A few moments after he found himself on the stage amid the garish gas and the dim scenery, acting before the innumerable faces of the void. It surprised him to see that the play which he had known at rehearsals for a disjointed lifeless thing had suddenly assumed a life of its own. It seemed now to play itself, he and his fellow actors aiding it with their parts. When the curtain fell on the last scene he heard the void filled with applause and, through a rift in the side scene, saw the simple body before which he had acted magically deformed, the void of faces breaking at all points and falling asunder into busy groups.
James Joyce - Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A Brief Biography
Brecht was born in 1898 into a world of conflict and contradictions. By the time he was 16 the First World War had broken out, which soon consumed even the small German town of Augsburg in which he lived with all its ferocity and accounted for the deaths of a number of his school friends. Financial, political and personal instability were a way of life and would remain so for Brecht until his death in 1956.
Born Berthold Brecht, he changed his name to Bertolt (Bert for short), as he wanted to be identified with the heroes of American literature he so greatly admired; throughout his life and even after his death, his life, Helene Weigel would only call him Brecht.
During the war he managed to be posted as a medical orderly to his hometown, so lived with his stable, middle-class family and escaped the real horrors of the trenches. His work, however, exposed him to the sight of terribly wounded soldiers and all his life he never forgot the stench of death, brought about by the futility of war. After this experience he felt ready to escape his provincial background, first with visits to Munich to find work in the theatre and soon after that to Berlin, where he settled on a more or less permanent basis.
He had the extraordinary knack of making friendships very easily: men and women were instantly attracted to him, despite his apparently unwashed state and the habit of having a lit cigar between his lips at all times. As a contemporary remarked, "With his flapping leather jacket he looked like a cross between a lorry driver and a Jesuit seminarist."
His writing commenced at an early age, including poems, plays, stories, newspaper articles and theatre criticism. He made a habit of a punishing work regime, and, simply to survive, took on any and every chance to make himself known. Very quickly he assembled a devoted band of helpers who worked on his behalf. Thus began a lifelong habit of collaboration with others, not all of whom enjoyed the experience, though they would continue to serve him faithfully. He, in turn, thought nothing of passing their efforts off as his own. In financial matters he was astute and occasionally less than honest; he courted scandal and admiration in equal measure.
The 1920s was a period of intense activity. By the end of the decade he had divorced one wife and married a second and had written three plays – Drums in the Night, In the Jungle of the Cities and Baal – all of which had been directed by leading figures in the theatre and attracted, like their author, their fare share of scandal.
During this period he also adapted Marlowe's Edward the Second, published a volume of short stories, directed his play A Man's a Man and undertook his first collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill in Mahagonny, followed closely by the sensationally popular The Threepenny Opera, which ran for 500 performances. He also started to develop his didactic theatre pieces: The Lindbergh Flight and The Baden Didactic Play. The relative failure of Happy End in 1929 was the only setback in an unbroken series of projects over eight years.
Brecht's life had often been conveniently divided into three phases:
Although this is a fair division, it takes no account of the work that went on wherever he was and with whom. The Brecht "factory" was in production even at the most personally dangerous moments of his and his collaborators' lives. It is worth noting, for instance, that most of his major plays were completed before he realised the relative safety of America in 1941, but would remain unperformed for as long as seven years.
It is also important to remember that during these periods he changed his outlook on his work. His theoretical writings, for example, underwent enormous rethinking in the last years of his life. As with Stanislavski, the rigours of putting his theory into practice resulted in new ways of enquiring and reasoning. Brecht's passionate belief that theatre should not only reflect the world but, more importantly, change it, was the most important theme of his work. He used his theories of Epic Theatre to achieve this, in direct contradiction to the prevailing genre of naturalism. To this end he drew on all available resources: staging, collaborations with other directors, the help of designers and the catchy tunes of composers. Heavily influenced by the funfairs of his youth, street entertainments and political cabaret, he was able to draw all these together to make a totally new form of theatre.
By the end of his life he was a world figure in theatre. The productions of the Ensemble had astonished Europe by their freshness, and the detail of their staging and acting, which was mesmerising in its apparent simplicity.
