The only playwright that my list of revolutionary dramatists shares with Robert Brustein’s is Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). Though Brecht only lived for a decade after the end of the Second World War, it was then that he produced some of his most intriguing work at his Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin. Those who know Brecht only through his two most popular plays, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage, do not know Brecht. Especially in the postwar period, his work exhibited the three essential qualities of a new Theater of Revolt — the disintegration of individual personality, a multicultural perspective on the world, and a formal innovation that foregrounded poetic language.
Echoing his pre-war Man Equals Man and The Measures Taken (this latter play his best, according to Martin Esslin), the plays of this last decade presented characters divided against themselves — from inner compulsion as well as from outer necessity, like Galileo. The lead characters of Puntila, The Good Person of Szechwan, and Arturo Ui, however, also demonstrate a riven individual consciousness: and once fragmented, these lead characters can’t put themselves back together again. Puntila is torn between his “good,” drunken self and his “bad,” sober self, eventually driving his servant to abandon him; Szechwan‘s Shen Te, driven to take on a new male identity just to survive in a cruel landscape, appeals to the gods for the key to reintegration, only to have the gods remain silent; Arturo Ui himself finds integration only through artificial performance styles and the dissemination of this artificial self through mass media. In all of these plays (as in the late adaptation The Tutor), the self is an impossible construct — even gender and sexuality are amorphous and capable of transformation in Szechwan and The Tutor. Far from political polemics, these plays demonstrate divided individuals attempting to find integration into the mass. At the conclusions of these plays, they do not do so, leaving them open-ended and the audience itself with a problem perhaps incapable of solution.
While Brecht played with Asian performance styles as early as the 1930s, his plays also exhibit a global consciousness, from the fictitious Africa, Chicago, and Florida of the early plays to the abstracted but no less fictitious Italy and Asia of the latter. Brecht is notorious for his co-optation of foreign stories and performance styles in his work, but this co-optation is a forerunner of the issues that are raised through globalization and colonialization themselves. In integrating these performance styles into his own unique European tradition, Brecht opened the stage to a variety of performative stances. (Not that this wasn’t a two-way street; in 1948, Akira Kurosawa adapted the aesthetic of the Hollywood film — specifically, the aesthetic of Warner Bros. realism — for Drunken Angel, the first of his collaborations with Toshiro Mifune.) And long before Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, Brecht was putting the financial markets on the stage with Saint Joan of the Stockyards, itself inspired by Frank Norris’ American novel about the Chicago mercantile exchange, The Pit.
Finally, there is the “epic theatre” as it eventually emerged from Brecht’s theory and practice, marked by an estrangement of the audience from the events on the stage as an impetus to thought and meditation. While sympathy and empathy necessarily maintain their importance, this is accompanied by a simultaneous distance from these emotions: not only the society but also the emotions that arise from conflicts within it are open to examination and questioning. This delicate balance of tradition and innovation also emerged in a variety of linguistic styles which integrated song, found texts, and poetry into the prose dramaturgical form (indeed, Arturo Ui itself is throughout its length a parody of the Shakespeare history play). As a result, Brecht pointed the way forward to Modernist performance styles that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century.
The standard English-language translation of Brecht’s plays is the eight-volume edition from A&C Black/Methuen, which is accompanied by extensive annotations and notes. However, this edition does not include the adaptations for the Berliner Ensemble that Brecht made during the last years of his life, and which include important plays like The Tutor from Lenz, Coriolanus from Shakespeare, Trumpets and Drums from Farqhuar, and Don Juan from Moliere. These plays are included in Volume 9 of the abandoned Random House collected plays edition that was published in the 1970s. No picture of Brecht is complete without the Brecht on Theatre compilation of theoretical essays by John Willett, or the 1976 collection of Brecht’s poetry from Methuen, which is unfortunately out of print.
The two books which introduced Brecht to English-speaking readers, John Willett’s The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects (1959) and the somewhat more controversial Brecht: The Man and His Work (1960) from Martin Esslin are still commonly available, though the first should be supplemented with Willett’s collection Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches from 1998. The standard English-language biography remains Frederic Ewen’s Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art and His Times (1967). A survey of more contemporary approaches to Brecht can be found in the second, 2007 edition of The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. My own past writings on Brecht can be found here.
Finally, for a full accounting of Brecht’s indebtedness to Marxism (and for more than that), one should read Marx. You will likely find all you need in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker and published by W.W. Norton.