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||Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)|
German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer, one of the most prominent figures in the 20th-century theatre. Bertolt Brecht was concerned with encouraging audiences to think rather than becoming too involved in the story line and to identify with the characters. In this process he used alienation effects (A Effekts). Brecht developed a form of drama called epic theatre in which ideas or didactic lessons are important.
"In order to produce A Effects the actor has to discard whatever means he has learned of persuading the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself. His muscles must remain loose, for a turn of the head, e.g., with tautened neck muscles, will "magically" lead the spectators' eyes and even their heads to turn with it, and this can only detract from any speculation or reaction which the gestures may bring about. His way of speaking has to be free from ecclesiastical singsong and from all those cadences which lull the spectator so that the sense gets lost." (from A Short Organum for the Theatre, 1948)
Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, the son of Beltold Brecht, the director of a paper company, and Sophie Brezing, the daughter of a civil servant. His father was a Catholic, and his mother a Protestant. Both parents hailed from Achern in the Black Forest. Brecht began to write poetry as a boy, and had his first poems published in 1914. After finishing elementary school, he was sent to the Königliches Realgymnasium, where he gained fame as an enfant terrible. "Elementary shool bored me for four years," he later recalled. "During nine years of being lulled to sleep at the Augsburg Realgymnasium I didn't manage to be very much help to my teachers."
In 1917 Brecht enrolled as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he sometimes attended also the theatre seminar conducted by Professor Artur Kutscher. Between 1919 and 1921 he wrote theatre criticisms for the left-wing Socialist paper Die Augsburger. After military service as a medical orderly, he returned to his studies, but abandoned them in 1921. During the Bavarian revolutionary turmoil of 1918, Brech wrote his first play, Baal. From this period also dates his poem, 'Legend of the Dead Soldier'. It was cited by the Nazis as one of their strong reasons to deprive him of German citizeship in 1935. Like several other poems, it was set to music by the author, and sung to the accompaniment of his guitar in a Berlin cabaret: "And when the war was four Spring old / And of peace there was not a breath / The soldier took the logical step / And died a hero's death." The soldier is then dug up, pronounced fot for active duty, and sent to the front, surrounded by a cheering crowd.
Baal, which celebrated life and sexuality, was produced in 1923. Although it did not first find any immediate producer it became eventually a huge success. At one point Brecht's father offered to pay for the play to be printed, but only without the family name in it. Brecht's association with Communism began in 1919, when he joined the Independent Social Democratic party. Friendship with the writer Lion Feuchtwanger was an important literary contact for the young writer. Feuchtwanger advised him on the discipline of playwriting. Brecht was named in 1920 chief adviser on play selection at the Munich Kammerspiele. As a result of a brief affair with Fräulein Bie Banholzer, Brecht had a son, named Frank after Wedekind. He was killed in an air raid in Word War II. In 1922 Brecht married the opera singer Marianne Zoff; they divorced in 1927. Later their daughter Hanne was an occasional guest artist with the Berlin Enselble.
Brecht´s rise to international fame began with Trommeln in der Nacht (1922), which was awarded the Kleist Prize. Die Dreigroschenoper, after The Beggar´s Opera by John Gay, premiered at the Schiffbauerdamm Theater on August 28, 1928. It stayed in the reportoire of this theater until the Nazis seized power in 1933. Brecht made the play with the composer Kurt Weil. Gay's work, revived by Sir Nigel Playfair at the Lyric Theatre in London, had been a great success from 1920. Brecht moved the action to Victorian times, and instead of mocking the pretentions of Italian grand opera, he attacked on bourgeois respectability. Although rehearsals were disastrous, the audience wanted to hear over and over again the duet between Macheath and the Police Chief, Tiger Brown.
"Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear -
1924 Brech was appointed a
consultant at Max Reinhardt's Deutches Theater in Berlin.
He had a son, Stefan by the actress Helene Weigel in 1926; they married
two years later and stayed married for the rest of his life, in spite
of his infidelity. Though Brecht often treated women with breathtaking
insensitivity, he contributed through his work to the movement for
women's reproductive freedom. Sometimes he portrayed himself as a
country boy, never quite at home intellectual salons of the day. "He
was very lean, with a hungry face to which his cap gave a slightly
crooked look; his words were wooden and clipped," wrote Elias Canetti.
"Under his gaze you felt like a worthless heirloom, and he, the
pawnbroker with his piercing eyes, was appraising you."
Around 1927 Brecht started to study Karl Marx's Das Kapital and by 1929 he had adopted Communist ideology. At the Schiffbauerdam Theater he trained many actors who were to become famous on stage and screen, among them Oscar Homolka, Peter Lorre, and the singer Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weil's wife. Mann ist Mann, in which Lorre played Galy Gay, a simple Irish dock worker, closed only after six performances in 1931, but Brecht defended Lorre's performance as the hallmark of a new style of acting. With Hanns Eisler Brecht worked on a political film, Kuhle Wampe, the name referring to an area of Berlin where the unemployed lived in shacks. The film was released in 1932 and forbidden shortly afterward.
