Bertolt Brecht

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Brecht, Bertolt

(bĕr`tôlt brĕkht), 1898–1956, German dramatist and poet, b. Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht. His brilliant wit, his outspoken Marxism, and his revolutionary experiments in the theater made Brecht a vital and controversial force in modern drama. His early plays, such as Baal (1919) and Drums in the Night (1922), are examples of nihilistic expressionism and caused riots at their openings, bringing Brecht instant notoriety. In Mann ist Mann [man is man] (1926), he began to develop his so-called epic theater, in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes, and rational argument were used to create a shock of realization in the spectator. In order to give the audience a more objective perspective on the action, Brecht promoted a style of acting and staging that created a distancing effect. Instead of identifying with their roles, actors were instructed merely to demonstrate the actions of the characters they portrayed. Sets and lighting were designed to prevent the illusion of the theater from gaining sway, and Brecht revealed elements of the staging process itself. Songs played an important part—for these Brecht wrote the lyrics, with music by HindemithHindemith, Paul
, 1895–1963, German-American composer and violist, b. Hanau, Germany. Hindemith combined experimental and traditional techniques into a distinctively modern style. After studying at the Frankfurt Conservatory, he began his career as a viola player.
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, Kurt WeillWeill, Kurt
, 1900–1950, German-American composer, b. Dessau, studied with Humperdinck and Busoni in Berlin. He first became known with the production of two short satirical surrealist operas, Der Protagonist (1926) and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren
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, Hanns EislerEisler, Hanns
, 1898–1962, German composer, pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. In 1926, he joined the German Communist party, thereafter producing protest songs and other music expressive of left-wing ideals, and began a collaboration with Bertolt Brecht.
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, and others.

Die Dreigroschenoper (tr. The Threepenny Opera, 1928), with music by Weill, is based on John GayGay, John,
1685–1732, English playwright and poet, b. Barnstaple, Devon. Educated at the local grammar school, he was apprenticed to a silk mercer for a brief time before commencing his literary career in London.
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's Beggar's Opera; it reveals Brecht's continued hostility toward the capitalist social structure as well as his bittersweet compassion for humanity. Under National Socialism Brecht went into exile (1933), settling in Denmark and later in the United States. Works written in his most mature phase include Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (tr. Mother Courage and Her Children, (1941) and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (tr. The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1943), both concerned with ethical conduct. An outstanding example of epic theater is Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (tr. The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1955). From 1948, Brecht lived in East Berlin, where he directed the state-supported Berliner Ensemble. Notable English translations of Brecht's plays are those by Eric Bentley, which include Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht (1961).


See his collected plays (tr. 1970) and collected poems (tr. 1980), ed. by R. Manheim and J. Willett; his Journals (tr. 1994); biographies by F. Ewen (1967), M. Esslin (rev. ed. 1971), R. Hayman (1983), and J. Fuegi (1994); studies by J. Willett (rev. ed. 1968), W. Haas (tr. 1970), J. Fuegi (1972), R. Speirs (1987), P. Brooker (1988), P. Thomson (1989), and P. Katz (2015).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Brecht, Bertolt


Born Feb. 10, 1898, in Augsburg; died Aug. 14, 1956, in Berlin. German author, art theorist, and public figure. The son of a factory director; studied medicine at the University of Munich. In November 1918 he was a member of a soldiers’ council in Augsburg.

