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Plays

The Antigone of Sophocles

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In his book The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, John Willett writes of The Antigone of Sophocles: 'Perhaps two-thirds of the play follows the Hölderlin version, but even here Brecht has largely reshaped the verse so that although much of the sense, many of the images, and even the words themselves are the same as Hölderlin's the cadence is different. Almost indistinguishable in style, his new passages are woven into this. Considerable changes result. A prologue set in Berlin of 1945 shows two sisters whose brother has deserted from the German army and is found hanged: should they risk being seen by the SS cutting his body down? In the play itself Creon becomes a brutal aggressor who has attacked Argos for the sake of its iron ore; Polyneikes deserts in protest against this war which has killed his brother; and Antigone is partly moved by a like disapproval of her uncle's policy.'

The Antigone of Sophocles was conceived as a new experiment in the epic theatre, and is linguistically an extraordinary composition. It was first produced in February 1948.

Baal

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The classic wandering-poet archetype of the Expressionist movement receives a dark makeover in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. Brecht’s first full-length play portrays the seductions and manipulations of a dissolute poet with an inexplicable appeal to women. Baal descends from a civilised dining room to a hut in the woods, leaving a path of destruction in his wake.

First performed in Leipzig in 1923, Baal represents an early, almost pre-political stage in Brecht’s career, and shows the playwright experimenting with elements that would become his trademarks, such as the use of song. Even as a young writer, however, Brecht provoked controversy: Baal was immediately shut down by order of the city council of Leipzig.

The Beggar or The Dead Dog

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

As a young university student in Munich, Bertolt Brecht was only a few years away from early success as a playwright when he wrote five one-acts. Of these plays, only one was performed in his lifetime, and none were published until after his death. They provide a retrospective look at Brecht before his evolution into the founder of epic theatre, demonstrating some of the tendencies that would mark his later work.

In The Beggar, a beggar dares to speak the truth to an emperor when the emperor descends to complain about the smell. It was neither produced nor published during the author’s lifetime.

The Catch

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

As a young university student in Munich, Bertolt Brecht was only a few years away from early success as a playwright when he wrote five one-acts. Of these plays, only one was performed in his lifetime, and none were published until after his death. They provide a retrospective look at Brecht before his evolution into the founder of epic theatre, demonstrating some of the tendencies that would mark his later work.

When a fisherman’s wife is woken up by her drunk husband and his friends, anger and resentments explode. The Catch was neither produced nor published during the author’s lifetime.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle (trans. J. Stern, T. Stern, Auden)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written in exile in the United States during the Second World War The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a politically charged, much-revived and complex example of Brecht’s epic theatre.

In a prologue set in Soviet Georgia, a narrator-figure called The Singer introduces the story of choice and sacrifice. The servant girl Grusha sacrifices everything she has to look after an abandoned child, even marrying a dying peasant in order to provide for him. But when the boy’s biological mother attempts to reclaim him, the unruly judge Azdak, one of Brecht’s most vivid creations, calls on the ancient tradition of the chalk circle to resolve the dispute. Brecht subverts an ancient Chinese story (echoed in the Judgement of Solomon) into a parable advocating that resources should go to those best able to make use of them.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed in 1948 by students at Northfield, Minnesota in Eric and Maja Bentley’s translation, and has since become one of his most popular works. A morality masterpiece, the play powerfully demonstrates Brecht's pioneering theatrical techniques.

This version is translated by James and Tania Stern with W. H. Auden.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle (trans. McGuinness)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written in exile in the United States during the Second World War The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a politically charged, much-revived and complex example of Brecht’s epic theatre.

In a prologue set in Soviet Georgia, a narrator-figure called The Singer introduces the story of choice and sacrifice. The servant girl Grusha sacrifices everything she has to look after an abandoned child, even marrying a dying peasant in order to provide for him. But when the boy’s biological mother attempts to reclaim him, the unruly judge Azdak, one of Brecht’s most vivid creations, calls on the ancient tradition of the chalk circle to resolve the dispute. Brecht subverts an ancient Chinese story (echoed in the Judgement of Solomon) into a parable advocating that resources should go to those best able to make use of them.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed in 1948 by students at Northfield, Minnesota in Eric and Maja Bentley’s translation, and has since become one of his most popular works. A morality masterpiece, the play powerfully demonstrates Brecht's pioneering theatrical techniques.

This version by Frank McGuinness was published to coincide with the National Theatre's production which toured the UK in 2007.

Dansen

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Dansen is a pig farmer and a respectable member of the community. His fellow members of the commerce class in the town often meet, to play cards, sign contracts and sort out disagreements; it is a wholly satisfying way of life.

But this cosy arrangement is upset with the arrival of a stranger, a man who is intent on breaking contracts and instigating the most hostile of takeovers with the point of a pistol. He forces Dansen into collaboration: against his former colleagues, his better judgement and his own interests.

