Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble

Bertolt Brecht, arguably the most influential theorist of experimental theater of the twentieth century, founded the Berliner Ensemble, through which he challenged traditional theatrical conventions to create what he called an “epic” theater.

Summary of Event

Bertolt Brecht explored the didactic nature of the theater. It was Brecht’s belief that the purpose of theater is to teach people how to survive in a world of absurdity. He did not want his audience simply to feel empathy with the situation of the characters. Instead, Brecht’s goal was to cause people to think about what was taking place and to look for ways to change the world. Brecht was convinced that audiences must be made to realize that plays suggested the need to find answers to sociopolitical and economic problems outside the theater. In Brecht’s theater, people do not escape their problems; instead, they are made to recognize the problems and seek ways to solve them. [kw]Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble (Jan., 1949)
[kw]Berliner Ensemble, Brecht Founds the (Jan., 1949)
Berliner Ensemble
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
Epic theater
Berliner Ensemble
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
Epic theater
[g]Europe;Jan., 1949: Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble[02830]
[g]East Germany;Jan., 1949: Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble[02830]
[g]Germany;Jan., 1949: Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble[02830]
[c]Theater;Jan., 1949: Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble[02830]
Brecht, Bertolt
Piscator, Erwin
Weigel, Helene

Realism was the dominant form of theater up to the 1950’s. Major influences on the theater included Charles Darwin’s theories in science, Karl Marx’s theories of politics and economics, and Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychology. These influences are apparent in epic theater, wherein the world is viewed as dynamic and ever-changing, and needs must be met actively by people.

To achieve his dramatic goal, Brecht followed the lead of Erwin Piscator in developing and using the techniques of epic theater. Brecht was influenced strongly by the work of Max Reinhardt Reinhardt, Max . Reinhardt sought to fuse the actor and the audience through the use of light, color, music, and mass movements on the stage. The major techniques of epic theater include use of episodic dramatic structure. Brecht also used music. He would have characters break the action and cross over the imaginary “fourth wall” at the front of the stage to sing a song to the audience. Often the character’s song would be in direct contrast to the nature of the character as shown in the plot. Musicians were placed on the stage in full view of the audience. Another technique would have the lighting instruments hanging so that the audience was aware of them being used. Brecht would have the scenery changed without the curtain being brought down so that the audience would observe scenery changes taking place as the plot developed. Further, he used scenery that was nonrealistic.

Additionally, Brecht employed the technique of “alienation.” In his work, Brecht sought to have the audience take an active role in the dramatic production. Alienation was a process of making the dramatic action and the characters seem strange to the viewer through a variety of theatrical devices. In this way, the audience members could be sufficiently distanced from the play to allow them to watch it critically without empathy for the characters. Brecht was not concerned with having the audience identify with the individual psyche of a character; instead, he wanted the audience to react to the sociopolitical and economic forces affecting the characters in the play.

Another technique Brecht used was “historification.” Brecht attempted to create a sense of past. This involved a process of emphasizing the history of an event so that the audience could evaluate the events of the dramatic action of the plot. He wanted the viewers to recognize changes that have occurred throughout history. By seeing change, Brecht hoped, his audience would realize that events in their lives could be changed for the better.

Epic theater is a drama form and production style intended to provoke spectators into a heightened sociopolitical awareness rather than emotionally involving them in realistic situations. Its ultimate goal is change. This form was not limited to unity of time, place, and action. Usually, episodic plots were revealed early in the dramatic action, without use of exposition. Works usually covered long periods of time—weeks, months, or even years. The dramatic action was contained in many short, fragmented scenes, with alternation between shorter and longer ones. Often the plot unfolded across an entire city or country rather than in one house or a single room. Action usually involved large numbers of characters, up to several dozen. Brecht would juxtapose serious and comic scenes in an effort to alienate the viewer. Generally there were several lines of action contained in the play’s plot. Characters often served the narrative function of a Greek chorus; Brecht sometimes used a narrator to speak or sing directly to the audience.

Brecht was essentially an anarchist, questioning all societal restraints. In 1926, Brecht embraced the socioeconomic theories Marxism of Karl Marx. Brecht believed in the Marxist theory that society evolved as a result of economic forces, not through the activities of any given individual. He supported the principle of economic determinism. It was Brecht’s opinion that only powerful and well-connected individuals truly benefited from the existing sociopolitical and economic structures of society. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1928. What Brecht wanted was for people to be made to think and be moved to social action. Epic theater was moralistic in asserting that personal destiny is controlled by sociopolitical factors. It intended to study and make visible the conditions in society in an effort to bring positive change to people’s lives.

Brecht rejected the prevailing practice in Western theater of seeking to make a production a synthesis of the arts, with each reinforcing the other for a unified whole. He was convinced that Asian drama was superior to the majority of Western theater. He wanted to employ various Asian techniques as an antidote to realism.

In an effort to develop and formalize his thinking concerning epic theater, Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble. The Berliner Ensemble opened in January, 1949, at the Deutches Theater. It remained there until 1954, when it moved to Theater-am-Schiffbauerdamm. The ensemble’s first production was Brecht’s own Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder
Mother Courage and Her Children (Brecht) (pr. 1941, pb. 1949; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941). This play is the epitomizing example of epic theater.

In his productions with the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht employed a strategy of long and careful rehearsals, sometimes lasting as long as six months. He was meticulous in every detail of production. His style was highly dictatorial and matter-of-fact. Brecht was almost fanatical in his attempts to make sure that each production achieved his goals.


