Bertolt Brecht, 1898 – 1956
Brecht was born in Augsburg into a middle-class family. At school he became friends with Caspar Neher, who later designed many of the sets for Brecht’s dramas. He studied drama at Munich university and was influenced by Franz Wedekind and also the work of the Munich comic artist, Karl Valentin, who performed in beer halls.
He began writing his own plays, Baal (1918)and Drums in the Night (1919), of which the critic Herbert Ihering wrote:
“At 24 the writer Bert Brecht has changed Germany’s literary complexion overnight… he has given our time a new tone, a new melody, a new vision…It is a language you can feel on your tongue, in your gums, your ear, your spinal column.”
George Grosz later recalled:
“Brecht was interested in English writers and Chinese philosophers. He read Swift, Butler and Wells, and also Kipling. He dressed like nobody else in the circle, and looked like some kind of engineer or car mechanic, always wearing a thin leather tie – without oil stains, of course. Instead of the usual sort of waistcoat, he wore one with long sleeves; the cut of all his suits were baggy and somewhat American, with padded shoulders and wedge-shaped trousers. Without his monkish face and the hair combed down on his forehead he might have been mistaken for a cross between a German chauffeur and a Russian commissar.”
He worked with the composer Kurt Weill to produce The Little Mahagonny and then The Threepenny Opera (1928). Based on C18th Beggars Opera by the English composer John Gay, this was an enormous success and continues to be performed to-day. They followed it with another hit, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930). Brecht worked on a script for a film about mass unemployment Kuhle Wampe (1932), which was directed by Slatan Dudow and had a score by Hanns Eisler.
In 1933 Brecht was forced to leave Nazi Germany and eventually settled in the United States. He continued to write, his work including Life of Galileo (1939), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Man of Szechuan (1941), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) and the Caucausian Chalk Circle (1943). He also wrote the script for a Fritz Lang film, Hangmen Also Die! Hanns Eisler wrote the music.
In October 1947 he was called before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee and then left the USA for Switzerland. In 1949 he went to live in East Germany, where he formed the Berlinner Ensemble theatre company whose dramatic methods were very influential as a result of their tours abroad. He wrote only one more play. The Days of the Commune (1949)
In 1953, after a day of public protest, which was repressed by the East Government Brecht commented in a poem:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer’s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Brecht died on 14 August 1956.