Bertolt Brecht: 10 Facts About the Famous Playwright

Bertolt Brecht’s plays continue to be performed all over the world. But did you know that his books were burned by the Nazis?

Apr 11, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy

bertolt brecht facts playwright


Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright and theater director. His satirical and extremely political approach to theater led him to write groundbreaking plays like The Threepenny Opera or Mother Courage And Her Children.  However, his revolutionary approach was not limited to writing. Brecht´s work as a theater director and theorist led him to create his own performance style, which he called the Epic Theatre. Read on for ten facts about this revolutionary artist.


1. Bertolt Brecht Was Smart as a Child

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Bertolt Brecht. Source: Templo Cultural Delfos


Bertolt Brecht was born into a German middle-class family in 1898. But despite having all the social and financial security a child could wish for, he started developing a critical mind from an early age. When asked to write an essay about the Roman poet Horace’s famous phrase Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country) in 1915, his non-patriotic response almost got him expelled from school.


2. Brecht Was a Socialist

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Young Bertolt Brecht. Source: The Hannah Arendt Center Of Politics And Humanities


Despite having been born into the prosperous middle classes of Germany, it didn’t take long for Brecht to develop a disdain for the false morality and social injustices he saw all around him. This led him to start engaging with the theories of Karl Marx. But while Brecht was a firm supporter of the working classes who deeply believed in the need for social change, he never joined the German Communist Party. In his view, the work of an artist consisted of getting his audience to question themselves and the society they lived in. So, instead of entering the political arena, he used pen, paper, and the stage as his weapons.


3. Brecht Believed That Art Should Question the Status Quo

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Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, by Gustav Klutsis, 1933, Source: Tate Modern, London

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Bertolt Brecht believed that theater should not only be political but also contribute to the well-being of society. By writing plays that exposed the hypocritical nature of human behavior, he hoped to push the audience to question the existing societal structure. The idea that theater should get us to think and question also led him to develop techniques aimed at disrupting the audience’s immersion in a play. To achieve this, he would repeatedly tell his actors to keep a critical distance from the characters they were portraying.  In his mind, an over-identification with the characters of the play prevented the audience from observing the socio-political factors that were at play. Brecht also employed techniques such as visible set changes to break the theatrical illusion and distance the audience from the action. Brecht called this the Verfremdungseffect (alienation effect).


4. He Finished The Three Penny Opera Right Before The Premiere

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The Three Penny Opera, 1928. Source: Theatermuseum, Vienna


Bertolt Brecht wrote 48 plays and 50 fragments. The most famous is The Three Penny Opera, which was first performed in 1928. The Three Penny Opera tells the story of the gangster Mackie the Knife and various shady characters, leading the audience to see the ways in which gangsters are nothing but businessmen.  While the performance’s portrayal of middle class hypocrisy and its cast of gangsters, beggars and prostitutes was controversial, it turned into an overnight success:  Over the next five years, the performance was translated into 18 languages and performed over 10,000 times in Europe alone.


What makes this story all the more impressive is the fact that the rehearsals preceding the world premiere were marked by a lot of conflict. Several actors and even the director dropped out because they could not get on board with the unusual text and arrhythmical music of the songs. Due to the sudden changes and demands of the cast, Brecht was forced to revise parts of the play and even ended up having to fill in as the director. Ironically, one of these revisions ended up being The Three Penny Opera’s biggest hit. The opening song, Mackie The Knife, was written on the night before the premiere because the lead actor threw a tantrum demanding a befitting introduction to his character.


5. The Nazis Burned His Books

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Book burning in Opernplatz, photo by Georg Pahl, 1933. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite the popularity of his work, Brecht’s plays continued to spark controversy. In 1930, the premiere of his performance Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was interrupted by Nazi sympathizers, causing one of the biggest scandals in theater history. Once the Nazis took over power in 1933, things started to get increasingly dangerous for a nonconformist artist and communist sympathizer like Brecht.  One day after the Reichtagsbrand, Brecht, his Jewish wife Helene Weigel, and several of their friends fled Germany. It turned out to be a wise decision. Shortly after, Brecht´s writings were burned and banned by Hitler’s regime.


6. He Had to Flee the United States

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Hollywood, photographed by Benoit Debaix, 2021. Source: Unsplash


After spending the first years of exile living and working in several European countries, Brecht decided to immigrate to the United States. But Brecht never warmed to his new home. He felt like Franz von Assi in a fishbowl and Lenin at the funfair or Oktoberfest. While he had originally hoped to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood, he quickly turned away from the American production machine. “It is expected that the actors can’t act, and the audience can’t think,” a disappointed Brecht wrote in his diary. Once the USA joined the war, he was registered as an Enemy Alien and put under observation by the FBI. Being a known socialist and communist sympathizer, he also became a target of McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.


