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Bertolt Brecht’s Theatre of War

Shruti Sonal ( is a freelance journalist and poet based in Bengaluru, with a keen interest in the intersection of politics and arts.

The theatre work of Bertolt Brecht reminds us that art must find a way to not only confront, but also challenge reality.

Epic theatre (a termed coined by director Erwin Piscator in 1924) refers to the movement in German theatre that emerged in the mid-20th century to respond to the changing political climate after Germany’s defeat in World War I. Its main practitioners included Erwin Piscator, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and, most fam­ously, Bertolt Brecht. Marking a departure from both the ­romanticism of traditional German theatre and the later naturalistic approach, it aimed at presenting social and moral dilemmas to the audience in an objective and rational manner. It redefined several aspects of theatre in Germany, not only in terms of the issues it dealt with and their presentation, but also styles of production. Brecht, while not the original or the only practitioner of epic theatre, eventually became its most recognised face.

Born on 10 February 1898 in Bavaria, Brecht was brought up in an upper-middle-class household. His life and works were profoundly shaped by World WarI. During the war, he adopted a fiercely pacifist stance and started publishing his poems, short stories, and plays locally. Working as a medical orderly at a local military hospital made him confront the trauma of the war at close quarters, which led to his cynical and critical poems about the war, such as “Legend of the Dead Soldier” (1918) and “General Your Tank Is a Powerful Vehicle” (1938).

Brecht was highly critical of traditional theatre as it tended to represent the reality as stable and unchanging, as something to which people must reconcile. The style of presentation and representation in dramatic theatre made the audience members into a “cowed, credulous, hypnotised mass,” thereby limiting their capability of critically thinking about the events that they saw on stage. In A Short Organum for the Theatre (1949), Brecht highlights how theatre was ­reduced to being a tool of the bourgeoisie, centred on the business of pleasure. The rational and critical approach of the new sciences wasn’t allowed to extend to the realm of theatre. There was emphasis on a pre-decided plot structure that was not alterable. Much of the audience’s energy was spent in an emotional engagement with the scenes and a constant desire to know what was going to happen next.

Brecht was highly critical of this approach, stating that “when something seems the most obvious thing in the world it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.” Instead, he intended to create something devoid of mystery and rituals, alienating the audience in order to induce a critical response: focusing on the “why” rather than the “how.” In “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre” (1930), he highli­ghted his desire to develop an “epic theatre” that would unfold as a narrative, arousing the capacity of the spectator to reason, and look at the drama as a series of autonomous scenes that progressed not in linear motion, but curves.

In one of his oft-quoted statements, Brecht emphasised that “it is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theater. Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality.” Written in 1939, during the period of Brecht’s exile from Germany, Mother Courage and Her Children remains one of the best examples of his technique of epic theatre. Set in the historical period of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), it deals with the war not in religious or social terms, but focuses on the economic equations driving war. By placing the characters in the past, Brecht urges the audience to contextualise their actions.

At the same time, the play was peppered with quotes such as “War is a lot like love: it always finds a way,” carrying a premonition of the devastating World WarII that was to come. At the centre of the play is the character of Mother Courage, a small businesswoman who joins the war in order to make a profit out of it. Through Mother Courage, Brecht attempts to drive home his idea that “war is a continuation of business by other means.” There are intricate details of business transactions carefully described, and plenty of instances where the titular character is shown to be mercilessly driven by material interests instead of morality. Even as she loses all of her children one by one, during the course of the war, she remains determined to carry on her business, even if it means carrying on the wagon by herself. Brecht, however, seems to point out that no one can get through war without loss, not even the bourgeois class. Through the use of tools such as alienation, music, disruption, and placards, Brecht neither allows Mother Courage to be painted in a negative light, nor allows the audience to empathise with her numerous losses. She is a character full of contradictions, stuck in a dilemma fuelled by her identity as a tradeswoman and a mother, choosing to survive in the most difficult of circumstances.

Throughout the play, placards are used to describe the events in the upcoming scene, making no attempt to build suspense. The very first scene of the play begins with the introduction “The canteen woman Anna Fierling, commonly known as Mother Courage, loses a son.” The tone of the narration remains objective throughout, helping the audience remain rational. The scenes are played out as autonomous subplots. The use of songs is an interruptive device to alienate the audience from getting drawn into an emotional whirlwind, as well as to deal with larger issues about war. For example, “The Song of the Great Souls of This Earth” in Scene 9 highlights Brecht’s beliefs that during war, virtues only bring ruin to those who possess them. About four great historical figures, the song is an allegory for Mother Courage and her three children, referring to the virtues that brought about their end: Eilif is compared to brave Julius Caesar, Swiss Cheese to honest Socrates, Kattrin to the unselfish St Martin, and Mother Courage to the wise Solomon.

At the heart of the play remains Brecht’s rueful wish for a different reality, exemplified in the line: “Such is the world, need it be so?” His theatre, therefore, reminds us that in the most difficult of times, art must find a way to not only confront, but also challenge reality. 


Updated On : 12th Mar, 2019


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