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Why Bertolt Brecht is still played around the world

Christine Lehnen | Anastassia Boutsko
February 9, 2023

German playwright and poet Brecht, who was born 125 years ago, was banned by the Nazis. The author of "The Threepenny Opera" remains popular worldwide to this day.

Black and white photo of Bertolt Brecht sitting in front of microphones
Poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1947Image: HLG/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

On February 10, 2023, German author Bertolt Brecht would have turned 125.

His native city of Augsburg is honoring him with a festival under the motto "Brecht's People." The playwright, who was persecuted by the Nazis and had to live in exile for years, has long since become a German export hit.

With his "Threepenny Opera" (1928), still one of the most performed musical theater pieces in the world, he conquered Great Britain and the US. But his pieces are also still regularly performed today in Japan, Poland and Togo.

In Lome, Togo, for instance, director Ramses Alfa is staging one of Brecht's most famous plays, "Mother Courage and Her Children," from 1941. It centers around a mother who tries to get her children through a war in one piece.

Ramses Alfa's staging of the work calls to mind the female harvesters in the peanut fields of Togo, who work with their babies on their backs in scorching heat for meager wages, or the street vendors in the capital Lome, who walk around carrying large suitcases filled with lemonade, fruit and fabrics in search of customers in order to secure at least a small income for their families.

"Brecht's emphasis on social issues makes him a writer for Africa," Alfa tells the Brecht Festival organizers.

3 fascinating facts about German playwright Bertolt Brecht

Brecht in Japan

But Bertolt Brecht is also a well-known figure in Japan.

According to research by Monika Ayugai, a scholar at the City University of New York, he was one of the most performed foreign authors at the beginning of the 21st century, only just behind William Shakespeare.

A few years ago, Yagi Hiroshi, a theater scholar from Osaka, described Brecht as the German writer most often heard about in Japan.

In exile, Brecht himself became involved with Japanese literature. While visiting his colleague Hella Wuolijoki in Finland, he discovered the Japanese drama "The Sad Tale of a Woman, the Story of Chink Okichi," in which a 19th-century geisha seduces a US consul to save her hometown of Shimoda from shelling by the Americans. In return, she is humiliated by her fellow citizens as a tramp and a traitor.

Brecht started translating the play, fascinated by the fate of the sex worker who is cast out despite her heroism. However, the translation was never competed.

Workers, prostitutes, refugees: Ramses Alfa believes that one of the reasons why Brecht is still so popular almost 70 years after his death is because he relates stories of people who possess little, who are oppressed, who are at the bottom tiers of society. "Brecht's heroes are often people from humble backgrounds," says Alfa, who is also an actor.

Brecht spent 15 years in exile before returning to Germany after the Second World War, to East Germany. Again and again, he criticized the injustice of capitalism in his plays.

Brecht in the East: a foreign friend

"It sounds paradoxical, but Brecht, as a person and artist with extremely left-wing views, should have been very close to the ideology and aesthetics of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union, but he wasn't at all," notes Russian theater scholar Marina Davydova.

Due to Putin's war against Ukraine, Davydova, who is one of Russia's most important theater scholars, was forced into exile and is currently the designated new program director of the Salzburg Festival.

"Comrade" Bertolt Brecht, himself, was admitted to Soviet Russia rather hesitantly, as officials realized the explosive potential of his art. It was only during the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, the period following Josef Stalin's death when repression and censorship in the USSR were somewhat relaxed, that Brecht made a breakthrough there.

A black and white image of figures on stage during 'The Threepenny Opera' in Moscow, 1930.
A scene from 'The Threepenny Opera' by Bertolt Brecht in Moscow, 1930Image: brandstaetter images/Österreichisches Theater/picture-alliance

This made the figure of Bertolt Brecht all the more significant for the independent theater scene in the Soviet Union, Russia and other Eastern Bloc states, Davydova told DW: "It is no coincidence, for example, that precisely the two most revolutionary theaters in all of Russia's postwar history — the Taganka Theater under director Yuri Lyubimov in the 1960s and 1970s and Kirill Serebrennikov's Gogol Center until its closure in July 2022 — paralleled Brecht's theatrical language."

Brecht's theater wouldn't stand a chance under Putin

In addition to the obvious contradiction between Brecht's theater and any totalitarian ideology, Davydova also sees an aesthetic dimension to the contradiction: classical Russian and also largely European theater is rooted in the realist tradition of Konstantin Stanislavski, which represents a certain counterpoint to Brecht's theater. "With Stanislavski, the action takes place in a room with four walls, so to speak, and the actors pretend that the audience does not exist," Davydova analyzes. "With Brecht, this 'fourth wall' is missing, his characters address the audience directly."

A scene from a production in Moscow, based on a play by Bertolt Brecht, looking through a window with actors in different positions
A scene from the 2018 'Fear Love Despair' production in Moscow, based on a play by Bertolt BrechtImage: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/dpa/picture alliance

Precisely for this reason, Davydova sees the prospects as rather bleak that Brecht's theater would stand a chance in Putin's Russia of today. Even though his plays are still in the repertoire of different theaters, the playwright's political approach is incompatible with the leader's ideology. "If Russian theater manages to survive at all, given the censorship that currently exists, then only in a kind of ivory tower, along the lines of: 'Something terrible is happening out there, but I'll take care of my metaphysical problems all by myself.' That kind of stance, however, is actually what Brecht's form of theater doesn't tolerate."

Theater maker Anastasia Patlay, who also fled Russia, confirms this opinion: "Brecht demands commitment from every audience member, responsibility for what happens, even outside the theater," she said.

Moscow's Theater.doc, for which Patlay most recently directed, also addressed the theme of social responsibility. The last play Patlay staged in Russia was called "Memoria" and was dedicated to two subjects: on the one hand, the closure of the Nobel Prize-winning human rights organization Memorial, and on the other, Bertolt Brecht's attempt to stand up for the actress Carola Näher at the end of the 1930s.

Näher, who was the first to play the character Polly at the premiere of "The Threepenny Opera," was arrested in the Soviet Union in 1936 and perished in the Gulag.

Anastasia Patlay is the first fellow of the "Artists in Residence" program at Brecht's birthplace in Augsburg, beginning in February. "So Brecht has now granted us a home," Patlay says.

This article was originally written in German.

'Threepenny Novel' by Bertolt Brecht