Bertolt Brecht Chronology
|1898||February 10, born in Augsburg to a paper manufacturer|
|1904-1908||elementary school (Volksschule)|
|1908-1917||high school (Königlich-Bayerisches Realgymnasium)|
|1913||writes first texts (diaries, school journal); friendship with Paula Banholzer|
|1917||matriculates as medical student at Ludwig-Maximilian Universität in Munich; attends Artur Kutscher's seminars on theatre|
|1918||military service as medical orderly in Augsburg; activity in a soldiers' council (Soldatenrat) during the November Revolution|
|1919||drama reviews; Baal, participates in Karl Valentin's political cabaret; his first son, Frank, is born to Paula Banholzer|
|1920||first short trip to Berlin; Brecht's mother dies|
|1921||second trip to Berlin, attends rehearsals of Max Reinhardt and other major directors|
|1922||Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night) opens in Munich at the Kammerspiele and later at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin; Brecht receives the prestigious Kleist prize for young dramatists; friendship with Arnolt Bronnen, marriage with Marianna Zoff|
|1923||Im Dickicht der Städte (In the Jungle of the Cities) opens at the Residenztheater in Munich; Baal opens in Leipzig; collaboration with Lion Feuchtwanger in Munich; his daughter Hanne is born to Marianne Zoff|
|1924||Brecht moves to Berlin; Leben Eduards des Zweiten von England (adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward the Second, together with Lion Feuchtwanger) opens under Brecht's direction at the Kammerspiele in Munich; meets Helene Weigel, who bears his son Stefan; begins collaborative work with Elisabeth Hauptmann;|
|1925||friendship with the heavyweight boxer Paul Samson-Körner, the painter George Grosz, and the novelist Alfred Döblin; substantial writing for journals and newspapers (short stories, essays)|
|1926||Mann ist Mann (Man Equals Man) opens in Darmstadt|
|1927||Hauspostille (Manuel of Piety) appears; radio production of Mann ist Mann and Brecht's adaptation of Macbeth; first collaboration with Kurt Weill on the Mahagonny song cycle (starring Lotte Lenya); co-operation with Erwin Piscator's experimental stagings; divorce from Marianne Zoff|
|1928||Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) opens at the Theatre am Schiffbauer Damm in Berlin, becomes the most successful play of the Weimar Republic|
|1929||Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis (The Baden Cantata of Consent) and Lindbergflug (later renamed Ozeanflug, Ocean Flight) with music by Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, Brecht's first two "learning plays" (Lehrstücke); meets Walter Benjamin; marriage with Helene Weigel; Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (Saint Joan of the Stockyards, broadcast on radio in 1932); Berliner Requiem (Berlin Requiem) with music by Kurt Weill broadcast|
|1930||Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) opens at the Leipzig opera (picketed by Nazis); Der Jasager und der Neinsager (He Who Said Yes, He Who Said No) directed by Brecht in Berlin; daughter Barbara born by Helene Weigel; Die Maßnahme (The Measures Taken) opens in Berlin; "Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner" (The Keuner Stories); "Die Beule" (The Bruise), screenplay for the Threepenny Opera Film (not realised)|
|1931||Mann ist Mann (starring Peter Lorre) directed by Brecht in Berlin; Brecht and Weill sue Nero Film for breach of contract in the G.W. Pabst production of the Threepenny Opera film (Brecht loses, settles out of court, and Weill wins);|
|1932||Die Mutter (The Mother, adapted from Maxim Gorki's novel), directed by Brecht and Emil Burri, opens in Berlin; the film Kuhle Wampe (with Slatan Dudow, Ernst Ottwalt, Hanns Eisler) opens in May after a censorship scandal; Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe (Round Heads and Pointed Heads); friendship with Margarete Steffin|
|1933||Brecht flees with his family to Zurich after the burning of the Reichstag (February 27) and then settles in Denmark (Svendborg) with Weigel and the two children Stefan and Barbara; Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) with music by Weill opens in Paris and travels to London; works on the poetry anthology "Svendborger Gedichte" (first published in Copenhagen in 1939); friendship with Ruth Berlau|
|1934||Brecht and Hanns Eisler in London; work on Der Dreigroschenroman (The Threepenny Novel)|
|1935||travel to Moscow where he meets Sergei Tretiakov, Sergei Eisenstein, and the Chinese actor Mei Lan-Fan; travel to New York City for the production of Mother; Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (Fear and Misery of the Third Reich)|
|1936||trip to New York City and London|
|1937||trip to Paris; Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar (Seqora Carrar's Rifles) opens in Paris under the direction of Slatan Dudow and starring Helene Weigel|
|1938||in Paris 8 scenes from Furcht und Elend are staged in German under the direction of Slatan Dudow and starring Helene Weigel; first version of Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo) completed|
|1939||Brecht and family forced in April to move to Stockholm, Sweden, with the growing Nazi pressure on neighbouring Denmark; Brecht's father dies; Was kostet das Eisen? (What's the Price of Iron) staged by Brecht and Ruth Berlau in Stockholm; Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children) completed, opens in Zurich in 1941, starring Therese Giehse|
|1940||Brecht and family forced to move to Finland by the advance of the Nazis, first to Helsinki and later to the country estate of the writer Hella Wuolijoki; Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan) completed; first version of Das Verhör des Lukullus (The Trial of Lucullus) completed; Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti) written together with Wuolijoki; writes Flüchtlingsgespräche (Conversations among Exiles)|
