Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

Bertolt Brecht is one of the great names not only of twentieth-century German literature but of modern world literature. His contribution, though varied--it includes lyrical, narrative, dramatic, and theoretical works--has a distinct "Brechtian" quality throughout. It has made a virtue out of provocation in the course of Germany's troubled history from World War I to World War II and beyond. But, although Brecht became increasingly committed to analyses of the sociopolitical scene, he was not just a writer for the day, nor did he put topical subjects above artistic considerations. With a keen eye for hypocrisy and injustice, he addressed fundamental issues of humanity with the fervor of a rebellious idealist and the poetic sensitivity of a great artist of the word. Long a figure of ideological controversy, Brecht has emerged as a classic, and he continues to challenge successive generations to take a close look at their world, to note its contradictions, and to weigh the options and actions that might change it to the better.


Eugen Berthold Brecht--he later dropped the first name and changed the spelling of the middle name--was born in Augsburg into a fairly well-to-do bourgeois family on 10 February 1898. His father, Friedrich Berthold Brecht, an employee of a paper factory, advanced to the position of business director; Brecht's mother was Sofie Brezing Brecht. Brecht attended elementary and high school in Augsburg. Having failed to educate his teachers (as he put it), he began to write occasional poems. In 1914 he had a short play, Die Bibel (The Bible), published in the school journal. This first drama, a kind of Judith story set in the religious wars of the seventeenth century, reflects not only the beginning of a lifelong critical involvement in the conflicting teachings of the Bible (influenced, perhaps, by a Protestant father and a Catholic mother) but also the victimization of a girl by a warring world--a motif Brecht was to take up again in later plays. Although he wrote a few patriotic poems at the outbreak of World War I, Brecht's antiwar sentiments developed early. His criticism of Horace's dictum "Dulce est et decorum pro patria mori" (It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland) almost led to his expulsion from school. Various journals and newspapers printed poems and stories by the fledgling author, who liked to play the guitar, pursue love adventures, and roam through countryside, fairs, and pubs with a group of bohemian friends.

In 1917 Brecht moved to Munich, enrolled at the university, devoured books, scouted the theater scene, became increasingly involved in literary circles, and tried his hand at several projects, among them one-act plays and a full-fledged drama, Baal (published, 1922; performed, 1923). Even the one-act plays written in 1919 exhibit features that were to become his trademark. Die Kleinbürgerhochzeit (performed, 1926; translated as The Wedding) is a stinging exposure of petit bourgeois mentality; Der Bettler oder Der tote Hund (translated as The Beggar, or the Dead Dog) confronts the extreme opposites of the social scale: the world of the emperor and the world of the beggar; Der Fischzug (translated as The Catch) is a clever parodistic double adaptation of a Homeric and a biblical "catch" (Ares trapping Aphrodite, Saint Peter fishing for souls); and in Lux in Tenebris Brecht uses the theme of prostitution on several levels for his attack on what he considers the physical, spiritual, and social corruption of the bourgeoisie, whose perversion of the spirit, language, and action is highlighted by parodistic allusions to the Bible (which was to become one of his major literary sources). In style these interludelike sketches tend toward farcical satire; they show some influence of the Munich comedian Karl Valentin, whose witty dialogue-sketches Brecht admired and with whom he had performed in sideshows at fairs. The first full-fledged play, Baal, glorifies unfettered, amoral individualism, reflecting, to some extent, Brecht's bohemianism and his sympathy for such vitalist-sensualist figures as Frank Wedekind , Paul Verlaine , Arthur Rimbaud , and François Villon . It is both a literary and a social protest. As a "Gegenentwurf" (counterplay) to Hanns Johst 's drama Der Einsame (1917; The Solitary), about a misunderstood poet, Brecht's play "corrects" the expressionist pathos and sentimentalizing "spirituality" of a Christlike, suffering "genius" by his own earthbound, materialist, selfish vagabond-genius named after a heathen deity; Baal (like Brecht) plays the guitar, writes poetry, eats, drinks, dances, makes love, and uses and drops people without any scruples. As an affront against a stale society, Baal breaks conventions at every turn, living only for his own pleasure, indulging until the last moment in the sensual experiences of this world which knows no afterworld. The powerful imagery of this balladlike, dramatic biography has strong ties to Brecht's early poetry, blending Baal's lust for life with the cyclical rhythm of vegetative nature. Like an insatiable animal Baal "grazes" off the world, and he as well as his lyrics are finally consumed in life's "digestive" process. Baal's reckless craving for self-assertion, tantamount to self-deification, seems to express Brecht's own hunger for life in the face of nothingness. (Brecht reworked the play repeatedly--there are five versions altogether. Such reworkings in the light of historical developments became characteristic of his habits as playwright.)

Brecht's early dramatic responses to the world indicate that while he had an eye for things he disliked, he had not yet developed a political or moral philosophy. In the absence of a constructive stance critics have called Brecht's literary beginnings "nihilistic"--a somewhat dubious term if one considers the vigor and keenness of his early poetic statements.

