Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

A. Robert Lauer's Notes for SPAN 4184

Stalin Peace Prize (1949-1956)

  • Biography:  Born in Augsburg, Germany, on 10 February 1898.  Died in [East] Berlin on 14 August 1956.
  • Received Stalin Peace Prize in 1955
  • Important works: 
  • 1.  Three-penny-opera (1928), 
  • 2.  Mahagonny (1930), 
  • 3.  Mother Courage (1940), 
  • 4.  The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943).
  • 5.  The Life of Galileo (1943)
  • 6.  Caucasian Chalk Circle (1954).

(Three-Penny-Opera), 1928


Lincoln Center, New York

(Berlin Komische Oper, 1984)


     Bertolt Brecht's protagonists are morally divided beings (Puntilla, Courage, Azdak, Galileo).  To appreciate them we must divide our moral judgment.  We have to condemn these characters even as we approve them.  They are too complex to be merely admired or blamed.  Brecht's plays have a grayness that is characteristically his.  In Baal, Brecht announces the object of his enduring hatred, contempt, and disbelief: the individual, that is to say, moral experience: "the individual...our age groans too heavily under the weight of this child of the sixteenth century that the nineteenth fed to monstrous size...We are anonymous forces.  Individuality is an arabesque we have discarded.  All the ominous events we have been witnessing in the last twelve years are nothing but a very awkward and longwinded way of burying the concept of the European individual in the grave it has dug for itself."  Brecht was always against tragedy, which requires that one take moral suffering seriously.  He was also opposed to realism, the theatrical form inherited from Ibsen in which the individual plays so large a role.  In A Man's a Man, Brecht expressed his hatred for the individual analytically.  In Three-penny-opera, all moral values are swept away to a music that is overwhelming.  Communism was a way for Brecht of denying the individual and the value of moral experience as such.
     It is the human body which is the hero of every important play Brecht wrote.  The human body in its desire to feed, sustain, and expend itself is the real hero of Mother Courage, Puntilla, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo.  Brecht adored the body.  Brecht was interested neither in condemning his characters nor in justifying them.  His main characters are morally incoherent.  Brecht was not interested in them as individuals, but as striking images of the human body in its assertiveness, natural ectasy, and desire to endure. 
     Puntilla (Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti) is a negative character when he is sober.  When drunk, Puntilla is generous, natural, large minded, and amiable.  This is because he is under the influence of his body.  A great moment of the play: Puntilla dead drunk urinates ecstatically with his chauffeur against a wall: "I couldn't live in the city.  I need the open air, I have to piss freely under the stars.  If I can't have that, what have I?  They say that to do this outdoors is primitive.  But I think it primitive to piss on tile."
     Brecht's characters are negative heroes (Bentley) like Mother Courage.  We are not to approve her morally.  But the affecting thing about her is not her moral consciousness but her vitality, her physical endurance, her ability to go on from horror to horror, her unbearable animality.  All our confusions about her character arise from the error of considering her as an individual, with a moral consciousness of a sort we must condemn or approve.  Courage is not a negative figure; her positive attributes are those of the body, not of the soul.
     Galileo.  Perhaps his best play.  Brecht regarded his protagonist as a criminal for yielding to the pressure of the Church.  He also wanted audiences to condemn Galileo for his cowardice.  Brecht thought science had suffered from Galileo's recantation, and hence, that Galileo was a criminal for not enduring martyrdom.  Galileo is Brecht's anti-Christ, the god who failed us.  But Galileo is charming.  He is a genius and a rogue.  Nietzsche and Kierkegaard said that martyrdom is unjustifiable except in the name of something whose victory is uncertain.  It is not really martyrdom to die for the sake of something you know will succeed.  Hence, according to critic Lionel Abel, there was no need for Galileo to have become a martyr since his ideas, if true, would eventually be accepted.  Galileo is a man interested in eating, drinking, and thinking.  Thought is reduced to a physical activity ("he has thinking bouts.").  The mind, according to Galielo, ought to serve the body ("I donít understand a man who doesn't use his mind to fill his belly.").  Galileo is a representative of the human body, not of the mind or the spirit. 
     On the death of the individual:  A similar conviction about the individual is discoverable in the works of Western writers before and during Brecht's time.  That the individual was dead or dying lies behind Eliot's suspicion of individual insight, Joyce's cult of impersonality, the surrealist's dependence on automatic writing, Lawrence's assertion that he was not interested in describing individuals but only psychic and biological forces.  Brecht never believed the individual in society could be quite real or that moral experience could be anything but an imposture.  He is simply not a humanist. 
     What Brecht affirmed was the body, the human body in its warmth, its weakness, its susceptibility, its appetites, its longing and its thought.  Brecht's best characters are mainly passive, morally inconsequentional, inconsistent.  The live by lies, fraud, and, occasionally, by feats of thought. 

