What Makes Bertold Brecht So Important?

Brecht’s revolutionary attitude towards the theater and its social function made him a key figure in the history of dramatic arts.

Jun 6, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy
bertolt brecht


When we think of great artists, their art often comes to us distilled and completely apolitical. Whether we are looking at works by Da Vinci, Dostoevsky, or Michelangelo, they arrive on the shores of history watered down. Brecht is a rare exception. His work is consciously political and he is inseparable from his political project. The full embrace of art as a vehicle of political change is particularly unique to Brecht. He went against art’s reduction to mere decoration for the ruling class.


Bertold Brecht and The Epic Theatre

portrait bertold brecht
Bertolt Brecht before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, 1947, via Picture Alliance


Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright who revolutionized the theater by developing a new form of drama that he called the Epic Theatre. Epic Theatre was a departure from traditional theater because it sought to challenge the audience’s emotions, rather than evoke them. Brecht’s goal was to create a new type of theater that was more socially conscious and analytical than traditional theater. Instead of relying on naturalistic acting and theatrical conventions to tell a story, Brecht used techniques such as alienation and estrangement to create a more analytical, thought-provoking theatrical experience.


Brecht’s use of distancing techniques such as placards, narration, and songs helped create an atmosphere of detachment that allowed the audience to focus on the political and social implications of the story, rather than the emotions of the characters. Brecht’s use of montage and juxtaposition of scenes also helped create a sense of discontinuity and a heightened sense of awareness of the play’s themes. Brecht’s Epic Theatre was a profoundly influential form of theater that changed the way theater was made and seen, and it continues to be a powerful influence in modern theater.


A Political Stage

Chicago Auditorium Building
Chicago Auditorium Building by JW Taylor, 1890 via Wikimedia Commons


Throughout hundreds of years, art has always had a close relationship with class. Brecht found the theater in particular, to be functioning on the basis of bourgeois values which he wanted to subvert. The theater was also a passive form of entertainment consumption where the audience was at a safe distance from what was being shown, never involved directly in it.

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Brecht was invested in creating theater which generated curiosity, a theater that would end bourgeoisie elitism and make the theater a place for proletarian reflection. Brecht’s Epic Theatre stands in complete opposition to an escapist theater which was completely devoid of any possibility of social change and simply offered entertainment to distract from reality. The audience was encouraged to think critically about what was going on instead of simply following the narrative along for entertainment.


Brecht played with immersion and alienation, where on the one hand he wanted to immerse the public in the reality of the play but on the other, create enough distance for them to reflect critically on it, which was achieved through his technique of estrangement. This technique often included what we today would call Breaking the 4th wall where the play would provide clues of its own construction, reminding the audience that they’re not watching reality but a representation of it.


Theatre as a Vehicle of Change 

portrait Karl Marx
Portrait of Karl Marx, 1975, via Wikimedia Commons


The function of the theater shouldn’t be mimicking reality but shaping it through political change. Art must be democratized, taken back from the elites which have rendered it meaningless, a mere decoration of space to be consumed as a sign of one’s wealth, culture, and status. How is such change possible?


The stage became a public exhibition with Brecht. The public isn’t just an aggregate of individuals consuming passively the entertainment being offered but an orchestra of people whose thinking abilities have to be activated in order to elicit change that will persist after they leave the theater. Brecht was strongly influenced by the works of Karl Marx. He incorporated Marx’s ideas into his works in various ways, most notably in his advocacy of the Epic Theatre.


In the Epic Theatre, Brecht sought to create a revolutionary form of theater that would be accessible to the masses, while at the same time inspiring them to engage with the material and think critically about the world around them. Brecht’s plays often featured a chorus that would guide the audience through the action, often commenting on the events of the play and offering alternative interpretations of the characters and their actions.


Brecht also sought to use his plays to highlight the class structure of society and to challenge the status quo. His plays often featured characters from different social classes. Brecht sought to draw attention to the injustices that were created by this structure. He was also heavily influenced by Marx’s ideas on alienation, which he explored in his works by having characters struggle to make sense of their lives in a world that was constantly changing and challenging their expectations. Brecht also wanted to illustrate the economic inequality between different classes and explore how the inequality springs up from capitalist relations of class.


