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Bertolt Brecht

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English Literature

Bertolt Brecht (18981956) was a German dramatist, poet, theatre director, and practitioner who was the founder of a new theatre-style called epic theatre.

Bertolt Brecht: Biography and facts

Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, who is known as Bertolt Brecht, was born on 10th February 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, in Germany. The dramatist had a middle-class upbringing. His father, Berthold Friedrich Brecht, was a Roman Catholic who worked for a paper mill. His mother, Sophie Brecht, was a Protestant. Sophie influenced Brechts knowledge of the Bible, which he would later use in his writing. At school, Brecht met Caspar Neher, who would become his scenographer in the future; Neher developed the visual iconography for Brechts epic theatre.

Epic theatre is a style of theatre that started in Germany around the First and Second World Wars. Although there are other dramatists and theatre directors who incorporated similar epic techniques, Bertolt Brecht is the one who is credited for creating and developing the concept. Epic theatre is in opposition to traditional dramatic theatre. While dramatic theatre aims to entertain, epic theatre attempts to educate and engage the audience to think critically.

The First World War broke out when Brecht was only sixteen years old. Seeing his classmates sent to the battlefield to die, Brecht expressed his anti-war views at school, for which he almost got expelled. He himself wasnt conscripted into the army because of a loophole that meant that medical students could be deferred. That is why, in 1917, Brecht enrolled to study medicine at Munich University. It was there that he first studied Drama.

He was taught by drama researcher Arthur Kutscher, who was close friends with Frank Wedekind, one of the most famous German dramatists of the time. Wedekinds work in iconoclastic drama and cabaret was one of Brechts first influences. He was also influenced by some foreign authors he admired, such as Arthur Rimbaud, François Villon, and Rudyard Kipling. Brecht started writing plays, poetry, poems, and songs under the pseudonym of Bert Brecht. In 1919, Brecht had a son named Frank with Paula Banholzer, who was his first romantic partner. In 1920, Brechts mother died.

Brechts first three plays Baal (his first full-length play written in 1918 and produced in 1923), Drums in the Night (1922), and In The Jungle of Cities 1924) were in the expressionist style.

Expressionism was a movement that started at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany and then became increasingly popular in other countries. While Expressionism included a range of arts such as painting, poetry, prose, and film, expressionist theatre is known for specific dramatic techniques and staging. In order to express the inner emotions of the characters to the audience, the acting, set, and costumes are exaggerated rather than realistic. Expressionist techniques include abstract setting, episodic structure, and fragmented dialogue.

In 1922, when living in Munich, Brecht married Viennese opera-singer Marianne Zoff. In 1923, she gave birth to a daughter, Hanne. The same year, Brecht started working on his directorial debut, an adaptation of Christopher Marlowes Edward II (1592). Brecht credited this debut as the starting point for the development of the epic theatre concept. He got hired as an assistant dramaturg at Max Reinhardts Deutsches Theatre in Berlin, and he moved to live and work in the capital city.

Between 1924 and 1933, when living in Berlin, Brecht developed his concept for epic theatre and became a Marxist. He had some affairs, and his second son, Stefan, was born in 1924. The mother, Elisabeth Hauptmann, was one of Brechts lovers, who would later work with him as a member of his writing collective. In 1927, Brecht and Marianne Zoff divorced. In 1928, Brecht collaborated with theatre composer Kurt Weill to create The Threepenny Opera. In 1930, Brecht married Helene Weigel, who soon after the wedding gave birth to a daughter, Barbara. The same year, another collaboration between Brecht and Weill Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany premiered. It resulted in an uproar from the Nazis in the audience.

Brechts political views caused him to fear persecution in Nazi Germany, and so he fled the country in 1933. He and his wife, Helene Weigel, stayed in several countries in Scandinavia until, in 1941, they eventually settled in the United States. Between 1941 and 1947, while he was living in America, Brecht worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. During that period, Brecht expressed his anti-fascist and pro-socialist views in some of his most famous plays: Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), The Life of Galileo (1943), and The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943). Meanwhile, in Germany, Brechts works were destroyed and banned, and his German citizenship was withdrawn.

After World War II and during the Cold War, Brecht and Helene returned to Europe. They lived in Zurich, Switzerland, before moving back to Germany in 1949. Brecht lived in East Berlin, where he established his own theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble. Although he was never a member of the Communist Party, Brecht was a sworn Marxist until the end of his life, and he enjoyed certain privileges in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) that other writers did not. In 1954, he received the Stalin Peace Prize. Brecht died in Berlin at the age of 58 on 14th August 1956. The cause of his death was a heart attack.

Bertolt Brecht was one of the most influential modernist theatre practitioners and drama theorists. His ‘epic theatre concept has inspired the work of many contemporary playwrights, directors, and actors.