7. Brecht Appeared Before the Committee of Un-American Activities

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Stop Communism Poster, 1951. Source: Wikimedia Commons


As it turned out, sympathizing with communist ideas wasn’t just dangerous in Nazi Germany. It also got Brecht in trouble while he was living in the United States. Shortly after the end of World War II, the USA got swept up in hysterical fears of the internal communist enemies and even Hollywood’s elite was not free from suspicion. Artists like Charlie Chaplin, Lena Horne, and Orson Wells were all investigated by the FBI and accused of being communists. Brecht was always open about his thoughts on the class struggle, making him the perfect target for Senator McCarthy and his communist witch hunt.


On the 30th of October 1947, Brecht was summoned for questioning by the House of Un-American Activities Committee. It seems that despite the severity of the accusations, Brecht did not lose his humor. When his questioner cited one of his poems in English and asked whether he had written it, Brecht replied that he had written a German poem and that this poem was very different. It was pretty brave of Brecht to turn the public hearing into a farce. He did keep his back covered, however: one day later, he boarded a ship to Europe to evade arrest and further questioning.


8. He Had Four Children from Three Different Women

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Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel during rehearsals for Mother Courage And Her Children, photographed by Hainer Hill. Source: Die Deutsche Buehne


Despite his nerdy looks, Brecht was pretty popular with the ladies. He was known to pursue several women at once, even while he was married. Over the years, much has been written about Bertolt Brecht’s private life, including his relationship with women. Given the fact that some of Brecht’s lovers helped him with writing, some historians have criticized him for not giving them any credit for their contribution.


Brecht’s most notable partner was the actress Helene Weigel, whom he married in 1930. They had two children together. Weigel also acted as the leading lady in his seminal play Mother Courage And Her Children. He also had a daughter with his first wife Marianne Zoff, and a son with Paula Bahnholzer, whom he met during his youth.


9. He Opened a Theater in East Germany

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Berliner Ensemble (Theater Am Schiffbauerdamm). Source: Wikimedia


When Brecht returned to Europe in 1947, the Iron Curtain had already descended upon Germany, dividing his native country into two parts. Unsure of how things would develop, Brecht and his wife Helene decided to wait things out in Switzerland and Austria. But they didn’t stay away for long. In 1949, the couple moved into the Eastern part of Berlin, where they founded the Berliner Ensemble. Up to this day, Brecht’s theater continues to be one of the most renowned theaters in the German-speaking world.


10. He Was Accused of Supporting the East German Dictatorship

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The Guns Of Miss Carrar, by Bruno Voelkel, 1966. Source: Theatermuseum, Vienna


Brecht spent the last seven years of his life living and working in the newly formed East German State. While he did not join the Communist Party, he did make use of the new opportunities granted to him by the Communist government. His relationship with the dictatorial government and communism remained complex. It seemed that he continued to believe in the communist ideal of a class-free society, but remained an equal believer in freedom of expression.


The question of whether Brecht truly supported the East German State or only did so to continue producing art remains controversial. His reaction to the worker’s protests in June of 1953 serves as a perfect example of this. The letter he wrote as a response was generally supportive of the government. Yet the government decided to censor parts of it, cutting out some of the parts that showed an understanding of the reasons for the protest. Brecht is said to have been devastated by the censorship and did his best to get his real letter out to the public.


Bertolt Brecht: Always Sparking Controversy

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The Three Penny Opera, 1929. Source: Theatermuseum, Vienna


Given the two World Wars and tumultuous political and societal shifts of the time, it was difficult for artists to stay politically neutral. Many writers, including Stefan Zweig and Bertolt Brecht, were persecuted and forced into exile. The traumas of dictatorship, genocide, and war left deep marks on an entire generation of European authors. Given the brutality of the times, even the most pure-hearted opposers of dictatorship or war were not able to speak their minds openly.


The question of whether Bertolt Brecht could have done more or less to oppose the dictatorial East German regime remains controversial up to this day. Would it have been his moral responsibility to openly oppose a government that was spying and detaining people based on their political beliefs? Or was he actually doing his part by creating performances that questioned reality and openly aimed at getting the audience to think for themselves?


Whether one agrees with Brecht´s artistic philosophy, personal life choices, and political beliefs or not, one thing is for certain—his ironical and socially critical performances continue to strike a nerve up to this day.

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By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.