Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany, on 19th February, 1898. He studied philosophy and medicine at the University of Munich before becoming a medical orderly in a German military hospital during the First World War. This experience reinforced his hatred of war and influenced his support for the failed Socialist revolution in 1919.
After the war Brecht returned to university but eventually became more interested in literature than medicine. His first play to be produced was Bael (1922). This was followed by plays deeply influenced by the work of Ernst Toller. This included Drums in the Night, a play about a soldier returning from war, Jungle of the Cities (1923), Man Equals Man (1926) and A Respectable Wedding (1926).
George Grosz knew him during this period: "Brecht was interested in English writers and Chinese philosophers. He read Swift, Butler and Wells, and also Kipling. He dressed like nobody else in the circle, and looked like some kind of engineer or car mechanic, always wearing a thin leather tie - without oil stains, of course. Instead of the usual sort of waistcoat, he wore one with long sleeves; the cut of all his suits were baggy and somewhat American, with padded shoulders and wedge-shaped trousers. Without his monkish face and the hair combed down on his forehead he might have been mistaken for a cross between a German chauffeur and a Russian commissar."
In 1927 Brecht collaborated with the composer Kurt Weill to produce the musical play, The Little Mahagonny. They then produced The Threepenny Opera. Although based on The Beggar's Opera that was originally produced in 1728, Brecht added his own lyrics that illustrated his growing belief in Marxism. He also worked with the composer Hanns Eisner in The Measure Taken (1930).
Brecht attempted to develop a new approach to the the theatre. He tried to persuade his audiences to see the stage as a stage, actors as actors and not the traditional make-believe of the theatre. Brecht required detachment, not passion, from the observing audience. The purpose of the play was to awaken the spectators' minds so that he could communicate his version of the truth.
Brecht's plays reflected a Marxist interpretation of society and when Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 he was forced to flee from Nazi Germany. After leaving Germany in 1933, Brecht lived in Denmark, Sweden and the Soviet Union. While living in exile he wrote anti-Nazi plays such as The Roundheads and the Peakheads and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. This was followed by Life of Galileo (1939), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Man of Szechuan (1941), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) and the Caucausian Chalk Circle (1943). He also spent time in Hollywood and helped with the writing of the film, Hangman Also Die (1943).
In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, began an investigation into the entertainment industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
On 30th October, 1947, Brecht appeared in front of the HUAC. He denied he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild and the American Communist Party. Brecht pointed out: "As a guest of the United States, I refrained from political activities concerning this country even in a literary form. By the way, I am not a screen writer, Hollywood used only one story of mine for a picture showing the Nazi savageries in Prague. I am not aware of any influence which I could have exercised in the movie industry whether political or artistic. Being called before the Un-American Activities Committee, however, I feel free for the first time to say a few words about American matters: looking back at my experiences as a playwright and a poet in the Europe of the last two decades, I wish to say that the great American people would lose much and risk much if they allowed anybody to restrict free competition of ideas in cultural fields, or to interfere with art which must be free in order to be art. We are living in a dangerous world. Our state of civilization is such that mankind already is capable of becoming enormously wealthy but, as a whole, is still poverty-ridden. Great wars have been suffered, greater ones are imminent, we are told. One of them might well wipe out mankind, as a whole. We might be the last generation of the specimen man on this earth. The ideas about how to make use of the new capabilities of production have not been developed much since the days when the horse had to do what man could not do. Do you not think that, in such a predicament, every new idea should be examined carefully and freely? Art can present clear and even make nobler such ideas." Soon after giving evidence he left for East Germany.
In 1949 Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble and over the next few years it became the country's most famous theatre company. However, Brecht wrote only one new play, The Days of the Commune (1949), while living in East Germany.
Bertolt Brecht died on 14th August, 1956.