Saturday, February 11, 2006

Brecht Backgrounder

Born 108 years ago this February in Bavaria, Bertolt Brecht studied medicine and served in an army hospital during World War I. His first poems were published and his first plays produced in the early 1920s.

By 1924 he was becoming a central figure in Berlin theatre, in a particularly frenzied and creative period in Europe and specifically in Germany under the Weimar Republic. Among the intellectual and political currents swirling around him were Dada, Futurism and Marxism, as well as the slowly growing influences of Nazism.

As a poet he was said to be influenced by Rimbaud, Villion and Kipling, and as a playwright by Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. Asian mask theatre as well as Bavarian folk plays and fairground entertainments were also said to be influences on the development of his “epic theatre” style, with its use of music, titles and screens. Brecht collaborated with musical composer Kurt Weill in 1928 for his most famous play, The Threepenny Opera.

By the early 1930s, Brecht’s anti-bourgeois and anti-Fascist politics led him to the Communist Party, and exile from Hitler’s Germany. He first escaped to Scandinavia, where in a feverish few weeks, he wrote what many consider his greatest play, Mother Courage and Her Children.

Brecht then escaped Nazi Europe to the United States in 1941, but after World War II, had to escape back to Europe in 1947 before the advance of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. In the U.S. he’d lived in Santa Monica, California, and was employed writing scripts for Hollywood (he’d collaborated on films in pre-war Germany.) Like other European exiles in Hollywood, he felt culturally isolated, intellectually starved and creatively stifled.

He returned to Berlin in 1949 to stage what remains the definitive version of Mother Courage and Her Children. Among his other famous plays written in the 1940s are The Life of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (which will also be produced on the HSU campus by the Young Actors Guild of the North Coast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, directed by Jean Bazemore, Feb. 28-Mar.3 at the Van Duzer theatre. )

Brecht lived in East Germany, though the Communists disapproved of his aesthetics and Western Europe and America disapproved of his politics. He did see some of his plays become triumphant productions, and he worked with the American theatre guru, Eric Bentley, insuring that his work would have a life in America. His poetry won a widespread readership. He died of a heart attack in 1956.


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