Bertolt Brecht’s major works and plays

Lets take a look at three of Brechts most famous plays: The Threepenny Opera (1928), Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), and The Life of Galileo (1943).

The Threepenny Opera (1928)

() the rich of the earth indeed create misery, but they cannot bear to see it (Peachum, Act 3, Scene 1).

The Threepenny Opera is a three-act musical drama by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill. The play was adapted from four ballads by François Villon and from Elisabeth Hauptmanns translation of The Beggars Opera (1728) by John Gay. The Threepenny Opera premiered on 31st August 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin.

Set in Victorian London, The Threepenny Opera is about the criminal Macheath, who wants to legitimise his illegal business. He marries Polly, the daughter of a ring of beggars, against the wishes of Pollys parents. Her father almost gets Macheath arrested for his criminal activities, such as running brothels. Macheath is luckily saved in an unrealistic parody of a happy ending. The play has socialist elements and offers a satirical critique of capitalist society. The Threepenny Opera was Brechts first play to incorporate his epic theatre concept. All techniques, including the songs, are used to encourage the viewers to think objectively.

Mother Courage and Her Children (1941)

In sum, victory and defeat both come at a price for ordinary people. The best thing for us is if theres not too much politicking (Mother Courage, Scene 3).

Mother Courage and Her Children is a 12-scene chronicle play by Bertolt Brecht. It was written in 1939 with the contribution of the German actress and writer Margarete Steffin, who was Brechts collaborator. The play premiered in 1941 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland.

Mother Courage and Her Children is set in 17th-century Europe during the Thirty Years War. The story revolves around a woman who suffers the loss of her children because of war but, at the same time, depends on war to make her living. Mother Courage and Her Children is considered to be one of the greatest anti-war dramas.

The Life of Galileo (1943)

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error (Galileo, Scene 9).

The Life of Galileo is a play by Bertolt Brecht with music by Hans Eisler. The drama was written in 1938, and it premiered on 9th September 1943 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland.

Set during Renaissance Italy, The Life of Galileo is a play about the famous astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei. In the later parts of his life, as he makes extraordinary scientific discoveries, Galileo is opposed by the Catholic Church. The Life of Galileo tackles the themes of knowledge, progress, and the social responsibility of scientists.

Bertolt Brecht’s techniques: what is epic theatre?

Epic theatre is a style of theatre that was created and developed by Bertolt Brecht. It stands in opposition to traditional dramatic theatre.

Lets take a look at the main differences between epic theatre and dramatic theatre:

Epic theatreDramatic theatre
The plot has a non-linear narrative.
The plot has a linear narrative.
The scenes are fragmented.
The scenes are linked together.
The audience is distanced from the characters and is able to reflect on their actions.
The audience is emotionally engaged and empathises with the characters.
The actors talk about their characters in the third person. One actor portrays multiple characters (multi-rolling).
The actors become the characters. One actor portrays only one character.
Features a set that reveals the making of the show and reminds the audience that this is not real life.
Features a naturalistic set that creates the illusion that the story is real.

What is the Verfremdungseffekt?

The Verfremdungseffekt, which translates as alienation effect, is the main dramatic device created and used by Brecht. It is a set of techniques that alienate the audience so that they dont become emotionally involved with the characters and the action on stage. This is to encourage the audience to think critically about what is happening.

Brecht defined the aim of epic theatre as to critically engage the audience to make the spectators think about the issues presented on stage so that they can leave the theatre determined to act on them.

Bertolt Brechts contribution to literature

Bertolt Brecht was one of the most prominent playwrights, theatre practitioners, and drama theorists of the 20th century. His plays have been translated into many languages, and every year numerous productions of them are staged around the world.

Brecht did something revolutionary; he thought of drama as more than just entertainment, as a means to foster critical thinking that could lead to changes in society, in the world outside the theatre. What is more, he created and developed a set of dramatic techniques to support his concept of an epic theatre. Brechts legacy has inspired many modernist and postmodernist dramatists to create socially-engaged drama.

Bertolt Brecht - Key takeaways

  • Bertolt Brecht was a German dramatist, poet, theatre director, drama theorist, and theatre practitioner. He was the founder of a theatre-style called epic theatre. His theatre company was called the Berliner Ensemble.
  • Bertolt Brecht was born on 10th February 1898 in Augsburg, Germany. He died of a heart attack on 14th August 1956 in East Berlin.
  • Brecht was a Marxist. His works expose and criticise the flaws of capitalism.
  • Brechts best-known plays are The Threepenny Opera (1928), Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), and The Life of Galileo (1943).
  • Brechts epic theatre is in opposition to traditional dramatic theatre. The aim of epic theatre is to critically engage the audience to think about issues in society.

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) was a German dramatists, poet, theatre director, and practitioner, who was the founder of a new theatre style called epic theatre. Brecht was one of the most influential modernist theatre practitioners and drama theorists.