|1941||Brecht, his family, Steffin, and Berlau travel via Moscow and Vladivostok to San Pedro (the port of Los Angeles); Margarete Steffin dies of tuberculosis in Moscow; Brecht meets Charles Chaplin and other Hollywood luminaries, including Fritz Lang; works on Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui), first staged in 1958 in Stuttgart|
|1942||Brecht meets other German exiles in Los Angeles (Arnold Schönberg, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Thomas Mann, etc.); work on screenplays (including for the Fritz Lang production Hangmen also Die)|
|1943||trip to New York City where he meets with Erwin Piscator, Wieland Herzfeld, Ernst Bloch, George Grosz, W.H. Auden, etc.; work with Lion Feuchtwanger on Die Gesichte der Simone Machard (The Visions of Simone Machard) for which the film rights are sold to MGM (never produced), first staged in Frankfurt am Main in 1957; Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg (Schweyk in the Second World War) completed, first staged in German in Erfurt, 1958|
|1944||Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle) completed, first staged in English (in Eric Bentley's translation) at Carleton College in Minnesota in 1948 and in German by Brecht himself at the Berliner Ensemble in 1954; Brecht and W. H. Auden work on an adaptation of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, opens at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City in October 1946|
|1947||opening of Life of Galileo with Charles Laughton in Los Angeles (translation by Brecht and Laughton), first German staging in the Kammerspiele in Cologne, 1955; interrogation by the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, D.C.; Brecht leaves the USA on the next day for Switzerland|
|1948||Brecht adapts Sophocles' Antigone (in Hölderlin's translation) and directs it together with Caspar Neher at the Chur Theatre, starring Helene Weigel; he is also involved in the production of Puntila at the Zurich Schauspielhaus; Brecht moves to East Berlin; Kalendergeschichten (Tales from the Calendar), Brecht's first post-war publication in Germany, appears|
|1949||Brecht establishes the Berliner Ensemble (housed at the Deutsches Theatre) and produces Mutter Courage, starring Helene Weigel; Tage der Commune (Days of the Commune) completed for a Zurich production (never realised), first staged in Karl-Marx-Stadt (East Germany) in 1957|
|1950||Brecht becomes an Austrian citizen; Brecht directs the adaptation of J.M.R. Lenz's Der Hofmeister (The Tutor), prepared by Brecht, Ruth Berlau, Caspar Neher, Egon Monk and Benno Besson|
|1953||Brecht is elected President of the German PEN Centre; Turandot oder der Kongreß der Weißwäscher (Turandot); Brecht completes the poetry cycle Buckower Elegien (Buckow Elegies)|
|1954||Berliner Ensemble moves to the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm; first international tour to Paris where the Berliner Ensemble's production of Mutter Courage caused a sensation and catapulted Brecht into the position of the most important European director; Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt am Main (West Germany) and Aufbau Verlag (East Berlin) begin publishing the edition of Brecht's works|
|1955||Brecht accepts the Stalin prize in Moscow (he requests that Boris Pasternak translate his acceptance speech); Berliner Ensemble on tour in Paris for the second time, with Der kaukasische Kreidekreis; Brecht falls ill|
|1956||rehearsals of Leben des Galilei under Brecht's direction and preparation of the Berliner Ensembles tour to London with that production; on August 14, Brecht dies of heart failure; on August 17, he is buried in the Dorotheenfriedhof in Berlin|
I. English-language memoirs on Brecht:
II. English-language biographies of Brecht:
III. German-language biographies of Brecht:
History of the Berliner Ensemble
The Berliner Ensemble was founded by Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel in
1949, following the much acclaimed production of his play Mother Courage. After
Brecht's return from exile the company first worked at Wolfgang Langhoff's Deutsches
In 1954, it moved to its own home at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm, a theatre with a lavish, neo-Baroque interior that had survived the war without much damage and was home in 1928 to the premiere of Brecht's Threepenny Opera. Here Brecht directed his plays The Caucasian Chalk Circle and, together with Erich Engel, The Life of Galileo. His students Benno Besson, Egon Monk, Peter Palitzsch, and Manfred Wekwerth were given the opportunity to direct plays by Brecht that had not yet been staged. The stage designers Caspar Neher and Karl von Appen, the composers Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler, and the dramaturge Elisabeth Hauptmann were among Brecht's closest collaborators. After Brecht's death in 1956, Helene Weigel continued as the company's artistic manager. Young directors including Manfred Karge and Matthias Langhoff started their careers with the Berliner Ensemble. The company made its mark with such productions as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui starring Ekkehard Schall as Ui and with Helene Weigel's memorable performances in Coriolan and The Mother.
When Ruth Berghaus became artistic director in the 1970s, there was a chance for political and artistic renewal. She directed Cement by Heiner Müller, much of whose work had been banned until then from the GDR stages. Young directors including B.K. Tragelehn and Einar Schleef and the stage designer Andreas Reinhardt questioned the traditions of Brechtian theatre. The political establishment did not accept the challenge of Berghaus's more experimental ways, and Manfred Wekwerth replaced her as artistic director in 1977. Nevertheless, new drama did find its way onto the stage. Writers including Volker Braun and Georg Seidel, and Horst Sagert's production of scenes from Urfaust, brought new life to a repertoire otherwise handicapped by restrictive official policies.
