Brecht, Bertolt

Brecht, Bertolt
© Jörg Kolbe

Bertolt Brecht was born on 10 February, 1898, in Augsburg and already began writing while at secondary school. He was able to avoid the military draft and in 1917 began studying medicine in Munich. He experienced the collapse of the German empire and the Revolution of 1918 as a distanced observer; his disillusioned play Drums in the Night became his first theatrical success and brought him the Kleist Prize. His career as a dramaturg, dramatist and director in Munich and from 1923 in Berlin was marked by provocation and scandal. Along with plays he also wrote short prose and stories, and with the publication of Hauspostille in 1927 he also became known as a poet. He achieved international fame with the Threepenny Opera (music by Kurt Weill), which premiered on 31 August 1928 in Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and was subsequently performed internationally in major theatres—including in Scandinavia—and also filmed. In 1929 Brecht married the actress Helene Weigel, with whom he already had two children.

Towards the end of the Weimar republic, Brecht identified himself ever more decisively as a communist, although he never joined the party. His politics find particular expression in the Lehrstücke he produced around 1929-30, which aimed to revolutionise the theatre. Long persecuted by right-wing politicians as an Asphaltliterat and a Kulturbolschewik, Brecht fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Denmark with his family, where he was able to acquire a house near Svendborg on the island of Funen. His six years of Danish exile were characterised by unremitting agitation against the Nazi regime in essays, poems, songs and plays. His application for an entry visa for the USA and his move to Sweden in the spring of 1939 marked the end of this phase of agitation, which was followed by the “classic” historical plays and parables (Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan). In April 1940, following the German occupation of Denmark and Norway, Brecht fled to Finland and in May 1941 to the USA. However, he found no success in America’s commercialised cultural industry and in 1947 he returned to Europe. In 1949 he founded the Berlin Ensemble with Helene Weigel and spent the following years focusing on theatre work. The triumphant success of his model production of Mother Courage and Her Children in Paris in 1954 re-established him as a European author. His complete works were made available—in some cases after his death—in publications in West and East Germany. Brecht died of heart failure on 14 August, 1956, in East Berlin.