Shortly before the end of World War I Brecht, who had enrolled in medical studies to avoid the draft, was called to military service nevertheless. As a hospital orderly he witnessed the suffering of victims of war and disease. He wrote the satiric "Legende vom toten Soldaten" (Legend of the Dead Soldier), in which a corpse is revived to be declared fit for military service again. This antiwar ballad was sung in the fourth act of Trommeln in der Nacht (1922; translated as Drums in the Night , 1966) and was one of the reasons Brecht was put on the blacklist of the Nazis as early as 1923. After the war Brecht witnessed the turbulent beginning of the Weimar Republic and the power struggle among political parties, the violent suppression of the 1918-1919 revolution (whose cause he then seemed to consider hopeless), and the murders of political figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Kurt Eisner by reactionaries. While working on Baal, Brecht wrote Trommeln in der Nacht, which captures a drab postwar milieu. A disillusioned soldier, Andreas Kragler, returns from the front to his faithless bride, Anna. He encounters war profiteers--Anna's father and Murk, the father of her unborn child--and supporters of the communist "Spartacus" uprising. The revolution is thus in the background of the play (which was initially titled "Spartacus") but is hardly the issue of a serious political debate. Brecht called the play a comedy; it certainly is a satire of the bourgeois mentality and of art forms dear to such a mentality, such as bourgeois tragedy, operatic scenes, and sentimental songs played on gramophones. Andreas's in-laws, the Balickes, who had been doing a thriving war business manufacturing ammunition boxes, now make baby carriages. They have engineered a profitable liaison between their daughter and Murk after telling her that Andreas has been killed in the war. The engagement is celebrated in a dinner scene titled "Fressen" (Gobbling)--a suggestive image for their brutal, grabbing mentality--that includes sentimental German songs and patriotic slogans typical of a "good" German family. The postwar bourgeois victory feast is disturbed by the returning soldier, who pops up claiming his rights--an exploited survivor wanting his slice of the pie. As a "have-not" he is linked with the revolutionaries by the wary Balicke; and he seems to be drifting that way out of spite when he falls into the company of proletarians in a pub. But the play does not end with his joining the revolution. He does not have that sort of romantic "red moon" in his head but drums up his own antiromantic mood: Why, he asks, should he risk himself a second time for pure ideas, when he is likely to become damaged just like the purity of his pregnant bride? Let's be a stinker in a stinking world, he decides. He throws his drum at the red moon, which is nothing but a stage prop lantern; "moon" and "drum" fall into a river without water, and off he goes to bed with his prize, Anna.

This stark assessment of reality was a slap in the face to all ideology, and the later, political Brecht reviewed it with some embarrassment. But Trommeln in der Nacht, the first Brecht play performed, brought rave reviews--especially from the influential theater critic Herbert Ihering, who discovered Brecht as a new talent and was instrumental in his receiving the Kleist Prize. New were Brecht's pithy language, his strategy of disillusionment, his radical unveiling of false fronts and sentiments. The many noble clichés are undercut by the actions of lowly characters: exploiters, cutthroats, cowards, and opportunists of every persuasion. Brecht's theater dissects reality rather than imitating it. Symbols such as the artificial red moon that lights up each time Andreas comes onstage point to the bourgeoisie's fear of the revolutionary who would threaten their smug existence, and placards saying "Glotzt nicht so romantisch" (Don't gape so romantically) were hung in the auditorium as part of the strategy of disillusionment--early examples of a technique that Brecht would later develop into his dramaturgy of estrangement.

In 1919, while still a student, Brecht had a son by Paula Banholzer, whose parents disliked Brecht and dissuaded their daughter from marrying him. Frank, named after Brecht's idol, Wedekind, was placed in a foster home; he would be killed on the eastern front in 1943. In 1922 Brecht married the actress Marianne Zoff; the following year they had a daughter, Hanne, who would later become an actress as well. While working on his own projects Brecht also wrote stinging theater reviews that indicate his displeasure with fashionable entertainment void of intellectual challenge.

From several trips to the German capital Brecht had learned that Berlin was the cultural metropolis and, especially, the center of the theater scene in Germany, and he made up his mind to move to Berlin. But even before he settled there in 1924 he was engaged in a new project that was obviously influenced by his impression of a cold, chaotic cityscape. Like Upton Sinclair and Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, both of whose works he had read, Brecht set out to portray the city as jungle, filled with struggle and solitude. The result was a confusing play, first titled "Garga," then Im Dickicht (In the Jungle ; performed, 1923), later Im Dickicht der Städte (published, 1927; translated as Jungle of Cities , 1966). Set in Chicago, it is Brecht's first American play and an early instance of his practice of addressing the immediate via the distant to allow more objective perceptions. Americanism was fashionable during the 1920s in Berlin; there were many who romanticized American freedom and open spaces as against the drabness and restrictions of German society; and many saw the cities, with skyscrapers, progress, gangsterism, and clashing social extremes, as American models of modern development.

The duel between the two men in the jungle of cities appears to be a duel of principles. Garga, a library clerk, begins as a sensitive individualist who believes in the freedom of the spirit; Shlink, a successful businessman lonely and hardened by the conditions of his profession, challenges Garga to a combat of changing strategies in which they undermine each other's existence. Neither side really wins. Ultimately Garga survives because he is the younger; but in the course of the fight his individualist ideas are compromised and battered. He emerges a changed man: the struggle has made him a thick-skinned city dweller at the expense of his family, which has disintegrated in the process.

Brecht's adaptation of Christopher Marlowe 's play Edward II (1693), Leben Eduards des Zweiten von England (Life of Edward the Second of England, 1924; translated as Edward II: A Chronicle Play , 1966), is a bestiary of lusts and passions in which the members of the nobility are at each other's throat during thirteen years of slaughter, leaving the country ravaged and the people starved. Brecht shows that a deep-rooted source of the vicious circle of historical events is the "eye for an eye" obsession posing as justice.

