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Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was born to a middle-class family in Ausburg, Bavaria. After attending the University of Munich, he moved to Berlin, the center of contemporary German cultural life, and found work as assistant dramaturge at the Deustches Theater in 1924. There, he achieved his first great success in 1928 with the production of his Threepenny Opera, the most famous of his many collaborations with composer Kurt Weill. This modern morality tale on gangsters and capitalists won him massive popularity and would later ensure his place in both the German and Western cultural canon. Because of his Marxist and anti-fascist beliefs, Brecht would be forced to flee Germany with the rise of the Nazis in 1933, living in exile in Scandinavia and the United States for the next fifteen years. Though he attempted to establish himself both in Hollywood and on Broadway as numerous German expatriates had done, Brecht had little success with American audiences and was at one point event brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His encounter with HUAC left him deeply disturbed with America, and Brecht moved back to East Berlin in 1948, living there until his death.
Read about how the House Committee on Un-American Activities inspired another play, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Brecht produced his first major play, Baal, in 1922, launching it as a critique against traditional, de-politicizing notions of the artist as genius and visionary. His conversion to Marxism resulted in a number of anti-capitalist works, including The Measures Taken (1930), a "learning play" aimed didactically at the education of its spectator, and Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1932). During this time, Brecht began to elaborate his theory of the epic theater, an avant-garde form that aimed at unhinging a dramatic establishment Brecht understood as complicit with the oppression of its audiences. In particular the epic theater challenged the notion of spectatorship as grounded in identification, seeing the identification between the viewer and character in the conventional theater as insidiously removing both from their political and historical contexts in the name of the "universal human condition." The epic theater strove to break the fascinating, trance-like effect of the dramatic spectacle, transform the spectator into its critical observer, and rouse him to thought and action.
The epic form's primary innovation was the Verfremdungseffekt, generally translated as the "alienation" or "distanciation" effect. This effect demanded an alienation of the spectator from the spectacle that would reveal the social relations—what Brecht dubbed the "gestus" or "gist"/"gesture"—underlying the narrative on-stage. A particularly well- known method for such alienation was Brechtian acting technique. In the epic theater, the actor would no longer seamlessly efface themselves in their role and "become" their character, but perform both themselves and the character at once. Brechtian acting would bring the relation between actor and character to light, forcing, in the name of a higher realism, the audience to examine the artifice of the spectacle and the tensions between its constitutive components. Brecht's staging techniques similarly aimed at such alienation, the epic theater making frequent use of unfamiliar settings, the interruption of action and dialogue, unsettling music, the use of banners to mark scene changes, and playing spaces divided by half-drawn curtains.
From 1940 onward, Brecht came to win international recognition for his most famous plays, producing the bulk of them with the East German Berliner Ensemble as directed by his wife, Helene Weigel. Briefly he returned to more traditional dramatic forms in his Private Life of the Master Race (1940), an attack on the Nazis, and then returned to the epic in the Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944), a piece on maternal sacrifice. Galileo (1947), a tale of the persecuted intellectual, then followed, along with the Good Woman of Setzuan (1948), a parable about a good-hearted prostitute who must live in the guise of her male cousin to survive the world. Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) is arguably Brecht's masterpiece. Inspired by the invasion of Poland, it was written in five months during 1939 after Brecht had fled to Sweden. Too caustic for production in a Scandinavia soon facing Nazi occupation, it first appeared in Zurich in 1941. Brecht unfortunately missed the performance and then revised the play upon discovering that some critics had received it in a disappointingly sentimentalized fashion. He launched his own production upon his return to Berlin in 1948 at the Deutsches Theater, Mother Courage and Her Children marking both his homecoming and first successful directorial success.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mother Courage and Her Children!