In 1992, under the new artistic management of Matthias Langhoff, Fritz Marquardt, Heiner Müller, Peter Palitzsch, and Peter Zadek, the Berliner Ensemble changed from a state-owned theatre into a private, limited company subsidised by the city government. Heiner Müller's production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, with Martin Wuttke playing the title role, became one of the most successful in the history of the Berliner Ensemble. His program "Brecht - Müller - Shakespeare" remains the guiding legacy of the Berliner Ensemble.
I am very interested in fashion. And since now even the hippie look of
the late sixties has become fashionable again as grunge, and has naturally also
disappeared the way fashion always does, I ask myself whether misery, poverty, and
exploitation as literary subjects can come into and go out of fashion just as well.
Brecht's leather coat, for example, this icon in the photographs, a piece of clothing
deliberately sewn together crookedly (so that the collar would nicely stick out!), proves
to me that appearance--that which is "put on" the literary subject matter--was
very important to Brecht. But if the tireless naming of victims and their exploiters
remains something strangely external to his Didactic Plays, something like a sewn-on
collar (even though the naming of perpetrators and victims is really the main point), one
could say that the work of Brecht, just like fashion and its zombies, very visibly bears
the date stamp of his time. It is, however, exactly in the disappearance of the opposites,
which are exposed as mere externals (misery and luxury, poverty and wealth), that the
differences, strangely, come ever more irrefutably to the fore; and that is precisely what
Brecht wanted! The basic tension, namely the gap between the real and what is said, is
incessantly thematised by Brecht. Language fights against its subject matter, which is put
on it like clothing (not the other way around!), a subject matter which is a piece of
fashion; but how is one to describe fashion now? One can't. Thus the opposites
master/servant etc., not unlike clothing, elude any description--even mock the very
attempt at it. The real truth about these appearances we have to regain, time and again,
from the codes of the externals by which the members of class societies are catalogued
like pieces of clothing. That is to say, we have to look for the opposites behind the
subject matters. Since we will not succeed, as little as Brecht could ever have succeeded
in producing such a description (because the description would have used up everything
that there might have been as its own raw material), there remains, even in Brecht's
Didactic Plays, which seemingly are entirely congruent with their function, an ineffable,
indescribable residue about which nothing can be said. And it is only about this residue
that one can now talk.
To dissipate utterly--that's something a poet likes to do. Only if he does that will be really become what he writes, will he disappear in it. Brecht wanted to give everything; but for that he had to take a lot, maybe more than others. And with him taking and giving are in a well thought-out ratio. In his case the giving takes place in a much more controlled fashion than with other authors, as far as I can see. Brecht took everything, especially much from women (which at the moment is everywhere a topic of discussion again)--women who have loved him, and who have worked on his behalf with the energy of their affection. Brecht then put everything in a blender--or maybe an hour-glass, which just had to be turned over every time it was empty. Brecht: a language agglomerate--sand that runs through sand, everything being indistinguishable from everything else. Often it is nourishment that flows, as Juergen Manthey, among others, has shown in his investigation of the noticeably developed orality of Brecht. Even a poet who knows times of hunger would not necessarily understand the emptiness in himself as one of the stomach, an organ which he may not always be able to distinguish from his consciousness. Consciousness imagines its subject matter, and compares it with what it means for Him Who Knows, i.e., contemplates the difference between truth and knowledge. That which Brecht knew about things he forced upon them in his work, suspecting that he may not have known things quite as well after all, and feeling that he had better tell it to these things once more, and repeat it, so that they wouldn't forget it. In this bifurcation, this permanent gap (the one that women have, too!) between his knowledge and his subject matter, he poured all that which is always at hand (and obvious for him who, in my opinion, always yelled for his mother, always opened his beak to collect tirelessly everything that was thrown into it) and imaginable: the grub. And only afterwards the moral--which, however, is always inseparably attached to the grub. But it is exactly in the intemperance of someone who constantly demands all sorts of nourishment that The Rule--postulated by himself, or provided for him--must be heeded: compulsory teaching. Emanating from the compulsion to dissipate. Roland Barthes, after all, has shown that the compulsive dissipation of the libertine de Sade was by no means without limits. The food, described in minute detail, is necessary to refill the sperm containers of the gentlemen (the description of the food for the prospective victims, by the way, is equally minute!)--just to get them ready to be emptied again. But order is reintroduced into the intricate description of all these nourishments and their preparation. Disorder is apportioned with great care, so that order can return as quickly as possible--the Didactic Play, the poem with a moral at the end (a poem written for the purpose of the moral!). But this precise determination is made by de Sade with regard to fornication, by Brecht with regard to artistic self-dissipation. The poet values this dissipation most highly (in part because he has an inkling that he has no choice in the matter anyway)--in spite of the discipline which time and again he brings about between his legs as well as at his writing desk, almost like a commodity (so that his women will stick with him). For there is always something left that is not under the control of the poet (who has sometimes thought as much), something that cannot ever be forced.
