Bertolt Brecht

Influential German poet, playwright, and theatre director Bertolt Brecht was born 10 February 1898 in in Augsburg, Bavaria. Berthold’s mother taught Brecht the Bible and the “dangers of the self denying woman” which both influenced his later writing. When he was 16, the First World War broke out. Initially enthusiastic, Brecht soon changed his mind on seeing his classmates “swallowed by the army”. So Brecht registered for an additional medical course at Munich University instead, and studied drama. From July 1916, Brecht’s newspaper articles began appearing under the new name “Bert Brecht” (his first theatre criticism for the Augsburger Volkswille appeared in October 1919). Some time in either 1920 or 1921, Brecht took a small part in the political cabaret of the Munich comedian Karl Valentin whom he compared to Charlie Chaplin.

Brecht’s first full-length play, Baal was written 1918 and Brecht completed his second play, Drums in the Night in February 1919. Brecht made equally significant contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production, by touring with the Berliner Ensemble – the post-war theatre company operated by Brecht. He was also awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize (intended for unestablished writers and probably Germany’s most significant literary award for his first three plays (Baal, Drums in the Night, and In the Jungle. In 1923, Brecht wrote a scenario for what was to become a short slapstick film, Mysteries of a Barbershop, directed by Erich Engel and starring Karl Valentin, which it is now considered one of the most important films in German film history. In May 1923, Brecht’s In the Jungle premiered in Munich, also directed by Engel. Opening night proved to be a “scandal”—a phenomenon that would characterize many of his later productions during the Weimar Republic—in which Nazis blew whistles and threw stink bombs at the actors on the stage. In 1924 Brecht worked with the novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II that proved to be a milestone in Brecht’s early theatrical and dramaturgical development.That September, a job as assistant dramaturg at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater—at the time one of the leading three or four theatres in the world—brought him to Berlin. In his role as dramaturg, Brecht had much to stimulate him but little work of his own.[26] Reinhardt staged Shaw’s Saint Joan, Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author in his group of Berlin theatres. A new version of Brecht’s third play, now entitled Jungle: Decline of a Family,also opened at the Deutsches Theater in October 1924.

In 1925, he completed his collection of poems, Devotions for the Home. In 1925 in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) had given its name to the new post-Expressionist movement in the German arts. Brecht also began to develop his Man Equals Man project, which was to become the first product of “the ‘Brecht collective’—that shifting group of friends and collaborators on whom he henceforward depended.This collaborative approach to artistic production, together with aspects of Brecht’s writing and style of theatrical production, mark Brecht’s work from this period as part of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement (New Matter-of-Factness)which stressed the collective and downplayed of the individual. In 1925, Brecht also saw two films that had a significant influence on him: Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.In 1926 a series of short stories was published under Brecht’s name, and also produced the play Man Equals Man. In 1927 Brecht became part of the “dramaturgical collective” of Erwin Piscator’s first company, which was designed to tackle the problem of finding new plays for its “epic, political, confrontational, documentary theatre”, this influenced Brecht’s ideas about staging and design, and alerted him to the radical potentials offered to the “epic” playwright by the development of stage technology. Brecht was struggling at the time with the question of how to dramatize the complex economic relationships of modern capitalism. 1927 also saw the first collaboration between Brecht and the young composer Kurt Weill.They produced The Little Mahagonny for a music festival in July, as what Weill called a “stylistic exercise” in preparation for the large-scale piece. Together they began to develop Brecht’s Mahagonny project, and In 1930 Brecht formed a writing collective which became prolific and very influential.

Brecht’s first great play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, attempted to portray the drama in financial transactions. The collective also adapted John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, with Brecht’s lyrics set to music by Kurt Weill. Retitled The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) it was the biggest hit in Berlin of the 1920s and a renewing influence on the musical worldwide. One of its most famous lines underscored the hypocrisy of conventional morality 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 and Brecht used elements of Happy End in Saint Joan of the Stockyards,Happy End’s score by Weill produced 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), caused an uproar when it premiered in 1930 in Leipzig, with Nazis in the audience protesting. The Mahagonny opera would premier later in Berlin in 1931 as a triumphant sensation. Brecht spent the early 1930′s in Berlin working with his “collective” on the Lehrstücke. These were a group of plays driven by morals, music and Brecht’s budding epic theatre and were often aimed at educating workers on Socialist issues. These included The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme), Kuhle Wampe (1932), which is notable for its subversive humour, outstanding cinematography and still provides a vivid insight into Berlin during the last years of the Weimar Republic Brecht was also influenced by The so-called “Westend Berlin Scene”.

In 1933 Brecht left Germany Fearing persecution from the Nazis. After brief spells in Prague, Zurich and Paris he and Weigel moved to Denmark, where they settled in a house in Svendborg on the island of Funen. Brecht also travelled to Copenhagen, Paris, Moscow, New York and London . in April 1939, he moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he remained for a year. During the war years, Brecht became a prominent writer of the Exilliteratur. He expressed his opposition to the National Socialist and Fascist movements in his most famous plays: Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and many others. Brecht also wrote the screenplay for the Fritz Lang-directed film Hangmen Also Die! which was loosely based on the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague, number-two man in the SS, and a chief architect of the Holocaust, who was known as “The Hangman of Prague. he then wrote The Visions of Simone Machard, Schweik in the Second World War and an adaptation of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Hanns Eisler was nominated for an Academy Award for his musical score.

Brecht and Weigel also protested on the roof of the Berliner Ensemble during the International Workers’ Day demonstrations in 1954 and In the years of the Cold War and “Red Scare”, Brecht was blacklisted by movie studio bosses and interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Along with about 41 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers. In 1947 Brecht testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party Brecht’s decision to appear before the committee led to criticism, including accusations of betrayal. The day after his testimony, on 31 October, Brecht returned to Europe. In Chur in Switzerland, Brecht staged an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, based on a translation by Hölderlin. It was published under the title Antigonemodell 1948, accompanied by an essay on the importance of creating a “non-Aristotelian” form of theatre.An offer for his own theatre and theatre company (the Berliner Ensemble) encouraged Brecht to return to Berlin in 1949.Though he was never a member of the Communist Party, Brecht had been deeply schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch and Brecht received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.At first Brecht supported the measures taken by the East German government against the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany, which included the use of Soviet military force. Brecht’s subsequent commentary on those events, however, offered a different assessment— especially in one of the poems in the Elegies, “Die Lösung” (The Solution). Although Brecht wrote very few plays in his final years in East Berlin, Some of his most famous poems, including the “Buckow Elegies”, were written at this time. He is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery on Chausseestraße in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin. Brecht sadly died on 14 August 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 58 however he leaves behind a rich legacy.

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