Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter 1: Introduction

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter 1: Introduction

Article excerpt

"Brecht is a difficult phenomenon..."1

On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building, the seat of the German parliament in Berlin, was set ablaze in what was alleged to be a communistic plot to unsettle the German government. Marxist playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, a shrewd political observer, accurately anticipated the violent and repressive response by the Nazis and the following day fled Germany with his wife, Jewish actor Helen Weigel and their two children. Brecht was only thirty- five at the time but had already established himself as an important literary figure gaining notoriety for widely acclaimed and commercially successful productions like Baal which premiered in 1923 and The Threepenny Opera which premiered in 1928.

Brecht's introduction to Marxism came in the middle part of the 1920's. In 1926, Brecht wrote, "it was only when I read Lenin's State and Revolution (!) and then Marx's Kapital that I understood, philosophically, where I stood" (Brecht, et. al. 2003: 35). By the early 1930's Brecht had established what would become long lasting and intimate friendships with prominent German Marxists. These friendships included ones with critical theorist, Walter Benjamin, novelist Bernard von Brentano, composers, Kurt Weill (who he collaborated with on The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and other projects) and Hanns Eisler (who he collaborated with on The Measures Taken, The Mother, Kuhle Wampe and other projects) and the influential philosopher Karl Korsch whose discussion groups and classes Brecht attended.

These associations, along with his theatrical successes and his reputation for keen intellect made Brecht an important and influential leftintellectual in Germany at the time and thus a potential target for the Nazi aggression that followed the Reichstag fire. In fear of the Nazis and their designs to eradicate Marxism, Brecht spent fifteen years in exile. He first went to Denmark, then to Sweden, Finland and the US in an attempt to stay ahead of the progressing German military. He spent 1941-47 in Santa Monica where he often associated with other exiled German intellectuals like Thomas Mann, Fritz Lang, Lion Feuchtwanger, Hanns Eisler, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. He awaited the conclusion of the war in California and in 1947, returned to Europe, living in Switzerland, in preparation for a return to Germany. In late 1948, Brecht arrived in Berlin and the following year established the Berliner Ensemble with state aid from the newly founded German Democratic Republic.

Brecht died in 1956, in the GDR leaving behind a formidable artistic legacy. He is perhaps best known for creating major theatrical works such as: Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Woman of Szechwan, Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and his theoretical writings which attempted to create a revolutionary theatre. Brecht began theorizing about theatre and politics in his late teens and early twenties. However, his efforts intensified later in his exile years where he continued to clarify and refine important concepts to his theory of 'epic theatre.'

During his short lifetime, Brecht produced copious writings which included more than fifty plays, adaptations, operas and screenplays, several collections of poetry, various works of literary prose and volumes of theoretical writings and musings on the theatre, art, politics, society, history, culture and other topics.2

The large majority of Brecht's works have been translated into English through a series published by Methuen as well as various other sources. English speakers are greatly indebted to the translation efforts of National Book Award winner for translation Ralph Manheim as well as those provided by John Willett. Together they are responsible for editing and translating many of Brecht's works into English. In English translation, Brecht's writings consist of nine volumes of plays containing translations of Brecht's own notes on the plays, a volume of collected works of poetry which also includes notes from Brecht, three volumes of letters, diary and journal entries, a collection of short stories, a book of parables, a novel, three edited collections of essays and dozens of other miscellaneous essays, fragments and theatrical and literary works. …

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