Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht was born February 10, 1898 in Augsburg, Germany — a town of 90,000 people that is 40 miles northwest of Munich—to middle-class parents Berthold and Sophie Brecht. From youth, Brecht was notable for his confidence, intelligence, and ambition. He began medical studies at the University of Munich in 1917 in order to avoid conscription in World War I, but flaked on his medical courses and devoted his time to studying theater with Artur Kutscher, through him becoming a devout admirer of Frank Wedekind, whose expressionistic plays and ballads influenced a great deal of the young Brecht’s cabaret and coffeeshop experiments. In 1918, he wrote his first play, Baal, about an amoral Bohemian bard-balladeer who cruelly discards friends and lovers of both sexes. That same year, he began the anti-war drama Drums In the Night, which demonstrated Brecht’s disdain from a young age with war and the capitalist forces that benefited from it — partially motivated by the horrific things he saw working in a military hospital in Augsburg in 1918. Though he had a number of mistresses (some very high-profile celebrities) and children with various women, the most important woman in his life was actress Helene Wiegel, with whom he had two children, Stefan and Barbara. She was considered one of the finest German actresses of her time, and starred in Brecht’s The Mother (1932) and Mother Courage and Her Children (1940).
In 1924, Brecht moved to Berlin to work as an assistant dramaturg at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theatre and established himself as a proletariat intellectual, attracting many with his charisma and passion for anti-establishment principles. In 1926, he began a fuller study of Marxism, and wrote, “When I read Marx’s Capital, I understood my plays.” Then 1927 saw Brecht beginning some of his most important collaborations, those with director Erwin Piscator and composer Kurt Weill, who would become Brecht’s primary composer for the music in his later plays. He formulated a writers’ collective that involved Elizabeth Hauptmann and Weill, and it was this group that adapted John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera into The Threepenny Opera. This was Berlin’s biggest hit production of the 1920s and catapulted Brecht to worldwide fame. His works into the early 1930s began to stimulate serious opposition from the growing Nazi-sympathizing base of German spectators, and Brecht had to flee Germany in February of 1933 in order to avoid persecution.
Brecht had multiple artistic projects in Prague, Zurich, and Paris, but eventually he and Weigel settled down in Denmark until 1939, when the outbreak of war relocated the Brecht family first to Stockholm and then to Helsinki. During this time, Brecht was incredibly despondent, and although he stayed busy with high profile collaborations and celebrity guests to his home, he felt doubtful about his role as an artist in what he called the “dark times.” Despite a growing pessimism, 1941 saw the premiere of Mother Courage and Her Children, and Brecht started writing a number of his anti-Nazi dramas that would later bring him further acclaim. However, as he came to feel that his role as a writer was diminishing in the face of Hitler’s encroaching conquests, he sought asylum in the United States, and moved the family there in July of 1941. Although Brecht struggled to adapt to his new home in many ways, it served as an inspirational laboratory for some of his most important theatrical experiments.
Though he had a fundamental opposition to Hollywood practices and aesthetic, Brecht tried to find work as a screenwriter (to little success) and he largely relied on the generosity and patronage of friends to stay financially afloat. American critics viewed Brecht as either overly-intellectual and pretentious or a Communist subversive. His early American writing saw the completion of two works that he had begun in his European exile years, The Good Person of Szechwan and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, both of which were highly inspired by his new surroundings.
His next two plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Private Life of the Master Race were, according to Brecht, subtly more targeted toward an American middle-class audience, and American critics grew to appreciate his work more when they saw him as a pacifist playwright rather than one devoted to class struggle. Brecht wouldn’t see the 1947 opening of his last “American” play, Galileo, as he began to attract unwanted attention from the House Un-American Activities Committee, who suspected him part of a larger supposed Communist infiltration of Hollywood. He outwitted the committee and escaped prosecution (unlike other prominent members of the “Hollywood 19”), but soon after boarded a plane to Paris and relocated his family to Zurich, and in 1949 permanently settled in what was now known as “East Berlin.”
In East Berlin, Brecht founded The Berliner Ensemble, and though he continued to write, his primary focus became directing and teaching the next generation of actors, writers, and dramaturges. He died on August 14, 1956 of a heart attack. Art historian Philip Glahn wrote of Brecht:
“As an artist, he is usually described as developing from a happy anarchist to
a Marxist convert; he has been accused of being a staunch supporter of the
Communist party line, even of being a Stalinist. Yet the few things Brecht ever
held onto were his critical distance, his skeptical humor, and his pragmatic
commitment to observation. He always resisted the urge to fall in with
comfortable social and political mythologies, and his work was persistently
driven by the contradictions and complexities of situating himself and his
audience in an active and contingent relationship between image and reality,
mediation and experience.”
By Ryan McRee, Dramaturg for The Caucasian Chalk Circle