Bertolt Brecht

Plays by Bertolt Brecht

The Duchess of Malfi (adapt. Brecht and Hays)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written in collaboration with H. R. Hays and intended for performance by Elisabeth Bergner, (described by the editors of the Collected Works as ‘the most famous of all the exiled German actresses’), Brecht and Hays’s adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was born of a tortuous set of drafts, redrafts and recriminations, which led to several versions of the script, including a Broadway staging of a version by W. H. Auden. H. R. Hays sets the scene:

‘Early in 1943 Brecht came to New York and broached the idea of The Duchess of Malfi to me as a vehicle for Elisabeth Bergner, who was currently playing on Broadway in a whodunit. Brecht and I were both fond of the Webster piece and both felt that it sprawled too much for a successful production. The idea was to eliminate the anticlimactic series of deaths at the end, tighten up the script and emphasize the implicit incest motivation of the duke . . . We began working in April 1943 . . . We had a meeting in my agent’s office, at which Mr Czinner [producer] announced that what the project needed was “a British poet”. I hit the roof and told them to take my name off the script. Needless to say, the poet was Auden, whose name they hoped would be success insurance. Brecht did not at first withdraw, but later, when he saw what was happening, he too removed his name . . .’

This version of the script, written directly in English by Hays, with Brecht advising on story and structure, reproduces a copy that was in the possession of Hays. It is complemented here by notes and letters by Brecht himself on how the play ought to be performed.

The Elephant Calf: An interlude for the foyer

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Originally written as part of Mann ist Mann (Man Equals Man), The Elephant Calf was later removed and redrawn as a play in its own right, to be performed as an interlude in the foyer during performances of the former play.

The Elephant Calf sees Galy Gay – the protagonist of Man Equals Man – undergo a trial for the murder of his mother (who, in a surreal turn of events, is in rude health on the stage, and even called as a witness). The play’s farcical denouement is critiqued by ‘audience members’ – in fact, part of the cast – who storm the stage and insist on having their money back, with the threat of menaces to come if the cast don’t accede.

Sometimes subtitled ‘You Can Prove Anything’, this version of The Elephant Calf was translated by John Willett, and was first published in 1979.

The Exception and the Rule

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Exception and the Rule is a parable about exploitation, telling the story of a rich merchant travelling across the desert and being increasingly cruel to his porter so they can travel as fast as possible. When their water supplies run low, the porter offers him a drink from his water bottle, but the merchant thinks he is being attacked by the porter, and shoots him. In the following courtroom scene, the brutal logic of the judge finds the merchant innocent because of his cruelty.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht's series of 24 interconnected playlets describe what life was like in German households in the 1930s. They dramatize with clinical precision the suspicion and anxiety experienced by ordinary people, particularly Jewish citizens, as the power of Hitler grew. A growing distrust of their friends and colleagues and even of their own children affects everyone from factory worker to physicist, housewife to judge. ‘We know the results, what we are looking for is the beginnings’, Max Frisch said of the play in 1947, emphasising its significance in exposing the roots of Nazi terror. Brecht’s picture of the breakdown of normal relationships under the Nazis is not only of historical interest, but emotionally transfixing.

Written in exile in Denmark, the play was inspired in part by Brecht’s recent trip to Moscow where he had been researching tasks for the anti-Nazi effort. Eight scenes of the play were first performed in Paris in 1938 entitled 99%, while all the scenes have since been produced in a variety of different combinations.

This version is translated by John Willett.

The Good Person of Szechwan (Modern Classic)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht’s famous parable pivots around a moral paradox – that in an unjust society good can only survive by means of evil.

The play opens on three gods, who have come to earth in search of enough good people to justify their existence. They find Shen Teh, a good-hearted and penniless prostitute, and make her a gift that enables her to set up her own business. But her generosity brings ruin and trouble to her small tobacco shop, and she is forced to disguise herself as an invented male cousin, Shui Ta, in order to reclaim her shop from the scroungers and creditors. Shui Ta turns out to be the stern and ruthless counterpoint to Shen Teh, helping her to capitalist success and financially-motivated marriage, but not to happiness.

Through this sharply split personality Brecht points to the impossibility of living anything like a ‘good’ life in a corrupted and persistently exploitative world.

The Good Person of Szechwan was first performed in Zurich in 1943. This version is translated by John Willett.

The Good Person of Szechwan (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht’s famous parable pivots around a moral paradox – that in an unjust society good can only survive by means of evil.

The play opens on three gods, who have come to earth in search of enough good people to justify their existence. They find Shen Teh, a good-hearted and penniless prostitute, and make her a gift that enables her to set up her own business. But her generosity brings ruin and trouble to her small tobacco shop, and she is forced to disguise herself as an invented male cousin, Shui Ta, in order to reclaim her shop from the scroungers and creditors. Shui Ta turns out to be the stern and ruthless counterpoint to Shen Teh, helping her to capitalist success and financially-motivated marriage, but not to happiness.

Through this sharply split personality Brecht points to the impossibility of living anything like a ‘good’ life in a corrupted and persistently exploitative world.

The Good Person of Szechwan was first performed in Zurich in 1943. This version is translated by John Willett.

He Who Says No

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

He Who Says No forms a pair with He Who Says Yes, relating two different versions of a fable about consenting to a cause. The Boy demands to be taken by his teacher on a dangerous journey into the mountains, so that he can bring back medicine for his ill mother. The teacher acquiesces reluctantly, but when the boy can’t go on, either he or the journey will have to be sacrificed.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No were inspired by the Japanese Noh play Taniko.

He Who Says Yes

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

He Who Says Yes forms a pair with He Who Says No, relating two different versions of a fable about consenting to a cause. The Boy demands to be taken by his teacher on a dangerous journey into the mountains, so that he can bring back medicine for his ill mother. The teacher acquiesces reluctantly, but when the boy can’t go on, either he or the journey will have to be sacrificed.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No were inspired by the Japanese Noh play Taniko. He Who Says Yes was first performed in 1930 at Zentralinstitut für Erziehung und Unterricht, Berlin.

How Much Is Your Iron?

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Svendson is an ironmonger who suddenly picks up a new customer; apparently wealthy, and with a healthy desire for Svendson's wares, the customer keeps coming back with orders for iron bars.

Still, Svendson's conscience is pricked by this avid stockpiling of weapons (though not enough to stop selling; particularly when he sees some of his fellow merchants also selling to the customer, while his own orders continue to double).

Eventually though, Svendson's luck runs out, when the customer eventually stops paying his way.

Written in early 1939, How Much is Your Iron is a one-act agitprop piece that highlights the dangers of appeasement, and questions the morality of trade with a belligerent customer.

In the Jungle of Cities

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When lumber dealer Shlink meets book clerk George Garga, they immediately conceive an irrational hatred for each other and declare war between themselves. Their fighting engulfs and eventually destroys their families and the people around them. Depicting fraud, crime, and prostitution in an imagined version of Chicago, Brecht structured In the Jungle of Cities as a boxing match between two men who do not know why they are fighting.

Ever a revisionist, Brecht rewrote In the Jungle of Cities several times in the 1920s, finally settling on this version in 1927. When an earlier version premiered in Berlin, it was interrupted by Nazis in the audience throwing stink bombs and making noise. Brecht’s interest in the collision between the interests of capitalism and the good of the people is already evident in this early work.

Picture of Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is acknowledged as one of the great dramatists whose plays, work with the Berliner Ensemble and critical writings have had a considerable influence on the theatre. His landmark plays include The Threepenny Opera, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, The Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children and The Caucasian Chalk Circle.