A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, in February 1898, studied medicine in Munich and served in an army hospital during World War I. He makes this list because of his plays, and because of his developing an innovative dramatic theory known as "epic theatre." His theory recommended that the audience disassociate itself from any "illusion" created by the play and from any emotional involvement with the characters, but instead, concentrate on its ideas. Paradoxically, any audience of which I was part at a Brecht play was completely absorbed by the artistry of what they were watching and few, if any, I suspect, "disassociated" themselves from it to ponder on the thought. Another paradox is that Brecht himself, according to those who know him, was a completely humorless man, while his plays are filled with delightfully ironic humor.

His satirical operas written with composer Kurt Weill, "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" displeased the rising Nazi party, and in 1933 Brecht left Germany , where his books were burned and his citizenship withdrawn. After living in Denmark, he arrived in the United States in 1941. He was probably one of the few real Communists called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee, who let him go when he claimed he was not a Communist. While in the U.S. between 1941 and 1947, he wrote some of his best plays, including "Mother Courage and her Children," "Galileo," "The Good Woman of Setzuan," and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." In 1949 he went to East Berlin to help stage "Mother Courage" with his wife Helene Weigel in the title role. There they formed their own company, the Berliner Ensemble, with whom he worked until he died of a heart attack in 1956.

"The Threepenny Opera," based on John Gay's eighteenth-century "The Beggar's Opera" is one the best known Brecht-Weill works. It enjoyed an extended run at the off-Broadway DeLys theater in the fifties, with Lotte Lenya recreating her original role of Jenny the prostitute. Miss Lenya, Weill's wife, also appears in the German film of the work. Brecht sets the action in Dickensian London, with the beggars organized along the lines of a business that exploits its workers and is prone to corruption. Criminal MacHeath, Mackie "the knife," is saved from the gallows in a last-minute rescue. "Mahagonny," performed both at the Metropolitan Opera House and the Coliseum in London by the English National Opera, satirizes the materialism that destroys the city of Mahagonny when invaded by cynical exploiters. The production at the Met was taped and shown on television.

In my association with the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) in the fifties, I was privileged to watch Robert Breen stage Brecht's "Galileo" with Charles Laughton in the title role in the first ANTA Play Series. The characterization of Galileo is fascinating to watch as it develops from obedient service to rebellion and finally capitulation. Both "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" with Juliet Stevenson and "Mother Courage" with Diana Rigg have been staged in recent years at the Royal National Theatre in London. For the former, the entire Olivier Theatre was rearranged in circular fashion; the latter was especially effective both in the characterization by Miss Rigg and the humor and irony of the action, dialogue, and songs.

The most recent production of "Galileo" at the National Theatre in London, with Simon Russell Beale in the title role, drew praise from critics and audiences alike. See the description in Major Modern Plays.