Brecht pushed his criticism of individualism a step further in the comedy Mann ist Mann (performed, 1926; published, 1927; translated as A Man's a Man , 1966), set in colonial India. Among the motifs he develops are the economic nature of war and the manipulation of the economic nature of the individual. Galy Gay, a plain dock porter who has almost no passions, goes out to buy a fish for supper and is changed, through calculated triggering of his desire for gain, into an insatiable war machine. Galy takes the place of the soldier Jip, who is changed in a similar way: hungry not for a fish but for a beefsteak (beefsteak is a symbolic word in Brecht's play, meaning not only food [existence] for the soldiers but also the soldiers themselves as cannon fodder--war turns them into beefsteak tartare) he is turned into a god in a pagoda, where he is used to exploit the faithful. The interchangeability of the men in the roles that they assume as new identities "proves" that "a man's a man." Galy loses his private self in his uniformed function in a collective that may be used for any purpose. Brecht's transition from anarchic individualism through anti-individualism to collectivism is reflected in this first stage of his dramatic production between 1918 and 1924. By turning his plays into demonstrations of social conditions rather than perpetuating, in traditional fashion, dramatic clashes of great individuals, Brecht laid the groundwork for an innovative kind of theater. With naturalists and expressionists Brecht shared a discontent with society. But he considered purely emotional dramatic effects unproductive. To change social conditions, nothing was to be accepted as natural or inevitable. The audience was to be confronted with a theater that was not an illusion of reality but a detached yet provocative portrayal that would challenge the viewers to use their critical faculties.

Brecht's adaptation of John Gay 's The Beggar's Opera (1728), translated by his collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann, was a major theatrical event in 1928 and made Brecht and Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for it, famous. Gay's successful play had parodied fashionable pastorals and had satirized aristocrats and respectable members of the bourgeoisie by representing them as underworld types: rogues, harlots, and thieves. Two hundred years later Brecht updated this formula, letting his beggars, thieves, gangsters, and harlots behave like the members of the bourgeoisie. This depiction was part of his estrangement technique, as were the songs that interrupted the action and commented on the goings-on in a corrupt world. But the experiment had unforeseen effects: the bourgeoisie apparently considered what they saw as natural rather than as striking. They did not feel affronted; they loved the play and never stopped whistling the melody of "Mackie Messer" (Mac the Knife). The wit and the music seemed to diffuse the stinging anti-bourgeois attack rather than to enhance it as intended.

Nevertheless, Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper (published, 1929; translated as The Threepenny Opera , 1964) certainly has an aggressive edge. Peachum, king of the beggars, wants to see Macheath, the gentlemanly street robber, hanged because Macheath has married Peachum's alluring daughter Polly. Peachum controls the beggars, whom he trains and exploits, while Mac controls the thieves and burglars in a similar way. During a visit to the brothel Mac is betrayed by Ginny Jenny and jailed, but he is freed by Police Chief Brown's daughter Lucy, who is one of Mac's girlfriends. Peachum puts pressure on Brown, threatening to disrupt the upcoming coronation ceremony with his hordes of beggars. Mac is captured again; his attempts at bribery fail because of lack of money. He is brought to the gallows, and the noose is laid around his neck, when a royal messenger rides up, orders his immediate release, and raises him to the permanent ranks of the nobility.

The trivial operatic story with a happy ending is used as a critical commentary on bourgeois mentality. It is a ravenous mentality: Mac, Brown, and Peachum are the beasts of society, preying on their victims. What is dangerous about them--and Brecht's estrangement technique calls attention to it--is that they cannot be recognized as beasts of prey by sharp teeth, fins, or claws. They hide their true nature under white-gloved manners. They do their preying according to rules: Peachum by the Bible, Mac by bourgeois etiquette, Brown by the law. But while they feast, the poor, living in shacks gnawed by rats, have to eat stone instead of bread. It is a society in which each person lives by maltreating, beating, cheating, or eating someone else. The maxim "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" (First comes the belly, then morality) is sung by Macheath and by Jenny, by the bourgeois exploiter and by the tavern harlot--higher and lower circles seem to agree on that fundamental economic issue, and Jenny adds that right and wrong can wait until the stomach of the poor is fed as well. Depending on which side of the double-faced characters speaks, the maxim expresses cynicism or rebellion. The marriage feast in the stable--which is not in Gay's play--unites the trinity: Religion (Reverend Kimball), Law (Brown), and Gangsterism (Mac). A manger in the stable suggests that this society has perverted a gospel of bliss into a gospel of looted blessings. Mac on the gallows parodies Christ on the cross, inverting the message of salvation: Mac, not humanity, is saved, and he will continue to plague mankind as a banker. Brecht later rewrote the play as a novel (1934) and gave a sharper political focus to the subject. But it is Die Dreigroschenoper, with its spicy ballads set to Weill's catchy tunes, that has made its mark in the history of modern theater.

Brecht and Weill collaborated on another opera, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (published, 1929; performed, 1930; translated as Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny , 1959). Here a fictive American city of pleasure and exploitation is the setting for an indictment of a capitalist world that ends in apocalypse. It is a paradise fed by biblical myth and the myth of the Wild West; but everything hinges on money, turning all value--including freedom--into a commodity. A commercial paradise that knows no mercy becomes hell. Nazi sympathizers disrupted the premiere of this collaboration by a "communist" and a "Jew."