Written in early 1939, Dansen is a one-act agitprop piece which highlights the dangers of appeasement in the face of aggressive behaviour from a self-appointed enemy.

The Days of the Commune

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Days of the Commune tells the story of the uprising and ultimate failure of the Paris Commune in 1871, a city council in France's capital which based its policies on socialism and proclaimed its right to rule over all of France. It held out for two months of counter-attack by the regular French army before its final defeat in May, 1871.

Brecht's account of the Commune is based on Norwegian playwright Nordahl Grieg's play The Defeat. In his adaptation, Brecht eschews a central protagonist, focusing instead on the Commune as characterised by the people in the street.

Ultimately, as in life, the Commune is defeated. But, as the editors write in their introduction: 'In his interpretation of the Paris Commune Brecht adhered closely to the 'classical' line established by Marx . . . that the outcome of the siege of Paris after the Franco-Prussian War could only have been different if the ruling class had been prepared to align themselves behind the National Guard, but that the French bourgeoisie were terrified at the thought of an armed labour force, and so initiated the betrayal of the French people by its government and the capitulation of Paris.'

The Days of the Commune was first performed in November, 1956, shortly after Brecht's death.

Driving out a Devil

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

As a young university student in Munich, Bertolt Brecht was only a few years away from early success as a playwright when he wrote five one-acts. Of these plays, only one was performed in his lifetime, and none were published until after his death. They provide a retrospective look at Brecht before his evolution into the founder of epic theatre, demonstrating some of the tendencies that would mark his later work.

A young boy attempts to outwit the parents of a pretty girl in this short farce. It was neither produced nor published during the author’s lifetime.

Drums in the Night

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

It has been four years since Anna’s fiancé, Andreas, was declared missing in action in the trenches of World War I. Therefore, she is understandably shocked when he reappears. Andreas discovers that in his absence, Anna has agreed to marry a man who became rich dealing in the black market during the war. This ‘anti-romantic’ love story is set against the Spartacist uprising of 1919, an attempt by the German Communist party to destabilize the Weimar government.

Renowned Brecht scholar John Willett translated this edition of Drums in the Night, one of the early plays that earned Bertolt Brecht the prestigious Kleist Award for German writers. Drums in the Night was an immediate success when first performed in 1922, and went on to play all over Germany, but Brecht later admitted that he only wrote the play to make money.

It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that Germany developed a dramatic literature to rival those of France, Spain or England. Until then the German speaking lands were divided into more than 300 independent states and were struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War of the previous century. Rulers who took an interest in theatre tended to import Italian opera or French drama. Drama in German consisted of vernacular farces and the Haupt-und-Staats-Aktionen, bombastic historical dramas of little theatrical or literary merit. The development of German theatre was encouraged by the Englische Komödianten, groups of English actors who toured with versions of plays popular in England at the time, performing when and where they could to a popular audience.

The first attempts at improving the German drama were undertaken in the 1730s by Gottsched, whose translations of texts from French and English were performed by the theatre company of Karoline Neuber, who also symbolically staged a banning of the popular comic character Hanswurst from the stage.

The art critic and dramatist Lessing’s disappointment with the quality of plays produced at the new National Theatre in Hamburg, where he was employed in the late 1760s as Dramaturg, led him to write the Hamburgische Dramaturgie (Hamburg Dramaturgy), in which he suggested that Shakespeare would provide a better model for German writers to copy than French dramatists. Influenced by his studies of Aristotle and contemporary English drama, he also wrote three plays as examples for German playwrights to follow.

The writers of the explosive, but short-lived Sturm und Drang movement developed Lessing’s ideas and added a powerful new emotional charge to their plays. Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen and Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers) broke new ground by drawing inspiration from Shakespeare, German history but above all nature. These works, along with the poetry of the movement, infused with natural imagery and driven by sentiment, would later serve as a major inspiration for the poets of the European Romantic movement.

Goethe and Schiller, the principal dramatists of the Sturm und Drang, then rejected the lack of discipline of the movement and developed the more refined and considered style of writing and acting known as Weimar Classicism. Schiller in particular wrote a series of history plays, including Don Carlos and Maria Stuart (Mary Stuart), which have formed the basis of the national repertoire ever since, and which established Germany as the leading theatre nation in Europe at the start of the nineteenth century. Goethe’s two-part poetic masterpiece Faust, only completed shortly before his death, has continued to challenge scholars and theatre directors alike since its publication. These works were inspired by Schiller’s Idealism and the conviction that the theatre should be a force for moral improvement. This concept inspires the high regard in which theatre is held in Germany and the generous level of public subsidy, which it has enjoyed ever since.

