Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt BrechtA poet first and foremost, Bertolt Brecht's genius was for language. However, because this language is built upon a certain bold and direct simplicity, his plays often lose something in the translation from his native German. Nevertheless, they contain a rare poetic vision, a voice that has rarely been paralleled in the 20th century.

Brecht was influenced by a wide variety of sources including Chinese, Japanese, and Indian theatre, the Elizabethans (especially Shakespeare), Greek tragedy, Büchner, Wedekind, fair-ground entertainments, the Bavarian folk play, and many more. Such a wide variety of sources might have proven overwhelming for a lesser artist, but Brecht had the uncanny ability to take elements from seemingly incompatible sources, combine them, and make them his own.

In his early plays, Brecht experimented with dada and expressionism, but in his later work, he developed a style more suited his own unique vision. He detested the "Aristotelian" drama and its attempts to lure the spectator into a kind of trance-like state, a total identification with the hero to the point of complete self-oblivion, resulting in feelings of terror and pity and, ultimately, an emotional catharsis. He didn't want his audience to feel emotions--he wanted them to think--and towards this end, he determined to destroy the theatrical illusion, and, thus, that dull trance-like state he so despised.

The result of Brecht's research was a technique known as "verfremdungseffekt" or the "alienation effect". It was designed to encourage the audience to retain their critical detachment. His theories resulted in a number of "epic" dramas, among them Mother Courage and Her Children which tells the story of a travelling merchant who earns her living by following the Swedish and Imperial armies with her covered wagon and selling them supplies: clothing, food, brandy, etc... As the war grows heated, Mother Courage finds that this profession has put her and her children in danger, but the old woman doggedly refuses to give up her wagon. Mother Courage and Her Children was both a triumph and a failure for Brecht. Although the play was a great success, he never managed to achieve in his audience the unemotional, analytical response he desired. Audiences never fail to be moved by the plight of the stubborn old woman.

In Galileo, Brecht paints a portrait of a passionate and tortured man. Galileo has discovered that the earth is not the center of the universe, but even though the Pope's own astronomer has confirmed this earth-shaking revelation, the Inquisition has forbidden him to publish his findings. For eight years, Galileo holds his tongue. Finally, a new pope known for his enlightenment ascends to the Papacy, and Galileo sees his chance. But the Grand Inquisitor is lurking in the background, plotting to destroy the great astronomer's work.

Brecht would go on to write a number of modern masterpieces including The Good Person of Szechwan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In the end, Brecht's audience stubbornly went on being moved to terror and pity. However, his experiments were not a failure. His dramatic theories have spread across the globe, and he left behind a group of dedicated disciples known today as "Brechtians" who continue to propagate his teachings. At the time of his death, Brecht was planning a play in response to Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot.

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Related Sites

German Theatre Index

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