Brecht's politically committed play, Die Maßnahme (1930, The Measures Taken) reflected his antisentimentality and directness, which even the Communist Party found hard. A performance in Erfurt was broken up by the police. In the play a young Communist is murdered by the Party - his sympathy for the poor and their suffering only postpones the day of the historical showdown between the working class and capitalist class. The lesson is that the freedom of the individual must be suppressed today so that in the future mankind will be able to achieve freedom.
In the 1930s Brecht´s books and plays were banned in Germany, and theatrical performances were summarily forbidden. On the following day of the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin (Feb. 27, 1933), he went into exile, first to Denmark, where he lived mostly near Svendborg on the island of Fyn until 1939, and then in April, 1940, to Finland, where he settled in Iitti in Villa Marlebäck as the guest of the Finnish author Hella Wuolijoki. The place is in the middle of the countryside, far from the cities, and perhaps boring for a person used to lively metropolitan surroundings. "... these light nights are very beautiful," Brecht wrote in his diary. "i got up at three o'clock because of the flies, and went out. cocks were crowing, but it had not been dark. i like to relieve myself in the open ..." During the months at Marlebäck, Brecht wrote with Wuolijoki the folk-comedy Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1940), and made during his stay his admiring "surrogate mother" jealous because of affairs with other women. Brech, who disliked bathing, was also famous for his promiscuousness.
Brecht continued in May of 1941 with his wife, children and secretary through Russia to the United States, eventually ending in Santa Monica. Ruth Berlau, a Danish actress and Brecht's mistress, had joined family in Helsinki and travelled with them from Finland to America Margarete Steffin, a German proletarian writer and Brecht's secretary and mistress, died in Moscow; she had been tubercular when she left Germany. Like Berlau, she made contributions to Brecht’s exile plays.
The family settled down in a small house in Santa Monica, California. Brech was prepared to stay longer, he made efforts to get his plays produced on Broadway, and tried to write for Hollywood, but the only script that found partial acceptance was Hangmen Also Die (1942). This anti-Nazi film was directed by Fritz Lang, the screenplay was written by John Wexley. "The intellectual isolation here is enormous," Brecht compained. "Compared to Hollywood, Svendborg was a world center." His ideas, such as "the production, distribution and enjoyment of bread," were not taken seriously by movie moguls. In 1947 Brecht was accused of un-American activities, but managed to confuse with half-truths J. Parnell Thomas, the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who praised Brecht for being an exemplary witness. The Committee broadcast the hearings on the radio; the "Brecht show" can be heard on a Folkways recording. However, Brecht had seen the writing on the wall and he flew to Switzerland, without waiting for the opening of his play Galileo in New York.
Between the years 1938 and 1945 Brecht wrote his four great plays. Leben des Galilei (1938-39, The Life of Galileo), which did follow too slavishly the actual historical person, dealt with the hero's self-condemnation for giving up his heliocentric theory in front of the Inquisition. Originally it was aimed at Broadway with Peter Lorre and Lotte Lenya playing the central roles. Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1939) was an attempt to demonstrate that greedy small entrepreneurs make devastating wars possible. "What they could do with round here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization." Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1938-40) examined the dilemma of how to be virtuous and at the same time survive in a capitalist world, and Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (1944-45), demonstrating that ownership belongs best to those who can make humane use of it.
Hollywood never opened its doors to Brecht, who sketched notes for more than fifty films. With one exception, he sold no stories and wrote no screenplays. For Peter Lorre, who had become a star, Brecht wrote film treatments and Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg, a stage version of Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Švejk. He was also interested in bringing Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology to the screen. With Lion Feuchtwanger he collaborated on The Visions of Simone Machard. Brecht received at least $20,000 for his original idea. After 15 years of exile Brecht returned in 1948 to Germany. "When they accused me of wanting to steal the Empire State Building," Brech joked, "I thought it was high time to leave." Perhaps anticipating that Lorre's career in Hollywood was turning down, Brecht invited his favorite actor to join his ensemble in Berlin – "I need Lorre, unconditionally," he said. At the same time, he was well aware that Lorre was a drug addict. Brecht spend a year in Zürich working on Sophocles’ Antigone (translated by Friedrich Hölderin) and on his major theoretical work A Little Organum for the Theatre. After Zürich, Brech moved in 1949 to Berlin where he founded his own Marxist theater, the Berliner Ensemble, which was in the beginning just a group within the larger organization of the Deutches Theater. Its first production at the Stadttheater was Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti. Brecht’s wife Helene was his chief actress and carried on as a director.
Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010), one of the young actresses of the Ensembe and a critic of the Communist government, was forced to flee the country on the night of her debut performance in Mother Courage and Her Children. She made in the 1970s a career as the first lady of British horror cinema. Brecht had also some problems with the new authorities of DDR, although he wrote prose that pleased the censors. When the workers of East Berlin rose in revolt, Brecht expressed in a letter to the party chief, Walter Ulbricht, his loyalty but also criticized the government. However, he never took a public stand against the East Berlin regime. In his verse Brecht revealed his angst with cryptic lines: "What times are these, when / to speak of trees is almost a crime / because it passes in silence over such infamy!" To assure for himself freedom of travel, Brecht obtained the Austrian passport in 1950.
In the West as well as in the East Germany Brecht became the most popular contemporary poet, outdistanced only by such classics as Shakespeare, Schiller, and Goethe. Jean Vilar's production of Mutter Courage in 1951 secured him a following in France, and the Berliner Ensemble's participation in the Paris International Theatre Festival (1954) further spread his reputation. In 1955 Brecht received the Stalin Peace Prize. His acceptance speech, delivered in Moscow, was translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak. The next year he contracted a lung inflammation and died of a coronary thrombosis on August 14, 1956, in East Berlin.
Brecht's works have been translated into 42 languages and sold over 70 volumes. Drawing on the Greek tradition, he wanted his theater to represent a forum for debate hall rather than a place of illusions. From the Russian and Chinese theaters Brecht derived some of his basic concepts of staging and theatrical stylization. His concept of the Verfremdungseffekt, or V-Effekt (sometimes translated as 'alienation effect') centered on the idea of "making strange" and thereby making poetic. He aimed to take emotion out of the production, persuade the audience to distance from the make believe characters and urge actors to dissociate from their roles. Then the political truth would be more easy to comprehend. Once he said: "Nothing is more important than learning to think crudely. Crude thinking is the thinking of great men."
"His theater of alienation intended to motivate the viewer to think. Brecht's postulate of a thinking comportment converges, strangely enough, with the objective discernment that autonomous artworks presupposes in the viewer, listener, or reader as being adequate to them. His didactic style, however, is intolerant of the ambiguity in which thought originates: It is authoritarian. This may have been Brecht's response to the ineffectuality of his didactic plays: As a virtuoso of manipulative technique, he wanted to coerce the desired effect just as he once planned to organize his rise to fame." ( Theodor Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, 1997)
Brecht formutated his literary theories much in reaction to Georg Lukács (1885-1971), a Hungarian philosopher and Marxist literary theoretician. He disapproved Lukács attempt to distinguish between good realism and bad naturalism. Brecht considered the narrative form of Balzac and Tolstoy limited. He rejected Aristotele's concept of catharsis and plot as a simple story with a beginning and end. From Marx he took the idea of superstructure to which art belongs, but avoided too simple explanations of ideological world view - exemplified in the character of the Good Woman of Setzuan.
For further reading: Brecht: A Choise of Evils by M. Esslin (1959); Brecht: The Man and His Work by M. Esslin (1959); Bertolt Brecht by R. Gray (1961); The Art of Bertolt Brecht by W. Weideli (1963); Bertolt Brecht by F. Ewen (1967); Bertolt Brecht by W. Haas (1968); Understanding Brecht by W. Benjamin (1973); Brecht as they knew him, ed. by H. Witt (1975); Bertolt Brecht in America by James K. Lyon (1981); Brecht in Exile by Bruce Cook (1983); Brecht by R. Hayman (1983); Bertolt Brecht by J.Speirs (1987); The Poetry of Brecht, by P.J. Thompson (1989); Postmodern Brecht by E. Wright (1989); Brecht by Hans Mayer (1996); Brecht & Co. by John Fuegi (1997); Brecht-Chronik by Klaus Völker (1997); Bertolt Brecht by G. Berg (1998); The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, edited by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (2nd ed., 2006) - See also: Elias Canetti, Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weil's Alabama Song (Whisky Bar), performed by The Doors
"Oh! Moon of Alabama
Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (wr. 1940/41, prod. 1948). Based on stories by the Finnish writer Hella Wuolijoki. Puntila is a rich farmer, a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure, who is generous when intoxicated and mean and selfish when sober. Puntila wants his daughter Eva to marry a diplomat, but his drunk personality sees a better choice in his chauffeur and drinking companion Matti. An party is arranged to celebrate Eva's engagement to a diplomat. When Puntila gets drunk he insults the fiancé, and wants Matti to marry her. Matti puts her to the test. She fails to prove herself to be a good proletarian wife, and Matti leaves Puntila to join his working-class comrades. - Suom.: Brechtiltä on myös suomennettu kirjoituksia Aikamme teatterista sekä Runoja 1914-56. Elämäkerroista mainittakoon Kalervo Haikaran mittava teos Bertolt Brechtin aika, elämä ja tuotanto (1992).
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