Brecht: A Brief Overview

Who was Bertolt Brecht?

Much has been written on Brecht, his life and his ideas. This page simply sketches some of the most important aspects that relate Brecht to his times and the ideas he developed for the theatre.

Born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1898, Brecht lived through a great deal of upheaval in his life. The First World War (1914-18) coincided with Brecht’s late teens, and he started writing full-length plays in response to the chaos it produced.

After WWI, Germany changed government systems: the one-time monarchy became a republic, run by elected politicians. The Weimar Republic (1918-33) endured economic and political instability, as well as fostering a proliferation of art forms in the theatre and elsewhere. In the mid-1920s, Brecht encountered Marxism and began to think about how its ideas might affect the way he made theatre.

The Nazis under Hitler became the largest party in the German parliament in 1932 and entrenched their power in 1933. Brecht, a prominent critic of the Nazis, went into exile at this time, and spent the years from 1933-41 in various European countries, moving from state to state as the Nazis continued to expand their power base.

Brecht left Europe in 1941 and spent the rest of his exile in the United States of America. During his exile, Brecht had precious little access to theatres and instead spent much of his creative energy writing plays, poems and theoretical essays. At the end of 1947, he left the USA, returned to Europe, and resettled in Germany in late 1948, having returned to the theatre in Switzerland earlier that year.

Brecht chose socialist East Germany over capitalist West Germany, and founded a theatre company, together with his wife, Helen Weigel, in 1949. The Berliner Ensemble offered Brecht a space to work through the ideas he formulated both in the Weimar Republic and in exile. The company gained a world-wide reputation in the mid-1950s after successful tours to Paris, yet Brecht did not live to see the triumph in London – he died in August 1956, shortly before the company left Berlin.

Brecht thus experienced a turbulent world first-hand and sought to understand how such instability could occur and how his approaches to theatre might represent a dynamic, active world that was also capable of change.