Bertolt Brecht and the Socialist Origins of West German Theater

  • Abstract:

    The dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was among the most polarizing figures in all of postwar German history. A committed socialist, Brecht settled in East Berlin following WWII and founded the Berliner Ensemble. Theater directors in West Germany (FRG) boycotted Brecht’s plays during the 1953 uprising in East Germany (GDR) and again in response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as a way of castigating the young socialist governments. In the aftermath of the 1968 student protests Brecht became a hero of the New Left but by the 1980s a younger generation began to consider his works representative of an outmoded, orthodox Marxism. The scholarly narrative contends that the GDR was economically progressive but culturally conservative; in Brecht’s hands, however, what is often derisively referred to as socialist realism was profoundly expressive and politically dissenting. Brecht’s influence on FRG culture is a story that has yet to be told. By comparing theater productions in the GDR and the FRG this paper reveals that the very tactics viewed as cheap or socialist in East German theaters were hailed as avant-garde in West German theaters by the very same FRG critics. Material shortages faced by Brecht’s production team forced them to use lighting and choreography in innovative ways when elaborate sets were not affordable. Their use of projected images was taken up by dozens of theaters in the FRG. West German theaters also mobilized their audiences, involved them in participatory scenes, staged dramas in alternative locations, and championed the collective theater model pioneered by Brecht. This paper argues that what has long been considered an avant-garde West German theater aesthetic was in fact fundamentally Brechtian with its very foundation in GDR culture.