In The Empty Space Peter Brook writes:
…all theatre work today at some point starts or returns to his statements and achievement.
Today, over 40 years after his death, it is important that we find in Brecht's theory and practice lessons for evaluating and reflecting on theatre in our own time. In exploring his themes we shall demonstrate that theoretical perspectives need to be linked with practical realisations: theory alone is not enough. The vitality, excitement and strength of Brecht's plays can only be truly realised in the doing of them.
Theory and Practice
The Early Plays
The following plays do not conform to the main thrust of Brecht's theory, since they were all completed before much of it was written down. There are however traces of methods and themes that were to recur later, albeit in a modified and more considered form. He regarded them as "experiments" and as such they are important in his development. They show that Brecht established aspects of form and content, which would later be developed, very early in his career
Written in 1918, first produced in Leipzig in 1923. In some sense Baal is an anti-play, as it was written to express Brecht's dislike of Hans Johst's Der Einsame. Johst's play had a similar theme and what Brecht considered to be the negative qualities of naturalistic writing and a sentimentalised conclusion. His text, by contrast, was heavily influenced by Buchner's Woyzeck, sharing with it a structure of episodic and subtitled themes, which at the time was a novel and radical idea. Following Buchner's example, Brecht broke away from the traditional three or four act structure and composed short scenes which could move around in time and place without any apparent continuity. This debut play, with its borrowed scene structure, is a precursor to how he would construct what he would later call Epic Theatre.
In his introduction to the complete plays of Buchner, Patterson makes the link:
Buchner’s technique anticipates Brecht’s distinctions between the "Aristotelian" (Dramatic) theatre (one scene leading to another: growth) and his own "Epic Theatre" (each scene on its own: montage).
Baal is certainly a text which could be taken as a partial self-portrait. Its anti-hero, Baal, is a poet and a singer, who appears in cabaret and displays contempt for social niceties, making it a relevant commentary on the young Brecht, who attracted and repelled contemporaries in equal measure.
Drums in the Night
His second play, Drums in the Night, was also written in 1918 and first produced in Munich and later Berlin in 1922. It took up a popular theme of the time: the return of a soldier from the war. By placing the protagonist in the centre of his post-war world, Brecht was once again exploring the playing out of man's destiny in a hostile and revolutionary social environment. The year of its production (1922) was a particularly unsettled time in Germany. As part of the production banners were placed in the auditorium which said, "Stop the romantic staring" and "Every man is best in his own skin". Whether this was Brecht's idea or not it is hard to tell, but the first move to de-romanticise the act of watching, leading not to empathy with the characters rather a distanced objectivity. In the last act the moon was a Chinese lantern that glowed red and in the final stage direction the soldier hurled his drum, "…which was a lantern, and drum and moon together fall into the river, which is without water". Brecht was already demonstrating his dislike for any kind of illusion in the staging. The critical reception of this play led to Brecht being awarded the highly prestigious Kleist prize, and immediately he became a much sought-after playwright. A critic of the first production remarked: "Overnight the 24-year-old poet Bert Brecht has changed the literary face of Germany."
In the Jungle of the Cities
Brecht’s third play was written in 1921 as In the Jungle and later acquired its fuller title in a revised version. It was first produced in 1921. In this play Brecht enlisted the cooperation of Caspar Neher, a designer friend of his. Inspired by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle it was set in an imaginary Chicago and was presented similarly to a boxing match. This was not the last occasion on which Brecht would set his action in some imagined city. He repeated the Chicago setting for St Joan of the Stockyards, Happy End and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. For Brecht, Chicago stood for everything he loved and hated about the "American Dream": fast cars, jazz, boxing matches, gambling and organised crime, especially if it involved death by machine-gun. He had of course changed his name to Bert to seem more "American". In The Threepenny Opera he made Soho in London the setting, but it was not a city that anyone could recognise, while in Mahagonny it was Florida, which was instantly recognisable, standing for some North American dream world. The boxing metaphor of In the Jungle of the Cities would surface again in Mahagonny, where it became a tangible reality as a method of staging. The cast was literally raised on a platform within the ropes and lit with the harsh lights of a prizefight. Brecht was fascinated and delighted by this sport, for its staging it epitomised a democratic space in which all classes could be together, eating, drinking, smoking and enjoying the entertainment.
Epic Theatre stands for a theatre of highly complex theoretical and practical ideas, which took Brecht many years to formulate. We can see that the early plays had traces the "Epic", but it took a good ten years for all aspects to come together. It wasn't until the last great plays at the Berliner Ensemble in the 1940s and 1950s that Epic Theatre was firmly established.
It was after the scandalous success of Baal in 1923 that Brecht embarked on what could be recognised as his first truly "Epic" production. This was his adaptation of Marlowe's Edward the Second (1924). The choice of Marlowe allowed Brecht to develop the concept of Epic within the Elizabethan context. Clearly, apart from the sensational subject matter, the elements that drew Brecht to the play were related to its structure and to its original mode of presentation in the Elizabethan playhouse:
- an almost bare stage with the audience standing around it
- political and personal events unfolding in swiftly changing scenes
- gripping stories of kings and their lives presented for a semi-literate audience
- a performance that would have taken place in daylight
With designs by Neher he then "distanced" his audience with soldiers in white faces to show they were "frightened", a ballad singer and titles to introduce the scenes. J. Fuegi suggests that Brecht's theory of theatre was well in place by his teens, and cites his fascination with travelling fairs to justify his theory. The entertainments at these fairs told tales of heroic deeds using a range of recognisable methods. These included:
This theory is a persuasive one, since it identifies quite complex theatrical means with components of popular theatre, and in particular leads to the realisation that all these storytelling techniques can be seen in Brecht's plays. The fairground showman had no reliance on the "technology" of theatre to tell his tales, which made his methods very appealing to a playwright who desired to demystify the mechanics of performance.
We can thus identify two sources for Brecht's theory:
- the Elizabethan theatre, with swiftly moving narratives concerning political and personal events
- popular entertainments, with a narrator who helped to explain the moral purpose, accompanied by musical interludes
The first mention that Brecht makes of the term Epic is in 1926; however, it was in the notes that he wrote to the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) that he really began to clarify the issues. It is significant that by this time he had met and worked with the composer Kurt Weill. Weill offered Brecht a much-needed way of enlivening and extending the work he was doing with texts. A musical score could include songs, which commented on the action and gave the actor/singer the opportunity to address the audience directly. They could also be sung by a chorus, which in plays like The Mother (1932) could address the characters with advice and warnings or take on the function of telling the audience the characters' unspoken thoughts.
Unlike traditional opera, which Brecht regarded with suspicion because of its ability to overwhelm the spectator, this kind of musical contribution made a different link between the actor/singer, his or her audience and the character in question. Brecht needed to make clear the distinction between what he called Dramatic theatre and the Epic. He was Dramatic representing all that he most hated, which was, of course, the prevailing form of theatre. It was a theatre of illusion - sucking the spectator into a dream world where all the problems were carefully resolved at the conclusion of the play, so that the spectator could leave those problems behind on leaving the theatre. Brecht defined his Epic theatre as challenging this dream world; he wanted a spectator who was awake and alert. His theatre would pose problems, and, far from solving them, was designed to leave the spectator with a task to be accomplished in the real world.
Epic theatre proceeds by fits and starts, in the manner comparable to the images on a film strip.
W. Benjamin – Understanding Brecht
This short statement is part of our larger discussion of Epic Theatre, but it places in context Brecht's firm belief that montage could "connect dissimilars in such a way as to "shock" people into new recognitions and understandings". Brecht was interested in any device that could keep his audience alert and awake, and with montage he found a means to achieve this.
The term "montage" came from the work of his friend, the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. It was a technique of editing film by which seemingly unrelated images could take on a new meaning by the way in which the film editor cut them together. The distinctiveness of montage was the way it could contract or extend real time by manipulating these images. For example, how we view a shot of an actor's expression of emotion is determined by the shots that come before and after it. Remember here that we are dealing with the silent cinema, so do not have the question of dialogue to consider. The visual elements are essentially the most important.
Because montage totally contradicted the realistic growth (plot and development) in dramatic theatre, it was useful to Brecht in a number of ways:
- Short self-contained scenes could be juxtaposed with each other, creating new "shocks".
- Because the emphasis was on the visual, Brecht took great pains to ensure that his arrangement of a scene was readable by a deaf person. There was to be not a single moment when such a person could not understand what was going on. Absolute clarity of intention was essential.
- Brecht organised rehearsals so that a designer (always, with Brecht, an important figure) could help with drawings of possible stage arrangements. While he was working on Galileo in Hollywood, his director employed one of the foremost cartoonists of the day to "plot" the production like the storyboard in a comic strip.
- In acting terms, the montage technique worked within the individual performance. The actor became aware of how he was recreating these pre-planned images.
Thus we see that montage was a breaking down of action into minute details. Not a moment or gesture was to be wasted; clarity of intention was the goal at every moment. It was also a way in which continuity could be broken and fractured and through this the audience was to be kept in a constant state of alertness.
Brecht began too use this phrase after a visit to Moscow in 1935, where he had seen the Chinese actor Mei Lan-fang. He wrote a long article, entitled Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting, in which he explored the lack of illusion or empathy in the performance and commented up the actor’s ability to "stand aside from his part". In this article he used the phrase "to make the incidents represented appear strange to the public…" and here he was picking up the echo of another theme, as well.
While in Moscow he had heard the Russian phrase "preim ostraneniye" – the device or trick of making something familiar seem strange which originated with a group of philosophers known as the Formalists. This particular device as they saw it was a literary way of:
… dislocating our habitual perceptions of the real world so as to make it the object of renewed attentiveness
T. Bennet – Formalism and Marxism
We can see an example of this by looking at the phrase "the sky is blue. This tells us nothing about the sky we do not already know, but if we add: "It was a sunny day and the sky was like a new sheet of blotting paper with the blue ink tipped into the middle of it" (Bennet), we are immediately struck by the vividness of the imagery and this increases our attentiveness to the nature of the sky.
Critics do not agree about the importance of this device to Brecht, but it certainly applied to his preoccupation with an actor's degree of identification with his part. In other words Brecht's intention was that the actor could make himself the subject of "renewed attentiveness" by not submerging himself in a character. By standing outside the character the actor forced the audience to look more closely at the mechanism of acting. Even before 1935 Brecht had already established the means of doing this, in the last play he directed before leaving Germany in 1933: The Mother (1932), which provides a very useful example of the working out of Epic Theatre in theory and practice. What Brecht found in Verfredungseffekt was not so much a new idea, but a confirmation that his idea was a sound one.
There is some confusion over the translation of Verfremdungseffekt. Instead of using the literal English translations – estrangement, alienation or disillusion, all of which are rather negative words - distancing is more appropriate as it is a positive expression. An easy mistake to make is to assume Brecht wanted a hostile relationship with his audience. He did not. Brecht's purpose was to distance the audience, to enable them to see more clearly the world in which they lived. Only then, he believed would they be able to change it.
We very readily cease to see the world we live in, and become anaesthetised to it’s distinctive features. The aim of poetry (drama) is to reverse that process, to defamiliarize that with which we are overly familiar… to indicate a new childlike, non-jaded vision in us. The poet (dramatist) aims to disrupt…
T. Hawkes – Structuralism and Semiotics
"Gestus", of which "gestisch" is the adjective, means both gist and gesture; an attitude or a single aspect of an attitude, expressible in words or actions.
J. Willet – Brecht on Theatre
Attitude is highlighted above because it comes closest to how we should view geste in translation, and how best to apply it to the text. It is not an easy concept, but is a very important because Brecht used it principally to describe the type of performance an actor should give in his Epic Theatre. One reason that Brecht was such an admirer of the silent film star Charlie Chaplin was that he recognised in his performance a control and concentrated attention to detail so great that were to be behind a window we could still "read" the performance. Chaplin's gestural cinema was for Brecht a summary of what was called "making gestures quotable".
In interpretation, geste would exclude the psychological aspects of a character’s development, and thus it can be placed in direct contrast to the sort of demands that Stanislavski was making on his actors. Feeling was to be externalised; the actor who was to "make himself observed standing between the spectator and the text". (Willet)
Kurt Weill, the first composer who worked with Brecht, also discussed geste and related it to the particular importance of music for the theatre:
(music) can reproduce the gestus that illustrates the incident on the stage; …forcing the action into a particular attitude that excludes all doubt and misunderstanding about the incident in question.
J. Willet – Brecht on Theatre
Weill expresses his feeling that music has the unique power to create a commentary on the action, to reinforce and exemplify the text's meaning. Brecht too recognised this. None of his major texts would be complete without their extensive musical component, acting as both a counterpoint to the text and aspolitical and social commentary.
All through his life, Brecht was a great collaborator with other writers, musicians, directors and designers and open to the most humble opinion during the rehearsal process. However, Brecht was apparently quick to claim work by others as exclusively his. J. Fuegi has suggested that much early work written with Elizabeth Hauptmann was more than 90 percent hers and in later collaborations with the composer Kurt Weill it was Brecht's minimising of his colleague’s invaluable input that led to the break-up of their partnership. The fiasco of the production of Parricide in 1922, with its disastrous outcome, led Brecht to a lifelong practice. He found and cultivated trusted colleagues to carry out the function of director, while he interfered, usually unwelcomely, from the sidelines. Even in his later life, when the Ensemble was secure and he was able to initiate and see through any project, it was still in the collaborative mode.
Brecht was renowned for the singing of his own ballads, accompanying himself on guitar, and in Munich in the 1920s he could be seen performing in the Lachtkeller (Laughing Cellar) with Karl Valentin, the brilliant stand-up comic and singer of satirical songs. However, he was not so accomplished that he could do without collaborators for the music in his plays.
Music for Brecht was a vital part of theatre, acting like the cabaret songs sung in a cellar, as a counterpoint to the text. It would function like other aspects of his Epic Theatre: separate, distinguishable from every other element and signalled by such staging devices as a change of lighting or a caption. It was to be a "waker-up" of the audience, keeping them alert, and would be used to counter what Brecht firmly believed was the natural desire of an audience: to sit back and let theatre wash over them.
In contrast Brecht considered opera to be culinary, only good for eating; like a heavy meal it left one with indigestion. He was suspicious of such composers as Richard Wagner (1813-83), who sought to combine all aspects of theatre and subordinate them to his surging operatic music with its romantic librettos. Brecht saw this operatic form as leading to a suspension of an audience's critical faculties in favour of a wallow in emotion. He was proved right in his suspicions. The Nazis used "Wagnerian"-type events to promote their distorted ideologies: huge crowds and orchestrated choirs, with banners waving and marching soldiers, to excite and impress the nation.
In Brecht's own anti-opera, ironically named The Threepenny Opera (1928), a strong statement was made as to its form. Not only was the orchestra pulled out of the pit to be put on stage, but the songs were signalled with their titles and a "special change of lighting arranged". The catchy and hummable music set feet tapping, further distancing the music from the unstoppable scores of opera. The music looked back to the fairground hurdy-gurdy, the beer-cellar and the hoarse and mesmerising singing of Brecht himself. It was to be truly popular, a far cry from the bourgeois world of the opera house.
Chief among Brecht's musical collaborators was Kurt Weill (1900-50), who provided hugely popular scores to match the equally abrasive texts of such work as Mahagonny in both its versions (1927-30), The Threepenny Opera and Happy End (1929). He set poems by Brecht in The Berlin Requiem (1928) and some of the Lehrstuck texts. Their final collaboration was in Paris in 1933 with The Seven Deadly Sins. Brecht acknowledged his debt to Weill as "first providing what he had needed for the stage".