Brecht’s first work was published in 1914. The satirical antiwar ballad Legend of the Dead Soldier in 1918 brought him fame. His early plays—Baal (1918, published in 1922), Drums in the Night (1922), and In the Jungle of the Cities (1921-24, published 1927)—combine satirical polemics with expressionism. These plays and his verses and songs (Pocket Breviary, 1926, and Domestic Breviary, 1927) were regarded by some critics as expressing his anarchist-individualistic views. During this period, Brecht was also studying Marxism-Leninism, and he decided to devote his creative work to the cause of the socialist revolution. The play Man Equals Man (1927), the musical comedy Mahagonny (1927), and the Threepenny Opera (1928, with music by K. Weill) have already a clearly defined anticapitalist and revolutionary orientation. During this period Brecht also began developing his theory of the “epic theater,” which was to become the theater of the “era of science and socialist revolution.” Plays with a didactic content like The Flight of the Lindberghs (1929), He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No (1929-30), The Measures Taken (1930), The Exception and the Rule (1930) and The Horatians and the Curiatians (1934) were designed to be produced not only by professional theater companies but also by workers’ amateur groups. The dramas Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1929-30, published 1932) and Mother (based on Maxim Gorky’s novel, published 1933) are also intended to edify the spectator.

After the Nazi coup d’état in 1933, Brecht left Germany and from 1933 to 1947 lived in Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the United States, where he was active in émigré circles. His poetry during these years is imbued with a fighting and propagandizing spirit (the collection Poems, Songs, and Choruses, 1934, and Svenborgian Verses, 1939). His songs (“United Front March, ” “Songs of Solidarity, ” and others) set to music by H. Eisler, acquired great popularity as delivered by E. Busch. The Threepenny Novel (1934) and the article Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth (1934) were his first significant works as a prose writer and publicist. While living as an émigré, he wrote Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, a cycle of realistic scenes (1935-38), and the heroic drama Señora Carrar’s Rifles (1937). His creative principles, designed to fashion a theater that “would cause the spectator to think along independent critical and revolutionary lines” were embodied in the parable dramas The Good Woman of Setzuan (1938-40), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941, produced in 1959), The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944), in the historical dramas Mother Courage and Her Children (1939, published 1941), Galileo (1938-39), and The Days of the Commune (1947), and in the folk-style comedies Master Puntila and his Man Matti (1940) and Schweik in the Second World War (1944).

On returning to Germany, Brecht and his wife, the actress H. Weigel, founded the Berliner Ensemble theater company in the capital of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Brecht was elected a member of the Academy of Arts in 1950. His influence and his fame as a writer and dramatist had spread far beyond the borders of the GDR. His plays are performed in many theaters in the Soviet Union. In 1954 the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage won first prize at the International Theater Festival in Paris. Brecht’s disciples are successfully developing his artistic experiences and his aesthetic theories, which are presented in Folk Roots and Realism (1938), Little Organon for the Theater (1949), and other articles. Brecht was awarded the National Prize of the GDR in 1951 and the International Lenin Prize for Consolidation of Peace Between Nations in 1954.


Stücke, vols. 1-14. Berlin-Wei mar, 1967-69. (Publication in progress.)
Schriften zur Politik und Gesellschaft, vols. 1-2. Berlin-Weimar, 1968.
Schriften zum Theater. [Frankfurt am Main, 1968.]
Uber Theater, [2nd ed.], Leipzig, [1969].
In Russian translation:
Stikhi. Romany. Novelly. Publitsistika. Moscow, 1956.
Teatr [P’esy. Stat’i], vols. 1-5. Moscow, 1963-65.


Zingerman, B. “O teatre Brekhta.” In his book Zhan Vilar i drugie. Moscow, 1964.
Kliuev, V. G. B. Brekht—novator teatra. Moscow, 1961.
Kliuev, V. G. Teatral’no-esteticheskie vzgliady Brekhta. Moscow, 1966.
Raikh, B. F. Brekht. Moscow, 1960.
Fradkin, I. M. B. Brekht: Put’ i metod. Moscow, 1965.
Kopelev, L. Brekht. Moscow, 1965.
Grimm, R. B. Brecht, 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1963.
Willett, J. Das Theater B. Brechts. Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1964.
Schumacher, E. B. Brechts “Leben des Galilei” und andere Stücke. Berlin, 1965.
Rülicke-Weiler, K. Die Dramaturgie Brechts. Berlin, 1966.
B. Brekht: Biobibliograficheskii ukazatel’. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.