Between 1928 and 1930 Brecht also wrote several brief "Lehrstücke" (didactic plays) as educational practice pieces for actors. The main concerns of these plays--Der Ozeanflug (The Flight across the Ocean; performed, 1929; published as Der Flug der Lindberghs [Lindbergh's Flight], 1930), Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis (The Baden Didactic Play on Consent; performed, 1929; published, 1930; translated as The Baden Play for Learning, 1960), Die Maßnahme (performed, 1930; published, 1931; translated as The Measures Taken, 1977), Der Jasager und Der Neinsager (He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No; performed, 1930; published, 1931; translated as He Who Said Yes, 1946), and Die Ausnahme und die Regel (performed, 1938; published, 1950; translated as The Exception and the Rule, 1961)--are the experimental exploration of human behavior in socioeconomic relationships and the relationship between individual and collective. These experiments were influenced by Marxist doctrine and by questions about the political effectiveness of revolutionary group efforts by the workers.

A full-fledged revolutionary play is Die Mutter (performed, 1932; published, 1933; translated as The Mother , 1965), derived from Maksim Gorky's novel Mat' (Mother, 1907), about the Russian revolution of 1905, which Brecht extends to include the revolution of 1917 against the czarist regime. A loving but apolitical mother, Pelagea Vlassova, is educated by her experiences to join her son and his comrades in the revolution; after her son is killed she continues the fight. The mother has adopted the children of the revolution, and she carries the flag, leading the striking workers. This was the last Brecht play performed before the takeover by the Nazis, who had increasingly harassed leftist productions.

The most ambitious and powerful political play from Brecht's Berlin period is Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (published, 1932; performed, 1959; translated as Saint Joan of the Stockyards , 1969), written under the impact of the Great Depression of 1929, the bloody suppression of workers' demonstrations by the police in Berlin, and his reading of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 's Das Kapital (1867-1895; translated as Capital, 1887-1896). The play is a variation on the Jeanne d'Arc theme and alludes to classical German authors, George Bernard Shaw , and Upton Sinclair 's The Jungle (1906), which Brecht had recommended ten years earlier as an antidote to Friedrich Schiller 's idea of freedom. Once again an American city is the setting for a general--but particularly German--reality. The stockyards of Chicago become the battleground between the meat packers, whose king is Pierpont Mauler, and the masses of hungry workers, victims of engineered economic crises and recoveries serving monopolist interests. Johanna Dark, leading the Black Straw Hats of the Salvation Army, tries to mediate between the two sides by appealing to philanthropy and religion. She is good but naive about economic and political operations, which Brecht exposes by his estrangement technique. One of the strangest effects is that the meat packers strut around like great individuals in classical drama and speak in noble verse expressing (or covering up) their cutthroat business interests. This work is one of Brecht's bitterest counterplays, in which he demonstrates the dehumanizing power of hunger and the machinations of those in power who cause it. In his Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1802; translated as The Maid of Orleans, 1824) Schiller had idealized the alliance between the king of France and the God of victorious battle brought about by a self-sacrificial "Saint" Johanna. Brecht parodies this notion with the commercial alliance between the king of the slaughterhouses and the "saint" from the Salvation Army who unwittingly helps him to win his battle. In Brecht's imagery, the world is a bloody slaughterhouse. There is not much difference between cattle and people; both become the objects of consumerism, as symbolically highlighted in the gruesome and grotesque accident of the worker Luckerniddle, who falls into the boiler, is processed through the bacon-maker, and is marketed like the slaughtered oxen, and whose place and coat are desperately grabbed by the next worker.

Johanna wants to help the workers; she preaches religion and feeds them a meager soup. Her actions are useful to the capitalist Mauler, who, "influenced" by her goodness, shows himself as a "humanitarian" and wants to collaborate with the Salvation Army to keep things as they are. When Johanna begins to recognize these machinations she joins the communists; but she fails them because, as a pacifist, she shies away from the use of violence. She cannot prevent the new alliance between the king of the slaughter-houses and the god of the Salvation Army, between capitalism and religion. She was the initiator and becomes victim of this alliance, which provides just enough soup for the poor and hungry to keep them from smashing their tools and rising in rebellion.