I've always had my difficulties with the work of Brecht, because of his--how shall I put it?--self-confident reductionism that keeps planing off, sharpening, and pointing its subject matter like a lollipop, until finally the spectre of a sense comes out of the mouth of the actors, or the readers of his poetry--only to disappear irrevocably in the end. This is a work that grew out of danger, German Nazism. Yes, it did--and that's great about Brecht. The way he developed his subject matter: that's not some danger of existence as such, something that imperils human beings by way of fate, the emergence of humanity and its creations (art!) as some sort of necessary danger in the way Heidegger thought of it, for example. Brecht talks about the danger that comes from a system of theft and murder; he names and analyses that system in all its ramifications, and in addition he takes a pointer and points out: this is the head of the danger, and this is its tail; and you always have to grab the snake by the head!
When one looks at the sketchy and playful improvement proposals concerning a few poems by Ingeborg Bachmann, the (disagreeably provocative) pointing madness of Brecht, which seems to clip poetry into shape like some bushes, becomes quite obvious again--an obsession with pointing which highlights what?--some sort of smart aleck forwardness? By thinning out these Bachmann poems, by supposedly bringing out their sense in a better way, the poems are merely deprived of their mystery, something that cannot be pressed into a formula for the purpose of getting some sum total at the end of the calculation. If one takes a closer look at these so-called improvements, to be sure, one will find that it is not a know-it-all attitude on the part of Brecht that makes him wield his pen, but clearly a kind of necessity, a deep-seated drive to create; it is this which prompts this author to plane off the chips which he sees. What's at work here is also not the concern of a good craftsman who tries to improve a piece so that it will get its proper form and function--which paradoxically always implies a neutralisation (which Brecht doesn't want; he always aims at extreme concretisation). What he aims at is something existential: this drive to remove the unnecessary is to result in a unification, a fusion of function and naming which constitutes a third thing, something which will then receive its correct name and categorisation, so that one will end up with the only understanding of it that is possible. No misunderstandings, please! And if misunderstandings should come up anyway, well, they'll be taken care of right away! To achieve all this, Brecht pitches the most comprehensive opposites against each other: poor and rich, good and evil, stupid and wise, conscious and unconscious, etc. In order to avoid having to smooth out, to neutralise, Brecht makes the opposites do it themselves. And so they plane each other off--down to the handle, by which the lollipop is held. And that's always what you're left with: you've got a core, a statement, something that always looks the same. But there's nothing you can do with it anymore. It sums up everything without any remainder; and yet it summarises nothing. But with what original passion did these petrified, drained-of-life opposites go at each other when the hand of the author let go of their hindlegs! Shrill yelping all around! It's possible that art which grows out of great danger cannot, as Brecht demonstrates so maniacally and obsessively, be allowed to veer out of control to reveal the unexpected. (In my mind this veering out of control comes out best in the work of Fleisser, who, one might say, was herself reduced to a skeleton by Brecht. For afterwards she overflowed her boundaries altogether to become something else, something extreme, something which couldn't be dammed up anymore by anyone.) Time and again Brecht's art must fuse the exemplary opposites into a final statement in which the greatest excess of our time, German fascism, can be seen to flow into every time and every place. From the exemplary to the extreme of ubiquity and generality!--for these are now plays for all times and all places, for every theatre and every weather. But perhaps that's not the problem of Brecht--the fact that the example becomes what everybody wants. Perhaps it's just the fact that today anything is possible which results in Brecht giving everything to everybody. Time, in a gigantic counter-move, has cancelled out all that planing off by rendering pointedness into ubiquitous generality. Only if our time would change (which nobody wants) could Brecht's drama be detached from the neutralisation of its functions. I just notice that I am trying to describe Brecht's work as some kind of fashion, in the sense in which Roland Barthes, e.g., has developed a language of fashion; and indeed, Brecht's work strikes me to a peculiar extent as "fashionable". The more one wants to describe it as something that fits every time and occasion, the more visibly it reveals the date of its creation--which is also a way of refusing itself. And that, perhaps, is exactly the point: This work, in which everything (as I said so self-confidently earlier on) seems to fit together without remainder, ultimately resists (as I see now, while writing this) dating and incorporation after all; for a work of art cannot be everything, particularly not everything at the same time. Only a work of art can be everything, and everything at the same time at that; it can be, and it can have been. When the newest fashion in clothing dictates grunge, for example, i.e., when it turns that against which Brecht rose up like an enormous wave, poverty and exploitation, as well as its denunciation, into a mere appearance, then it paradoxizes both poverty and luxury. But in the disappearance of these opposites the differences come ever more irrefutably to the fore. Even though our time seems to make it possible for everything to co-exist, and even though this seems to turn Brecht into an "outdated", because too "fashionable", an author, he is nevertheless someone who doggedly keeps open the curtain in front of the differences, who even pulls it open if once in a while it threatens to close itself. Brecht's work doesn't deserve what it is getting. It isn't like some elegant Bauhaus structure, something that strikes us today and forever as "modern" because of its simplicity and its balanced, always fitting form, no matter whether it is located in the desert, in a big city, or high up in the mountains. This author, precisely because he tried so passionately to fit form and content together, to make them congruent, time and again tears open the gap, every gap; he even points to that which doesn't fit, which resists the solution to the riddle, to the intellectual puzzle. To me, in fact, it seems that that's the only thing he points to these days; and at this point all Meaning comes to a halt, and Art begins. Misery becomes luxury, poverty becomes chic, commitment becomes dulled--but nothing becomes simply neutral. Because for Brecht, the poet, the writer, it had to be that way, couldn't have been different; because what Brecht said is solid. And so he puts the sense into the dress of the form. And (because the form is constantly threatened by dissolution in the jogging course of time) both, exactly because they are threatened, become all the more noticeable. That's what happens when one tries to capture the ingraspable wealth of what exists by means of a simple system. Perhaps it doesn't mean anything anymore, but it had to be stated once. The rest is not work anymore, but--in its highest precision--a suddenly delirious speaking, speaking in tongues, about everything, and everything at once; and the precision becomes not a quod-libet, but everything that can be thought and said at all, because it leaves a tiny part that didn't fit into the whole, but which was nevertheless indispensable. Because this part took hold of the whole that was around it. Like the body of its dress, language.
