Bertolt Brecht: Great Lives

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 6 April 2010
Presented by Matthew Parris, this programme looked at why Brecht occupies such a central position in the history of twentieth century drama with the help of playwright John Godber and academic Michael Pattison. Although popularly believed to be a 'political' playwright, more interested in ideas than his audiences, Brecht was acutely interested in theatre-as-spectacle, which would involve everyone's passions and emotions, whether on or off the stage. This belief evolved out of his experiments in theatre: we learned that he had a command over his actors in the rehearsal-room through sheer force of personality. The question of Brecht's use of alienation techniques, or Verfremdungseffekt, was explored: Pattison claimed that it actually involved rendering the familiar strange, so that audiences could understand the political importance of his work.
The programme talked about Brecht's life; his origins in East Germany and his flight from the country once the Nazis came to power in 1933. He eventually fetched up in Hollywood, where he worked on various scripts without distinction. Brecht eventually appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), accused of being a communist; we heard an original recording of his replies, which stated quite truthfully that although he had had associations with communism, he was never actually a party member. His main shortcoming was that he did not condemn Stalinism sufficiently, in the hope of sustaining a quiet life. Brecht eventually left the United States and returned to Europe, where he set up the Berliner Ensemble. By now he was such a celebrity that he could say virtually anything he wished without fear of censure. Hence the Berliner Ensemble produced a series of political plays, while still receiving funding from the communist East German government.
Both Godber and Pattison claimed that Brecht's main concern centred on the conflict between the haves and the have-nots. His plays were always political - questioning the structure of society and how people were conditioned to behave in certain ways as a result. Although it is over half a century since his death, his plays retain their significance, both for their social criticism and their originality of structure. The producer of this entertaining half-hour programme was Mary Ward-Lowry.