Remember Louis Armstrong's great interpretation of Mack the Knife? Or the lysergic sound of Jim Morrison's voice singing "show me the way to the next whisky bar" in his 1967 recording of Alabama Song? These are just some great examples of how Bertolt Brecht's work has permeated international pop culture, but the playwright's influence on theater has been even greater.
Born in Bavaria in 1898, Brecht enjoyed his first successes as a dramatist in Munich during the Weimar Republic era. He moved to Berlin in 1925, where he became acquainted with Marxism and socialism and developed his theory for his "epic theater," in which the play is a forum of political ideas. In order to better convey political thought, Brecht's theater refuses any emotional involvement, which he thought destroys the spectator's ability to judge. Brecht believed instead in alienating the audience through theatrical strategies such as direct address, voice-over narration, posters, and other disruptive tactics.
Berlin was where Brecht wrote his Threepenny Opera, a "play with music" with songs by Kurt Weill. The show, a critique of capitalism, opened on 31 August 1928 at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, and remains one of his most important works.
Fearing Nazi persecution, Brecht left Germany in 1933, seeking exile in Scandinavia first and later in the United States. He returned to East Berlin in 1949 with his wife, actress Helene Weigel, to establish a new theater, the Berliner Ensemble, where the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm once was.
The best way to take in Brecht's legacy is to visit his Berliner Ensemble theater (Bertolt-Brecht-Platz 1, guided tour in English on 24 Nov), or to attend one of his shows. Der Lebenslauf des Boxers Samson–Körner showing on 1, 3, 4 Nov (call for info on English surtitles), is a fun theatrical rendition of a conversation the playwright once had with boxing champion Samson-Körner, but it also reveals some traits of the dramatist's lively personality.
For a peek into Brecht's private life, check out the Bertolt Brecht Center and Museum (Chausseestr. 125), housed in the apartment where the author lived and worked from 1953 to the day of his death in 1956. The rooms have been partially preserved in their original state, and include Brecht's library of 4,000 volumes. True fans will also want to see what is left of Brecht and Weigel's first East Berlin apartment, a Weissensee townhouse where they lived from 1949 to 1953 (Berliner Allee 185), or travel a bit further out to Buckow to spend some time at the couple's summer house on the Scharmützelsee lake (Bertolt-Brecht-Str. 30, Buckow). The marvelous German-style villa, built in 1910, has been a cultural center dedicated to Brecht since 1977, and now hosts literary evenings, readings, concerts, and movie screenings. Brecht was only 58 when he died of a heart attack. He was buried at the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery on Chausseestraße, right next to his last apartment.