Despairing of Idealism and frustrated by the lack of response to his call for revolution in his pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Courier), the scientist Büchner, despite his lack of theatrical experience, wrote four plays, three of which survive. In Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death) he employed documentary material to depict the despair of his hero with the Revolution, and in the unfinished Woyzeck, the first play in German to depict a working class hero, he blended factual material into a visionary expression of existential angst.

In the late nineteenth century, young writers, inspired by the writings of Zola, Darwin and Marx wanted to introduce a more scientific approach to theatre writing and bring the conditions of the underprivileged to the attention of theatregoers. Die Weber (The Weavers), by Gerhart Hauptmann, caused a riot and official sanctions when it was first produced in Berlin, but within two years the plays of European Naturalism had established themselves at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

The trauma of the First World War was reflected in the ecstatic and despairing texts of Expressionism. Early plays expressed a vision of Der Neue Mensch (The new Man), rising from the purifying fire of the war. As the true horror of the war in the trenches unfolded, this idea was changed in the writing of Ernst Toller, and subsequently Erwin Piscator, into the concept of the new collective, socialist Man.

Brecht’s ideas on the theatre have been hugely influential, as have the plays written by him and his collaborators. After his huge success with The Threepenny Opera in 1928, and his work with Piscator, he engaged in theatrical experiments, the Lehrstücke (Teaching Plays), in which he tried to involve the audience in a new relationship to the stage and the subject matter of the performances. Brecht always regarded Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken) as his most important play and a model for the future development of the theatre. These experiments came to abrupt end, however, when Brecht and Piscator were forced to leave Germany as Hitler assumed power in 1933.

During the Nazi period attempts were made by the authorities to restrict performances to approved propaganda plays, but these were so unpopular that theatres were soon allowed to revert to their previous programmes.

After the war Germany was left in ruins, with many of the theatre makers in exile. In Switzerland, however, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote plays, which combined black humour and symbolism to confront the post-war world. They addressed post-war guilt in Andorra, Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Fireraisers) and Der Besuch der Alten Dame (The Visit) before moving on to consider the individual’s role in society.

On his return from exile in the USA Brecht set up his Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin. After his landmark production of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children) in 1949, he spent the next seven years directing his own texts, but also encouraging the work of young playwrights and directors. During the forty years of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) a game of cat-and-mouse was played out between playwrights and theatres and the authorities. Theatres played a particular and vital role in the GDR during this period, as well as in the demise of the regime, as they were one of the very few places where political issues could be addressed before a large audience. Playwrights such as Christoph Hein and Volker Braun offered veiled criticism of the regime, while Heiner Müller, the most innovative and outspoken playwright of the GDR, was silenced by being expelled from the Deutsche Schriftsteller-Verband (The German Writers’ Association). This meant that his work was not published, so it could not be produced in the GDR. His international reputation was secured by the staging of his texts in the West.

In the Federal Republic (West Germany), the use of documentary material for drama, which had been pioneered by Erwin Piscator before the war, was reintroduced by playwrights attempting to confront the exceptional subject matter of the Third Reich. Peter Weiss in Die Ermittlung (The Investigation) adapted testimony from the Frankfurt War Trials to present a harrowing account of conditions in Auschwitz, while Rolf Hochhuth indicted Pope Pius XII in Der Stellvertreter (The Representative) for his attitude to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. These texts, among others, were championed by Piscator at the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin.

Peter Handke caused controversy in 1966 with a staging of his Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), and cemented his reputation in 1967 with Kaspar, a study of the way in which a character is defined by the language he acquires. He, like Botho Strauss, another innovative writer whose career began in the late 1980s, has aroused controversy for the political positions he has subsequently adopted.

Franz Xaver Kroetz felt that the peasants in Brecht’s plays were too articulate and in the mid-1970s used the Volksstück form, popular before the war, in his Stallerhof and Geisterbahn (Ghost Train), to give a voice to the underclass of Germany’s Economic Miracle.

For much of the post-war period, West German theatre has been dominated by Regietheater, the theatre of directors, such as Peter Stein and Luc Bondy, who have tended to make their reputations in productions of classic texts, but who also champion new playwriting. The high level of funding of theatre and the large number of theatres in Germany continues to support the most extensive and varied programme of new playwriting and innovative production activity in Europe. From the dense and challenging theatre texts of the Nobel Prize winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jellinek, to the unique theatre of Rimini Protokoll, who use non-professional actors and their experiences to build performances described as ‘Reality Trend’, theatre makers in Germany seek to challenge the traditional limitations of drama. Theatre critics select outstanding work from more than 100 plays premièred each year for the Mülheimer Theatertage festival of new playwriting, while the Berlin Theatertreffen foregrounds the best in theatre production.

Since the Wende (the fall of the communist regimes), the cost of reunification has resulted in reductions in state subsidy to the arts, but the theatre still continues to command the respect of the population and to play a central role in the cultural life of Germany.

Tony Meech, Senior Research Fellow, University of Hull