The Elite in the Arts | Dance & Theatre
Brecht and the Epic Theater

01Key Visual Eliten
Igor Miske © Unsplash

Bertolt Brecht is among the most important playwrights of the twentieth century – it was he who coined the term "epic theater." His work is deemed sophisticated and sometimes difficult and inaccessible; yet his plays are still being performed today around the world.

Bertolt Brecht was born on February 2, 1898 in Augsburg. As a fourteen-year-old, he already made his first attempts at writing poetry, which were noticed only at his school. Literary works by Brecht were first published in 1913/1914 in the school magazine Die Ernte (The Harvest), of which he was the editor. After the outbreak of the First World War on August 8, 1914, the high school student managed to place contributions in two Augsburg daily newspapers, which afforded him a certain degree of fame in the city. After mid-1916, however, he lost interest in this genre; he no longer published in newspapers and so was no longer perceived as a writer.

The director of the Berlin Ensemble, Manfred Wekwerth, and Gisela May at The Threepenny Opera rehearsal The director of the Berlin Ensemble, Manfred Wekwerth, and Gisela May at the „Threepenny Opera“ rehearsal, 1978 | © Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-T0927-019 / Katja Rehfeld / CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE, Wikipedia, edited, CC-BY-SA-3.0 DE From now on, Brecht wrote poems that were of such high quality he would later include them in his famous cycle Hauspostille (Manual of Piety), which did not appear until 1927. Brecht's first two dramas, Baal and Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night), were written between 1918 and 1920, but he could not find publishers for the plays or stages to produce them. Baal was first published in 1920, and Trommeln in der Nacht premiered at the end of 1922 at the Munich Kammerspiele, which made Brecht suddenly known to intellectual circles in Germany. He received the Kleist Prize in 1922, which led to a greater public recognition.

This was followed by other works, mostly dramas, which made Brecht increasingly famous, but still mainly in more educated circles. His international breakthrough came in 1928 with the premiere of the Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera). This greatest stage success of the Weimar Republic ensured continued popularity right up to Brecht’s exile in1933. In exile there were few opportunities for Brecht to publish or produce plays. During this period, however, he wrote works as the Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo), Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children), Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle) and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan).

After returning from exile in Scandinavia and some intermediate stations, Brecht was set up in East Berlin with his own theater, the Berliner Ensemble. He no longer wrote any significant plays, but beginning in 1950 the Berliner Ensemble staged the major works he had written in exile, which then became known to a larger audience, gaining him an international reputation as an author and director, as evidenced by various guest appearances abroad.

Bertolt Brecht, 1954 Bertolt Brecht, 1954 | © KaterBegemot, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0409-300 / Kolbe, Jörg / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia, edited, CC-BY-SA-3.0 On August 14, 1956, Brecht died in East Berlin. In the GDR and in the Federal Republic of Germany he remained known as "playwright"; worldwide he is known to this day as one of the most frequently performed German-language authors, not only in Europe but all over the world. In the eighties, a certain "Brecht fatigue" became noticeable in the reception of his works; controversy about the author became rare. Nevertheless, Brecht still enjoys a high degree of recognition, nationally and internationally, and his ideas of an epic theater are to be found everywhere in contemporary theater practice.

To the Overview