Bertolt Brecht was a famous German playwright, theater critic, and director. He created and advanced the form of epic theater, believing that plays should be tools for political and social activism rather than solely entertainment. His company, the Berliner Ensemble, became one of the most famous touring companies in the world and to this day continues to produce politically-minded work in the Brechtian style.
Born in 1898 to middle-class parents in Bavaria, Bertolt Brecht grew up in a comfortable lifestyle. In elementary school, he met Caspar Nehar, who would become a life-long friend and go on to design sets for many of Brecht’s plays. As a student at Munich University during World War I, the playwright studied theater and became fascinated with German cabaret performances, particularly the work of comedian Karl Valentin.
Bertolt Brecht began writing plays around this time, which enjoyed some commercial success and critical acclaim. He also spent time studying the work of political theorist Karl Marx and socialism. He began to form his theory of “epic theater.” This theater, departing from the traditional aims of drama as described by Aristotle, was not meant to be an imitation of reality or a device of entertainment.
Epic theater is meant to present an argument and invite the audience to make judgments on it. Traditional conventions, like not looking directly at the audience, are ignored. The audience should be constantly aware they are watching a play, causing an emotional disconnect often called the alienation effect. Brecht tried to prevent audiences from sympathizing with his characters, but rather wanted them to care about the issues being discussed.
In 1927, Bertolt Brecht began collaboration with a composer named Kurt Weill. Together they would write several plays, the most famous of which being The Threepenny Opera. The play opened in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and starred Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya. Although this musical adaptation of an 18th century opera initially was panned by critics, it grew in popularity and was performed over 400 times in the next two years. It is now the most frequently reproduced of all of Brecht’s work.
The Threepenny Opera tells the story of Macheath, also called Mac the Knife, and his near-murder by his father-in-law. The play is set in Victorian London and pointedly ignores the upper class, focusing instead on the lives of poor and hopeless beggars and criminals. Although Macheath is saved, he is a criminal rather than a hero. The play revolves around themes of the inherent injustice of capitalism and asks if it is a bigger crime to found a bank than to rob one.
As a professed Marxist, Bertolt Brecht faced Nazi persecution and fled Germany in 1933. He moved around Europe for the duration of the Nazi regime and resulting war. Unable to escape the spread of discord, Brecht fled to America in 1941. During this time, he wrote several plays protesting Fascism and the rule of Adolf Hitler, including Mother Courage and Her Children,The Good Person of Sezuan,Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Misery of the Third Reich.
After the war subsided, Brecht again faced persecution for his communist beliefs. He was blacklisted in Hollywood, where he had written several screenplays, and called before the United States House Un-American Activities Committee. Initially he refused to testify, but eventually he appeared before the committee and claimed he had never been an active member of the communist party. Under charges of betrayal by other accused entertainers, Bertolt Brecht left America the following day, moving to Communist East Germany.
After his death from a heart attack in 1956, Brecht’s theater company, The Berliner Ensemble, was run by his wife Helene Weigel. The company held many worldwide tours mostly comprised of Brecht’s work. In the 21st Bertolt Brecht remains a controversial figure in his native Germany, but is remembered throughout the world for his revolutionary theories of theater and extraordinary written work.