The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an opera chronicling the development and demise of the ‘paradise city’ of Mahagonny in a series of tableaux capturing the baser aspects of human nature.

Three criminals create the city in order to trap money: it is a place of pleasure, where no one works, everyone drinks, gambles, brawls and visits prostitutes, and all that matters is whether you can pay your way. A hurricane passing dangerously close to the city encourages complete lawlessness and debauchery, and soon the raving, delirious city destroys itself.

A pivotal work in the genesis of Brecht’s theory and practise of epic theatre, it is a classic of the twentieth-century avant-garde and represents his first major collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill. It premiered in Leipzig in 1930 where it provoked a major scandal. This version is translated by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

The Romans in Britain

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A tough, vigorous epic, The Romans in Britain looks at imperialism and the conflict of cultures, examining Julius Caesar’s invasion of Celtic Britain, a Saxon invasion of Roman-Celtic Britain, and the British Army in the twentieth-century conflict in Northern Ireland.

As these scenes bleed into one another, Brenton suggests what it might have been like for these people to meet. Three Roman soldiers sexually assault a young druid priest. A lone, wounded Saxon soldier stumbles into a field, a nightmare made real. An army intelligence officer begins to lose his mind in the Irish fields. Brenton’s sinewy vernaculars summon a lost history of cultural collision and oppression, of fear and sorrow.

When first performed in 1980 on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre, London, there was great controversy concerning the scene in which a male priest is raped by a Roman soldier, with the moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse bringing an unsuccessful court case against the production.

Round Heads and Pointed Heads

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Round Heads and Pointed Heads began as an adaptation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Commissioned in 1931 by stage and screen director Ludwig Berger, Brecht's ideas about the play soon took the work beyond straight adaptation, incorporating more and more elements of contemporary political satire.

Of the play, Brecht said 'Round Heads and Pointed Heads is a new creative adaptation of the old Italian tale which Shakespeare used in his play Measure for Measure. Many people think that Measure for Measure is the most philosophical of all Shakespeare's works, and it is certainly his most progressive. It demands from those in positions of authority that they shouldn't measure others by standards different from those by which they themselves would be judged. It demonstrates that they ought not to demand of their subjects a moral stance which they cannot adopt themselves. The play Round Heads and Pointed Heads seeks to propose for our own age a progressive stance similar to that which the great poet of humanism proposed for his.'

Round Heads and Pointed Heads tells the story of a racial conflict between two classes of citizens, those with pointed heads and those whose heads are round – both as abnormal as each other – in the fictional town of Luma. Written in the early 1930s, it finally received its premiere in Copenhagen on 4 November 1936, before being published in German in 1938.

Señora Carrar's Rifles

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Partly based on John Millington Synge's Riders to the Sea, Señora Carrar's Rifles transposes the Irish play of the early twentieth century to mid-century Andalucia. There, a fisherwoman named Teresa Carrar is trying desperately to maintain a normal life even as the civil war closes in around her; having killed her husband it proposes now to sweep up her two sons as well.

Señora Carrar hopes to insulate her boys from the fighting, believing she can keep her head down, sew nets and send the boats out, and the war need not touch them. But tragedy strikes her eldest on the waves, causing her to rethink her position of non-engagement.

Written as an Aristotelian drama, based on empathy, rather than Brecht's own theories of Epic theatre, Señora Carrar's Rifles is one of Brecht's more immediately accessible plays. It premiered in Paris, 1937, with Brecht's wife Helene Weigel playing the lead.

The Trial of Lucullus

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When the Roman general and politician Lucullus dies, we witness his trial by jury, who will decide whether he takes his place among the heroes in the Elysium fields, or whether he shuffles through the shadows in the darkness of Hades' halls.

Allowed to defend himself, Lucullus calls forth witnesses to his great militaristic victories, including conquering the far east for Rome, only for the jury and judge to point out the human loss in each case.

Ultimately, those characteristics in himself that he saw as irrelevant are his only graces, while the greatness he with which he had gilded his reputation is reduced only to the charge sheet which may condemn him.

The Trial of Lucullus was a radio play that was first broadcast on 12 May 1940 from a Berne studio.

