2012-02-29
2012-03-20

Brecht Bertolt

(1898–1956), German writer, journalist, director and theatre theorist. One of the most important figures of twentieth-century world theatre. He made his debut in 1922 with the drama Drums in the Night. Initially his works made reference to the aesthetics of German expressionism while, at the same time, revealing a critical attitude towards its ideology (Baal and In the Jungle of Cities, both 1923). He first employed the pioneering techniques of his version of epic theatre in the staging of his own didactic play Man Equals Man (premiere 1926, first staging by Brecht 1928), combining grotesque action with elements of the circus and cabaret. A great and unexpected success came with The Threepenny Opera (1928) co-written with composer Kurt Weil, with further musical dramas emerging from this collaboration – Happy End (1929) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) – strengthening Brecht’s position and they became the standard examples of musical epic theatre. In the early 1930s he campaigned actively against fascism and created, among other things, a cycle of one-act didactic plays for workers’ theatres (He Said Yes and He Said No, 1930) while also working on Saint Joan of the Stockyards (first performed in 1959). After Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht left Germany, subsequently living in countries including Denmark, the USSR, Switzerland and the USA. Between 1933 and 1949 he wrote his most mature works: Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), Life of Galileo and The Good Person of Szechwan (both 1943), The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1947) and Mr Puntila and his Man Matti (1948). While in exile he also wrote one of his most important theoretical treatises ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’ (1948). Brecht returned to Germany in 1949 and worked in East Berlin until the end of his life, running the famous Berliner Ensemble, where he staged both his own texts as well as works of other authors (JMR Lenz’s Der Hofmeister, 1950), while also elaborating and developing his own theatrical concepts. In all the fields of his activity he aimed at transforming the theatre into an effective weapon on the ideological battlefield that should inspire and strengthen a critical attitude towards reality, which should lead to revolutionary changes in the social order based in the spirit of communist ideology. In recognising the theatre of illusion as a tool used by those in power to enforce their vision of the world, Brecht proposed a thoroughgoing destruction of illusion on stage by aiming to induce an alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) using all means available to the director, actors and set designers. This effect should impact on spectators in such a way as to ensure that instead of accepting the false naturalness of what is presented, they should perceive thanks to the theatre the strangeness of situations, events and social processes. Brecht was also the main creator of epic theatre, whose primary characteristic is a rejection of the Aristotelian model of theatre based on the ‘imitation of action’ and a dramaturgy based on tension rising until a culmination. This classical model was shattered by introducing into performances elements of narration or various other forms of commentary and interludes (including the famous songs). His dramatic works and his theatrical theory and practice have had a huge influence on twentieth-century art, becoming a model for political theatre and source of inspiration for artists working towards breaking with theatrical illusion. Grotowski, considered to represent a form of theatre located at the opposite end of the scale to Brecht’s – and himself also considering his theatre to be so – nevertheless held Brecht in high esteem, having noted on several occasions that Brecht’s theatre is an example of a different, but equally effective, mode of theatrical experimentation. In spite of the all the (quite obvious) differences and distinct traditions to which both artists referred (Brecht is perceived as the complete opposite of Stanislavski), there are noticeable Brechtian inspirations in the practice and performances of Grotowski. They were evident in Grotowski’s early performances staged by the Theatre of 13 Rows. Among these inspirations are: the breaking of illusion by direct commentary on the action on stage (Orpheus, Cain, Shakuntalā); interlacing the performance with elements from the real world beyond the stage (information and commentaries on current political events in the version of Pechowcy [The Unfortunates] staged in Opole ); or, using elements of grotesque cabaret and music hall (Cain). Brechtian influences are also evident in the ‘factomontages’ created as part of the Estrada publicystyczna (Journalistic stage) project.

Bibliography: 

Bertolt Brecht: Wartość mosiądzu, wybór, układ i noty Werner Hecht, przekład zespołowy, Warszawa 1975.

Zbigniew Osiński: Grotowski o Brechcie i jego teatrze, [w:] tenże: Jerzy Grotowski. Źródła, inspiracje, konteksty. Prace z lat 1999–2009, Gdańsk, 2009, s. 157–186.