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
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books were burned and his citizenship withdrawn.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
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.