Born 108 years ago this February in Bavaria, Bertolt Brecht studied medicine before working in an army hospital during World War I, where he saw the butchery of war in person. His first poems were published and his first plays produced in the early 1920s.
By 1924 he was becoming a central figure in Berlin theatre, in a particularly frenzied and creative period in Europe and specifically in Germany under the Weimar Republic. Among the intellectual and political currents swirling around him were Dada, Futurism and Marxism, as well as the slowly growing influences of Nazism. It was then he began writing his theoretical essays, and developed his “epic theatre” style, with its use of music, titles and screens. Brecht collaborated with musical composer Kurt Weill in 1928 for his most famous play, The Threepenny Opera.
As a poet he was said to be influenced by Rimbaud, Villion and Kipling, and as a playwright by Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. Asian mask theatre as well as Bavarian folk plays and fairground entertainments are also mentioned in analyses of his work. By the early 1930s, Brecht’s anti-bourgeois and anti-Fascist politics led him to the Communist Party, and exile from Hitler’s Germany. He escaped first to Scandinavia, where in a feverish few weeks, he wrote what many consider his greatest play, Mother Courage and Her Children.
As the Nazis advanced across Europe. Brecht fled to America in 1941, thanks to the support of a large expatriate German colony in Hollywood (including actor Peter Lorre, who’d worked with Brecht in Berlin) and the sponsorship of Luise Rainer, star of The Good Earth, even though they’d never met.
But when they did take a walk on the beach together, Brecht asked her what kind of a story she would like him to write for her. Rainer suggested he try a story using the “chalk circle”—a kind of King Solomon method for deciding a child’s true mother, apparently from China. Brecht agreed, and eventually wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle while living in Santa Monica.
Brecht wasn’t very successful in his attempts to write for Hollywood, and though like many other European exiles he felt creatively, culturally and intellectually stifled and alienated there, he did absorb aspects of American culture. He also wasn’t successful in staging plays in America--The Caucasian Chalk Circle was meant for Broadway. But he did meet a young professor teaching in Los Angeles named Eric Bentley, who would become his chief champion in America for the next half century, and with whom he would collaborate.
Brecht had been a Communist since the 1930s, and he returned to Europe the day following his questioning before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Eric Bentley believes it was only due to bureaucratic bungling that Brecht ended up in East Germany rather than West Germany in 1947.
It was in Berlin in 1949 that Mother Courage and Her Children finally had its official premiere, with Brecht directing, and his wife, the actor and director Helene Weigel playing the lead. It was the production and the performance that influenced and outshone all subsequent stagings in Europe and in America.
Though Brecht has long been considered one of the 20th century’s most influential playwrights, in America his plays were not done often, nor very successfully, at least until recent years. There is very little on film that is readily available. Apart from Cold War politics, much of the problem seems to be due to confusion about how to stage his plays, according to his own theories and pronouncements. According to Bentley, Brecht (who died in 1956) could be doctrinaire about staging, and his acolytes even more insistent on purity.
But at other times, even Brecht relented, when it became clear that the theories were getting in the way of the plays. While directors continue to worry if their productions are sufficiently “epic,” and actors wonder how best to create “alienation” in the audience, Brecht is said to have kept this motto above his writing desk: “Simpler, with more laughter.” This may be the moment his plays can be seen for themselves, without the baggage.