In "A Short Organum for the Theatre", Bertolt Brecht explains his theory of drama in an era of rampant industrial advances. He views societys embracing of this technology as creating a new way for people to relate to their world, what he calls the "alterability of our society" (184). In a time of growing possibilities in science, people have begun to view their world as able to be changed in order to suit them. But Brecht feels that "the new approach to nature was not applied to society" (184). He advocates a "new science of society" (186) in which people could examine, question, and change their surroundings, with the theatre as the means to achieving this. Brechts theatre is in contrast to earlier forms such as Naturalism, which make the audience empathise with the characters and believe that there is no alternative. Brecht wants to show that there are many alternatives, and that the concept of fate is outdated. In "The Good Woman of Setzuan", Brecht attacks the concept of fate through his portrayal of the three gods.
Brecht criticises both Greek gods and the Christian God simultaneously by making his gods ambiguous. Though the play takes place in China, the gods are not represented as specific Chinese gods. Rather, they seem to hold to Christian beliefs. Shen Te refers to their rules as "commandments" (589), and the principles they advocate do resemble the Ten Commandments. Their quest for one good person is also similar to the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the Bible, God decides to destroy the two cities because "the outcry against [them] is so great and their sin so grievous" (Gen 18:20). As He is about to send two angels to earth to "see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me" (Gen 18:21), Abraham asks Him if he will spare the cities if the two angels find fifty righteous men there. Throughout the rest of the chapter, Abraham bargains with God, and persuades him to spare the cities if only ten righteous men are found. In "The Good Woman of Setzuan", the three gods are sent to earth on a mission to find one good person because "heaven is quite disturbed at all the complaining" (587). However, by referring to them as "gods", Brecht brings to mind ancient Greek gods and the prevalent concept of fate in Greek drama. In giving the audience an image of gods that may be from any religion, Brecht shows his distaste for all religion, in that they do not encourage the critical thinking that he advocates.
Brecht also criticises the concepts of fate and the supernatural in "A Short Organum for the Theatre". Here he argues that, if the stage represents society, and the narrative shown can not be altered by anyone but the gods, then the audience is led to believe that they can not change society (189). In "The Good Woman of Setzuan", the gods are actually less powerful than the society.
Brecht cites Oedipus, believing that he is executed not necessarily because society wanted, but because "the gods see to that; they are beyond criticism" (189). In reply to this, Brechts gods are almost human. When the gods appear to Wong in his dreams, they are often ailing from something. In Scene 3A, the Second God has a bad cold (598). In Scene 6A, the third God has a black eye from "intervening in some squabble" (605). The gods are also tired and irritable from not finding any more people who are "good" enough to give them a place to stay (598).
The gods are also criticised continually by the characters. Wong suggests that the gods should not "ask too much all at once" (598), but the gods are leaving and do not reply. At the end of the play, Shen Te asks, "What about the old couple? Theyve lost their shop! What about the Water Seller and his hand? And Ive got to defend myself against the barber, because I don't love him! And against Sun, because I do love him! How? How?" but again, the gods are leaving, and can only reply, "We have faith in you, Shen Te!" (615) Unable to answer Shen Tes questions in the context of a world in which they have no power, they can only mention faith, a useless tool in Shen Tes situation, and go back to heaven.
The gods are also out of touch with the complexities of the world. When Wong tells the gods about Shui Ta, the Second God reacts by proclaiming in a god-like manner, "Then her cousin must never darken her threshold again!" (598). When Wong points out that Shui Ta is a businessman, the gods admit that they dont know anything about business and wonder if they should "inquire what is customary" (598). Capitalism has required that there be different "rules".
The gods find this out as they try to operate in the society using their own rules. They find that they must modify their ideas and bend their rules in order for them to pertain to the present state of society. When Shen Te argues that it is difficult for her to be "good" by the gods rules while living in a Capitalist society, the gods try to rationalise it ("These thoughts are but, um, the misgivings of an unusually good woman."), but are forced to admit that "she might do better if she had more money" (589). They rationalise this away by saying that the money is for renting her room.
The gods also bring political messages to the play. On one of their visits to Wong, the Third God laments that they have not been able to find people willing to let them sleep in their houses because, "The rich recommended us to the poor, and the poor tell us they havent enough room." (598). This makes a statement about religion in general. The rich, who have no want for anything, do not need gods to pray to. And though the poor could use something to have faith in, they have little money to donate to churches or temples. It is doubtless that Brecht was thinking of religion as "the opiate of the masses", given to the poor by the rich so that they would be content with their lives in hopes of a better afterlife. Here Brecht implies that there is no room in his vision of society for any religion that would make its people less likely to effect change. Brecht also asserts that the gods are powerless, and that faith in them is foolish, with the following exchange:
WONG. Everyone knows the province of Kwan is always having floods.