The Good Woman of Setzuan
UMBC Department of Theatre, 2001

Caucasian Chalk Circle
UC-Davis, 1971


     Brecht's plays showed the influence of the Expressionist trend in their loose construction, their treatment of the characters as types rather than individuals, and their highly concentrated poetic language.  Brecht's theories show the influence of all these experiments.  He was convinced that the theater must become a tool of social engineering, a laboratory of social change. 
     In 1797 Goethe and Schiller had jointly presented their point of view in an essay, "On Epic and Dramatic Poetry."  It was against this specific theory that Brecht offered his counter-theory.  Goethe and Schiller said that the epic poet presents the event as totally past, while the dramatic poet presents it as totally present.  The epic poet relates what has happened in calm contemplation.  The actor, on the other hand, is in exactly the opposite position: he represents himself as a definite individual; he wants the spectators to participate in his action, to feel the sufferings of his soul and of his body with him, share his embarrassments and forget their own personalities for the sake of his.  The spectator must not be allowed to rise to thoughtful contemplation; he must passionately follow the action; his imagination is completely silenced. 
     It was this conception that Brecht abhorred, and that he called, knowing that Goethe and Schiller had based their theory on Aristotle's Poetics, the Aristotelian concept of drama, the drama of catharsis by terror and pity, the drama of spectator identification with the actors, the drama of illusion, which tries to create magical effects by conjuring up events which are represented as totally present, while palpably they are not.  Such a theater therefore was a fraud.  Brecht, the rationalist demanded a theater of critical thoughtfulness, an epic theater. 
     Brecht regarded a theater of illusion and identification as downright obscene, and identification with the characters on the stage appeared equally indecent to him.  Such an audience, Brecht argues, may indeed leave the theater purged by its vicarious emotions, but it will have remained uninstructed and unimproved.  The audience in his view should not be made to feel emotions; it should be made to think.  But identification with the characters of the play makes thinking almost impossible.  The theater must not attempt at creating an illusion of present reality (hence, Brecht goes instead to the remote past).  The epic theater is strictly historical; it constantly reminds the audience that it is merely getting a report of past events.  The audience must be discouraged from losing its critical detachment by identification with one or more of the characters: the opposite of identification is the maintenance of a separate existence by being kept apart, alien, strange.  Verfremdungseffekt (the effect of making something strange, foreign, alienated, distant from us and the present moment).  The author can make characters introduce themselves directly to the audience, or flash their names onto a screen.  He can tell the audience in advance how the play will end, thus freeing their minds from the distraction of suspense.  The epic theater alone could present the complexity of the human condition in an age in which the life of individuals could no longer be understood in isolation from the powerful trend of social, economical, or historical forces affecting the lives of millions. 
     At first Brecht declared that his theater was strictly didactic.  Later he made it a place of entertainment, but not one of catharsis.  Rather, the pleasure of theater consisted in the discovery of a new truth.
     In the epic theater there is no attempt to create fixed, highly individualized dramatic characters.  Character emerges from the social function of the individual and changes with that function.  Character is always how a given person is going to act in a specified set of circumstances and conditions.  The story unfolds in a number of separate situations, each rounded and complete in itself.  The juxtaposition and montage of contrasting episodes.  The Aristotelian drama can only be understood as a whole, while the epic drama can be cut into slices which will continue to make sense and give pleasure.  Decor, music, and choreography maintain their independence.  They are autonomous elements which instead of pulling in the same direction as the words, enter into a dialectical contrapuntal relationship with them.  The music does not merely express the mood of the words: it often stands in contradiction to them, comments on them, or reveals the falsity of the sentiments they express.
     The epic theater does not use decor and music to produce a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk with its diabolically strong narcotic and hypnotic effect and concerted onslaught of the sense, but to destroy the illusion of reality.  The spectator of the dramatic theater says "Life is like that."  The spectator of the epic theater says: "Life does not have to be like that.  There are options." 
     The actor should not regard himself as impersonating the character so much as narrating ("quoting") the actions of another person at a definite time in the past.  A theater which aims at preventing the identification of the audience with the characters cannot allow the identification of the actor with the character either.  The epic actor does not intend to put his audience into a trance, he must also keep himself free from any state of trance.  His muscles must remain relaxed.  The frantic outburst reflects the highest peak of acting of the dramatic style of acting.  The Brechtian actor is always loose limbed and relaxed, always clearly in control of himself and his emotions.  He must also be able to suggest to the audience that the character's behavior is by no means the only possible course of action, that there are always alternatives.  The actor is always conscious of the presence of the audience, unlike the Stanislavsky ideal of the actor who is completely alone and wrapped up in himself and unaware of being observed. 
     The study of human nature is replaced by that of human relations.  Not the characters but the story in which they are involved becomes the main concern of the epic, narrative, historical, theatre.  Everything depends on the story.  Character acting and reacting upon each other becomes the basic unit of the Brechtian theater. Gestus: the whole range of the outward signs of social relationships, including deportment, intonation, facial expression.  Each scene of a play has its basic Gestus (Grundgestus).  The Gestus (the correct stance, movement, and tone of voice) assumes greater importance than the supposed inner life or emotions of these characters.  By analyzing the action the actors determine the basic story line (Fabel) which is then broken down into smaller and smaller elements until each scene appears as the expression of one simple, basic action, which can be translated into a single sentence.  This sentence or title ("Woyzeck buys a cheap knife to kill his wife") contains the basic Gestus of the scene which the producer and the actors will now have to put on the stage.  The producer is only concerned with bringing out its social content and significance. 
     As Brecht tried to banish trance, illusion, magical effects, and orgies of emotion from the theater, he tried to replace them by lucidity, rationality, and elegance.  The stage must be bathed in light.  Brecht insisted that the sources of light should remain visible to the public.  Nor was the curtain to be used to allow illusions to be prepared in secret (hence his use of the half curtain).  The source of the music must also be visible, sometimes by placing the musicians on the stage itself (this would be the contrary of Richard Wagner's innovation of  "hiding" the orchestra below the stage).  The songs interrupt the action and give the audience an opportunity to reflect.  The coming of such an interruption is usually announced beforehand by some visible change on the stage; the title of the song may flash on to a screen, special lights may be put on, or a symbolic emblem (flags and trumpets) may come down from the flies. 

