Friday, March 28, 2014

A Big Bertolt Brecht Biography

We are weeks away from the opening of Signature Theatre's production of Bretolt Brecht's, The Threepenny Opera. To better help ourselves, our cast / crew, and our patrons, we thought it would be useful to explore the man himself and a bit of his biography and the background surrounding the show. 

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” –  Bertolt Brecht

Brecht’s Legacy 

Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, director and political activist known for his theory and contributions to epic theatre. According to Brecht, a play should first and foremost cause audiences to think intellectually, rather than only aim to emotionally affect them. Brecht contradicted the popular theory that theatre should be as lifelike as possible to create a realistic illusion. Instead, Brecht wanted audiences to be aware that they were viewing a constructed world so that they could critique the characters onstage while they were watching instead of being passive observers swept up in the story.


Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in the medieval city of Augsburg, part of the Bavarian section of the German Empire. Married in 1897, his father was a Catholic and his mother a Protestant. His father worked in a paper factory. His mother was ill with breast cancer most of his young life, which would later influence the creation of some of the women in his plays. He had one brother, Walter, who was born in 1900.

Brecht was a sickly child, having a congenital heart condition and a facial tic. He suffered a heart attack at the age of twelve but soon recovered and continued his education.
A young Brecht.

Like most students, he was educated in Latin and the humanities. Brecht was exposed at a young age to Luther's German translation of the Bible, whose text appears in many of his plays, particularly Mother Courage and her Children. While in school he began writing. By age sixteen, he was writing for a local newspaper and had written his first play, The Bible. By nineteen, he had left school and started doing clerical work for World War I, prevented from more active duty due to health problems. After the war, he resumed his education at the University, intending to study medicine but becoming more interested in literature and philosophy.

Brecht’s curiosity and exploration extended to his sexual life as well. By the age of sixteen, he began to frequent a brothel as part of a conscientious effort to broaden his experiences. Between sixteen and twenty, he apparently pursued eight girls simultaneously, including Paula Banholzer, the woman who gave birth to his illegitimate child in 1919. He is known to have experimented with homosexuality, often inviting literary and musically inclined male friends to his room on weekends in order for them to read erotic compositions.
In 1917 Brecht enrolled as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he would attend Arthur Kutscher's theatre seminar. Although Kutscher had a reputation as something of a theatrical guru, Brecht was unimpressed. He went so far as to harshly criticize one of the instructor's favorite plays, Hanns Johst's The Lonely One, a biographical drama about the life of nineteenth century dramatist C.D. Grabbe. The impetuous young Brecht suggested that he himself could write a better play on the same subject. The result was Brecht's first play, Baal, an effort that Kutscher considered vile and nauseating.

Drums in the Night (1922)
In 1918, Brecht's studies were temporarily interrupted when he was conscripted and had to serve as a medical orderly in World War I. During this period, he wrote his second play, Drums in the Night, which tells the story of a soldier who returns home from the war to find his fiancée engaged to a war profiteer. This was the first of Brecht's plays to be performed, and his theatrical theories had, apparently, already begun to take shape, for he filled the auditorium with banners instructing the audience not to become too emotionally involved in the proceedings. Drums in the Night, which premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele in 1922, drew rave reviews from Herbert Ihering, and even earned Brecht the Kleist Prize, Germany's highest award for dramatic writing. Thus Brecht, from the very beginning, found himself in the spotlight. That same year, the promising young dramatist married the opera singer and actress Marianne Zoff. Their daughter, Hanne Hiob, born in 1923, would become a famous German actress.

Helene Weigel
In 1924, after receiving productions of The Jungle of Cities at Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater and Edward II at the Prussian State Theatre, Brecht moved to Berlin, a move he deemed necessary to continue his dramatic career. During the next few years, Brecht produced a string of well-received plays, the most popular of which was probably The Threepenny Opera, which he adapted from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera along with composer Kurt Weill. In 1929, Brecht married Helene Weigel (he had divorced Marianne Zoff in 1927) who had already borne him a son, Stefan. The new couple also had a daughter, Barbara, who was born shortly after the wedding and who, like Brecht's other daughter, would go on to become an actress.

Brecht and Kurt Weill
However, even as his literary fame was soaring, Brecht found his interests shifting towards politics. In 1927, he had begun to study Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and by 1929 he had embraced Communism. His solidifying political beliefs would soon become evident in his plays as well. Another Brecht/Weill collaboration, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, caused an uproar when it premiered in Leipzig in 1930 with Nazis protesting in the audience.

In February 1933, Bertolt Brecht's career was suddenly and violently interrupted as the Nazis came to power in Germany. The night after the Reichstag (German parliament building) was burned down, Brecht wisely fled with his family to Prague. His books and plays were soon banned in Germany and those who dared stage his plays found their productions unpleasantly interrupted by the police.

The exiled dramatist bounced around from Prague to Vienna to Zurich to the island of Fyn to Finland, where he lived for a while in Villa Marlebäck as a guest of the Finnish author Hella Wuolijoki. During this period of exile, while Brecht awaited a pending visa to the United States, he also completed the plays Mother Courage and her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1941), and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Uri (1941). In May of 1941, Brecht finally received his U.S. visa and relocated to Santa Monica, California.