Brecht and Marianne Zoff had been divorced in 1927. In 1929 he married the actress Helene Weigel, whom he had met in 1923. Their son, Stefan, had been born in 1924; a daughter, Barbara, was born in 1930. With the Nazis coming into power the exile of the Brecht family began. His works were included in the infamous burning of the books in May 1933, but he had read the signs and escaped one day after the Reichstag fire on 27 February. The stations of his exile, during which he changed countries more often than his shoes (as he once put it), were Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the United States. Brecht remained active and productive while in exile. He traveled to conferences of writers and emigrants, joined anti-Fascist demonstrations, collaborated on emigrant journals, wrote poems and satires for the German broadcasting station in Moscow, attempted through his publications abroad to strengthen anti-Fascist resolve, and had his works smuggled into Germany for underground circulation. His parable play Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe (performed, 1935; published, 1957; translated as Roundheads and Peakheads, 1966) lashes out against Adolf Hitler's racism as a tool of class exploitation. Brecht used more realistic means in the resistance piece Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar (performed, 1937; translated as Señora Carrar's Rifles, 1938; published, 1953), dedicated to the struggle of the Spanish people against fascism. Beginning in 1935 Brecht worked on a series of one-act sketches about the Nazi terror, which he joined together in the play Furcht und Elend des III.Reiches (Fear and Misery of the Third Reich; performed as 99%, 1938; published, 1941; translated as The Private Life of the Master Race, 1944). In 1938 he finished the first version of Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo; performed, 1943). His claim that this play contained no barbs against Germany or Italy was to placate the nervous Danish authorities; its topicality, nevertheless, was apparent. With Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (performed, 1941; published, 1949; translated as Mother Courage and her Children, 1966) Brecht warns against imminent war. The one-act plays Dansen (performed, 1967; published, 1966; translated, 1971-1973) and Was kostet das Eisen (performed as Vad kostar järnet?, 1939; published, 1966; translated as How Much Is Your Iron?, 1971-1973) criticize, in parabolic form, Scandinavian trade with Nazi Germany. In Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (published, 1957; performed, 1958; translated as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 1976) Brecht chose a Chicago gangster story to indict Nazi methods. In American exile Brecht updated, together with Charles Laughton, the Galileo play in view of new political events. He also wrote Die Gesichte der Simone Machard (1957; translated as The Visions of Simone Machard, 1965) and Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg (1957; translated as Schweyk in the Second World War, 1967), and the frame story of Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (published, 1954; translated as The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948; translation performed, 1948), all of which take issue with the events of the time and raise keen questions about the kind of society in which such events can occur.

Among the anti-Fascist projects he pursued in Scandinavian exile, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder , written on the eve of World War II, sounded the most intense warning about consenting to--and doing business with--war. Mother Courage, a sutler who follows the armies of the Thirty Years' War to make her living, loses all three of her children in the process. The Thirty Years' War, a low point in German history, had been realistically described by Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen in his novels Der abentheuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch (1669; translated as The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912) and Trutz Simplex: Oder Ausführliche und wunderseltzame Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Lanstörtzerin Courasche (Simple Defiance; or, Detailed and Curious Biography of the Arch-Cozener and Vagabond Courasche, 1669), which were Brecht's major sources of inspiration. Brecht does not show "great" generals of the "religious" war but rather the plain people who are the cannon fodder for "higher" interests. The ups and downs of the fortunes of war are reflected in the alternatingly prosperous and rundown condition of Courage's wagon, which links the twelve scenes. She does business with war to support her children, and she uses her children to support her business. That this practice cannot lead to success is shown by the horrors of war in which her children perish--at the end it is just Mother Courage who pulls her tattered wagon.

The wagon is the center of all kinds of trading for profit or survival: while Courage sells a belt buckle, the recruiter "buys" her son Eilif; a scrawny capon can be sold to the army cook at a high price because the captain has nothing else to offer to Eilif for his heroic deed; a preacher sells out his ideals to the war; a prostitute sells herself to the highest bidder; because Courage's honest son Schweizerkas (Swiss Cheese) does not trade a military cashbox to the enemy, his mother is forced to trade her wagon for his life, which is then lost anyway because she bargains too long for the best deal; a sudden enemy takeover necessitates a hasty trading of Protestant for Catholic insignia and garb. Such give-and-take is highlighted time and again to show that dealing with war, which is the business of those in power, brings nothing but loss to the lower classes. Mother Courage loses each of her children while she tries to drive some bargain, and the virtues she taught them only contribute to their destruction.

Brecht gives both admirable and despicable traits to Courage--he did not see her as a tragic figure. Some critics see her as a split character in an irreconcilable conflict between mother and businesswoman, while others think that she is more the latter than the former. At one point Courage condemns the war; but she is quick to get back into it, as it is her source of business. She does not recognize that her little world of opportunism, aggressiveness, scheming, and outsmarting others is a reflection of the tactics of big business. War is made--it does not just happen--and the common people have to pay the bill.

While for Courage business takes priority over family, for her daughter Kattrin the opposite is true. Victimized by the brutalities of war since she was a child, Kattrin is mute, disfigured, and deprived of hope for personal happiness. Yearning for love and sympathizing with the miserable and helpless, she opposes her mother's cold business tactics. One night she witnesses a sneak attack on a city and thinks of all the people--especially innocent children--about to be murdered; she beats a drum to warn them and is promptly shot to death, but she has awakened the city and saved other lives. She has been seen as a rebel and a martyr, a spontaneous activist in contrast to her calculating opportunist mother. But while Brecht endowed her with the qualities of a heroine, he does not glorify martyrdom per se and points out in considerable detail how the unselfish girl was manipulated, time and again, by the selfish people around her.

Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (performed, 1943; published, 1953; translated as The Good Woman of Setzuan , 1948) is Brecht's master parable, considered by many to be his most perfect example of epic theater as the art of estrangement. His first plans for the play date back to 1927; he worked on it intermittently during his exile and completed it in the United States in 1941. In a prologue three gods descend to earth; they will allow the world to go on as it is if they can find enough people who live lives worthy of human beings. No one except the poor prostitute Shen Te is willing to put them up overnight; the gods, happy to have found one good soul, remind her to maintain a good life, and they continue their search. But Shen Te, who earns the nickname "Engel der Vorstädte" (angel of the suburbs) by practicing goodness with the money the gods left her, is about to lose her little tobacco shop because parasites and opportunists have descended on her, exploiting her humanitarianism. She finds no other way out but to disguise herself as her "cousin" Shui Ta, a hard-nosed businessman, whenever she needs him. While Shui Ta provides the means through "his" ruthless bargaining methods and factory employment practices, Shen Te remains good to others. As demands on her goodness increase, Shui Ta has to stay longer and longer. Finally, Shen Te cannot keep up the double front and is unmasked in a trial before the gods, who can neither help her nor tell her why the world cannot be different. They hastily beat a retreat to heaven on their theater clouds and leave behind them a split person, an open-ended play, and an audience urged in the epilogue to find its own happy conclusion. Brecht uses the trial scene to confront the gods' judgment of humans with human judgment of the gods. The open ending challenges the old idea of the "theatrum mundi," according to which God observes and judges individuals in their performance of the roles allotted to them in life. Shen Te recognizes that something is wrong with this world; the spectators and readers have also witnessed the negative experiment demonstrated by the parable. By addressing the audience directly, the speaker of the epilogue links the parable to whatever reality the spectators may find themselves in, a reality they are encouraged to shape toward a good end.

Less strident in its exposure of social injustice and more detached from immediate historical reference is the colorful comedy Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1948; translated as Mister Puntila and His Man Matti, 1977), based on a story by Hella Wuolijoki, who hosted Brecht during his Finnish exile. The landowner Puntila is humane and fraternizes with his servants only when he is drunk; when he is sober he is a ruthless exploiter. At the end his servant Matti, who has realized that a worthwhile relationship with the upper class is impossible, leaves to become his own master. Once again the conclusion is open-ended; Brecht challenges his audience to determine the meaning and the method of becoming one's "own master."

During his American exile Brecht lived in a colony of German emigrants in Los Angeles and continued with his anti-Fascist theater in a more direct, realistic style. Die Gesichte der Simone Machard , written together with Lion Feuchtwanger , is a modern variant of the Jeanne d'Arc theme. A naive young French servant girl, reading the patriotic legend, becomes a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of France; she is victimized by her countrymen, who, to save their possessions, collaborate with the invaders.

In Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg Brecht uses folk comedy and satire to encourage indirect subversiveness. Apparently he hoped to repeat the success of the 1928 Berlin staging of a dramatization of Jaroslav Hasek 's antiwar novel Osudy dobrého vojáka Svejka (1920-1923; translated as The Good Soldier Schweik, 1930) by Erwin Piscator's political theater, a production in which the satirist George Grosz and Brecht himself had collaborated. A cartoon of Hitler, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Gobbels by the caricaturist Arthur Szyk, published in Collier's (17 January 1942), and reprinted in Look (8 September 1942), influenced Brecht's prelude set in the higher regions, where preternaturally large gods with grandiose plans for world power talk about the self-denying virtues of the little people on whose faith, love, and work they must rely. But while the "great ones" proclaim their totalitarian goals, the lowly ones, seemingly fulfilling these plans, actually undermine them. The Good Soldier Schweyk, who has survived World War I, battles to outlive World War II. Brecht sees in him the indestructible vitality of the people: the more oppressive the system, the more devious the defensive tactics. Under the pretense of naiveté, if not idiocy, Schweyk follows orders sometimes to the letter; but by fumbling his assignments he avoids danger. For example, he gives confusing directions to a freight train attendant, who sends a carload of weapons off on the wrong track; his march to the front turns out to be circular, leading him back to base. "Alles hat zwei Seiten" (there are two sides to everything) is Schweyk's motto: he does not accept the absolute or the inevitable but keeps the door open to alternatives. Some see him as an opportunistic fellow traveler, others as a devious opponent. He must be both, for open resistance is simply clobbered down. Brecht's hope of seeing Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg performed on Broadway with music by his erstwhile collaborator Weill did not materialize; the play was first staged in Warsaw, with music by Hanns Eisler.

Another Broadway prospect, The Caucasian Chalk Circle , was not accepted either--Brecht's epic theater style was too unusual for mainstream American stages, and the play premiered in Northfield, Minnesota. With this new play, Brecht once again elaborated a subject that had interested him earlier. It is based on a Chinese fable about a Solomonic judgment that identifies the "true" mother of a child. The main story is a play within a play that is used to demonstrate the solution to a conflict between two collective farms that have survived Nazi aggression and plan to rebuild their economy. One group proposes to return to its old methods of breeding sheep so that the cheese will taste better (a conservative position); the other proposes to build an irrigation system for growing fruit in the valley (a progressive position aimed at communal good). The latter group wins the day and puts on the play, which consists of two parts: the story of Grusha, a kitchen maid; and the story of Azdak, the judge. The stories, presented one after the other, are parallel in time and converge at the end; in Brechtian fashion, the performance is interspersed with narrative comments and songs. During a revolution in a Caucasian city the governor is overthrown and killed. Grusha saves the child left behind by the escaping governor's wife, and protects and educates him. At the end of the first story all her self-sacrificial effort seems for naught: the soldiers of the "Fat Prince" (the governor's rival) capture the child, who is reclaimed by its biological mother; she hopes that after the return of the grand duke to power her properties will be restored to her by virtue of being the blood relative of the governor's heir. While Grusha saved a child, Azdak, a tramp, saved an old man. The old man turns out to be the grand duke, who, after the rebellion fails, rewards Azdak by making him a judge. Azdak settles law cases in a most unorthodox manner: taking from the rich and giving to the poor, he becomes the hero of the people, who at long last see real justice being done. Azdak's situation, however, becomes more and more precarious: feudal society did not change through the revolution, which was merely a power struggle between feudal lords. Azdak finally fades out of the picture, but not before he has decided the dispute between the two "mothers" by way of the chalk-circle test: the real mother is the one who can pull the child out of the circle. While the biological mother pulls him recklessly, Grusha lets go of his hand so that he will not be torn apart. Azdak declares her the "real" mother. The minstrel-narrator summarizes the message that what there is should belong to those who are good for it--the children to the motherly that they may thrive, the valley to those who water it so that it may bring forth fruit. Some performances of the play exclude the socialistic frame story about the valley. A sensitive audience will not miss the modern relevance of an old parable demonstrating how and why injustices occur in society.