Richard Wagner's "hidden" orchestra

Bertolt Brecht's "Gestus"

        To avoid identification with the character, the actors translated their texts in the third person in the past tense.  Another device for inhibiting the identification of actor and character is the inclusion of all stage directions in the text spoken during rehearsals.  In Brecht's Antigone (1948), the actors not involved in the action sat in a semicircle at the back of the stage.  Brecht adivised them they should read, make small movements, put their make up, or leave the stage quietly. 
     The Brechtian theater is a theater designed to arouse indignation in the audience, dissatisfaction, a realization of contradictions.  It is a theater supremely fitted for parody, caricature, and denunciation, therefore essentially a negative theater.  That is why Brecht's plays conspicuously lack positive heroes, why the good characters are invariably crushed and defeated.  If Brecht believed that the epic theater was the truly Marxist theater, the authorities of the Communist world certainly did not.  They preferred the Stanislavsky method of identification and illusion, which was the official acting method of the Soviet Union. 

Brecht's half-curtain

Stanislavsky's method-acting


     8.  "The Epic Theatre and its Difficulties" (1927):  "The essential point of the epic theatre is perhaps that it appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator's reason.  Instead of sharing an experience the spectator must come to grips with things." 
     13.  "The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre" (1930):  "Our existing opera is a culinary opera."  "The irrationality of opera lies in the fact that rational elements are employed, solid reality is aimed at, but at the same time it is all washed out by the music.  A dying man is real.  If at the same time he sings we are translated to the sphere of the irrational (if the audience sang at the sight of him the case would be different)."  "The pleasure grows in proportion to the degree of unreality." 
     "The modern theater is the epic theatre.  [p. 37.  LIST]
"When the epic theatre's methods begin to penetrate the opera the first result is a radical separation of the elements.  So long as the expression Gesamtkunstwerk ('integrated work of art') means that the integration is a muddle, so long as the arts are supposed to be 'fused' together, the various elements will all be equally degraded, and each will act as a mere 'feed' to the rest.  The process of fusion extends to the spectator, who gets thrown into the melting pot too and becomes a passive (suffering) part of the total work of art.  Witchcraft of this sort must of course be fought against.  Whatever is intended to produce hypnosis is likely to induce sordid intoxication, or create a fog: this must be given up.  Words, music, and setting must become more independent of one another.  TEXT:  We had to make something straightforward and instructive of our fun.  The form employed was that of the moral tableau.  The tableau is performed by the characters in the play.  The text had to be neither moralizing nor sentimental, but to put morals and sentimentality on view.  Equally important was the spoken word and the written word (of the titles). 
     "In our present society the old opera cannot be 'wished away.'  Its illusions have an important social function.  The drug is irreplaceable; it cannot be done without."  [The life imposed on us is too hard; it brings us too many agonies, disappointments, impossible tasks.  In order to stand it we have to have some kind of palliative.  There seem to be three classes of these: overpowering distractions, which allow us to find our sufferings unimportant, pseudo satisfactions which reduce them, and drugs which make us insensitive to them."] 

