Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in the medieval city of Augsburg, part of the Bavarian section of the German Empire. Married in 1897, his father was a Catholic and his mother a Protestant. Brecht was their first child, baptized as Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht. His father, Bertolt Friedrich Brecht, worked in a paper factory. His mother, Wilhelmine Friederike Sophie Brezing, was ill with breast cancer most of his young life. He had one brother, Walter, who was born in 1900.
Brecht was a sickly child, having a congenital heart condition and a facial tic. As a result, he was sent to a sanitarium to relax. At age six he attended a Protestant elementary school (Volksschule) and at age ten a private school, The Royal Bavarian Realgymnasium (Koeniglich-Bayerisches Realgymnasium). Like most students, he was educated in Latin and the humanities, later being exposed to Nietzsche and other thinkers. He suffered a heart attack at the age of twelve but soon recovered and continued his education.
Significantly, Brecht was exposed at a young age to Luther's German translation of the Bible, a text considered instrumental in the development of the modern German language. Quotes from and references to the Bible abound throughout Brecht's work and can be found most particularly in Mother Courage and Her Children in the mouth of the chaplain.
While in school he began writing, and he ended up co-founding and co-editing a school magazine called The Harvest. By age sixteen, he was writing for a local newspaper and had written his first play, The Bible, about a girl who must choose between living and dying but saving many others. He was later almost expelled at age eighteen for dissenting about it being necessary to defend his country in time of war. By nineteen, he had left school and started doing clerical work for the war, prevented from more active duty due to health problems.
In 1917, he resumed his education, this time attending Ludwig Maximilian Universitaet in Munich, where he matriculated as a medical student. By this time, his mother was heavily drugged with morphine because of her progressing cancer. He started to write Baal at this time, a play concerned with suffering caused by excessive sexual pleasures. It sensationally depicted what were considered immoral attitudes at the time.
Brecht's own sex life is fascinating in many ways. He is thought to have had no fewer than three mistresses at any time throughout his adult life. When he was a child, the family's second servant, Marie Miller, would hide objects in her undergarments for Brecht and his brother to find. Through Brecht's poetry, we understand that his mother used to smell his clothes to determine the extent of his sexual activities. By the age of sixteen, he began to frequent a brothel as part of a conscientious effort to broaden his experiences. Between sixteen and twenty, he apparently pursued eight girls simultaneously, including Paula Banholzer, the woman who gave birth to his illegitimate child in 1919. He is known to have experimented with homosexuality, often inviting literary and musically inclined male friends to his room on weekends in order for them to read erotic compositions. His diaries, although vague, mention his need for both males and females to fulfill his sexual desires. Brecht's desire for experience was, throughout his life, all-consuming.
In 1921, he took his second trip to Berlin and attended the rehearsals of Max Reinhardt and other major directors. In 1922, his play Drums in the Night opened in Munich at the Kammerspiele and later at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. He received the prestigious Kleist prize for young dramatists as a result. Brecht also entered into his first committed relationship, his marriage with the opera singer Marianne Zoff, at the age of twenty-four. Their daughter Hanne was born the following year. Despite being married, Brecht had extramarital affairs and spent very little time with his wife or daughter. In 1923, his two plays Jungle of Cities and Baal were performed.
After moving to Berlin in 1924, he met a communist Viennese actress, Helene Weigel. His wife Marianne moved in with her parents after the birth of Hanne, and soon she stopped responding to Brecht's letters. At age twenty-six Brecht fathered his second illegitimate child, with Weigel. Their son was named Stefan. Brecht divorced Marianne Zoff and in 1929 married Helene Weigel. At this point, he was just thirty-one.
Helene Weigel gave birth to their second child, Barbara, in 1930. During this time, Brecht was by no means monogamous. He was obsessed with the idea of abandonment, and as a result, he abhorred ending relationships. The women in his life were important for his writing career, and modern feminist detractors often try to claim that his mistresses in fact wrote much of what was accredited to him. The allegation is largely untrue, but women such as Elisabeth Hauptmann did write significant parts of The Threepenny Opera. In addition, other mistresses included Margarete Steffin, who helped him write The Good Woman of Setzuan and Mother Courage and Her Children; Hella Wuolijoki, who allowed him to transform her comedy The Sawdust Princess into Herr Puntila and His Man Matti; and Ruth Berlau, who bore him a short-lived, third illegitimate child in 1944. Weigel was tolerant of his affairs, and she even warned other men to stay away from his mistresses because it upset him when they made their moves.
