24 Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)



German playwright and filmmaker Bertolt Brecht was born into a middle-class family in Augsburg, Bavaria, in 1898. His mother, a devout Protestant, influenced Brecht’s work, which often employs themes and motifs related to Christian theology. A lifelong committed Marxist, Brecht worked with a series of collaborators to make anti-fascist films and adapt classic works like Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II for the German stage. However, he is best known for his plays and the conceptual dramatic structures that he described initially as “epic” and later as “dialectical” theatre. According to Brecht, this type of theatre was designed to engage the audience directly in a dialogue about current issues by employing audience interaction, images, documentary and commentary effects, and choruses. He rejected the notion of theatrical productions as escapist entertainment. Unlike other playwrights who intended to shock audience members or engage them viscerally, Brecht sought primarily to promote theatre as contemplative experience in which audience members would come to understand themselves better in the context of contemporary events.

Brecht’s best known plays are The Threepenny Opera (1928), Mother Courage and Her Children (1938), The Good Woman of Szechuan (1939), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1943). One of the greatest anti-war plays of the twentieth century, Mother Courage was written by Brecht in response to the Nazi invasion of Poland. To demonstrate the devastating effects of war, Brecht sets the action of the play during the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, which involved all of Europe. Over the course of 12 scenes, he illustrates the personal toll of the war on Mother Courage, a woman who attempts to make a living from the war but pays a heavy price when she loses all three of her children to the war from which she attempts to profit.

Consider while reading:

  1. Generally critics say that Brecht distances the audience from the characters because he has a different purpose in mind than having the audience empathize with the characters. What is that purpose? What are the themes that emerge from the play?
  2. How do we view Mother Courage by the end of the play? Is she a good mother? Is she a noble character? Why or why not?
  3. Is this play a tragedy? Do you see any techniques that are comparable to the traditions of classical (Greek) tragedy in its structure?

Written by Anita Turlington


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Modern World Literature: Compact Edition Copyright © 2020 by Amy Jo Swing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book