Brecht before the House of
Un-American Activities
Unfortunately, Brecht's stay in America would not be as successful or as lengthy as he might have hoped. In 1947, during the years of the "red scare," the House Un-American Activities Committee called the playwright to account for his communist activities. Originally, Brecht was one of several witnesses who had refused to testify about their political affiliations. But on October 30, 1947, he appeared before the committee, wearing overalls, smoking a cigar, cracking jokes, and making constant references to the translators who transformed his German statements into English ones he could not comprehend. Although he outwitted his investigators with half-truths and skilful innuendo, Brecht feared the irrational political climate, and shortly after his testimony took a plane to Switzerland, not even waiting to see the opening of his play Galileo in New York.

Brecht and Weigel on the roof of the
Berliner Ensemble
On October 22, 1948, after 15 years of exile, Bertolt Brecht returned to Germany, settling in East Berlin where he was welcomed by the Communist cultural establishment and immediately given facilities to direct Mother Courage at the Deutsches Theater. The following year he founded his own company, the Berliner Ensemble, and in 1954 he was rewarded with his own theatre--the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Brecht quickly discovered, however, that the German Democratic Republic was not quite his ideal brand of Communism, and he was often at odds with his East German hosts.

Brecht wrote very few plays in his last years in Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works, although he did make some attempts at a play following the careers of Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and he was said to be contemplating a play in response to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the time of his death. In addition, he wrote some of his most famous poems during these last years, including the "Buckower Elegies."

In 1955, Brecht received the Stalin Peace Prize. The following year, he contracted a lung inflammation and died of a coronary thrombosis (heart attack) on August 14, 1956.

Bretolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera runs from April 22nd - June 1st at Signature Theatre. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtime information. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Beaches Off Book - Iris Rainer Dart

Signature Theatre's latest and greatest world premiere musical, Beaches, features book and lyrics written by the novel's original author, Iris Rainer Dart. Earlier in the year, the Director of Education, David Zobell had the pleasure of sitting down with Iris during one of Signature's Off Book sessions at the Shirlington Library. Take a look and listen to the video below to find out more about Iris, Beaches, and the amazing work being done on and off the stage at Signature Theatre.

Beaches runs till March 30th, extended due to popular demand. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtimes.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Reviews for Hero Worship Are In.

With Hero Worship going into its final day of performances this coming Monday the 17th, we thought it couldn’t hurt to talk ourselves up some. What follows is a snippet of some of the feedback we have received.
Hero Worship (2014). Photo by Dennis Deloria
“What a terrific evening of theatre!  Joe Calarco has given these talented students a provocative and timely script that forces both us to consider many aspects of what it means to be a soldier, including the sacrifices soldiers make, the impact on their families and the opportunities they have. The serious subject matter is sprinkled with humor that was especially appreciated by us Washington “insiders.” - Bob H.

Hero Worship (2014). Photo by Dennis Deloria
 “This is an emotionally charged play that I personally believe should be presented to a wide audience - amazing story!” – Barbara B.

““Hero Worship” is an extremely informative and at the same time moving theater experience….The student performers are something to behold!  Who would believe that high school student could perform at this professional level with such short preparation time.  Not to be missed.” – Steve K. 

Hero Worship (2014). Photo by Dennis Deloria
Hero Worship performs  March 17th at 8:00 PM. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. To reserve seat, call 703-820-9771.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hero Worship - Words From the Writer

As you may know, Signature in the Schools Hero Worship is slated to have its first public performance this evening at 8:00 pm. We on staff in the Education Department at Signature Theatre thought it would be interesting to hear from the writer of the show himself, Joe Calarco, and his ideas, thoughts, and reasons for this show and this program as a whole.

I’ve been writing for the Signature in the Schools program for the past nine years. Most of the pieces I have written have dealt with, at least in part, some conflict going on in the world either now or in the past. Each year, I try and find some parallel in our contemporary world so that the actors can more passionately dive into their characters and so that the student audiences who come and see the play can more easily relate to what they’re seeing on stage.

Hero Worship (2014). Photo by Matt Strote
This year’s play, like half of the nine plays I have written for the program, focuses on America at War. I realized tonight that by the time I wrote my first play for this program, America was engaged in two wars. By my second year with the program I was ready to write about America’s conflict in Iraq. This year’s play is about D-Day but also focuses on modern teenagers wrestling with the current war we are engaged in. In writing this play I realized that there are students in the program this year who have little to recollection of a time when America has not been at war.

Revolution (2013). Photo by Denni Deloria 
Only a half of one percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, so like much of the country who doesn’t serve or know someone currently serving, for me war and armed conflict can feel distant, like something that is happening “over there. As “up” on current events as I like to think I am, writing these pieces has taught me that I am not nearly as present or aware as I should be.

I think these students learn something as well. What they learn goes far beyond what it means to be a theatre artist. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. They’re doing their own research on the wars covered in the play and on PTSD. Their worldview is expanding as a result of this influx of information. And if there is an argument for why this program should be more funded, and more well known, that is it. I think what Signature Theater and David Zobell, led by Marcia Gardner before him, are doing is unique and vital and is changing young people’s lives for the better.

Un-American (2012). Photo by Dennis Deloria.

Hero Worship performs March 10th and March 17th at 8:00 PM. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. To reserve seat, call 703-820-9771.


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