Bertolt Brecht was famous for creating and developing the concept of ‘epic theatre’. Some of Brecht’s most famous plays include The Threepenny Opera (1928), Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), and The Life of Galileo (1943).

Bertolt Brecht believed that theatre should engage audiences to think objectively about the social and political issues in society. Brecht also believed in Marxism and criticised capitalism.

Bertolt Brecht died of a heart attack. He died on 14th August 1956 in East Berlin.

Bertolt Brecht influenced theatre by creating and developing a theatre-style called epic theatre.

Final Bertolt Brecht Quiz

Question

What is the name of Bertolt Brecht's home town?

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Answer

 Augsburg

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Who was the scenographer that Bertolt Brecht worked with?

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Answer

 Caspar Neher

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Question

True or False: Brecht was a Marxist.

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Answer

True.

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True or False: Brecht stayed in Nazi Germany after 1933.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or False: Brecht's theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble, was based in West Berlin.

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Answer

False.

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Question

The Threepenny Opera (1928) was NOT adapted from..?

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Answer

Edward II (1592) by Christopher Marlowe

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True or False: The Threepenny Opera (1928) premiered in Zürich.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or False: Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) is considered to be one of the greatest anti-war dramas.


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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

The Life of Galileo (1943) is set during...?

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Answer

Renaissance Italy

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Question

True or False: In Epic Theatre, 

the audience is emotionally engaged and emphatises with the characters.


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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or False: The Life of Galileo (1943) is a play is about the famous astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei.

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Answer

True.

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What is the name of Brecht's first full-length play?

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Answer

 Baal

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Which is NOT true of Epic theatre?

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Answer

 The set is naturalistic

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Where was The Threepenny Opera first performed?

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Answer

 Berlin

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True or false: The Threepenny Opera is an adaptation of the works of other authors.

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Answer

True.

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True or false: The Threepenny Opera is set in 1920s Berlin.

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Answer

False.

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How many acts does The Threepenny Opera consist of?

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Answer

3

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True or false: Macheath deserves his 'happy ending'.

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Answer

False.

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True or false: the play is a socialist critique on the capitalist system.

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Answer

True.

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True or false: love in the play is presented as a strength.

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Answer

False.

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What does the moon symbolise in The Threepenny Opera?

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Answer

 Guidance

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Macheath is...?

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Answer

An antihero 

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True or false: both Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown love Macheath, despite the way he has treated them.

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Answer

True.

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True or false: Peachum cares about his daughter, Polly, more than he cares about money.

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Answer

False.

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True or false: Tiger Brown is the sheriff of London.

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Answer

True.

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True or false: Lucy Brown is pregnant with Macheath's baby.

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Answer

False.

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True or false: Ginny Jenny never sings.

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Answer

False.

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Which of these is NOT one of the main themes in The Threepenny Opera?

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Answer

The Royal family 

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When is The Life of Galileo set?

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Answer

Renaissance Italy

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What is one of the main themes in The Life of Galileo?

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Answer

Progress vs Tradition

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True or False: By exploring the censorship on free thought and speech imposed by the Inquisition, Brecht alludes to the censorship in his own time and country. 

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True.

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True or False: The protagonsit of the play is based on a real historical figure.

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True.

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True or False: Galileo's daughter, Virginia, carries on his legacy.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: Galileo's housekeeper, Mrs. Sarti, leaves him when the plague breaks out in Florence.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: Although he hires Galileo as a tutor, Ludovico doesn't approve of Galileo's teachings because they go against the established norms of the Church.

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True.

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Which character becomes Pope Urban VIII?

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Answer

Cardinal Barberini

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When did the second edition of The Life of Galileo come out?

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1947

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True or False: Galileo is not religious at all.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: Galileo invents the telescope.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: Galileo's struggle against the Church is an allusion to Brecht's struggle against Capitalism.

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Answer

True.

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Who composed the music for The Life of Galileo?

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Answer

Hans Eisler 

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Who translated John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) to German?

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Answer

Elisabeth Hauptmann

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True or False: The Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin commissioned the first production of The Threepenny Opera.

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Answer

True.

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True or False: The Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay is a ballad opera.

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Answer

True.

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True or False: The Beggar's Opera (1728) is set in Victorian London.

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Answer

False.

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Both John Gay and Bertolt Brecht ridiculed and criticised...?


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Answer

The upper classes

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Question

How many ballads by François Villon did Brecht add to The Threepenny Opera?

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Answer

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True or False: Songs in The Threepenny Opera are used to break the fourth wall.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or False: The Threepenny Opera was NOT Brecht's first play to incorporate his Epic theatre concept. 

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which of these is an example of a V effect (Alienation effect) technique?

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Answer

Actors stepping out of their characters and presenting the story of another character.

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