A "Gesamntkunstwerk" production (Troika Ranch 04)

Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal (a perfect Gesamntkunstwerk)

     20.  "Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction" (1957):  "The epic theatre was often objected to as moralizing too much.  Yet in the epic theatre moral arguments only took second place.  Its aim was less to moralize than to observe.  The object of our inquiry was not just to arouse moral objections to such circumstances.  We were not in fact speaking in the name of morality but in that of the victims.  Stylistically speaking, there is nothing at all that new about the epic theatre.  Its expository character and its emphasis on virtuosity bring it close to the old Asiatic theater.  Didactic tendencies are to be found in the medieval mystery plays and the classical Spanish theatre, and also in the theatre of the Jesuits. 
     23.  "On the Use of Music in an Epic Theatre" (1957):  Music introduced variety but must be separated from the other elements.  3po (1928):  The small orchestra was visible on the stage.  Titles appeared before songs were sung.  The actors changed their positions before the songs would start.  The musical items had the immediacy of a ballad and were of a reflective and moralizing nature ("Song concerning the Insufficiency of Human Endeavour").  The music was supposed to strip bare the middle class corpus of ideas. 
     The epic theater is chiefly concerned with the attitudes which people adopt towards one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant.  The concern of the epic theatre is thus eminently practical.  Human behaviour is shown as alterable; man himself as dependent on certain political and economic factors and at the same time as capable of altering them.  The spectator is given the chance to criticize human behaviour from a social point of view, and the scene is played as a piece of history. 
     38.  "A Short Organum for the Theatre" (1949):  Theater consists in this:  in making live representations of reported or invented happenings between human beings and doing so with a view to entertainment.  It needs no other passport than fun.  Yet there are weaker (simple) and stronger (complex) pleasures.  And different periods' pleasures varied naturally according to the system under which people lived in society at the time.  The theater is still free to find enjoyment in teaching and inquiring.  Even the wholly anti-social can be a source of enjoyment to society so long as it is presented forcefully and on the grand scale.  It then often proves to have considerable powers of understanding and other unusually valuable capacities, applied admittedly to a destructive end.  Even the bursting flood of a vast catastrophe can be appreciated in all its majesty by society, if society knows how to master it; then we make it our own.  For such an operation as this we can hardly accept the theatre as we see it before us.  Let us go into one of these houses and observe the effect which it has on the spectatores.  Looking about us, we see somewhat motionless figures in a peculiar condition: they seem strenuously to be tensing all their muscles, except where these are flabby and exhausted.  They scarcely communicate with each other; their relations are those of a lot of sleepers.  True, their eyes are open, but they stare rather than see, just as they listen rather than hear.  They look at the stage as if in a trance: an expression which comes from the Middle Ages, the days of witches and priests. 
     The alienation effect:  A representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.  The classical and medieval theatre alienated its characters by making them wear human or animal masks; the Asiatic theatre even today uses musical and pantomimic V effects.  Such barriers were certainly a barrier to empathy.  The new alienations are only designed to free socially conditioned phenomena from that stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today.  It must amaze its public, and this can be achieved by a technique of alienating the familiar.  This technique allows the theatre to make use in its representations of the new social scientific method known as dialectical materialism.  In order to unearth society's laws of motion this method treats social situations as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies.  It regards nothing as existing except in so far as it changes, in other words is in disharmony with itself.  In order to produce V effects, the actor has to discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays.  Aiming not to put his audience into a trance.  His way of speaking has to be free from parsonical sing-song and from all those cadences which lull the spectator so that the sense gets lost.  At no moment must he go so far as to be wholly transformed into the character played.  The verdict: 'he didn't act Lear, he was Lear' would be an annihilating blow to him.  His feelings must not at bottom be those of the character, so that the audience's may not at bottom be those of the character either.  The actor must appear on the stage in a double role (e.g., as Charles Laughton [the actor] and as Galileo [the character]).  Also he need not pretend that the events taking place on the stage have never been rehearsed, and are now happening for the first and only time.  It should be apparent all through his performance that even at the start and in the middle he knows how it ends and he must thus maintain a calm independence throughout.  The coherence of the character is in fact shown by the way in which its individual qualities contradict one another. 