After the end of the Second World War, after the atomic bomb had been dropped, the Nuremberg trials had ended , and the Korean War had begun, Brecht revisited this radio play with the aim of rewriting it as an opera. The revised text – which became The Condemnation of Lucullus, with music by Paul Dessau, had many variants to the radio play. These variants are discussed in detail in the introduction to the collection, as well as under Notes and Variants; both of these can be found in the 'From the Book' section below.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A rich epic work, Victoria is a trilogy in one play: three separate but interweaving narratives forming a vast and bold panorama. The same actress plays three women who witness the shifting political and social history of Britain in the twentieth century, their lives shaped by the dramatic events in a rural community on the Scottish coast.

In 1936, a restless Victoria is preparing to emigrate to America. She is eager for her lover Oscar to come with her, but he is caught up in an ideological struggle against the Fascist heir to the local estate.

In 1974, an American geologist named Vicky crashes from the sky into the hillside while Oscar tries to turn the stately home into a college.

And in 1996, the spoilt Victoria lives in a world of environmentalism and smooth PR, and tries to trace her past lives and her heritage.

A joyous, erotic and poetic epic spanning three generations of rich and poor in the Scottish Highlands, Victoria was first performed in 2000 at the Pit, Barbican in London.

In the Poetics Aristotle drew a distinction between tragedy and epic, though conceding that they had much in common. The separateness of the two genres has been acknowledged down the centuries. Linking them is therefore something of a paradox. This originated after the First World War with German radical theatre practitioners who felt that the linear plot and focus on the individual characteristic of Aristotelian dramaturgy were inadequate tools for representing the clash of vast social forces. They also rejected naturalism as providing too limited an angle of vision for revolutionary times.

The term ‘epic theatre’ was coined by the left-wing director Erwin Piscator in the early 1920s. For him, the chief connotation of epic was that of scale, of social dimension. In his work in Berlin – at the Proletarisches Theater, the Volksbühne and particularly in his own house, the Theater am Nollendorfplatz (1927–9) – he sought, often with less than ideal texts, to make the stage respond to the political battles of the moment. He included a good deal of documentary and indeed didactic material in his shows. In order to demonstrate the connection between widely separated events or to provide a historical context for the stage action, he made a bold use of theatrical machinery: lifts, treadmills, multiple stages, even a huge globe that opened up to reveal acting areas inside. In particular, Piscator pioneered the projection of slides and films as an integral part of a stage performance. What mattered, however, was not so much the technical ingenuity of these devices as the social vision they brought to his productions. His commitment to factual drama resurfaced in the final period of his life, when he ran the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin (1962–6); here he premièred documentary plays by Hochhuth, Kipphardt and Weiss.

Brecht – unlike Piscator not only a director but also, indeed primarily, a playwright and a theorist – appropriated the term ‘epic theatre’ in the mid-1920s. For him, the chief connotation of epic was that of a narrative mode. (In his definitions he drew on and modified from a Marxist perspective the work of Goethe and Schiller, who had collaborated in the 1790s on reformulating Aristotle’s concepts of drama and epic for the modern world.) Brecht’s plays were fictional rather than documentary; they were intended to be models (in the laboratory sense) of human interaction. Their form was non-Aristotelian, i.e. open and structurally closer to Elizabethan drama than to the well-made plays of nineteenth-century bourgeois theatre. Since he wanted his audience to react rationally rather than emotionally, he built his plays on a non-linear storyline, with each scene standing on its own, which often avoided a climax; thus the spectators were denied a catharsis. Brecht introduced the so-called Alienation effect and would employ a number of distancing devices, some borrowed from oriental theatre, such as direct address to the audience; stylized speech, including rhyming, free and blank verse; the insertion of songs in sharp contrast to the surrounding dialogue; a narrator or a chorus; miming and masks. He would expose stage lighting and illuminate the action with bright, untinted light, openly show the source of (live or recorded) music, identify scenes by means of dropped-in or projected captions and use half-tabs (curtains) that only partially concealed scene changes, thus reminding the audience that they were in a theatre.

Towards the end of his life Brecht had come to doubt whether epic theatre was a really useful description; it could be applied too easily to other kinds of non-Aristotelian plays, such as those by Claudel and Thornton Wilder, which had no bearing on social conflict and the class struggle. He was tempted to substitute the term ‘dialectical theatre’ but never found time to evolve a suitable theory.

Epic theatre represents at the same time thematic and technical innovations and a reversion to some pre-naturalist styles of theatre. If it did not bring about the total revolution in the theatre (and elsewhere) that its advocates polemically claimed it would, it did at any rate make a major impact on twentieth-century drama and staging practice.

from George Brandt, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).