BERTOLT BRECHT – German playwright, Bertolt Brecht is a pioneer in the art of contemporary theater. He theorized the epic theater and the process of distancing. He is at the origin of several well-known plays such as L’Opéra de quat’sous or La Vie de Galilée.
Short biography of Bertolt Brecht – Born in 1898 into a bourgeois family in the German Empire, Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht began writing at an early age. World War I broke out in 1914, and the young Bertolt published several poems to encourage the German troops. His perspective on war changes dramatically when he understands its atrocities. He began studying philosophy, then medicine, probably so as not to fight at the front. He was called up in 1918 as a nursing aide at Augsburg Military Hospital, where he faced lives shattered by war. This experience marked him and influenced his work. Bertolt Brecht began at this time writing plays such as Baal, for which he was awarded the Kleist Prize in 1922. The same year, he married Marianne Zoff (1893-1984). He then worked as an assistant director at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1924. He divorced and began an affair with Helene Weiglel (1900-1971) who became his second wife in 1929, an Austrian Jewish actress. He begins to take an interest in the ideas of Karl Marx. His room The Quat’sous Opera (1928) was successful and internationally renowned.
Faced with the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s, Bertolt Brecht and his wife left Germany for Denmark, then Sweden and Finland. His plays were banned, then burned during the fireworks on May 10, 1933. His German nationality was withdrawn in 1935. During World War II, he left for the United States. Sympathizing with Marx’s ideas, he feared McCarthyism and arrived in Switzerland. He returned to East Germany (GDR) in 1948. Bertolt Brecht was at the origin of the epic theater and the process of distancing. He founded alongside his wife a theater, the Berliner Ensemble, in 1949. He supported the popular and workers’ insurgencies in the GDR of June 1953. In 1955, he received the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Stalin Prize for the peace. He died in 1956 in East Berlin.
Bertolt Brecht has a very particular point of view on the theater. It moves away from traditional dramatic theater, where character identification and feelings are key concepts. the epic theater (or dialectic) of Brecht is characterized by a pronounced recoil of the spectator on the action, in order to allow the latter to reflect on what he sees. Thus, a person who watches a play by Brecht must question himself, ask himself questions and dissect the action that is delivered to him. This process, which he theorizes in his Small organon for the theater (1948) under the name of distancing, is inseparable from the dramaturgical work of Bertolt Brecht. For him, the viewer should not be absorbed by the room to the point of no longer being able to issue any judgment or critical opinion on it. He must realize that he is watching a show. Brecht sees the theater as a way to educate, he wants his audience to question themselves and be active during the performance. The same goes for actors who do not have to fully immerse themselves in their role. According to him, they are more interested in taking some distance from the text and their character, in order to be able to better appropriate their attitudes or even their intonations. This concept has a name: the gestus. Finally, Bertolt Brecht gives an important place to the framework and to the choice of the decorations of his rooms. He gives a very special place to sound and musical atmospheres, which explains his collaboration with renowned composers such as Kurt Weill or Paul Dessau.
In total, Bertolt Brecht wrote and directed nearly thirty plays. He was 20 when he started writing Baal (1918-1919) which tells the daily life of a cursed poet consumed by lust. The first play that earned Brecht critical recognition is Drums in the night (1919-1920) which was inspired by the repression of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin. It was in 1928 with The Quat’sous Opera that Brecht’s fame becomes international. In this play, the action takes place in the district of Soho in London, the ground of confrontation between two rival gangs. During the autodafés of 1933 after the accession to power of the Adolf Hitler regime, Bertolt Brecht’s plays were burned because they were deemed to be contrary to Nazi ideology. Deeply marked by the atrocities and absurdities of the two world wars, Brecht denounces them in Mother Courage and her children (1941) and in Schweyk in WWII (1943). He also adapted in his own way older pieces like The Life of Edward II (1923-1924) or Antigone (1947-1948). He is the originator of a theatrical biography praising scientific truth, The Life of Galileo (1938). We can also cite Master Puntila and his valet Matti, a play that illustrates the class struggle and in which the ideas of Karl Marx emerge.
Although having devoted his life to dramaturgy and the directing of plays, Bertolt Brecht tried his hand at other art forms. He wrote several poems, the first being addressed to soldiers during his youth. He continues to write some for himself, but none of them will achieve the success of his theatrical work. We can cite The children’s crusade (1939), Buckow’s Elegies (1953-1954) or even The poem to the young. Bertolt Brecht also tried his hand at writing novels and collections, with Almanac Stories (1949) or The Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar, a story centered on a slave of Julius Caesar who tells the life of his master. This book, started around 1938 during his exile, will never be completed.
Bertolt Brecht has participated in the writing of film scripts for cinema. Among the most famous, Frozen bellies (1932) was censored in Germany because it was seen as communist propaganda. It tells about the difficulties encountered by German workers living near Lake Müggelsee in Berlin. Brecht plays the main role. During his exile in the United States, he wrote the screenplay for a film directed in 1943 by Fritz Lang, The executioners also die. The film takes place in Prague and tells the story of a Czechoslovak doctor wanted for the murder of a Nazi officer. Finally, Brecht is at the origin of the words of a well-known german worker song, the Einheitsfrontlied (“Song of the united front”) in 1934. It was sung for the first time in 1937 by Ernst Busch, a friend who collaborated with him on many plays.
- February 10, 1898: Birth of Bertolt Brecht
- Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht was born on February 10, 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria (German Empire). He is the son of Berthold Friedrich Brecht (1869–1939), commercial director of the Haindl paper mill, and Sophie Brecht (1871-1920). He has a younger brother, Walter Brecht (1900-1986), who in 1931 became professor at the Darmstadt University of Technology in the department of paper engineering. Born into a wealthy and pious family, the young Bertolt Brecht was brought up according to Protestant precepts. He also suffers from several health problems, mainly cardiac.
- August 14, 1956: Death of Bertolt Brecht
- Bertolt Brecht died on August 14, 1956 in East Berlin in the GDR of a heart attack. He leaves behind several children. His daughter Hanne Hiob (1923-2009), from her first marriage to Marianne Zoff, becomes an actress and sometimes plays in her father’s plays. His son Stefan Brecht (1924-2009), born of his second marriage to Helene Weigel, follows in his father’s footsteps by engaging in poetry and the criticism of plays. His second daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall (1930-2015) is also an actress. Bertolt Brecht’s body is buried in Berlin in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery.