Quick Bio Born in Augsburg Bavaria to middle class parents. Bright quiet student in grade school As a child, he visited folk festivals and saw extremely detailed dioramas of historical events. These simple, expressive images captured his imagination and had a strong influence on his artistic style later in life.
Went to Medical school where he was drafted into the German army near the end of the first World War. He was stationed in a VD clinic, but was still affected by the images he was exposed to. This experience would greatly influence his writing throughout his life and lead him to adopting a pacifist philosophy. Quick Bio (cont.)
Emerging Artist Around this time he began to write plays, finishing his first full length piece, entitled Baal, in 1919. Created in response to The Loner (Der Einsame) by Hans Johst. The first of many works to be created in response to another work.
“Anyone can be creative. It’s rewriting other people that’s challenging.”
Berlin In September 1924, Brecht was hired as a dramaturge at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin, one of the top theaters in the world at the time. Around this time he met Elisabeth Hauptmann who he remained romantically and professionally involved with for the rest of his life. Also during this time, he married Helene Weigel, a successful actress with whom he remained with for the rest of his life, albeit not faithfully.
Berlin (cont.) Around this time he began establishing the “Brecht Collective.” First play produced by the “collective” was Mann ist Mann. Marks the beginning of his “epic theatre. Began studying Marxist theory, and from this point on remained an avid communist in life and art.
Exile Because of Hitler’s rising power, Brecht left Germany in 1933 for Denmark, and then on to Sweden, and finally ending in America in 1941. He worked on several screenplays for Hollywood and hated every second of it.
HUAC Blacklisted and subpoenaed in 1947. Laughed through the whole proceedings and contradicted everything he espoused, which was defendable according to his personal philosophy. Flabbergasted the board. Flew to Europe the day after the hearings were finished.
Return Brecht returned to communist controlled East Germany in 1949 Established the Berliner Ensemble in his very own theater in 1954. No new plays came out of this period, but he continued to write poetry, and some of his better known pieces came out of this period.
Butting Heads Brecht and East German officials continually bumped heads over the years. Artistic censorship frustrated Brecht, even as he was being held up to the Western world as a shining example of communist artistic achievement.
Death Bertolt Brecht died of heart failure on August 14, 1956 at the age of 58. In his will, he requested that a stiletto be placed in his heart, and that he be buried in a steel coffin to prevent the worms from eating his corpse.
Epic Theatre Created in response to the Aristotelian theatrical tradition, the melodrama of the nineteenth century, and the Naturalistic style promoted by Stanislavsky. Composed of ideas and conventions that existed for hundreds or even thousands of years before hand, from many different cultures around the world.
Aristotelian Drama Single event presented over a short period of time. Clear sequence of beginning, middle and end. Scenes interdependent on one another to convey plot. Subject primarily Man’s relation to God.
Melodrama Easily digestible schlock. Protagonist is archetypical “good guy” and Antagonist is archetypical “dastardly villain.” Endings all wrapped up and everyone goes home happy.
Naturalism Stanislavsky attempted to overcome the shallow, static style of melodrama with an in-depth reflection of real life. Subject is Man and his relation to Himself. Great emphasis on characters “internal life.” Aimed at pulling the audience into the world of the play by suspending their disbelief to the utmost extent. “Subtle Gradient.”
Aims of Epic Theatre Brecht felt that theatre should be used as a vehicle for social change, a forum for social issues to be examined and discussed. Subject is Man and his relation to Society. He felt that the audience should retain their critical thinking skills, and should therefore be pulled from the world of the play at all costs.
Conventions Play construction is “epic” in that it spans large periods of time. Scenes are not dependant one another and can be added, removed or reordered with little overall effect to the plot. Sparse, non-realistic stage and lighting design. Placards and projections.
Verfremdungseffekt “Alienation effect” Acting in the third person (traffic accident). Presentational as opposed to Representational. Actors and audience are encouraged to not, at any point, feel that they are the character they are portraying. Characters are not representative of individuals, but of social groups or types. Attempts to create a space between audience and actors.
Influence Writers like Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Jean Paul Sartre. Theorists and Directors like David Mamet and Peter Brook. Modern stage design. Anti-illusory presentation.
Sources Mews, Siegfried Critical Essays on Bertolt Brecht. Princeton University Press, 1989 Esslin, Martin Brecht: The Man and His Work. Double Day and Company, 1960 Bentley, Eric Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht. Grove Press 1961 http://german.lss.wisc.edu/brecht/