In This Article Bertolt Brecht

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Archival Resources
  • Journals
  • Organizations and Reference Resources
  • Audiovisual Media
  • Biographies
  • Critical Studies on Poetry
  • Critical Studies on Prose
  • Brecht and Music
  • Brecht and Marxism
  • Brecht’s Women Collaborators
  • Thematic Approaches
  • Brecht in the Anglophone World
  • Global Brecht Reception

Literary and Critical Theory Bertolt Brecht
by
Marc Silberman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0076

Introduction

Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht (b. 10 February 1898–d. 14 August 1956) was christened Berthold, but he was known professionally as Bertolt or Bert Brecht. Regarded as the most important German-language dramatist of the 20th century, he counts also among the most frequently staged non-English-language playwrights in the Anglophone world. In addition, the new performance style he articulated in his writings on theater practice, dramaturgy, and actor training has been influential around the world among directors and teachers who explore the role of politics on stage. Less known in the Anglophone world is Brecht’s status as a major lyric poet and author of numerous prose works, including anecdotes, short stories, dialogues, and novels. Born in the southern German city of Augsburg, he was the elder of two brothers in a solidly middle-class family. Already as an adolescent he suffered from nervousness and cardiac problems, later contracting serious bladder infections that probably contributed to his heart failure at the age of fifty-eight. Brecht’s writing career began as a teenager when he helped to edit and author his school newspaper Die Ernte (The Harvest) and contributed articles to local and regional newspapers. After completing his schooling in 1917, he was called up for the draft, but because of health problems he was deferred from military conscription. Instead he matriculated at the university in Munich. In October 1918, just before the war ended, Brecht was drafted as a medical orderly and served briefly at a military hospital in Augsburg. Returning to Munich in early 1919, he moved in Bohemian circles, penning his first poems and anti-expressionist plays. In 1921 the university expelled him for non-attendance, and after winning the prestigious Kleist Prize for his early plays, he moved to Berlin in 1924, the hub of innovative German theater. The surprise success in fall 1928 of The Threepenny Opera (with music by Kurt Weill) launched Brecht’s international reputation, and in the context of increasing political polarization in the Weimar Republic he identified more and more with Marxism and labor union activism. After the Reichstag fire in February 1933, he abruptly fled Germany, settling finally in Denmark with his family. Meanwhile his books were burned in May 1933 and his plays were banned from the German stage. With the beginning of the war in 1939 and the rapid Nazi occupation of European countries, Brecht was forced to move to Sweden, then Finland, and finally reached Los Angeles after crossing through the Soviet Union with his family in July 1941. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in October 1947 under suspicion of communist sympathies, Brecht—who had never been a member of any communist party—left for Switzerland immediately after testifying. In late 1948 he settled in East Berlin, where officials offered him his own theater, the Berliner Ensemble, under the management of his wife Helene Weigel. Brecht is buried in the graveyard next to the apartment building where he and Weigel lived during his last years. Today the building, known as the Brecht-Haus, is home to both the Brecht Archive and the Brecht-Weigel Memorial in their apartments.

General Works

Brecht was a prolific writer and innovative modernist thinker committed to collaborative artistic practices, which he coordinated throughout his life. In his short fifty-eight years, he wrote forty extraordinary plays, created an exemplary body of some two thousand poems and songs, and authored numerous essays on art and politics, in addition to his diaries and journals, media analysis, extensive correspondence, film scripts, and countless notes and sketches for unfinished projects. The reception of Brecht’s promising creative work in the Weimar Republic was fatefully interrupted during the Third Reich (1933–1945), and after his death in 1956 the Cold War divide that sundered Germany also split the reception of his works along ideological lines that created blinders and filters on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Moreover, the “export” of his ideas and texts internationally was dependent not only on the quality and timeliness of translations, but also on the national contexts in which he was read or staged, so that in the Anglophone world, for example, theaters in the United States were much less enthusiastic than those in the United Kingdom. Similarly tensions between theater practitioners and academic or scholarly critics inside and outside the German-language cultural sphere, both in the East and West, contribute to the image of this iconoclastic artist. Divided into General Works (English) and General Works (German) the selected secondary sources provide an overview of distinct developments in Anglophone and German-language research.

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