Eschewing realism, Brecht sought to “alienate” his audience from the performance itself in order to encourage revolutionary action. Brecht challenged the emotional manipulation that dominated the theatre of his own time. Instead, he argued that epic theatre ought to appeal to a spectator’s reason, rather than their feelings. Drawing from the melodramatic style that dominated theatre in the early 19th century, he sought to constantly break the fourth wall, and remind his audience they were merely witnessing a production. He also utilized modern technology, to help enhance the effect of alienation. Perhaps as a result, the content of his plays were often not that subtle, such as in his play The Measures Taken, where at one point the protagonist called The Young Comrade states “We will march forward and propagate the teaching of the Communist Classics: World Revolution.”
Through much of Brecht’s career as a playwright he collaborated often with Kurt Weill, their partnership most notably produced the satirical, Threepenny Opera, to wide critical acclaim. As with many leftists, once the Nazi’s rose to power Brecht (along with Weill, who was Jewish) fled Germany. In 1933, Weill and Brecht, living in Paris, collaborated on The Seven Deadly Sins, before Brecht eventually left France for Denmark. During this time, Brecht traveled across Western Europe, until on the eve of World War II when he eventually fled to the United States.
Brecht’s life in the United States came not without its complications. Although Brecht continued to produce famous works, including writing for various Hollywood films, in the midst of the Cold War Brecht was accused (rather unsurprisingly) of being a communist, and he was required to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Famously during his testimony he was read an English translation of one of his own “revolutionary” poems, and when asked if he had wrote it, he responded drolly, “No, I wrote a German poem, but that is very different from this thing.” The day after his testimony, Brecht left the United States for Europe.
Bertolt Brecht spent the last years of his life living in East Berlin, continuing to write poems and plays. Though Brecht largely supported the East German Communist government, this support wavered at different times, such as when he rebuked the government for its suppression of a popular uprising in 1953. In 1956, “Poor Bertolt Brecht” as he often referred to himself, passed away of a heart attack, but his impressive influence on theatre continues to be felt today.
Brecht, Bertolt, The Measures Taken. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. New York: Arcade Publishing. 1930.
Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre. Ed. John Willett. Macmillan Publishing. 1964.
Brecht, Bertolt, “Difficulties of the Epic Theatre.” Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, Edward Dimendberg. University of California Press. 1994. p. 539
Encyclopedia Britannica, Bertolt Brecht. Web. March 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bertolt-Brecht
Jones, Josh, Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Open Culture. November 2012. Web. March 2018. http://www.openculture.com/2012/11/bertolt_brecht_testifies_before_the_house_un-american_activities_committee_1947.html