Brecht, Bertolt (bĕrˈtôlt brĕkht) [key], 1898–1956, German dramatist and poet, b. Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht. His brilliant wit, his outspoken Marxism, and his revolutionary experiments in the theater have made Brecht a vital and controversial force in modern drama. His early plays, such as Baal (1919) and Drums in the Night (1922), are examples of nihilistic expressionism and caused riots at their openings, bringing Brecht instant notoriety. In Mann ist Mann [man is man] (1926), he began to develop his so-called epic theater, in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes, and rational argument were used to create a shock of realization in the spectator. In order to give the audience a more objective perspective on the action, Brecht promoted a style of acting and staging that created a distancing effect. Instead of identifying with their roles, actors were instructed merely to demonstrate the actions of the characters they portrayed. Sets and lighting were designed to prevent the illusion of the theater from gaining sway, and Brecht revealed elements of the staging process itself. Songs played an important part—for these Brecht wrote the lyrics, with music by Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and others.
Die Dreigroschenoper [the threepenny opera] (1928), with music by Kurt Weill, is based on John Gay's Beggar's Opera ; it reveals Brecht's continued hostility toward the capitalist social structure as well as his bittersweet compassion for humanity. Under National Socialism Brecht went into exile (1933), settling in Denmark and later in the United States. Works written in his most mature phase include Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder [Mother Courage and her children] (1941) and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (tr. The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1943), both concerned with ethical conduct. An outstanding example of epic theater is Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis [the Caucasian chalk circle] (1955). From 1948, Brecht lived in East Berlin, where he directed the state-supported Berliner Ensemble. Notable English translations of Brecht's plays are those by Eric Bentley, which include Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht (1961).
See his collected plays (tr. 1970) and collected poems (tr. 1980), ed. by R. Manheim and J. Willett; his Journals (tr. 1994); biographies by F. Ewen (1967), M. Esslin (rev. ed. 1971), R. Hayman (1983), and J. Fuegi (1994); studies by J. Willett (rev. ed. 1968), W. Haas (tr. 1970), J. Fuegi (1972), R. Speirs (1987), P. Brooker (1988), and P. Thomson (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.