal of communism as the only reliable antidote to militarist fascism and spoke out against the remilitarisation of the west and the division of Germany.
He was almost as uncomfortable for his East German hosts as for the West Germans across the way. The "Berliner Ensemble", that world famous theater which toured and was the most influential theater of the postwar decades, was given to his wife: the actress Helene Weigel. She ran it as a theater devoted primarily to the plays and praxes developed by Brecht until her death in 1971. Brecht wrote few plays in his last years in Berlin, none of them as famous. Some of his most famous poems though, including the "Buckower Elegies", were from this time. Brecht died an early death at the age of 58 in 1956, leaving a legacy which has been taken up by nearly every country in the world, particularily those where political activity is occurring. His humour and scepticism combined with Gestic and Epic techniques have proved as fruitful as confusing to those who try to produce his works or in his style. Some of his innovations, though, have become so commonly taken on that one hardly remembers the lack of them before him. One of his wishes for his gravestone was: "He made suggestions; we took them on." In fact, on his grave at the Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichswerder Cemetery in Berlin there is only a boulder with his name. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Bertolt Brecht.]
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