"In me you behold a man upon whom absolutely you can't rely"
The fact that millions are daily stifled,
tortured, punished, silenced and oppressed.
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
— by keeping its humanity repressed.
For once, you must not try to shirk the facts:
mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.''
Brecht (1898 - 1956) was a German poet, playwright, novelist and director
. He was possibly the most influential force in early 20th century political art, with a strong focus on communism (not
Stalinism) and anti-fascism — and probably most famous for The Threepenny Opera
. He was a major figure in the art scene of the Weimar Republic
and post-war Germany. Like many German artists, he fled Germany during World War II
. When he returned to communist East Berlin
, he was granted his own theatre, where the current ensemble still performs his plays daily.
Brecht was initially part of the post-World War I expressionist school, putting in dark and edgy plays like Baal
about people on the margins of society complaining that life sucks and descending into nihilism and despair. These plays were often done in a naturalistic style with some stylization. Brecht's introduction to Marx however changed his attitude completely and he created a unique approach to 20th Century dramaturgy, one that was non-Aristotlian that is no longer bound by the rules laid down in Poetics
, that a tragedy didn't have to provide catharsis or release, and that audiences should not immediately identify with heroic figures against villains, and of course that rather than a cast of small people and a short time frame, there should be Loads and Loads of Characters
and action that covered several days. Thus was born "Epic Theatre".
One of his most important principles is of course, Verfremdungseffekt
, or "effect of alienation". This was a method which discouraged immersion and escapism, and encouraged critical reception. This was often subject to Flanderization
in pseudo-Brechtian productions but in Brecht's works alienation was against immersion and identification with characters but heightened immersion and attention to the social interactions, drama and context of character's choices and actions, this was part of the Marxist ideology of showing society, economics and politics at work in human relations. This made Brecht an early precursor to what we would call Post Modernism
, the use of such effects, most directly in Breaking the Fourth Wall
and talking to the audiences is often called in film classes as a 'Brechtian Device'. His stories were not meant as escapist fiction, but as scathing caricatures of what was wrong in society. For this reason, he developed certain tricks to prevent escapism: he encouraged his audiences to smoke while watching each play, discouraged method acting in his ensemble (he preferred using the classic, basic characters of the Commedia dell'Arte
), used off-key instruments, and made his props out of flimsy cardboard. In short, he was a master of Stylistic Suck
, such as tragedies ending with an unconvincing Happy Ending
, a woman who tragically sings out that she really does value money more than her man and pithy references on why "Robbing a bank isn't as big a crime as owning one."
Very few of his works have an explicit moral, instead relying on Applicability
. His characters typically don't learn a thing, and end up perpetuating social repression and/or dying miserably. If a moral is stated at all, it's usually blatantly wrong. This way, Brecht encouraged his audience to make their own reality better than that of the characters, by learning from each story what the characters refuse to learn.
Typical features of his work include proud prostitutes, dead sailors, corrupt businessmen on the verge of bankruptcy, headstrong young women who are too
headstrong to actually become independent in society, hopeful young soldiers who keep themselves blind to the real horrors of war, and what has been described as a genre of "water corpse poetry" (Wasserleichenpoesie
) - imagery which has been enthusiastically adapted by authors as diverse as Bob Dylan
, Lars von Trier
and Alan Moore
Considering himself a true communist, he stated that all
art should belong to the people, to be constantly rewritten and re-interpreted as the political circumstances demanded. In practice, this meant that he refused to spend time even thinking about copyright, often drawing accusations of plagiarism. The reality of it was that he considered the circumstances in which a work of art was created more important than the source, and he actively encouraged others to adapt his works into new performances, without wanting credit for it.
While not particularly noted for being a wit, he did get some moments of snark
in, most famously his criticism of the Stalinist track of East Germany
post-war: "Would it not be be simpler / If the government simply dissolved the people / And elected another?"
He collaborated often with Fritz Lang
, Kurt Weill
, Walter Benjamin, Peter Lorre
, G. W. Pabst, and Miss Lotte Lenya
Wrote a lot of plays.
Notable works include:
- Baal (play, 1918)
- The Threepenny Opera (musical, 1928)
- Happy End (musical, 1930)
- The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (opera, 1930)
- Saint Joan of the Stockyards (play, 1931)
- The Seven Deadly Sins (ballet, 1933)
- Life of Galileo (play, 1937)
- Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, a.k.a. The Private Life of the Master Race (play, 1938)
- Mother Courage and Her Children (play, 1939)
- Me-Ti: The Book Of Changes (book, 1939)
- Mr Puntila and His Man Matti (play, 1940)
- The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (play, 1941)
- Hangmen Also Die! (1943, a film by Fritz Lang, Brecht wrote the screenplay).
- The Good Person Of Szechwan (play, 1943)
- The Caucasian Chalk Circle (play, 1944)
- Stories Of Mr. Keuner (collection of short stories, first published 1948 with 39 stories, most recently published with 121 collected stories)
Tropes frequently used in the work of Bertolt Brecht: