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The Life and Work of Playwright Berthold Brecht


Born: February 10th, 1898

Died: August 14th, 1956

Playwright Eugene Berthold Brecht (also known as Bertolt Brecht) was deeply influenced by Charlie Chaplin and Karl Marx. This strange combination of inspiration produced Brecht’s twisted sense of humor as well as the political beliefs within his plays.

Life and Political Views: He was raised in a middle class family in Germany, although he often fabricated stories of an impoverished childhood. As a young man, he was attracted to fellow artists, actors, cabaret musicians, and clowns. As he began to write plays of his own, he discovered that the Theatre was the perfect forum to express social and political criticism.

Brecht developed a style known as “Epic Theatre.” In this medium, actors did not strive to make their characters realistic. Instead, each character represented a different side of an argument. Brecht’s “Epic Theatre” presented multiple viewpoints and then let the audience decide for themselves.

Does this mean Brecht didn’t play favorites? Certainly not. His dramatic works blatantly condemn fascism, but they also endorse communism as an acceptable form of government. His political views developed from his life experiences. Brecht fled Nazi Germany before the onset of World War II. After the war, he willingly moved to Soviet-occupied East Germany and became a proponent of the communist regime.

Brecht’s Major Plays:
His most acclaimed work is Mother Courage and Her Children. Although set in the 1600s, the play is relevant to contemporary society. It is often regarded as one of the finest anti-war plays.

Not surprisingly, Mother Courage and Her Children has frequently been revived in recent years. Many colleges and professional theaters have produced the show, perhaps to express their views on modern day warfare.

His most famous musical collaboration is Three Penny Opera. The work was adapted from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a successful 18th century “ballad opera.” Brecht and composer Kurt Weill filled the show with humorous scoundrels, riveting songs (including “Mack the Knife”) and scathing social satire.

The one the play’s most renowned lines is: "Who is the bigger criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?"

Other Plays:

  • Drums in the Night: Part romance, part political drama, the play is set during a violent worker’s revolt in 1918 Germany.
  • Edward II: Brecht loosely adapted this regal drama from 16th century playwright, Christopher Marlowe.
  • Saint Joan of the Stockyards: Set in Chicago (and written shortly after the Stock Market Crash) this 20th century Joan of Arc battles cruel hearted industrialists only to be martyred like her historical namesake.
  • Fear and Misery of the Third Reich: Brecht’s most overtly anti-fascist play analyzes the insidious way the Nazis came into power.

Aside from his dramatic work, Berthold Brecht also wrote poetry, essays, and shorts stories. About’s German Language Guidesite offers a comprehensive timeline of Brecht’s life and career.

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