Bertolt note Brecht (10 February 1898 – 14 August 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, in the conventional sense. His plays relied heavily on Applicability, on foregrounding the social/economic and political factors of the narrative, shifting away from identifying solely with the main character's victory or defeat. 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 think about the conditions of their characters, to identify with their social and political positions which make his characters too trapped to merit catharsis. This way, the audience, in theory, could use his plays to make their own reality better than that of the characters, by learning what the characters either refuse to learn or are incapable of learning. Brecht's emphasis on epic theatre, heavy unrealism and his use of period settings rather than contemporary setting departed heavily from the emerging Socialist Realism aesthetic. Brecht felt that by using period and fantastic settings, audiences can get a broader perspective on the events and characters than one from contemporary life while Orthodox Marxists criticized Brecht for indulging in over-aestheticization. This is one reason why Brecht's works tended to have relatively little influence behind the iron curtain and has had far more influence in the West, which suited Brecht perfectly fine since he always felt his plays were for a pre-revolutionary audience.
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). 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 dissolved the people / And elected another?"
Brecht had a wide influence on various mediums of Theatre, Literature, Film and especially popular music. Several of the songs from his plays, and the style of his songwriting itself, has influenced many popular musicians. His songs with Weill have been frequently covered by the likes of Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, The Doors, David Bowie, Amanda Palmer, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Waits and Nina Simone, among many many others. His works have in turn influenced artists such as Bob Dylan, Douglas Sirk, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alan Moore and Lars von Trier.
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:
- Alternative Character Interpretation: It is the fate of Brecht's plays that (at least, substantial parts of) audiences often see characters in a different way than Brecht intended them. Though this is mostly because most productions tend to tone down the harshness in the original. For example:
- Some think that Mack the Knife is a Lovable Rogue. Brecht thought he was scum. Though this is partly because most productions and famous film adaptations downplay that Mack is an amoral pimp, human trafficker and child murderer, basing their image on the watered down Bobby Darrin song. Most audiences who see it closer to how Brecht wrote the character don't see him as a glamorous rogue at all but as a Villain Protagonist.
- Mother Courage to many is an ingenious, if unlucky character who doesn't give up in the face of adversity. To Brecht she was, though not without sympathetic qualities, ultimately a bad person.
- Some feel that Puntila is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold. To Brecht he was a Jerk with a Heart of Jerk.
- Brecht's Galileo controversially portrayed the famous scientist not as a martyr for science but as a cowardly sell-out who cares more about the posthumous fame of his contributions rather than the social changes he could have made by standing against the Church.
- An Aesop: His plays drew their form on parables and fables. Certain plays, the "Lehrstücke"(Teaching Plays) were intended to serve as entirely didactic. Brecht being Brecht, the Aesop and the conclusions drawn at the end veer towards Spoof Aesop, Alternate Aesop Interpretation, Space Whale Aesop and above all Family-Unfriendly Aesop.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Happened frequently in productions he staged, and is a standard in his own plays. Brecht disliked what he called "theatre of illusion", and accordingly took precautions to carefully shatter the illusion.
- Capitalism Is Bad: A major theme in all of his work, as he believed that art was best used to expose the flaws in capitalist society.
- Foregone Conclusion: Brecht wanted his audience to focus on how an outcome came about, not on what the outcome was. To achieve this, his plays give routinely and deliberately future events and outcomes away. Often there are spoken verses before the beginning of a new scene or episode that bluntly tell the audience what is going to happen. This was part of his self-imposed principle he called "epic theatre".
- Holding Out for a Hero: The main critique Brecht directed towards Aristoleian and conventional naturalist drama was the emphasis on special individuals whose tragedy invited audiences towards catharsis and thereby annul their own heroic initiative.
Andrea: "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero."Galileo: "No. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."
- Brecht frequently challenged and questioned audiences looking for heroes by emphasizing amoral, villainous and indifferent individuals as his protagonists or in his play Saint Joan of the Stockyards showing how a heroic modern day Joan of Arc figure is manipulated/exploited by capitalists.
- His play Galileo was an ironic Deconstruction of the Galileo case, informed by the horrors of the Atomic Age, with Galileo seen not as a persecuted scientist but a cowardly intellectual who refused to become a martyr out of self-interest and self-preservation.
- Production Posse: Brecht was a highly collaborative artist, who worked in a highly collaborative fashion. This includes Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler, art director and designer Lion Feuchtwanger, actors Ernst Busch, Peter Lorre, Carola Neher and Helene Weigel (who he later married). He also had "co-writers" Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarethe Steffin and Ruth Berlau, who actually located source material of earlier dramas and made translations which he either modified or fully sampled. This has led some commentators to regard Brecht as a plagiarist who took credit for other people's work. Eric Bentley has however noted that this was part of the exigency of theatre production more than anything else. Some Brecht productions such as Happy End were largely authored by Hauptmann (though Brecht did write Surabaya Johnny, the famous song from the play).
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Brecht being a Marxist explored the concept of revolutionary violence in many of his plays.
"You can only help one of your luckless brothers/By trampling down a dozen others."
- His most controversial was his Lehrstücke ("Teaching Plays"), one of which is The Measures Taken, the plot consists of a Revolutionary cell executing one of their own when the latter becomes a liability. The victim himself realizes that his death is necessary for the greater good and accepts it with stoicism. This was so controversial that at his HUAC hearing, Brecht was interrogated specifically about it.
- His play The Good Person of Szechwan has a protagonist Shen Te invent a violent alter ego Shui Ta to protect herself from exploitation and harm. Shen Te is normally pacifist and meek, Shui Ta is not. Shui Ta finally says, in typically pithy Brecht-style:
- Stylistic Suck: Brecht wanted his plays to be enjoyed intellectually, not sensually and therefore avoided lavish costumes, scenery and decorations, and everything else that would allow the audience to indulge in sensual pleasure.
- It's important to note that Brecht was arguing against the kitschy "well-made" bourgeois theatre, Brecht's own productions while avoiding conventional beauty are from a modern perspective incredibly aesthetic and beautiful.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: The main purpose of Brecht's plays was to appeal to the audience's reason, to make them think about the characters rather than simply relate to their emotional condition and participate in their outcome and Character Development. His insistence on stylistic experimentation made him controversial among orthodox Marxists and advocates of Socialist Realism who wanted simplistic anti-capitalist propaganda.
Adaptations of his works:
- The Threepenny Opera (1931 film by G. W. Pabst with a screenplay written by Brecht himself)note
- Galileo (1975 film by Joseph Losey, starring Topol as Galileo).
- Baal (1982 TV film by Alan Clarke starring David Bowie).
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. The third part of the comic adapts The Threepenny Opera.