Brecht's major contribution was his theory of the epic theater. In epic theater, characters are not intended to mimic real people, but to represent archetypes, stereotypes, or opposing sides of an argument. In most drama the audience is encouraged to identify with the hero, but Brecht believed that the audience should always be aware that it is watching a play and should remain at an emotional distance from the action. Brecht described this ideal as the Verfremdungseffekt—variously translated as "alienation effect," "de-familiarization effect," or "estrangement effect." It is the opposite of the suspension of disbelief. He believed that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted audiences to use this critical perspective to identify social ills in the world and be moved to take action and effect change.
Brecht's theory of the theater stemmed from his ideological commitment to revolution and social change. However, Brecht's own experience in East Germany demonstrated that his vision of a Marxist society did not exactly coincide with either the governing principles of communist rulers or the prevailing social structures. Like many Western Marxists, Brecht saw Marxism as a utopian social schema, but was unable to reconcile that vision with existing reality.
Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Brecht studied medicine and worked briefly as an orderly in a hospital in Munich during World War I. After the war he moved to Berlin where an influential critic, Herbert Ihering, brought him to the attention of a public longing for modern theater.
During the postwar governments and then the Weimar Republic, Brecht met and began to work with Hanns Eisler—the composer with whom he shared the closest friendship throughout his life. He also met Helene Weigel, who would become his second wife and accompany him through exile and for the rest of his life. His first book of poems, Hauspostille, won a literary prize.
He married the opera singer and actress Marianne Zoff in 1922. Their daughter, Hanne Hiob, born in 1923, is a well-known German actress. In 1930, Brecht married Weigel, who had already borne him a son, Stefan. Their daughter, Barbara Brecht-Schall, was born soon after the wedding. She also became an actress and currently holds the copyrights to all of Brecht's work.
Brecht formed a writing collective which became prolific and very influential. Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Emil Burri, Ruth Berlau, and others, worked with Brecht and produced the multiple Lehrstücke (teaching plays), which attempted a new dramaturgy for participants rather than passive audiences. These addressed themselves to the massive worker arts organization that existed in Germany and Austria in the 1920s. So did Brecht's first great play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which attempted to portray the drama in financial transactions. He also worked in the theaters of Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator.
This collective adapted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Brecht's songs set to music by Kurt Weill. Retitled The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) it was the largest hit in Berlin of the 1920s, and had a renewing influence on the musical worldwide. One of its most famous lines underscored the hypocrisy of conventional morality imposed by the Church, working in conjunction with the established order, in the face of working-class hunger and deprivation:
The success of The Threepenny Opera was followed by the quickly thrown together Happy End. It was a personal and a commercial failure. The book was then claimed to be authored by the mysterious Dorothy Lane (now known to be Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht's secretary and close collaborator). Brecht only claimed authorship of the song texts. Brecht would later use elements of Happy End as the germ for his Saint Joan of the Stockyards, a play that would never see the stage in Brecht's life-time. Happy End's most redeeming quality was its inspired score by Weill, producing many Brecht/Weill hits like "Der Bilbao-Song" and "Surabaya-Jonny."
The masterpiece of the Brecht/Weill collaborations, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), premiered in 1930, in Leipzig with an uproar, as Nazis protested the opera in the audience. The Mahagonny opera would premier later in Berlin, in 1931, as a triumphant sensation.
Brecht spent his last years in Berlin (1930-1933) working with his "collective" on the Lehrstücke. These were a group of plays driven by morals, music, and Brecht's budding Epic Theatre. The Lehrstücke often aimed at educating workers on Socialist issues. The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme), by far the most popular and scandalous of this series, was scored by Hanns Eisler. In addition, Brecht worked on a script for a semi-documentary feature film about the human impact of mass unemployment, Kuhle Wampe (1932), which was directed by Slatan Dudow. This striking film is notable for its subversive humor, outstanding cinematography by Günther Krampf, and Hanns Eisler's dynamic musical contribution. It still provides a vivid insight into Berlin during the last years of the Weimar Republic.
