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
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.
(An article from www.gradesaver.com/author/bertolt-brecht/)
Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in the medieval city of
, 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
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 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
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. Berlin
|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
1930 with Nazis protesting in the audience. Leipzig
In February 1933, Bertolt Brecht's career was suddenly and violently interrupted as the Nazis came to power in
The night after the Reichstag (German parliament building) was burned down,
Brecht wisely fled with his family to Germany .
His books and plays were soon banned in Prague and those who dared stage
his plays found their productions unpleasantly interrupted by the police. Germany
The exiled dramatist bounced around from
Prague to Vienna to Zurich to the island
of Fyn to , 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 Finland ,
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 United States U.S.
visa and relocated to . Santa Monica,
Brecht before the House of
Unfortunately, Brecht's stay in
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 America Switzerland, not even waiting to see the opening
of his play Galileo in . New
|Brecht and Weigel on the roof of the |
On October 22, 1948, after 15 years of exile, Bertolt Brecht returned to
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.