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No. 2175:
The Fall and Rise of Bertolt Brecht

by Sidney Berger

Today, UH Theatre Director Sidney Berger tells about the fall and rise of Bertolt Brecht. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Bertolt BrechtBertold Brecht was arguably one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. Most Americans recognize the name from his enduring musical The Threepenny Opera,written in collaboration with famed composer, Kurt Weill and played with total success at the Theatre de Lys in New York. But other masterpieces flowed from the pen of the acerbic Brecht, searing dramatic lessons like Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Good Woman of Sezuan.

He was a playwright devoted to change: change in social conditions, change in the way his collaborators thought and ultimately change in the way his audiences lived. He called his theory Epic Theatre and at its base was the idea that the theatre must not become a drug for audiences but must keep them totally conscious. Actors, he said, must "demonstrate" roles, not "become" characters in the Stanislavskian sense; empathy would not be denied but must be interrupted so that the audience could reason and by that reasoning change the way they thought and lived. Brecht's theatre was designed as the theatre of the scientific age; it was a theatre that communicated insight and knowledge in a sensual way. It was a theatre in which an audience could be entertained and educated. 

Brecht's credo was simple and enormously complex. He wrote, "The word of the writer is only as sacred as it is true. The theatre is not the servant of the writer but of society."

He was always at the center of his time, a theatrical soldier, fighting for the audience's attention to the evils around them in theatrically effective, sometimes stunning ways. He wrote: 

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
Mask of an evil demon, painted with gold enamel.
With sympathy I note 
The swollen vein in the brow, showing
How exhausting it is to be evil.

The hypnotic value of effective theatre, Brecht stressed, should not be vacated but made an ally. He said, 

The lantern of illusion, the great moon of deception must shine. I am not opposed to the light which must always shine on all reality in the theatre. But neither actors nor the public should forget that the spells must serve to reveal the real world and the magical light must X-ray it.

In an interview not long before he died, Brecht was asked whether he thought his work would last. His response was, 

I am there whether people like it or not. But will my consequences be greater than others? Will I last longer as a living effective force? The answer is naturally yes, even if only because I wrote the sentence, 'First a full belly, and then come morals.' Something like that lasts.

One of his close friends talked about the last conversation he had with Brecht which, typically, was unsentimental and unsympathetic. It dealt with the obituary he would write when Brecht died. He regretted with a smile that he would not be able to read it with all the other beautiful obituaries in which posterity would breathe a sigh of relief.

I'm Sidney Berger, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

H. Braun, The Theatre in Germany. (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1956).

B. Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: Development of an Esthetic. Tr. John Willett (New York: A&C Black, 2003).

M. Esslin, Brecht: The Man and His Work. (New York: Norton, 1974).

W. Weideli, The Art of Bertolt Brecht. Tr. D. Russell, (New York: Merlin, 1963).

P. Demetz, Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962).

W. Haas, Bert Brecht. Tr. Max Knight and Joseph Fabry (New York: Ungar Pub. Co., 1970.