By February 1933, Brecht’s work was eclipsed by the rise of Nazi rule in Germany. Brecht would also have his work challenged again in later life by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), who believed he was under the influence of communism.
After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht perceived a great danger to himself and left for exile—to Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, then Russia, and finally in the United States. In his resistance toward the Nazi and Fascist movements, Brecht wrote his most famous plays: Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, Puntila and Matti, his Hired Man, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Sezuan, and many others. Brecht also wrote poetry which continues to attract attention and respect. He worked on a few screenplays for Hollywood, like Hangmen Also Die, though he had no real success or pleasure in this.
In the years of the Cold War and "red scare," the House Un-American Activities Committee called Brecht to account for his communist allegiances, and he was soon blacklisted by movie studio bosses. Brecht, along with about 41 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors, and producers, was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC in September of 1947.
Initially, Brecht was one of 19 witnesses who declared that they would refuse to testify about their political affiliations. Eleven members of this group were actually questioned on this point. Brecht broke with his earlier agreement. Instead, on October 30, 1947, he appeared before the committee and testified that he had never actually held party membership. The remaining witnesses, the so called Hollywood Ten, refused to testify and were cited for contempt. Brecht was thanked by the Vice Chairman, Karl Mundt, for cooperating. The day after his testimony Brecht took a previously scheduled flight to Europe.
Leaving the United States for Europe, Brecht came to Switzerland, where he adapted Sophocles' Antigone, and then was invited to Berlin by East Germany. Horrified at the reinstatement of former Nazis into West Germany's government, Brecht accepted the offer and made East Berlin his home.
While Brecht's communist sympathies were a bane in the United States, East German officials sought to make him their hero. Though he had not been a member of the communist party, he had been deeply schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch, and his communist allegiances were sincere. He claimed communism appeared to be the only reliable antidote to militarist fascism and spoke out against the remilitarization of the West and the division of Germany. Brecht used Korsch's version of the Marxist dialectic in both his aesthetic theory and practice in a central way in the presentation of his plays.
But Brecht proved to be almost as uncomfortable for his East German hosts as for the West Germans across the iron curtain. Brecht did not keep up appearances—he was scruffily dressed and always had a stubbly, unshaven face. East German security guards once excluded him from a Berlin reception being given in his own honor.
He also found the experience of living in a Stalinist state far different from what he had imagined in exile, when he composed works such as Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken), which glorified the self-denying infallible vanguard party, justifying the political decisions made by the Comintern that resulted in the spectacular failure of the revolution in Shanghai in 1927.
Although Brecht lived in East Germany, a copyright on his writings was held by a Swiss company and he received valuable hard currency remittances; he remained an Austrian citizen. He used to drive around East Berlin in a pre-war DKW car—a rare luxury in the austere divided capital.
Brecht wrote very few plays in his last years in Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works. Some of his most famous poems, however, including the "Buckower Elegies," were from this time. Brecht died in 1956, of a heart attack at the age of 58.
In his will, he provided instructions that a stiletto be placed in his heart and that he be buried in a steel coffin so that his corpse could not be eaten by worms. He is buried in the Dorotheenfriedhof in Berlin.
Brechtian is a term used by drama critics in regards to anything recalling Brecht's particular style and approach to theater.
Brecht left the Berliner Ensemble to his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, which she ran until her death in 1971. Perhaps the most famous German touring theater of the postwar era, it was primarily devoted to performing Brecht plays.
His son, Stefan Brecht, became a poet and theater critic interested in New York's avant-garde theater.
Brecht's influence can be seen in the cinema. Such filmmakers as Lars von Trier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean-Luc Godard were influenced by Brecht and his theory of the Verfremdungseffekt.
Paul Haggis quoted Brecht ("art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”) when he accepted the best original screenplay Oscar for Crash.