Mother Courage and the Good Person of Szechwan 

Helene Weigel Mother Courage
Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel who played Mother Courage in a 1949 production, 1947, via the Guardian


Brecht wrote Mother Courage and Her Children in 1939. Its first performance happened two years later in 1941. The play is a perfect example of Brecht’s Epic Theatre. The play invites us into the story of a woman who struggles to protect her children from the brutality of war. The play centers around the hardships that Mother Courage and her children have to go through, as they try to make it out alive from the Thirty Years War.


The play is a commentary on the horrifying reality of war and a devastating critique of those who profit from war and exploit the suffering of the common man. The play is set in the 17th century, nonetheless, the themes remain important to this day. Brecht makes excellent use of symbolism, satire, and irony as tools that add layers of depth to his commentary. He also uses the characters of Mother Courage and her children as a representation of the everyday people who have to bear the consequences of the decisions taken by those above them.


Mother Courage and her children move from place to place, trying to survive by selling goods and services. Mother Courage starts out at the beginning of the play with the aura of a strong woman, an aura which gradually fades away, with the war taking her children’s life, leaving her a broken woman with nothing but heartache. Brecht gives us a relentless view of war, a brutal reality that strips people of everything which makes them human, leaving even those who survive, bleak and hopeless.


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Good Person of Szechwan play by The Foundry Theatre, 2013, via New York Times


The Good Person of Szechwan is another play where Brecht’s technique is exposed to its full capacity. In the Chinese city of Szechwan, Shen Te, a poor sex worker down on her luck, is forced to take on a male persona in order to survive in a society that seems to have no place for her and her femininity.


The Good Person of Szechwan wants to raise an important question on morality and what it actually means to be a good person. It wants to challenge naive understandings of morality which render it a mere rule-following exercise and wants to show that a good person is forged from those grey complex situations in life when societal norms have to be broken. Shen Te faces countless problems and is treated very badly by those around her but she is presented as generous and kind, despite all of this.


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Scene from Good Person of Szechwan by The Foundry Theatre, 2013, via New York Times


The play examines the power dynamics of society and the ways in which those in power often take advantage of the less fortunate. Brecht’s use of the Gods as characters serves to comment on this, as they represent the power of fate and how those who have power can manipulate those with no power. Shen Teh is kind and generous but she is taken advantage of by everyone around her. She eventually finds a way to protect herself while still maintaining her kindness by becoming a male alter ego called Shui Ta.


Brecht uses this story to explore themes of morality, justice, and the human condition. What does it mean to be a good person in a world of poverty and exploitation? Can one remain good and kind despite the harshness of the world? Ultimately, Brecht suggests that it is possible to remain true to oneself while navigating the complexities of life. By offering a realistic and compassionate view of human nature, he encourages readers to think critically about their own moral values and the way they interact with the world around them.


Bertold Brecht Against Cynicism

bertold brecht good Person Szechwan
Scene from Good Person of Szechwan play by The Foundry Theatre, 2013, via New York Times


It is easy to spot a rising cultural tendency in Cynicism today. It has gotten increasingly difficult to stay true to the core or static humanitarian values in this stage of development of unbridled capitalism. Cynicism is like an ideological drug that makes us feel justified when we abandon values that we previously held to be true. Brecht’s plays can be read as a reaction against Cynicism, an invitation to engage with politics instead of abstaining from them.


In The good person of Szechwan Shen Teh doesn’t throw away her beliefs even when the world beats her down for holding on to them. She finds a way of retaining them and acting on them, even if it means that life might get more difficult for her. This is a deal we’re increasingly not willing to take. Cynicism grants us a safe distance from our own values. We seem to know very well that something has to be done about homelessness, poverty, and so on, but nothing can actually be done in reality so it is easier to abandon concerns about these issues and only focus on oneself.


Cynicism creates space between believing and acting, to the point where we can tell ourselves we believe one thing and act in a way that completely undermines it. Brecht’s project sought to connect believing with acting. It doesn’t matter what you believe deep down, it matters what you do. You are the totality of the things you’ve done, not the beliefs you have, the things you hope to do, or the promises you make to yourself. Direct political engagement and emancipation start by understanding the weight of an act.

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By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.