To many, Leben des Galilei is the most significant of Brecht's dramas, not only because of its fascinating, complex central character but also because of its examination of the difficult pursuit of truth and the problem of applying truth to the well-being of society. Galileo Galilei, one of the great figures of the Renaissance, founder of modern astronomy and pioneer of empirical scientific inquiry, championed the new heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus against the old geocentric theory of Ptolemy. As Galileo's teaching appeared to contradict certain passages in the Bible, the Inquisition forced him to recant, put him under house arrest for the rest of his life, and policed his further research. This situation set back the pursuit of scientific truth, and men such as René Descartes ceased publishing "dangerous" findings; but the spread of Galileo's works, which were smuggled out of Italy, could not be stopped. As in Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, the situation remote in time becomes a parable for current political events. The first sketches of the play project Galileo as a popular hero amid social upheaval, a courageous and cunning underground fighter. As resistance was more and more suppressed by the Nazis, the first full version of the play, written in Danish exile in 1938-1939, makes Galileo a more controversial character bending under political pressure in order to survive but continuing to write while under arrest. Those who saw the inaugural performance of this play in Zurich in 1943 were clearly aware of its anti-Fascist thrust.

The second version, Galileo , was a collaboration between Brecht, who was then in California, and Charles Laughton, who was to play the title role in an American production. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in early August 1945 gave a new meaning to the biography of the founder of modern physics. This version shows more negative traits of the hero; Brecht also left out the last scene, which showed the smuggling of Galileo's work over the border and suggested prospects for a better future. Also, social conflicts are profiled to a larger extent to bring home the message of the scientist's betrayal of society. The most important change, however, is the denial of the ethics of cunning through Galileo's self-accusation, which forms the new conclusion of the play. Galileo is now cast into the role of hero and criminal, one who committed the scientist's original sin: selling out truth to the powers that be for irresponsible political use. The play was performed in Beverly Hills in 1947 and later that year in New York, without making a great impression on an audience not used to Brechtian theater.

The third version translated the American version back into German and added material from the first version, including the last (crossing-of-the-border) scene. By this time the race for nuclear weapons had given the arsenals of the super-powers unfathomable potential for destruction. The negative elements in Galileo's character remain and are sharpened by radical additions such as the claim that, if he had held out, scientists might have developed something like the physicians' Hippocratic oath, the vow to use their knowledge only for the good of mankind. But as things stand now, Galileo says to his former student Andrea, the best one can hope for is a generation of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose. Brecht's molding of distant history into a parable with contemporary relevance, and the autobiographical affinities between Brecht and his Galileo, have elicited critical responses that include indictments of facism, capitalism, and communism, as well as divided opinions about Brecht himself.

In 1947 Brecht returned to Europe. His departure came one day after he and other members of the Hollywood scene were interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities about communist affiliations. The transcript recording of the hearing is a revealing document of the times and of Brecht's cunning performance. After a brief period in Zurich, Brecht settled in 1948 in East Berlin. He and his wife, Weigel, were given a theater and the opportunity to take part in the cultural rebuilding of East Germany--not an easy task for Brecht, who was unwilling to bend to the narrow precepts of socialist realism, the artistic principle dictated by the ruling party. Until his death he was more active as a director than as a playwright. Although he completed such plays as Die Tage der Commune (The Days of the Commune; performed, 1956; published, 1957; translated, 1971) and Turandot oder Der Kongreß der Weißwäscher (Turandot; or, The Congress of Whitewashers; published, 1968; performed, 1969), many projects remained unfinished. A substantial part of his theater experimentation focused on adaptations of plays by Molière, Shakespeare, and Sophocles. At last Brecht was able to direct his own plays according to principles he had developed over the years in such works as "Kleines Organon für das Theater" (1953; translated as "A Short Organum for the Theatre," 1964), with a troupe of actors that was to become world famous as the Berliner Ensemble. Brecht died in Berlin on 14 August 1956, during rehearsals of Leben des Galilei.


From: Knust, Herbert. "(Eugen) Bertolt (Friedrich) Brecht." Twentieth-Century German Dramatists, 1919-1992, edited by Wolfgang Elfe and James N. Hardin, Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 124.


