Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht ( 1898-1956), was bored by regular schooling, but during his years in exile he had time to refine his ideas on epic theatre and wrote several important plays...

When he graduated from high school in 1917, he began to study medicine in Munich, but he was drafted as an orderly in 1918. Brecht's father offered to publish his first play, Baal (1918), but only if the Brecht family name was not mentioned-a condition the playwright refused. In 1922, Brecht's Drums in the Night was awarded the Kleist Prize, one of Germany's highest literary honors. Both of these early plays were expressionistic.

In 1924, Brecht settled in Berlin, where he worked for a time with the directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, but mostly with smaller experimental groups. While in Berlin, Brecht wrote Man Is Man (1926). One of Brecht's friends was the composer Kurt Weill, with whom he wrote The Threepenny Opera, the modern version of The Beggar's Opera. The plot of The Threepenny Opera has to do with a group of lowlife figures in Victorian England. One of them is Peachum, the boss of a gang of underworld beggars who pose as disabled people; another major figure is Macheath, a swashbuckling burglar who marries Peachum's daughter Polly; another is Tiger Brown, the chief of police. Several songs became well known: "Mack the Knife," a song by Polly Peachum about "Pirate Jenny," and a duet by Macheath and Tiger Brown about their army days in India.

While he was in Berlin, Brecht became a Marxist and at this same time began to develop his theories of theatre. Forced by the Nazis to flee Germany in 1933, he lived in Denmark, Sweden, and the United States, where he did some filmwriting in Hollywood.

During his years in exile, Brecht had time to refine his ideas on epic theatre and wrote several important plays, including Mother Courage and Her Children ( 1938), Galileo (1938-1939), The Good Person of Setzuan (1938-1940), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944-1945). In 1947, Brecht was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his Marxist ideas, and he left the United States shortly thereafter.

He settled in East Berlin, where the government gave him his own theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, which opened in 1949 with Mother Courage. For the next 7 years. He and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel (1900-1971), worked to develop epic theatre. When Brecht died in 1956, his wife took over the company, which had developed into one of the foremost acting troupes in the world; it continues to produce today.

During his lifetime, Brecht was a controversial figure, and he has been equally controversial in the years since his death. Many have judged him to be one of the most innovative dramatists and theoreticians of twentieth-century theatre. But he has also been criticized for his habit of frequently appropriating the work of others particularly female collaborators without acknowledging their contributions when his plays were produced and published. John Fuegi made a persuasive argument for this point of view in the book Brecht and Co. Also, though Brecht was an avowed Marxist, he managed his financial affairs with the self-interest of a full-fledged capitalist and was unwilling to confront the totalitarian government of East Germany.

Tags: | Germany | Bertolt Brecht | Art | Literature |


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