SECOND GOD. Really? Hows that?
WONG. Why, because theyre so irreligious.
SECOND GOD. Rubbish. Its because they neglected the dam.
FIRST GOD. (to Second). Sh! (587)
Brechts goal is to inspire his audience to effect change. To do this, he alienates them with a foreign setting, asides to the audience, and song. Brecht wants his audience to constantly be aware that they are watching a play. If the audience does not empathise with the characters and feel drawn into the play, they are better equipped to think about the play critically and apply their questioning to society outside the theatre. In "The Good Woman of Setzuan", Brecht creates characters that ask the audience to question them. When Shen Te asks the gods "How?", Brecht expects the audience to ponder over her question. Similarly, Brecht uses the characters of the three gods as tools for the audience to question their own religion. When the characters in the play ask the gods questions they can not answer, the audience may wonder if the gods they worship could answer the same questions.
In Greek drama, a situation was often remedied by the supernatural. A god could appear on the scene and make anything happen. In contrast, the gods in "The Good Woman of Setzuan" appear on the scene and find that they, and those who follow them, are powerless. With the characters of the three gods, Brecht inspires the audience to not put their faith into an outdated and impotent system of beliefs, but to examine, question, and change their society.
original name EUGEN BERTHOLD FRIEDRICH BRECHT
(b. Feb. 10, 1898, Augsburg, Ger.--d. Aug. 14, 1956, East Berlin),
German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer whose epic theatre departed from the conventions of theatrical illusion and developed the drama as a social and ideological forum for leftist causes.
Until 1924 Brecht lived in Bavaria, where he was born, studied medicine (Munich, 1917-21), and served in an army hospital (1918). From this period date his first play, Baal (produced 1923); his first success, Trommeln in der Nacht (Kleist Preis, 1922; Drums in the Night); the poems and songs collected as Die Hauspostille (1927; A Manual of Piety, 1966), his first professional production (Edward II, 1924); and his admiration for Wedekind, Rimbaud, Villon, and Kipling.
During this period he also developed a violently antibourgeois attitude that reflected his generation's deep disappointment in the civilisation that had come crashing down at the end of World War I. Among Brecht's friends were members of the Dadaist group, who aimed at destroying what they condemned as the false standards of bourgeois art through derision and iconoclastic satire. The man who taught him the elements of Marxism in the late 1920s was Karl Korsch, an eminent Marxist theoretician who had been a Communist member of the Reichstag but had been expelled from the German Communist Party in 1926.
In Berlin (1924-33) he worked briefly for the directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, but mainly with his own group of associates. With the composer Kurt Weill (q.v.) he wrote the satirical, successful ballad opera Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera) and the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930; Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahoganny). He also wrote what he called "Lehr-stucke" ("exemplary plays")--badly didactic works for performance outside the orthodox theatre--to music by Weill, Hindemith, and Hanns Eisler. In these years he developed his theory of "epic theatre" and an austere form of irregular verse. He also became a Marxist.
In 1933 he went into exile--in Scandinavia (1933-41), mainly in Denmark, and then in the United States (1941-47), where he did some film work in Hollywood. In Germany his books were burned and his citizenship was withdrawn. He was cut off from the German theatre; but between 1937 and 1941 he wrote most of his great plays, his major theoretical essays and dialogues, and many of the poems collected as Svendborger Gedichte (1939). The plays of these years became famous in the author's own and other productions: notable among them are Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and Her Children), a chronicle play of the Thirty Years' War; Leben des Galilei (1943; The Life of Galileo); Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1943; The Good Woman of Setzuan), a parable play set in pre-war China; Der Aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (1957; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui), a parable play of Hitler's rise to power set in pre-war Chicago; Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1948; Herr Puntila and His Man Matti), a Volksstuck (popular play) about a Finnish farmer who oscillates between churlish sobriety and drunken good humour; and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (first produced in English, 1948; Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, 1949), the story of a struggle for possession of a child between its highborn mother, who deserts it, and the servant girl who looks after it.
Brecht left the United States in 1947 after having had to give evidence before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He spent a year in Zurich, working mainly on Antigone-Modell 1948 (adapted from Hulderlin's translation of Sophocles; produced 1948) and on his most important theoretical work, the Kleines Organon fur das Theatre (1949; "A Little Organum for the Theatre"). The essence of his theory of drama, as revealed in this work, is the idea that a truly Marxist drama must avoid the Aristotelian premise that the audience should be made to believe that what they are witnessing is happening here and now. For he saw that if the audience really felt that the emotions of heroes of the past--Oedipus, or Lear, or Hamletcould equally have been their own reactions, then the Marxist idea that human nature is not constant but a result of changing historical conditions would automatically be invalidated. Brecht therefore argued that the theatre should not seek to make its audience believe in the presence of the characters on the stage--should not make it identify with them, but should rather follow the method of the epic poet's art, which is to make the audience realise that what it sees on the stage is merely an account of past events that it should watch with critical detachment. Hence, the "epic" (narrative, nondramatic) theatre is based on detachment, on the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect), achieved through a number of devices that remind the spectator that he is being presented with a demonstration of human behaviour in scientific spirit rather than with an illusion of reality, in short, that the theatre is only a theatre and not the world itself.