     The choice of viewpoint is a major element of the actor's art, and it has to be decided outside the theatre.  Like the transformation of nature, that of society is a liberating act; and it is the joys of liberation which the theater of a scientific age has got to convey. 
     The actors should sometimes swap roles with their partners during rehearsal and not dominate the others by making them terrified and attentive (to him).  If the part is played by somebody of the opposite sex the sex of the character will be more clearly brought out. 
     The actors ought not to drop into song but should clearly mark it off from the rest of the text; and this is best reinforced by a few theatrical methods such as changing the lighting or inserting a title.  The music must strongly resist the smooth incorporation which is generally expected of it and turns it into an unthinking slavery.  Music does not accompany except in the form of comment.  Music can make its point in a number of ways and with full independence, and can react in its own manner to the subjects dealt with; at the same time it can also quite simply help to lend variety to the entertainment. 
     The stage designer gets considerable freedom as soon as he no longer has to give the illusion of a room or a locality when he is building his sets.  It is enough for him to give hints (i.e., use of reversible flags to show changes in political situation).
     Elegant movement and graceful grouping can alienate and inventive miming greatly helps the story. 
     So let us invite all the sister arts of the drama, not in order to create an integrated work of art in which they all offer themselves up and are lost, but so that together with the drama they may further the common task in their different ways; and their relations with one another consist in this: that they lead to mutual alienation. 
     Their task is to entertain the children of the scientific age, and to do so with sensuousness and humor.
     43.  "Stage Design for the Epic Theatre" (1951):  Just to copy reality is not enough.  Reality needs not only to be recognized but also to be understood.  It is more important nowadays for the set to tell the spectator he's in a theatre than to tell him he's in, say, Aulis.  The best thing is to show the machinery, the ropes and the flies.  If the set represents a town it must look like a town that has been built to last precisely two hours.  Everything must be provisional.  The materials of the set must be visible. 
     52.  "Can the Present day World be Reproduced by Means of Theatre?" (1955):  The present day world can only be described to present-day people if it is described as capable of transformation.  In an age whose science is in a position to change nature to such an extent as to make the world seem almost habitable, man can no longer describe man as a victim, the object of a fixed but unknown environment. 
     53.  "Appendices to the Short Organum" (1960):  True V effects are of a combative nature.  Every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living.  The bourgeois theatre's performances always aim at smoothing over contradictions, at creating false harmony, at idealization.  Conditions are reported as if they could not be otherwise; characters as individuals, incapable by definition of being divided, cast in one block, manifesting themselves in the most various situations, likewise for that matter existing without any situation at all.  If there is any development it is always steady, never by jerks, the developments always take place within a definite framework which cannot be broken through.  None of this is like reality, so a realistic theater must give it up.  For a genuine story to emerge it is most important that the scenes should to start with be played quite simply one after another, using the experience of real life, without taking account of what follows or even of the play's overall sense.  The story then unreels in a contradictory manner; the individual scenes retain their meaning; they yield and stimulate a wealth of ideas; and their sum, the story, unfolds authentically without any cheap all pervading idealization (one word leading to another) or directing of subordinate, purely functional component parts to an ending in which everything is resolved. 
     A quotation from Lenin: "It is impossible to recognize the various happenings in the world in their independence of movement, their spontaneity of development, their vitality of being, without recognizing them as a unity of opposites."
     What about the art of primitive peoples, madmen, and children?  "We suspect that unduly subjective representations of the world have antisocial effects."
     RE: FAUST'S TRAGEDY:   "Whoever wishes to rise higher on earth must inevitably create pain, [that] the need to pay for development and satisfaction is the unavoidable tragedy of life  i.e., the cruellest and most commonplace principle: that you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs." [p. 280].

Goucher College, 2002



 Mother Courage

on 29 October 2003
A. Robert Lauer
Revised on
13 November 2009