Important productions by Brecht’s ensemble include Mother Courage and Her Children, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (wr. 1938-1940, pr. 1943, pb. 1953; The Good Woman of Sezuan, 1948), Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (wr. 1944-1945, pr. in English as The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948, pb. 1949, pr. in German 1958), Die Dreigroschenoper (pr. 1928, pb. 1929; The Threepenny Opera, 1949), and Leben des Galilei (first version wr. 1938-1939, pr. 1943; The Life of Galileo, 1947, better known as Galileo). In these productions, Brecht was able to implement his theoretical concepts of epic theater, with its alienation and historification. The work of the Berliner Ensemble was received with considerable enthusiasm. Under Brecht, the Berliner Ensemble was the height of cultural and artistic achievement.

From 1949 through 1956, the staging techniques used by Brecht were highly influential on the world of drama. As playwright and director with the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht was the dramatic leader of his generation. The Berliner Ensemble served as the culmination and realization of Brecht’s epic theories. His involvement allowed the ensemble to enter new realms of dramatic expression.

Brecht sought to confront and challenge his audiences through the work of the Berliner Ensemble. Much of what he did as artistic director has been assimilated by contemporary theater. For example, he abandoned the use of the front curtain. In addition, he did not attempt to hide scenery changes and instead had them completed in full view of the audience. As a result of Brecht’s influence, lighting instruments and musicians are now often in full view.

Other elements of epic theater as demonstrated by the Berliner Ensemble continue to influence dramatists and theater practitioners. Among these are a more presentational acting style. Although most theater companies use the more representational style advocated by Konstantin Stanislavsky, there are directors and dramatists who use the presentational style, which employs the breaking of the fourth wall of the theater. Thus, several of Brecht’s techniques for achieving estrangement and displacement, the ultimate goals of epic theater, perhaps unfortunately have been absorbed by mainstream theater. Audiences now view his plays like any others and therefore are less likely to experience the sense of need to seek social change in the world after leaving the theater.

Like George Bernard Shaw, Brecht was a social dramatist. Brecht’s style, however, was unlike Shaw’s. Brecht’s plays, like parables, intended to instruct the audience. Perhaps a problem resulted from Brecht’s approach because he combined pleasure and learning through his epic theater. Ultimately, the plays seem to entertain as much as they instruct, and his messages might have come across more forcefully if he had used a more direct approach.

An irony in what Brecht hoped to accomplish, along with his communist associates, is that his left-wing political beliefs may have alienated his audiences too well. With the collapse of the Soviet communist bloc in the late twentieth century, some people questioned Brecht’s obvious support of socialistic changes.

The combined effect of the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht, and epic drama on the theater is likely the broadest of any movement in recent theater history. The Berliner Ensemble performed some of the most far-reaching experiments in modern theater. In the 1954-1955 season, the Berliner Ensemble received the award for the best production at the Theater des Nations conducted with the support of the United Nations in Paris, France. The ensemble extended the influence of Brecht and his epic drama to cities and countries throughout Europe. It also extended the influence of actors, designers, and directors trained in its school of dramatic production. This troupe has had the most influence on production techniques of any group in the modern theater. Berliner Ensemble
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
Epic theater

Further Reading

  • Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto. Types of Drama: Plays and Essays. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. The sections on the nature of drama, the language of drama, and tragicomedy are useful to the student of absurdism in understanding the movement.
  • Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Art and Politics. Edited by Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles. Translated by Laura Bradley, Steve Giles, and Tom Kuhn. London: Methuen, 2003. One of the most important compilations in English of Brecht’s theoretical, aesthetic, and political writings. Bibliographic references and index.
  • _______. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Edited and translated by John Willett. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964. Sections dealing with the modern nature of epic theater, theater for pleasure or instruction, and experimental theater are particularly informative concerning Brecht’s views on theater.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. The Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979. In chapters 11 through 13, Brockett offers an excellent overview of historical trends in the theater from 1915 through 1975.
  • Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert J. Ball. The Essential Theatre. 8th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004. Provides a complete introduction to the basics of drama and the theater. Chapters 9 and 10 are particularly valuable in that they inform the reader about the absurdist and ethnic theater movements.
  • Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003. This comprehensive study of the theater is required reading for serious students of the theater. Brockett provides a thorough look at trends and movements affecting the evolution of the epic theater movement.
  • Hall, James B., and Barry Ulanov. Modern Culture and the Arts. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Hall and Ulanov provide information on cultural heritage that is stimulating and enlightening. This book is a good source on which to build a foundational knowledge of the arts.
  • Hartnoll, Phyllis. The Concise History of Theatre. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968. The author gives a synoptic view of major movements in the theater.
  • Klaus, Carl H., Miriam Gilbert, and Bradford S. Field, Jr., comps. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. This collection with notes contains excellent production photographs.
  • Roose-Evans, James. Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Today. New York: Universe Books, 1970. Roose-Evans provides the reader with a clear and concise description of major movements in the theater. Gives a unified view of what has led to much of contemporary practice in modern theater.
  • White, John J. Bertolt Brecht’s Dramatic Theory. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2004. Close reading of Brecht’s theory, including texts made available for the first time in the twenty-first century. Demonstrates that Brecht employed techniques such as defamiliarizaton and distancing not only in his drama but also in his theoretical writing. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Wilson, Edwin. The Theater Experience. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991. The author examines numerous aspects of the theater in a discussion that highlights various developments in staging, acting, directing, and play writing. The book contains an excellent set of five appendixes, including “Major Theatrical Forms and Movements” and “Historical Outline.”

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