The revolutionary theatre of Bertolt Brecht

28 March 2024
Tess Lee Ack

German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht’s life spanned the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century. It was shaped by war, revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and Stalinism and the Cold War, and his work reflects this. “Art”, he said, “is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”.

Brecht famously developed a new and revolutionary theory of the theatre—generally known as “epic theatre”, though he himself referred to it as “dialectical theatre”—that is still influential today. His plays are regularly performed all over the world, and frequently crop up on school curricula. Many features of epic theatre were incorporated into film theory in the 1970s. The films of US director Spike Lee, for example, owe a lot to Brechtian theory. Many people who have never heard of Brecht will have seen his innovations in film and theatre.

Brecht was 16 when World War One began. In 1915, while still at school, he wrote an essay arguing that there was no honour in dying for your country. He was conscripted in the last months of the war and set to work as a medical orderly. This experience further strengthened his horror of war and his hatred of the society that produced it. He later recalled: “As a very young man I was mobilised, and served in a hospital ... I saw with my own eyes how they patched up people post-haste so as to ship them back to the front as soon as possible”. His fiercely anti-war poem, “The Legend of the Dead Soldier”, was based on this experience and had him on the Nazis’ death list as early as 1923.

Brecht was a minor participant in the revolution that ended the war in 1918, serving as a delegate in the short-lived Bavarian soviet. After moving to Berlin to work in the theatre, Brecht found himself at the centre of the flowering of radical art and literature during the Weimar Republic years. In 1922, he was awarded the Kleist Prize, the most important German literary award of the time, for his play Drums in the Night, set against the background of the Spartacist uprising in 1919. The play shone a light on the grievances felt by many working-class soldiers returning from the front to find that their class had been deceived by politicians and robbed by war profiteers.

Germany was in a continuous state of economic and political crisis during the 1920s, and society was polarised along class lines. Brecht was disgusted by Weimar Germany: the greed, corruption and smug self-satisfaction of the triumphant German bourgeoisie, the treachery of the Social Democrats and the wretchedness of workers and the poor.

In about 1926, Brecht began a serious study of Marxism, under the guidance of Karl Korsch and Walter Benjamin. He delighted in Marxism’s scientific approach and intellectual rigour. His two short poems “Praise of Communism” and “Praise of the Dialectic” are testament to his newly found enthusiasm. He later said: “When I read Das Kapital, I understood my own pieces”, and commented, “This chap Marx was the first person to really understand my plays”.

Many Brecht scholars attempt to separate his art from his politics. The usual take is that Brecht was a great artist despite all that Marxist nonsense he espoused. But for Brecht, art and politics were inseparable. From the late 1920s, all of his work was underpinned by his Marxist world view.

In 1928, he found fame and fortune virtually overnight with The Threepenny Opera—a stinging critique of Weimar society and capitalism more generally. Yet, much to his consternation, the capitalists, who were targeted in the play, ate it up. They loved the songs, they loved the wit and the drama, but the politics and the savage satire went right over their heads.

The success of The Threepenny Opera got Brecht thinking about how to ensure that his political critique couldn’t be missed or ignored in future. Theatre audiences, he said, “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom”. He wanted to create a theatre that had the opposite effect, a theatre that forced its audience to think, to ask questions, make judgements, draw conclusions and, hopefully, act on them.

Traditional naturalistic or dramatic theatre is escapist—the aim is to make the audience forget their own lives, passively immerse themselves in the world of the characters on stage and identify with their emotions. Issues are resolved, whether happily or tragically, and the audience undergoes a process of catharsis.

Brecht was utterly opposed to this. He wanted his audience to remain objective and emotionally uninvolved so that they could make rational judgements about the issues raised in his plays. The story is the point of interest, not the characters. The story shows the interplay of social forces represented by various characters, and from this the play’s lesson or moral emerges.

To achieve the latter’s aims, Brecht used a range of theatrical devices and techniques to constantly remind the audience that they were watching a theatrical presentation of life, not life itself. To create a distance between the audience and the action, he often used historical or exotic settings to comment on contemporary social and political issues. For example, Joan of Arc becomes a Salvation Army operative in a Chicago meatworks in St Joan of the Stockyards. His anti-war play Mother Courage was set during the Thirty Years War to encourage the audience to think in historical terms about the material causes of war. And rather than developing in a linear way, the action was chopped into discrete scenes or episodes to create a montage effect.

Brecht wanted to break down the “fourth wall” so audiences could never forget that they were watching a play. For example, non-realistic sets were rearranged by stage hands in full view of the audience; at times the whole theatre would be lit up, not just the stage.

For the same reason, he used devices such as a narrator or chorus to comment on the action, often speaking directly to the audience. Signs and placards were used to provide information about what was really happening, songs and dance interrupted the action and commented on it.

These techniques and more are collectively known as Verfremdungseffekte, which is often rendered in English as “alienation”. This is somewhat misleading, as it invites comparison with the Marxist concept of alienation (Entfremdung). Verfremdung in fact is the familiar made strange, so that it can be objectively examined and analysed, rather than being taken for granted and viewed as natural. For Brecht, if something seems “the most obvious thing in the world”, it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. So “estrangement” is a better description of Brecht’s theatrical techniques.