Epic theater assumes that the purpose of a play, more than entertainment or the imitation of reality, is to present ideas and invite the audience to make judgments on them. Characters are not intended to mimic real people, but to represent opposing sides of an argument, archetypes, or stereotypes. In most drama the audience is encouraged to identify with the hero, but Brecht believed that he audience should always be aware that it is watching a play, and should remain at an emotional distance from the action; Brecht described this ideal as the Verfremdungseffekt—variously translated as "alienation effect," "defamiliarization effect," or "estrangement effect." (Brecht's theory owes something to Russian Formalist Victor Shkolovsky's ostrananie, or "making it strange.") It is the opposite of the suspension of disbelief. He believed that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to use this critical perspective to identify social ills at work in the world and be moved to go forth from the theater and effect change.
Another technique that Brecht employed to achieve his Verfremdungseffekt was historification. The content of many of his plays dealt with fictional tellings of historical figures or events. His idea was that if one were to tell a story from a time that is contemporary to an audience, they may not be able to maintain the critical perspective he hoped to achieve. Instead, he focused on historical stories that had parallel themes to the social ills he was hoping to illuminate in his own time. He hoped that, in viewing these historical stories from a critical perspective, the contemporary issues Brecht was addressing would be illuminated to the audience.
Brecht's technique was largely a reaction against other popular forms of theater, particularly the realistic drama pioneered by Konstantin Stanislavski. Like Stanislavski, Brecht disliked the shallow spectacle, manipulative plots, and heightened emotion of melodrama; but where Stanislavski attempted to mirror real human behavior through the techniques of his Stanislavski System, and to immerse the audience totally into the world of the play, Brecht saw this as another form of escapism. The social/political focus of epic theater was also a departure from the radical theories of Antonin Artaud, who sought to affect audiences on an entirely non-rational level.
Common production techniques in epic theater include simplified, non-realistic set designs, announcements or visual captions that interrupt and summarize the action, and music that conflicts ironically with the expected emotional effect. Brecht used comedy to distance his audiences from emotional or serious events and was heavily influenced by musicals and fairground performers, incorporating music and song in his plays. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience's reality was, in fact a construction and, as such, was changeable.
Acting in epic theater requires actors to play characters believably without convincing either the audience or themselves that they are truly the characters. Actors often address the audience directly out of character ("breaking the fourth wall") and play multiple roles. Brecht thought it was important that the choices the characters made were evident, and tried to develop a style of acting wherein it was evident that the characters were choosing one action over another. For example, a character could say, "I could have stayed at home, but instead I went to the shops."
An acting term coined by Brecht is the Gestus: A physical attitude or gesture that represents the character's condition independent of the text. This was based on Brecht's observation of Chinese acting: He noted that when the actor Mei Lan Fang acted a part which required his character to be frightened, he merely put a lock of his hair into his mouth and everyone in the audience knew that the character was scared, though the actor remained completely calm throughout the performance. With a Gestus that clearly defines the character's attitude, the actor stays distanced from the play and therefore avoids any undue emotionality.
In one of his first productions, Brecht famously put up signs that said "Glotzt nicht so romantisch!" ("Don't stare so romantically!") His manner of stagecraft has proven both fruitful and confusing to those who try to produce his works or works in his style. His theory of theatre has heavily influenced modern theater. Some of his innovations, though, have become so common that they've become theatrical canon.
Although Brecht's work and ideas about theater are generally thought of as belonging to modernism, there is recent thought that he is the forerunner of contemporary postmodern theater practice, particularly because he questioned and dissolved many of the accepted practices of the theater of his time and created a uniquely political theater, that involved the audience in understanding its meaning. Moreover, he was one of the first theater practitioners to incorporate multimedia into the semiotics of theater.
Because several Brecht works were not performed until long after they were written, the dates below show both the year they were written, followed by the year they were first produced.
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