Eugen Berthold (later Bertolt) Friedrich Brecht was born on February 10, 1898 in the Bavarian town of Augsburg in Germany. He briefly studied medicine but, after World War I, he gradually gained recognition as an unconventional poet and playwright in Munich and Berlin. When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, Brecht's political beliefs and activities were threatened and he fled into exile. Travelling and working in a number of cities in Europe and in the United States, he remained in exile for 14 years. After World War II, he settled in East Berlin where he co-founded a highly acclaimed theatre company called the Berliner Ensemble. He died in 1956 while in the midst of working with the Ensemble reviving one of the productions he had staged in the United States.
Brecht was strongly influenced by the political and cultural ideals associated with Marxism. He also admired the theatrical innovations introduced by the radical Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold as well as the dynamic and politically motivated director Erwin Piscator whom Brecht worked with in 1927. The social, aesthetic and political ideals inspiring their theatrical styles were also addressed and articulated in Brecht's early propagandistic ‘teaching plays' and they informed much of the work that he wrote and produced. In keeping with the egalitarian ideals he associated with Marxism, Brecht's productions were often very collaborative. For example, all those involved in productions were expected to discuss and develop their own critical attitudes to works and ideas being developed. Although Brecht invariably dominated such discussions, he often integrated new ideas and approaches and welcomed contributions from other artists and musicians. While it would be difficult to view his style of directing as completely egalitarian (see Ariane Mnouchkine for difficulties), it is clear that he remained open to critical discussion and that his productions enabled and encouraged the expression of multiple viewpoints.
Brecht's emphasis on the political and didactic significance of theatre inspired him to try and alert audiences to the need for social change. Incorporating Piscator's concept of Epic Theatre, Brecht suggested that plays set in different historical or cultural circumstances would establish some distance between the experiences of an audience and the experiences of the characters in a story. He hoped that this safe distance would enable spectators to critically appraise the circumstances and attitudes evident in the story and encourage them to compare those in their own world. To stimulate critical attitudes in his audiences, Brecht introduced theatrical devices that were designed to break or challenge their unthinking emotional involvement with the production. Aiming to stimulate rational thought, he developed methods that he hoped would produce what he called Verfremdungseffekt, or the estrangement or ‘alienation' effect. In order to stimulate this kind of response, he developed scenic, technical and acting methods that highlighted the construction of ‘theatricality' in performances. Some examples of these ‘alienation techniques' include: making the mechanics of scene changes visible, inserting songs in the middle of scenes to interrupt the action and finding ways for actors to physically ‘show' their characters' relationships to their circumstances rather than trying to ‘be' or identify with their characters.
Although one might question how effective Brecht's theories were in practice, he always hoped that his productions would offer enjoyable experiences for his audiences. He aimed to create a sense of play and fun since humour often enabled audiences to enjoy the process of being alienated from their ordinary perceptions of familiar things and feelings. Consequently, Brecht's plays offer both comic and insightful portrayals of human behaviour and illustrate ways that individuals can be formed and restricted by circumstances. His plots usually concentrate on exploring the limited choices available to characters confined and conditioned by the ideas and events in their social environments. A number of Brecht's productions that are typical of this approach include: Mother Courage (1941), The Good Person of Setzuan (1943), The Life of Galileo Galilei (1947), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1954). Both as a playwright and a director, Brecht's theories and practices have had a major impact on contemporary theatre. His view of theatre as an educational tool for social change, his collaborative approaches, and his theories of epic theatre are only some of his many contributions to the development of theatre.