Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) dramatist,playwright Bertold Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany. His father was an administrator of a paper company. Brecht began writing while he was very young and published a few poems at the age of 16. In school, he developed a reputation as a hooligan and a troublemaker. Despite the constant disciplinary problems, he graduated from school and entered the University of Munich in 1917 to study medicine. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak ofWorld War I, and Brecht enlisted in the German army as a medical orderly. After the war, Brecht briefly resumed his studies but eventually abandoned them to pursue a writing career. In 1919, Brecht joined the Independent Social Democratic Party and began his lifelong association with communism. Starting in 1920, he began to work as a dramatist and playwright at various theaters throughout Germany. Although his early plays were not directly engaged with politics, Brecht often mocked the conventions of bourgeois sensibility and lifestyle. His political engagement, his indictment of capitalism, and his epic style established Brecht as one of the most radical playwrights in Germany. After Brecht officially joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1929, his works assumed an even more radical stance and directly addressed important political issues. Brecht’s affiliation with the Communist Party made him an unpopular figure with government censors and other officials. Many of Brecht’s works were banned in Germany even in the years before Hitler came to power. The political atmosphere in Germany became dangerous for Brecht during the 1930s because of the rise of the Nazis, who were opposed to communism. His works were banned throughout the country, and he was forced into exile. Brecht lived in Denmark, Finland, Russia, and finally the United States.While living in the United States, Brecht tried to write screenplays for the movies, but he had difficulty getting his work accepted. He also found the atmosphere in Hollywood intellectually stifling. In 1947, Brecht was investigated by the anti-Communist congressional Committee on Un-American Activities. Although the committee did not establish any definitive charges against Brecht, his reputation was damaged and he could no longer produce any work in the United States. In 1948, Brecht returned to Germany, settling in Communist East Germany. Brecht founded his own Marxist theater in East Berlin, where many of his plays were produced. Brecht also experimented with many theatrical conventions, such as lighting, sound, and set. Brecht’s reputation spread beyond the borders of Germany, and he became an internationally renowned dramatist. In 1955, he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize, the highest recognition in the Soviet Union, for his contribution to drama. Brecht’s drama reflects his view that theater should provide a forum for social and political change, rather than serve a purely aesthetic function geared toward entertainment. Brecht formulated a new style of acting based on the “alienation effect.” He wanted his audience to become objective spectators by disassociating themselves from the characters of the play. Moreover, Brecht argued that actors should disassociate themselves from the characters they portray. Instead of creating an illusion of reality, Brecht wanted his audience to understand that the play is not a reality but a forum for social debate. Brecht believed his style of production would make the political lesson more apparent to the masses. Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), one of Brecht’s most famous historical plays, set during the Thirty Years’War, presents a series of conflicts that occurred between Catholics and Protestants in central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Mother Courage is a woman who depends on the continuation of the war for her economic survival. She is nicknamed Mother Courage for courageously protecting her merchandise under enemy fire. She has three children who die in the war, one by one. Yet, she continues her career as a war profiteer. Staged in East Berlin, the play attracted instant critical attention for its controversial portrayal of war and its dehumanizing effects on people. The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948), an adaptation of a medieval Chinese play based on the parable of the chalk circle, centers on a land dispute in a small commune in the Soviet Union after World War II. The main action revolves around the conflict of two women over a child. It is similar to the biblical tale of King Solomon who must resolve a dispute between two women, both of whom claim to be the mother of a child. The play was warmly greeted by audiences and received international recognition. Among Brecht’s most famous plays was The Threepenny Opera (1928). This adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera presents a universe of beggars, thieves, and prostitutes, a world bereft of honor or trust. Kurt Weill’s inventive score adds to the experience of this brittle world, an allegory of Germany’s Weimar Republic, the period before Hitler took power. The popular song “Mack the Knife” is from this play. The Good Woman of Setzuan (1940) tells the tale of three gods who are in search of a truly good person. Their choice is Shen Te, a prostitute. They give her money to start a new life, but she finds that a truly good person cannot survive, so she creates a nasty alter ego, her “cousin” Shu Tai. Galileo (1939) deals with the historical figure of the famous astronomer, Galileo, who discovers that Earth is not the center of the universe.He holds his findings for eight years but finally reveals them to the pope. The pope subjects Galileo to the Inquisition, and Galileo recants his theory. The play dealt with many political and social issues. The freedom of the individual is juxtaposed against oppressive society, which is dominated by the religious leaders who are not interested in scientific truth because it threatens to overturn their supremacy. Brecht is also among the finest poets of the 20th century, a talent overshadowed somewhat by his success as a playwright. Brecht published more than 1,500 poems that span more than 30 years, including both world wars. Brecht’s poetry combines lyricism with an epic and Marxist view of society and history. In the poem “1940,” for example the speaker says that his young son asks him why he should learn mathematics, French, or history, and the speaker wonders why indeed when “two pieces of bread are more than one’s about all you’ll end up with” and language is unnecessary to convey hunger—a groan will do—and history does not teach us how to survive. Still he tells his son, with false optimism, to study. Bertolt Brecht is considered to be among the most influential writers of the 20th century. His theoretical works changed the face of the modern theater, and his emphasis on social responsibility of the individual inspired many playwrights to write works of social significance.
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