In 1949 Brecht went to Berlin to help stage Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (with his wife, Helene Weigel, in the title part) at Reinhardt's old Deutsches Theatre in the Soviet sector. This led to formation of the Brechts' own company, the Berliner Ensemble, and to permanent return to Berlin. Henceforward the Ensemble and the staging of his own plays had first claim on Brecht's time. Often suspect in eastern Europe because of his unorthodox aesthetic theories and denigrated or boycotted in the West for his Communist opinions, he yet had a great triumph at the Paris Theatre des Nations in 1955, and in the same year in Moscow he received a Stalin Peace Prize. He died of a heart attack in East Berlin the following year.
Brecht was, first, a superior poet, with a command of many styles and moods. As a playwright he was an intensive worker, a restless piecer-together of ideas not always his own (The Threepenny Opera is based on John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and Edward II on Marlowe), a sardonic humorist, and a man of rare musical and visual awareness; but he was often bad at creating living characters or at giving his plays tension and shape. As a producer he liked lightness, clarity, and firmly knotted narrative sequence; a perfectionist, he forced the German theatre, against its nature, to underplay. As a theoretician he made principles out of his preferences--and even out of his faults.
A complete bibliography of Brecht's writings published up to the time of his death by Walter Nubel may be found in the Second Special Brecht Number of the East German periodicial Sinn und Form (1957); a concise summary of Brecht literature is contained in Bertolt-Brecht-Bibliographie by Klaus-Dietrich Petersen (1968). Collected works in the original German are available in an edition in 8 thin-paper or 20 paperback volumes; Gesammelte Werke (1967). This edition, however, is far from complete and the principles according to which it was edited are open to doubt. A major collected edition of Brecht's work in English, under the joint editorship of John Willett and Ralph Manheim started publication with the first volume of Collected Plays (1970). Eric Bentley has edited Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht (1961), a series of paperback volumes of Brecht's plays, and has translated the poetry collection, Hauspostille (1927; Manual of Piety, 1966). A good selection of Brecht's theoretical writings is Brecht on Theatre, trans. by John Willett (1964).
Critical and biographical works available in English include: John Willett, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht (1959); Martin Esslin, Brecht: A Choice of Evils (1959; revised edition under the title, Brecht: The Man and His Work, 1971); and Frederic Ewen, Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art and His Times (1967, 1970). Max Spalter, Brecht's Tradition (1967), analyses the chief influences on Brecht in German literature.
Epic theatre of Brecht
Although Bertolt Brecht's first plays were written in Germany during the 1920s, he was not widely known until much later. Eventually his theories of stage presentation exerted more influence on the course of mid-century theatre in the West than did those of any other individual. This was largely because he proposed the major alternative to the Stanislavsky-oriented realism that dominated acting and the "well-made play" construction that dominated playwriting.
Brecht's earliest work was heavily influenced by German Expressionism, but it was his preoccupation with Marxism and the idea that man and society could be intellectually analysed that led him to develop his theory of "epic theatre." Brecht believed that theatre should appeal not to the spectator's feelings but to his reason. While still providing entertainment, it should be strongly didactic and capable of provoking social change. In the Realistic theatre of illusion, he argued, the spectator tended to identify with the characters on stage and become emotionally involved with them rather than being stirred to think about his own life. To encourage the audience to adopt a more critical attitude to what was happening on stage, Brecht developed his Verfremdungs-effekt ("alienation effect")--i.e., the use of anti-illusive techniques to remind the spectators that they are in a theatre watching an enactment of reality instead of reality itself. Such techniques included flooding the stage with harsh white light, regardless of where the action was taking place, and leaving the stage lamps in full view of the audience; making use of minimal props and "indicative" scenery; intentionally interrupting the action at key junctures with songs in order to drive home an important point or message; and projecting explanatory captions onto a screen or employing placards. From his actors Brecht demanded not realism and identification with the role but an objective style of playing, to become in a sense detached observers.
Brecht's most important plays, which included Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo), Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children), and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan, or The Good Woman of Setzwan), were written between 1937 and 1945 when he was in exile from the Nazi regime, first in Scandinavia and then in the United States. At the invitation of the newly formed East German government, he returned to found the Berliner Ensemble in 1949 with his wife, Helene Weigel, as leading actress. It was only at this point, through his own productions of his plays, that Brecht earned his reputation as one of the most important figures of 20th-century theatre.
Certainly Brecht's attack on the illusive theatre influenced, directly or indirectly, the theatre of every Western country. In Britain the effect became evident in the work of such playwrights as John Arden and Edward Bond and in some of the bare-stage productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Western theatre in the 20th century, however, has proved to be a cross-fertilisation of many styles (Brecht himself acknowledged a debt to traditional Oriental theatre), and by the 1950s other approaches were gaining influence.
The influence of Brecht
By 1936 a wide range of experimentation and innovation had established the parameters of the contemporary theatre. The training of actors in the Western theatre has since become more organised to take in concepts and programs from the earlier innovators. There are few schools today that do not acknowledge the work of Stanislavsky in their training. Less obvious but equally pervasive is the influence of Reinhardt and Copeau, largely by way of their pupils in teaching. And towering above all others (save perhaps Stanislavsky) is the figure of Brecht. It is reasonable to argue that Brecht absorbed, and in turn perpetuated, more influences than any other individual in the modern theatre.
