The Life and Work of Playwright Berthold Brecht

The German Playwright Who Used the Stage to Express His Political Views

One of the most provocative and famous playwrights of the 20th-century, Berthold Brecht wrote popular plays like '"Mother Courage and Her Children" and "Three Penny Opera." Brecht has been a great influence on modern theater and his plays continue to address societal concerns.

Who Was Berthold Brecht?

Playwright Eugene Berthold Brecht (also known as Bertolt Brecht) was deeply influenced by Charlie Chaplin and Karl Marx.

 This strange combination of inspiration produced Brecht’s twisted sense of humor as well as the political beliefs within his plays.

Brecht  was born on February 10th, 1898 and died on  August 14th, 1956. Aside from his dramatic work, Berthold Brecht also wrote poetry, essays, and shorts stories. ​

Brecht's Life and Political Views

Brecht was raised in a middle-class family in Germany, although he often fabricated stories of an impoverished childhood. As a young man, he was attracted to fellow artists, actors, cabaret musicians, and clowns. As he began to write plays of his own, he discovered that the theater was the perfect forum to express social and political criticism.

Brecht developed a style known as “Epic Theatre.” In this medium, actors did not strive to make their characters realistic. Instead, each character represented a different side of an argument. Brecht’s “Epic Theatre” presented multiple viewpoints and then let the audience decide for themselves.

Does this mean Brecht didn’t play favorites? Certainly not. His dramatic works blatantly condemn fascism, but they also endorse communism as an acceptable form of government.

His political views developed from his life experiences. Brecht fled Nazi Germany before the onset of World War II. After the war, he willingly moved to Soviet-occupied East Germany and became a proponent of the communist regime.

Brecht’s Major Plays

Brecht's most acclaimed work is "Mother Courage and Her Children" (1941). Although set in the 1600s, the play is relevant to contemporary society. It is often regarded as one of the finest anti-war plays.

Not surprisingly, "Mother Courage and Her Children" has frequently been revived in recent years. Many colleges and professional theaters have produced the show, perhaps to express their views on modern day warfare.

Brecht's most famous musical collaboration is "Three Penny Opera." The work was adapted from John Gay’s "The Beggar’s Opera," a successful 18th-century “ballad opera.” Brecht and composer Kurt Weill filled the show with humorous scoundrels, riveting songs (including the popular Mack the Knife), and scathing social satire.

The play’s most renowned line is: "Who is the bigger criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?"

Brecht's Other Influential Plays

Most of Brecht's best-known work was created between the late 1920s and mid-1940s though he wrote a total of 31 plays that were produced. The first was "Drums in the Night" (1922) and the last was "Saint Joan of the Stockyards" which did not appear on the stage until 1959, three years after his death.

Among the longer list of Brecht plays, four stand out:

  • "Drums in the Night"(1922): Part romance, part political drama, the play is set during a violent worker’s revolt in 1918 Germany.
  • "Edward II" (1924): Brecht loosely adapted this regal drama from 16th-century playwright, Christopher Marlowe.
  • "Saint Joan of the Stockyards" (1959): Set in Chicago (and written shortly after the Stock Market Crash) this 20th-century Joan of Arc battles cruel hearted industrialists only to be martyred like her historical namesake.
  • "Fear and Misery of the Third Reich" (1938): Brecht’s most overtly anti-fascist play analyzes the insidious way the Nazis came into power.

Complete List of Brecht's Plays

If you are interested in more of Brecht's plays, here's a list of every play produced from his work. They are listed by the date that they first appeared in the theater.

  • "Drums in the Night" (1922)
  • "Baal" (1923)
  • "In the Jungle of the Cities" (1923)
  • "Edward II" (1924)
  • "The Elephant Calf" (1925)
  • "Man Equals Man" (1926)
  • "The Threepenny Opera" (1928)
  • "Happy End" (1929)
  • "Lindbergh's Flight" (1929)
  • "He Who Says Yes" (1929)
  • "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" (1930)
  • "He Who Says No" (1930)
  • "The Measures Taken" (1930)
  • "The Mother" (1932)
  • "The Seven Deadly Sins" (1933)
  • "The Roundheads and the Peakheads" (1936)
  • "The Exception and the Rule" (1936)
  • "Fear and Misery of the Third Reich" (1938)
  • "Señora Carrara's Rifles" (1937)
  • "The Trial of Lucullus" (1939)
  • "Mother Courage and Her Children" (1941)
  • "Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti" (1941)
  • "Life of Galileo" (1943)
  • "The Good Person of Sezuan" (1943)
  • "Schweik in the Second World War" (1944)
  • "The Visions of Simone Machard" (1944)
  • "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" (1945)
  • "The Days of the Commune" (1949)
  • "The Tutor" (1950)
  • "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" (1958)
  • "Saint Joan of the Stockyards" (1959)