Feb 102019

Today is the birthday (1898) of Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, known professionally as Bertolt Brecht, a German theorist of theatric practice, playwright, and poet. I played the role of the singer in a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle when I was 17, so I have been aware of Brecht’s work for 50 years. His writing collective adapted John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, with Brecht’s lyrics set to music by Kurt Weill, and retitled it The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-threepenny-opera/ It was the biggest hit in Berlin of the 1920s and remains popular worldwide. Thus, it is the work most people think of when they think of Brecht (if they think of him at all). I am much more attracted to his other works, although I find their political message a bit overplayed and the humor, forced (or, maybe, dated).

Some time in either 1920 or 1921, Brecht took a small part in the political cabaret of the Munich comedian Karl Valentin. Brecht’s diaries for the next few years record numerous visits to see Valentin perform. Brecht compared Valentin to Charlie Chaplin, for his “virtually complete rejection of mimicry and cheap psychology”.

Brecht’s first full-length play, Baal (1918), arose in response to an argument in a drama seminar, initiating a trend that persisted throughout his career of creative activity that was generated by a desire to counter another work (both others’ and his own). He wrote (ironically, of course), “Anyone can be creative, it’s rewriting other people that’s a challenge.” Brecht completed his second major play, Drums in the Night, in February 1919.

Between November 1921 and April 1922 Brecht met many influential people in the Berlin arts scene, at the time an extraordinary mix of ideas and creativity. Amongst them was the playwright Arnolt Bronnen with whom he established a joint venture, the Arnolt Bronnen / Bertolt Brecht Company. Brecht changed the spelling of his first name to Bertolt to rhyme with Arnolt. In 1922 while still living in Munich, Brecht came to the attention of an influential Berlin critic, Herbert Ihering:

At 24 the writer Bert Brecht has changed Germany’s literary complexion overnight”—he enthused in his review of Brecht’s first play to be produced, Drums in the Night—”[he] has given our time a new tone, a new melody, a new vision. […] It is a language you can feel on your tongue, in your gums, your ear, your spinal column.

In 1923, Brecht wrote a scenario for what was to become a short slapstick film, Mysteries of a Barbershop, directed by Erich Engel and starring Karl Valentin. Despite a lack of success at the time, its experimental inventiveness and the subsequent success of many of its contributors have meant that it is now considered one of the most important films in German film history. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGJ3pATeJPY

In 1924 Brecht worked with the novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger (whom he had met in 1919) on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II that proved to be a milestone in Brecht’s early theatrical and dramaturgical development. It constituted his first attempt at collaborative writing and was the first of many classic texts he was to adapt. As his first solo directorial début, he later credited it as the germ of his