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Brecht, Bertoltlocked

(10 February 1898–14 August 1956)
  • Chris Andre

Brecht, Bertolt (10 February 1898–14 August 1956), author, theatrical director, and dramatic theorist, was born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht in Augsburg, Germany, the son of Berthold Friedrich Brecht, a manager of a paper mill, and Sofie Brezing. In 1917 Brecht left the comfort of his respectable provincial family in the Bavarian town of Augsburg, some forty miles northwest of Munich, to enter medical studies at Munich University. After serving as a medical orderly in the Venereal Diseases Ward of the Augsburg Military Hospital during 1918, Brecht briefly resumed his medical studies. His growing interest in theater, however, caused him to leave Munich University in 1921 without receiving a degree.

Brecht, who changed his first name to the less traditional Bertolt (often shortened to “Bert”) in 1921, is generally considered to be one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century, and his status as the century’s most influential dramatic theorist is virtually impeccable. Departing from the defamiliarization techniques of the Russian formalists, Brecht created the form of theater known as “epic” theater, alternately named “non-Aristotelian,” “dialectical,” or “historical” theater. He developed dramatic applications of the defamiliarization process, referred to in his writing as the “estrangement effect” (Verfremdungseffekt), whereby everyday objects and activities could be made to appear strange and unfamiliar.

Brecht’s dramatic works were designed to defamiliarize social realities to the point where the audience could analyze them critically, as though from a distance; in effect, Brecht wanted to make the present appear historical. He asserted the need to liberate all people, and especially the industrial working classes, from the illusion that the present moment is immutable, the product of an inscrutable form of fate either divine or macroeconomic. Brecht’s early interest in America relates to this particular problem; for him as for many intellectuals during the New Sobriety (Neue Sachlichkeit) of the German 1920s, America represented the best and worst of modernization, with industrialization and urbanization raised to new levels of excess.

Many of Brecht’s early works are thus set in the financial capitals of the United States and deal with both the vertiginous heights of finance capital and the sordid poverty of the workers: the partially completed Dan Drew (1925), in New York; In the Jungle of Cities (1927), in Chicago; the aborted Wheat (1927), in Chicago; the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1928), in Florida; and Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1929–1930; published, 1932), in Chicago. In Dan Drew (1925) Brecht had written that in order to understand the workings of the stock exchange, “one would have to have a giant head.” America offered Brecht both the opportunity to imagine the workings of these complex operations for himself and the dramatic space within which others might learn how to develop their very own “giant heads.”

While in exile from Germany, waiting in Helsinki for a U.S. visa, Brecht wrote a play concerning Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, designed especially for the American stage. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) combines Brecht’s interest in gangster films with the problem of institutionalized violence; in this fictionalized Chicago, as in Hitler’s Germany, the general population accepts coercion and reduced rights in order that their domestic lives might remain generally intact. Brecht reached Hollywood in 1941, traveling on the Trans-Siberian railroad with his wife, Helene Weigel (whom he had married in 1929), and their two children.

In Hollywood Brecht felt estranged not only from native Americans but from his fellow exiles as well: “The worst of it is that everybody here is trying to convert himself and everybody else into a hundred per cent American in record time, it makes me feel rather seasick.” In his poems from this period Brecht described Hollywood as a leech-filled swamp, a version of Hell, and a market for lies; in order to earn money, however, Brecht quickly adapted himself to working in the film industry, and with fellow German Fritz Lang he wrote the story for the film Hangmen Also Die (1943). Although this was the only film project with which Brecht involved himself, it was enough to earn him a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee for their hearings on Communist infiltration of the motion-picture industry. During his appearance before the committee on 30 October 1947 Brecht chainsmoked cigars and spoke only through his interpreter; his carefully rehearsed performance was sufficiently European and congenial for committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas to thank him for being a “good example” to future witnesses. The next day Brecht flew to Zurich, never to return to the United States.

While in Switzerland Brecht composed his “Short Organon for the Theater” (1948), the definitive theoretical exposition of his “epic” theater. After returning to East Berlin (1949), Brecht and his wife founded the Berliner Ensemble, a theater devoted to performing plays written or directed by Brecht. It was the Berliner Ensemble that first brought Brecht truly international fame, with the appearance of their production of his play Mother Courage and Her Children (1939; published, 1949) at the Paris International Theater Festival (1954). Since his death of coronary thrombosis in East Berlin, Brecht’s influence on world theater has been consistently strong. His techniques and theories have been particularly important in Europe and England, with works by figures such as Jean-Luc Godard, John Arden, and Harold Pinter clearly bearing the marks of Brecht’s influence. In the United States Brecht has been less appreciated, but elements of his dramatic theory can be seen in works by dramatists such as Thornton Wilder and David Mamet, as well as in the work of film director David Lynch. Brecht’s influence on the whole of twentieth-century dramatic theory, and the importance of his production as a playwright, poet, and short-story author, will ensure that Bertolt Brecht will long remain a viable force in the literary and theatrical fields.


Brecht’s papers are in the Bertolt-Brecht-Archiv, Berlin. In addition to his Collected Short Stories (1983), a number of Brecht’s important plays not mentioned above include Baal (1922), A Man’s a Man (1925), The Threepenny Opera (1929), The Measures Taken (1931), The Life of Galileo (1938), The Good Person of Setzuan (1938–1941), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944–1945). Brecht’s Letters 1913–1956, ed. John Willett (1990), includes much of his correspondence during his stays in the United States. Important resources for Brecht’s relationship to the United States include Patty Lee Parmalee, Brecht’s America (1981), on Brecht’s early writings concerned with America; and James K. Lyon, Bertolt Brecht in America (1980), on Brecht’s time spent in the United States. The standard reference work for Brecht’s theoretical writings is Willett, Brecht on Theatre (1964).