  • Further Reading
    • Walter Nubel, "Brecht Bibliographie," Sinn und Form: Sonderheft Bertolt Brecht 2 (1957): 479-623.
    • Klaus-Dietrich Petersen, Bertolt-Brecht-Bibliographie (Bad Homburg: Gehlen, 1968).
    • Reinhold Grimm, Bertolt Brecht, third edition (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1971).
    • Klaus Völker, "Verzeichnis sämtlicher Stücke," Bearbeitungen und Fragmente zu Stücken von Bertolt Brecht," text + kritik. Sonderband Bertolt Brecht II (1973): 210-225.
    • Jan Knopf, Bertolt Brecht: Ein kritischer Forschungsbericht (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum Taschenbuchverlag, 1974).
    • Gerhard Seidel, Bibliographie Bertolt Brecht. Titelver-zeichnis Band I: Deutschsprachige Veröffentlichungen aus den Jahren 1913-1972 (Berlin & Weimar: Aufbau, 1975).
    • Stephan Bock, Brecht, Bertolt: Auswahl-und Ergän-zungs-Bibliographie (Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1979).
    • Frederic Ewen, Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art and His Times (New York: Citadel, 1967).
    • Werner Frisch and K. W. Obermeier, Brecht in Augsburg: Erinnerungen, Texte, Photos (Berlin: Aufbau, 1975).
    • Klaus Völker, Bertolt Brecht: Eine Biographie (Munich: Hanser, 1976); translated by John Nowell as Brecht: A Biography (New York: Seabury Press, 1978).
    • Lion Feuchtwanger, ed., Bertolt Brecht: Leben und Werk im Bild (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1979).
    • James K. Lyon, Bertolt Brecht in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).
    • Ernst Schumacher and Renate Schumacher, Leben Brechts in Wort und Bild, third edition (Berlin: Henschel, 1981).
    • Ronald Hayman, Brecht: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
    • Bruce Cook, Brecht in Exile (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1983).
    • Ruth Berlau, Brechts Lai-tu: Erinnerungen und Notate, edited by Hans Bunge (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1985).
    • Werner Mittenzwei, Das Leben des Bertolt Brecht, 2 volumes (Berlin: Aufbau, 1986).
    • Werner Hecht, ed., Brecht: Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1988).
    • Hanns Otto Munsterer, The Young Brecht, translated by Tom Kuhn and Karen J. Leeder (London: Libris, 1992).
    • Eric Bentley, The Brecht Commentaries, 1943-1980 (New York: Grove, 1981).
    • Keith A. Dickson, Towards Utopia: A Study of Brecht (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978).
    • Martin Esslin, Brecht: A Choice of Evils (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959); republished as Brecht: The Man and His Work (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960); revised as Brecht: A Choice of Evils. A Critical Study of the Man, His Work and His Opinions (London: Methuen, 1984).
    • John Fuegi, Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama (New York: Grove, 1994).
    • Ronald Gray, Brecht the Dramatist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
    • Reinhold Grimm, Bertolt Brecht: Die Struktur seines Werkes, sixth edition (Nuremberg: Carl, 1972).
    • Paula Joan Hanssen, Elisabeth Hauptmann: Brecht's Silent Collaborator (Bern & New York: Peter Lang, 1995).
    • Claude Hill, Bertolt Brecht (Boston: Twayne, 1975).
    • Walter Hinck, Die Dramaturgie des späten Brecht, sixth edition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977).
    • Walter Hinderer, ed., Brechts Dramen: Neue Interpretationen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984).
    • Helmut Jendreiek, Bertolt Brecht: Drama der Veränderung, second edition (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1973).
    • Jan Knopf, Brecht-Handbuch: Theater. Eine Ästhetik der Widersprüche (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1980).
    • Hans-Thies Lehmann, Renate Voris, Marc Silberman, and others, eds., The Other Brecht, 2 volumes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, 1993).
    • James K. Lyon and Hans-Peter Breuer, eds., Brecht Unbound (Newark: University of Delaware Press/London: Associated University Presses, 1995).
    • Siegfried Mews, ed., Critical Essays on Bertolt Brecht (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989).
    • Mews and Herbert Knust, eds., Essays on Brecht: Theater and Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974).
    • John Milful, From Baal to Keuner: The "Second Optimism" of Bertolt Brecht (Bern & Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1974).
    • Michael Morley, Brecht: A Study (London: Heinemann, 1977).
    • Klaus-Detlev Müller, ed., Bertolt Brecht: Epoche--Werk--Wirkung (Munich: Beck, 1985).
    • Chetana Nagavajara, Brecht and France (Bern & New York: Peter Lang, 1994).
    • Jan Needle and Peter Thomson, Brecht (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
    • Patty Lee Parmalee, Brecht's America (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981).
    • Herta Ramthun, ed., Bertolt-Brecht-Archiv: Bestands-verzeichnis des literarischen Nachlasses, 4 volumes (Berlin: Aufbau, 1969-1973).
    • Janelle G. Reinelt, After Brecht: British Epic Theater (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
    • Claudette Sartiliot, Citation and Modernity: Derrida, Joyce, and Brecht (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).
    • Karl-Heinz Schoeps, Bertolt Brecht (New York: Ungar, 1977).
    • Ronald Speirs, Brecht's Early Plays (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982).
    • Antony Tatlow, The Mask of Evil: Brecht's Response to the Poetry, Theatre, and Thought of China and Japan (Bern: Lang, 1977).
    • Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Brecht (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
    • Michael Thoss, Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches (New York: Writers and Readers, 1994).
    • Klaus Völker, Brecht Kommentar zum dramatischen Werk (Munich: Winkler, 1983).
    • Betty Nance Weber and Hubert Heinen, eds., Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980).
    • Alfred White, Bertolt Brecht's Great Plays (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978).
    • John Willett, Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches (London & New York: Methuen, 1984).
    • Willett, The Theater of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects (London: Methuen, 1977).