Hans Eisler (1898-1962) matched Brecht's political commitment more closely. He composed scored both before the Second World War – The Mother (1932) – and after it – Fear and Misery in the Third Reich (1945), Galileo (1947) and The Days of Commune (1950). He also composed numerous settings for Brecht’s poems, and was in his own right a successful composer of film music. His music might be characterised as more austere than Weill's, but he was capable of writing catchy military marching tunes for Communist youth groups that became popular all over Europe.
Paul Dessau (1894-1979) was the last of Brecht's musical collaborators and is most associated with his big "Epic" productions of the last years at the Berliner Ensemble.
Brecht wrote of his friend, the designer Caspar Neher:
Our friend begins his sketches with people and with the things that happen to them. He does not do stage pictures, backgrounds and frameworks, but he constructs the landscape in which people experience life.
This admirable summing up of Neher's collaborative achievements draws attention to the importance that both Brecht and Neher placed on the job of designer. They felt that he was a Buhenbauer - a stage builder, one who constructs – and infinitely preferred to the term Buhenbilder - stage picture-maker - which was the more commonly used term. Neher in particular hated this term, since it failed to acknowledge the necessary three-dimensional spatial qualities needed for the design.
Neher's special gift was not to subordinate his work to that of the playwright but to work in the closest possible collaborative contact. Brecht recognised that his contribution was as invaluable as any other. As late as 1950, while struggling to find the right spatial arrangement, Brecht gave up in despair and suspended rehearsals until Neher was available. It was his colleague's delicate sketches that had the power to create the right dynamic of relationships on stage and resolve the problem. The "set" was to evolve as part of a creative partnership between actor, director and designer.
What Brecht enjoyed in Neher's work quite as much as in Weill’s was his ability to adopt a political and intellectual attitude towards the events on stage. Further, in referring to the staging of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht said:
These projections of Neher are quite as much an independent component of the opera as are Weill's music and the text.
J. Willet – Brecht on Theatre
In other words, Brecht gave equal weight in the creative process to design, music and the text, but most importantly relished their separateness. It was to be a theatre of "jumps", montages of different elements that would alert the spectators to the continuing dialectic taking place in front of them. It was these skilled practitioners, who were also collaborators, who could supply the right attitude.
At a time when the trend throughout the world of stage design was away from the painted word towards the constructed world, Neher and Brecht's other designers made visual statements which have become as much a part of Epic theatre as any of Brecht's theoretical writings:
…And please make
My curtain half-height, don't block the stage off.
Leaning back, let the spectator
Notice the busy preparations being so
Ingeniously made for him…
Extract from Brecht's poem The Curtains. (trans. J. Willet)
In keeping with the drive towards simple and direct solutions, Neher's colour schemes were based on earth pigments and the fabrics for costumes were undyed, relying on their texture and quality to signal their function. The furniture was to have the look of having been used for a long time. Throughout any design scheme, only those bits of buildings which were needed to suggest a place and time were constructed. The whole ethos of his collaboration was to work towards what Willet calls "selective realism"; the audience, glimpsing these elements over the top of the half curtain during the scene changes, was never for a moment allowed to forget that it was sitting in a theatre.
The cast would like to thank:
Fuegi, J. Bertolt Brecht: Chaos According to plan. CUP, 1987 -
Brook, P. The Empty Space. Penguin, 1986
Bennet, T. Formalism and Marxism. Methuen, 1979
Hawkes, T. Structuralism and Semiotics. Methuen, 1977
Willett, J. Brecht in Context. Methuen, 1984
Braun, E. The Director and the Stage. Methuen, 1982
Steiner, G. The Death of Tragedy. Faber, 1982
Bartram, G. and Waine, A. Brecht in Perspective. Longman, 1982
Benjamin, W. Understanding Brecht. Verso, 1992
Brecht, B. (trans. Willet, J.) The Messingkauf Dialogues. Methuen, 1965
Willet, J. Brecht on Theatre. Methuen, 1984
Willet, J. Caspar Neher, Brecht's Designer. Methuen, 1986