Brecht's writings show the profound influence of many varied sources during this time and the remaining years of his life. He studied Chinese, Japanese, and Indian theatre, focused heavily on Shakespeare (adapting, among other plays, Shakespeare's Coriolanus) and other Elizabethans, and was fascinated by Greek tragedy. He found inspiration in other German playwrights, notably Buchner and Wedekind, and he enjoyed the Bavarian folk play. Mother Courage and Her Children arguably owes much to Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy. Brecht had a phenomenal ability to take elements from these seemingly incompatible sources, combine them, and convert them into his own works.
In 1933, Brecht took his family and fled to Zurich after the burning of the Reichstag, later moving around the world to escape Nazi rule. In October 1947, during the McCarthy years, Brecht was called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Although not an official member of America's Communist party, Brecht left the United States for Switzerland the next day. He soon reunited with Helene Weigel, and they traveled to East Berlin in 1948 and set up the Berliner Ensemble with full support from the Communist regime. Mother Courage and Her Children was the Berliner Ensemble's inaugural production. In 1950, Brecht and Weigel were granted Austrian citizenship.
Brecht's four great plays were written between 1938 and 1945. These included, for one, The Life of Galileo, which followed history slavishly. It dealt with the protagonist's self-hatred for giving up his convictions in the face of the Inquisition. The others were Mother Courage and Her Children; The Good Woman of Setzuan, which in some ways follows from Mother Courage in examining the compatibility of virtue and a capitalist world; and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which introduces questions about power and who is entitled to own things. After this period, Brecht worked on his famous adaptation of Antigone and spent much of his energy recording his theoretical ideas.
Brecht experimented with Dadaism and expressionism in his early plays, but he soon developed a unique style that suited his own vision. He detested "Aristotelian" drama and the manner in which it (at least from his point of view) made the audience identify with the hero without enough analysis of the hero's flaws. To him, when such drama produced feelings of terror and pity and led to an emotional catharsis, the process prevented audience members from thinking. (It is the ancient quarrel between philosophers and poets once again, with another thinker trying to reform poetry.) Determined to destroy what he considered theatrical illusions, Brecht made his dreams into realities when he took over the Berliner Ensemble. In one of his early productions, he famously put up signs which said, "Glotzt nicht so romantisch!" (“Don't stare so romantically!”). For further information, see About Epic Theatre in the ClassicNote on Mother Courage and Her Children.
Brecht received the National Prize, first class, in 1951. In 1954, he won the international Lenin Peace Prize. Brecht died of a heart attack on August 14, 1956, while working on a response to Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting for Godot, written the year before. Even at the end, Brecht was very much interested in the modern drama of the day. He provided instructions that a stiletto be placed in his heart and that he be buried in a steel coffin so that his corpse would not be riddled with worms. He also left a will giving the proceeds of his various works to particular mistresses, including Elisabeth Hauptmann and Ruth Berlau. Unfortunately, the will lacked the necessary witness signatures and was therefore considered void. His widow, Helene Weigel, generously gave small amounts of money to the specified women. Brecht is buried in the Dorotheenfriedhof in Berlin.
Although primarily known for his dramas and theoretical writings, Bertolt Brecht also wrote many short stories which have been unjustly neglected. He began writing stories while still at school and experimented with this genre all of his life. In 1928, he won first prize for “The Beast” in the Berliner Illustrierte short-story competition. Brecht’s early stories are nihilistic, often with exotic settings and scoundrels as protagonists. The later stories criticize society and expose social injustice; the protagonists are either ordinary people or great historical figures whom Brecht cuts down to size.
