The first in a series of articles on epic theatre explores the man synonymous with the form, Bertolt Brecht.
Bertolt Brecht was born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht on 10 February 1898 in Augsburg, Germany, to middle class parents. As a young man he studied medicine and served in an army hospital as an orderly, successfully avoiding active duty in World War I. When studying medicine at Munich University, Brecht was introduced to drama for the first time.
Brecht soon began writing theatre reviews in newspapers until he completed his first play, Baal, at the age of just twenty. His second play, Drums in the Night, was performed in Munich in 1922. Brecht moved to Berlin in 1924 to further his career as a dramatist.
Alongside writing theatre reviews and plays, Brecht also wrote many poems and theories on numerous aspects of theatre performance. He soon became an accomplished director and was influenced by fellow German theatre director Erwin Piscator. The two men, both Marxists, would become the foremost practitioners of epic theatre, a form of theatre that advocated social and political reform.
Brecht’s 1928 play with music, The Threepenny Opera, was a collaboration with composer Kurt Weill and became one of the biggest commercial successes of 1920s Berlin theatre. However, Brecht was frustrated the production became popular with the German middle class rather than the working class to whom the piece was aimed, as it was a satire on capitalist bourgeois society.
In 1929 Brecht married Helene Weigel, his second wife, who would later become famous acting the role of Mother Courage in his Berliner Ensemble theatre company. Brecht continued to write and mix in literary circles until his career was upended when Adolf Hitler came to power in April 1933.
Under Hitler, Brecht was forced to write propaganda plays about an all-powerful Nazi world, be silent, or leave the country if he was able. Brecht chose the latter, exiling himself to Austria, Switzerland and then Scandinavia where he wrote The Life of Galileo and most of Mother Courage and her Children. Brecht eventually acquired a U.S. passport, settling in Santa Monica, California, in 1941. Over the next six years in America, he wrote three of his most mature works in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Good Person of Szechuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Yet Brecht had no theatre available to him in which to rehearse and perform his plays.
As America panicked under the threat of communism, Brecht was famously called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in September 1947. Accused of being a communist living in capitalist America, Brecht performed some of his best acting during these hearings, pretending he had poor English-speaking skills, calling for interpreters to assist him in understanding the questions asked of him, and stumbling his way through deliberately vague responses. While Brecht had the parliamentary committee fooled, his situation was still precarious. The day after the hearings concluded, Brecht arranged for an Austrian passport and swiftly returned to Europe.
In 1949 Brecht moved to East Berlin and established his own theatre troupe, the Berliner Ensemble, which would soon become one of the most respected theatre companies of the world. Finally, Brecht had a place of his own to produce his plays and put his theories into practice. Brecht continued to write plays in his later years, but his true focus was now on directing works at the Berliner Ensemble.
Bertolt Brecht died of a heart attack on 14 August 1956, aged just 58 years. His contribution to theatre included writing over fifty plays, poetry, plus numerous essays on the theatre. Today, Brecht is widely regarded as one of the most significant theatre practitioners of the 20th century.
– Justin Cash