Remembering Bertolt Brecht.
Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright and a theatre director.
A theatre practitioner of the 20th century, Brecht made contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production, the latter through the tours undertaken by the Berliner Ensemble – the post-war theatre company operated by Brecht and his wife, long-time collaborator and actress Helene Weigel.
Theory and practice of Theatre:
From his late twenties Brecht remained a lifelong committed Marxist who, in developing the combined theory and practice of his “epic theatre”, synthesized and extended the experiments of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold to explore the theatre as a forum for political ideas and the creation of a critical aesthetics of dialectical materialism.
Epic Theatre proposed that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage.
Brecht thought that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation and to be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change in the world outside.
For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was equally constructed and, as such, was changeable.
Brecht’s modernist concern with drama-as-a-medium led to his refinement of the “epic form” of the drama. This dramatic form is related to similar modernist innovations in other arts, including the strategy of divergent chapters in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Sergei Eisenstein’s evolution of a constructivist “montage” in the cinema, and Picasso’s introduction of cubist “collage” in the visual arts.
One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”).
This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”.
To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.
In contrast to many other avant-garde approaches, however, Brecht had no desire to destroy art as an institution; rather, he hoped to “re-function” the theatre to a new social use.
In this regard he was a vital participant in the aesthetic debates of his era—particularly over the “high art/popular culture” dichotomy—vying with the likes of Adorno, Lukács, Ernst Bloch, and developing a close friendship with Benjamin. Brechtian theatre articulated popular themes and forms with avant-garde formal experimentation to create a modernist realism that stood in sharp contrast both to its psychological and socialist varieties. “Brecht’s work is the most important and original in European drama since Ibsen and Strindberg,” Raymond Williams argues, while Peter Bürger dubs him “the most important materialist writer of our time.”
Brecht was also influenced by Chinese theatre, and used its aesthetic as an argument for Verfremdungseffekt. Brecht believed, “Traditional Chinese acting also knows the alienation [sic] effect, and applies it most subtly…
The [Chinese] performer portrays incidents of utmost passion, but without his delivery becoming heated.” Brecht attended a Chinese opera performance and was introduced to the famous Chinese opera performer Mei LanFang in 1935.
However, Brecht was sure to distinguish between Epic and Chinese theatre. He recognized that the Chinese style was not a “transportable piece of technique,” and that Epic theatre sought to historicize and address social and political issues.
Brecht left the Berliner Ensemble to his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, which she ran until her death in 1971. Perhaps the most famous German touring theatre of the postwar era, it was primarily devoted to performing Brecht’s plays.
His son, Stefan Brecht, became a poet and theatre critic interested in New York’s avant-garde theatre. Brecht has been a controversial figure in Germany, and in his native city of Augsburg there were objections to creating a birthplace museum. By the 1970s, however, Brecht’s plays had surpassed Shakespeare’s in the number of annual performances in Germany.
There are few areas of modern theatrical culture that have not felt the impact or influence of Brecht’s ideas and practices; dramatists and directors in whom one may trace a clear Brechtian legacy include: Dario Fo, Augusto Boal, Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook, Peter Weiss, Heiner Müller, Pina Bausch, Tony Kushner, Robert Bolt and Caryl Churchill.
In addition to the theatre, Brechtian theories and techniques have exerted considerable sway over certain strands of film theory and cinematic practice; Brecht’s influence may be detected in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Lindsay Anderson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Joseph Losey, Nagisa Oshima, Ritwik Ghatak, Lars von Trier, Jan Bucquoy and Hal Hartley.
While made famous by his many plays, Bertolt Brecht also wrote hundreds of poems throughout his life.
Brecht began writing poetry as a young boy, and his first poems were published in 1914.
Brecht’s most influential poetry is featured in his Manual of Piety (Devotions), establishing him as a great poet.
His poetry was influenced by folk-ballads, French chansons, and the poetry of Rimbaud and Villon. Throughout his theatric production, poems are incorporated into the plays with music. In 1951, Brecht issued a recantation of his apparent suppression of poetry in his plays with a note titled On Poetry and Virtuosity.
Brecht died on 14 August 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 58. He is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery on Chausseestraße in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin, overlooked by the residence he shared with Helene Weigel.
“Modern Book Printing” from the Walk of Ideas in Berlin, Germany – built in 2006 to commemorate Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, c. 1445, of movable printing type.
Some interesting trivia:
In the Günter Grass play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising (1966), Brecht appears as “The Boss”, rehearsing his version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus against the background of worker unrest in Berlin in 1953.
Remembering Bertolt Brecht.