Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsberg, Bavaria, a region in Southern Germany. Throughout his youth, Brecht had an interest in medicine, and studied to be a physician at the University of Munich. When Brecht was sixteen, the First World War broke out, and, when he came of age, Brecht enlisted and served as an army medic.
Brecht’s experiences during the war instilled in him a powerful distaste for capitalism and an anti-bourgeois attitude which became prevalent among his generation in the years following World War I. Brecht, then a young man living in Berlin, was exposed to Communism, Marxism, Dadaism and satire, and gradually developed his artistic voice under these influences. His first play, Baal, was a modest success. However, his second work, Drums In The Night, concerning a woman who is widowed in the War and who is pressured into marrying a war profiteer by her parents, won the Kleist Literary Prize and was subsequently performed all over Germany. Shortly after this success, Brecht partnered with German-born American composer Kurt Weill to write The Threepenny Opera, a piece of “Epic Theatre,” which Brecht imagined as a perfect melding of theatre, music and dance.
Drums In The Night was Brecht’s earliest experiment in the style of theatre that he would later become famous for: Expressionism. This highly aesthetic style was developed during the modernist movement, in direct response to the events of the First World War. Brecht’s Expressionist works are deeply interested in social issues, class struggle, and the failures of capitalism. Brecht also became known for his Lehr-stücke (“learning plays”). These short plays were modeled after the didactic theatre of the early Christian church, but their content was secular in nature, and designed to inform audiences about the social issues of the day.
Despite the popularity of his works, in 1933 Brecht was expatriated from Germany for his Marxist political views. During his exile - which he spent partly in Scandinavia, partly in Denmark, and finally in the United States - Brecht wrote some of his most influential plays: Mother Courage and her Children, The Good Person of Szechuan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
In 1947, Brecht was forced to leave the United States, again due to his Communist politics. He went to Zürich, and while there produced one of his most important theoretical writings, Kleines Organon für das Theater. In this essay, Brecht described his Verfremdungseffekt (In English called the “Alienation effect” or “V-Effect”). The Verfremdungseffekt rejects the Aristotelian rules of drama, which call for the audience to believe that the action on stage is actually happening in order to experience catharsis, and instead suggests that dramatists should force the audience to view action on stage objectively, so that they can criticize, question and learn from the events of the play. In this way, Brecht purported that theatre could be used as a tool for social change.
In 1949, Brecht was finally allowed to return to Germany, and formed his company The Berliner Ensemble. For the remainder of his career, he focused on the direction and presentation of his own works, while accumulating both infamy and accolades. He died of heart attack in Berlin in 1956.
More about Bertolt Brecht