Brecht theorized less about the short story than he did about the drama, but he did make important contributions to the short-story form, and his stories show a stylistic mastery of the genre. In his later stories, he uses alienation effects to ensure that the reader does not identify with the protagonists. In “On Reading Books” in Me-ti: Buch der Wendungen (me-ti: book of twists and turns), Brecht criticizes fiction that makes the reader forget the real world and become engrossed in the work. The reader, he believed, should not be caught up in the action but should view each event in the plot critically and differentiate between appearances and facts. Books should be read so that they can be put aside from time to time for reflection. For this reason, Brecht praises the detective story since it is constructed logically and demands logical thought from the reader. Such a form is scientific, in Brecht’s view: It presents readers with facts and problems to be solved and it challenges them to think, question, and learn—the goals of all Brecht’s later works.
“The Beast” is an example of how Brecht uses elements from the detective story to provoke his reader to think and observe facts, rather than be misled by appearances. The story’s opening sentence states that a person’s behavior is ambiguous and that this story, which has something shocking about it, will demonstrate this idea. Brecht, therefore, gives the reader clues at the outset as to how the story should be interpreted. At the beginning, a down-and-out old man comes to a film studio where a film about pogroms in southern Russia is being made. Because he looks like the historical governor Muratow, who incited the pogroms, he is hired and plays a scene in which Muratow receives a delegation of Jews coming to beg him to end the murders. The director criticizes the old man for playing the role like a petty official rather than like a beast, yet two Jews who were part of the real delegation are impressed because the old man’s acting corresponds to what actually took place. The director, however, refuses to believe the two eyewitnesses because they cannot recall a habit the historical Muratow had, which was, according to the director, constantly eating apples. After trying the scene again unsuccessfully, the old man is replaced by a real actor. Before leaving, however, he suggests sadistically that, instead of Muratow eating an apple, the leader of the Jews should be forced to eat one, which will stick in his throat from fear upon seeing Muratow signing the Jews’ death warrant. The suggestion is immediately accepted, and the story ends with the actor plying his role to the hilt. Similarity to the historical Muratow is clearly insufficient; art is needed to portray real bestiality. At the close, it turns out that the old man really is Muratow, which the reader should have guessed since the story can be shocking only if this is the case.
One major theme presented in this story is that of role playing. At first the old man appears to be a shy, lonely outsider with whom one should sympathize. Gradually Brecht peels away this mask, exposing the cruelty beneath, seen particularly in the suggestion about the apples which shows that the old man, far from feeling remorse for his deeds, is just as cruel as ever. More important is Brecht’s attitude toward art and reality. Brecht shows ironically how art distorts reality; as the scene is rehearsed, it moves further and further away from the real historical event and becomes more dramatic and emotional. This is precisely the kind of art which Brecht criticized in his theoretical writings. Art should appeal to reason, he believed, yet the public prefers art that captivates the emotions, and this is the art that sells.
The next stories are taken from Tales from the Calendar, which are counted among Brecht’s best and are the ones which he himself prized most highly. He was greatly influenced here by almanacs, which were widely read by the lower classes and whose stories combined popular appeal with practical moral lessons. Brecht learned from Johann Peter Hebel, who wrote for almanacs, but whereas the usual almanac story tended to teach people to be satisfied with their fate, Brecht gives his stories a radical political purpose; his goal is to unmask corruption and make people indignant at social injustice.
“Caesar and His Legionnaire”
“Caesar and His Legionnaire,” an offshoot of Brecht’s Caesar novel, uses history as an alienation effect. In his depiction of Roman society, Brecht gives the reader a yardstick by which to measure contemporary society, thus forcing the reader into a critical stance. The story’s tone is dry and unemotional, and Brecht demythologizes Caesar by showing his death from a dual perspective. The first part of the story describes the last days of Caesar’s life from his own perspective. Although he is at the height of his power, Caesar knows that his days are numbered. In an unsuccessful attempt to save his dictatorship, he tries to introduce democracy, but the people are too suspicious and fearful of him for it to succeed. He knows from a dream that he will be killed, but he is resigned to his death and goes to the senate, where the conspirators fall upon him—a laconic description of one of the most famous assassinations in history. Caesar is portrayed not as a great tragic figure but rather as a ruthless dictator, one who has put many people in prison and who has...
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