Of central importance in establishing this argument is Brecht's essay "On Experimental Theatre" (1940), in which he reviews the work of Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, Antoine, Reinhardt, Okhlopkov, Stanislavsky, Jessner, and other Expressionists. Brecht traces through the modern theatre the two lines running from Naturalism and Expressionism. Naturalism he sees as the "assimilation of art to science," which gave the Naturalistic theatre great social influence, but at the expense of its capacity to arouse aesthetic pleasure. Expressionism (and by implication the other anti-illusionist theatres), he acknowledges, "vastly enriched the theatre's means of expression and brought aesthetic gains that still remain to be exploited." But it proved incapable of shedding any light on the world as an object of human activity, and the theatre's educational value collapsed. Brecht recognised the great achievements of Piscator's work, in which he himself played a significant role, but proposed a further advance in the development of so-called epic theatre.
Brecht's Marxist political convictions led him to propose an alternative direction for the theatre that would fuse the two functions of instruction and entertainment. In this way the theatre could project a picture of the world by artistic means and offer models of life that could help the spectators to understand their social environment and to master it both rationally and emotionally. The main concept of Brecht's program was that of Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation"). In order to induce a critical frame of mind in the spectator, Brecht considered it necessary to dispense with the empathetic involvement with the stage that the illusionary theatre sought to induce. Generally, this has been understood as a deadening coldness in the productions, but such an interpretation proceeds from a general ignorance of Brecht's own writings on the subject. Rather, he insisted, as Appia, Craig, and the Symbolists did before him, that the audience must be reminded that it is watching a play.
Brecht's ideas can be approached through the image presented by the theatre he chose to work in on his return to East Germany in 1947. The auditorium of the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm is lavish to the point of fantasy, decorated with ornate plaster figures. The stage, by complete contrast, is a vast mechanised scenic space in which everything is clearly exposed to view as theatrical and man-made. In the contrast between the comfort of the auditorium and the science of the stage lies the condition of Brecht's theatre. The audience was there to be entertained but also to think scientifically.
Many of the techniques of Brecht's staging were developments of earlier work. The use of three-dimensional set pieces in a large volume of space clearly derived from Jessner. His delight in the use of machinery and in particular the revolving stage came from Piscator. The insistence on the actors' demonstrating through the physical disposition of the body their gestus ("attitude") toward what is happening derived from Meyerhold, though with Brecht the gestus was always socially based. The clearest of his alienation devices, the projection of captions preceding the scene so that the audience knows in advance what will happen and therefore can concentrate on how it happens, derived from Piscator's jotter screens and film captions.
Brecht acknowledged in his work the need for the actor to undergo a process of identification with the part, and he paid tribute to Stanislavsky as the first person to produce a systematic account of the actor's technique. Brecht required his actors to go beyond Stanislavsky and to incorporate a social attitude or judgement into their portrayal. Characterisation without a critical judgement was in Brecht's view seductive artifice; conversely, social judgement without the characterisation of a rounded human being was arid dogmatism. The theatre of mixed styles and means that Meyerhold and others constructed to cope with the grotesque experience of modern living was transformed by Brecht into a political principle. He used mixed means and styles to expose the contradictions, inconsistencies, and dialectics of situations and characters. Brecht's strongest theatrical effects were created through the juxtaposition of inconsistent attitudes in a character. Although the settings in Brecht's productions were clearly theatrical, the costumes and properties were not. Great care was taken to make each property and its useauthentic for the period or character (Figure 23). In Brecht's theatre, if a chicken were to be plucked the actor did not mime or roughly approximate the action--the chicken was plucked. Costumes had to make clear the social class of the persons wearing them. This places Brecht directly in the line with the Meiningen Players, though again the gestus is particularly social rather than historical.
Brecht's methods of rehearsal were especially innovative. The methods worked out in his own company, the Berliner Ensemble, established a directing collective well advanced beyond those of Reinhardt and Piscator. In Brecht's theatre, the director, dramaturge, designer, and composer had equal authority in the production. The designer had a special function; in addition to designing the sets and costumes, he also produced, for early rehearsal purposes, a series of sketches of key moments in the action. The rehearsals became a process of testing hypotheses about the play and its production. What held the collective together and made the method workable was the story, or fable. All the elements of production were synthesised for telling this story in public. At some points the music conveyed the meaning, at other times the setting, or the actors, or the words did. Brecht often invited observers to the rehearsals in order to test the clarity of the story. The process of testing could continue into the performance period. When the company was satisfied that the staging was correct, the production was photographed and a Modellbuch was prepared with photographs set against the text to show the disposition of the stage at all times and to mark significant changes of position on the part of the actors. The Modellbuch was then available (in a more advanced form than the designer's sketches) as the basis for any subsequent productions.
The Modellbuch has aroused resentment on the part of directors who prefer to respond freely to the text. Brecht's intention was not to limit but to provide a document as scientific evidence of an experiment that could be used in further research. Since the finished text was, in any case, only one facet of the fable, the model book gave evidence of other aspects of the story and its telling.
Brecht's influence on the contemporary theatre has been both considerable and problematic. His Marxist views have proved a real stumbling block to his assimilation in the West, and his use of formalist techniques in the service of entertainment has presented difficulties in the socialist countries. There is no doubt that the settings and costumes of his productions are the features that have most influenced the contemporary theatre. Contemporary design exhibits in many ways the influences of his staging.
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