Consistent with his view of the theatre as a sphere of production, Brecht worked in a highly collaborative way. Anyone who worked with him was encouraged to comment and make suggestions, from the actors themselves to stagehands and technicians.

As Brecht developed the theory and practice of epic theatre, he experimented with a form known as the Lehrstück, or teaching play. He described these pieces as “a collective political meeting” in which the audience actively participated. They were sometimes performed at workplaces, with the performance followed by a political debate. Brecht would invite comment from the audience and would at times adopt their suggestions.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Brecht was forced to join the diaspora of left-wing German artists and intellectuals in exile. His work in this period was largely devoted to the anti-fascist struggle. His play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was a satire on the rise of fascism, the Nazis being portrayed as gangsters. He also wrote a lot of songs and children’s rhymes intended to contribute to the fight against fascism, both within Germany and beyond. “The Song of the United Front”, for example, was sung by socialists who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

To those who derided this work and accused him of simply churning out propaganda, he replied: “You can’t write poems about trees when the woods are full of policemen”.

Once the war started, Brecht wasn’t safe in Western Europe. He briefly considered going to Russia, but was warned not to by, among others, the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, who told him he wouldn’t be safe there either. Brecht’s work was considered suspect, if not outright decadent, in a country where only “socialist realist” art was tolerated.

Brecht’s mentor Karl Korsch had been a leading member of the German Communist Party (KPD), but in 1926 was expelled for “deviationism”. This caused Brecht to develop a lifelong distrust of party officialdom. The feeling was mutual; the Stalinist KPD was not a fan of his work. Nonetheless, Brecht was pulled towards the KPD. It seemed to him and many others that only a mass working-class party could fight the rise of fascism.

But in private writings and conversations, Brecht was ambivalent about Stalin’s Russia. Stalin’s industrialisation program was in reality about the rapid and forced accumulation of capital, in order to catch up to and compete with Western capitalism. But like many others at the time, Brecht saw in it the development of the productive forces, and therefore believed Russia to be historically progressive.

However, he also recognised—and unfortunately accepted—that the price of that “progress” involved the destruction of workers’ democracy: “In Russia there is a dictatorship over the working class. We should avoid dissociating ourselves from this dictatorship for as long as it still does useful work for the workers”. As Isaac Deutscher put it, Brecht “surrendered to Stalinism with a load of doubt on his mind, as the capitulators in Russia had done”.

Brecht was dismayed by the purges of the late 1930s, which claimed the lives of some of his closest associates and friends. Not wishing to share their fate, he went to the US. But his hopes of making a living there were soon dashed, and he found himself blacklisted. Of 40 film scripts he wrote, only one was accepted, and it was censored so severely that he withdrew it. It was in this period that he wrote or completed his most famous plays: Life of Galileo, Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Setzuan.

Shortly after the war, Brecht was hauled before the McCarthyist House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and grilled about the political content of his work, especially the didactic plays. The day after his hearing, he took a plane back to Europe. Despite all his reservations about Stalinism, he felt he had to take sides in a world now dominated by the Cold War between the US and the USSR.

From a personal perspective, the West offered him only continued persecution. The East German regime, only too delighted to have an artist of his stature to lend it credibility, offered him his own theatre. But Brecht was cautious: he came back with an Austrian passport and a Swiss bank account.

Brecht soon came into conflict with the Stalinist cultural bureaucracy, which censored his plays and even banned two of them. The most influential theatre magazine ran a campaign against him. Then, on 17 June 1953, East German workers rose up in the first major revolt against Stalinism. It was brutally put down by Soviet troops.

Brecht sympathised with the workers; he wrote a letter to the secretary of the SED (the ruling Socialist Unity Party) calling for dialogue on their grievances. But he made the fatal mistake of concluding his letter with a statement of general support for the party. To his dismay, that was the only sentence that was published.

This was pretty much the end of Brecht’s public life. He retreated to his country house, where he poured his disillusionment and feelings of bad conscience into his final poems. “The Solution” (not published until 1964) is the pithy, satirical Brecht, holding the East German regime up to criticism and ridicule, as he’d done before against the Nazis:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalin Avenue
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Brecht died in August 1956, only a couple of months before the Hungarian revolution shook the Stalinist empire.

Just a year before the 1989 revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall and heralded the collapse of the Stalinist monolith, the East German government built a monument to Brecht. A plaque quotes from his play The Mother:

Who still lives, should not say never!
The secure is not secure
So, the way it is, it will not remain.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Brecht’s prophetic concluding lines are missing:

After the rulers have spoken
The ruled will speak.

Brecht never lost his belief in Marxism or his conviction that the working class was the agent of human liberation. But the crimes of Stalinism, and the seeming lack of an alternative, shook his confidence and brought him close to despair. Yet his very last poem, while expressing his feelings of failure, is also a plea not to give up.

And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.

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