Brecht’s work can be best desribed in three specific stages. ‘The Early Period’, ‘The Propaganda Plays’ and ‘The Plays of Brecht’s Maturity’.
The Early Period
The Early Period plays are humorous, in a rather bleak and cynical way, and present social and political questions, attacking bourgeois values. Technically, the plays are (for their time) innovative: the bourgeois convention of the fourth wall is rejected, stories are improbable, settings exotic, songs serve as commentary on action. These early works include:
Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night; 1918) Mann ist Mann (Man is Man; 1924-5) Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera; 1928) Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahagonny; 1928-9)
The Threepenny Opera was intended to lampoon (send up or ridicule) the conventional sentimental musical. The public lapped up the mock sentiment and missed the humour. Brecht had achieved commercial success, but for reasons which could not please him.
The Properganda Plays
‘The Properganda Plays’ or ‘Lehrstücke’ are short, parabolic pieces, written between the years of 1928 and 1930. These plays, written to instruct children, are not attractive to audiences. Their simplicity and didacticism makes them austere to the point of severity. They are interesting as theatrical treatments of ideological questions but are rarely performed now. These included:
Der Flug des Lindberghs [Der Ozeanflug] (The Flight of Lindbergh [the Ocean Flight]) Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis, (The Bavarian Parable Play of Understanding) Der Jasager (The Yes-Sayer) Der Neinsager (The No-Sayer) Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken) Die Ausnahme und die Regel (The Exception and the Rule).
Der Ozeanflug, broadcast as a radio play, was produced without the reading of the main part, which was to be spoken by the audience, who were supplied with scripts.
There are also three longer propaganda plays:
Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe
Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses)parodies, variously, Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe. It contains many devices of what Brecht called “Epic theatre”, such as a loudspeaker announcing political events of the time, or projection of captions commenting on the drama.
Die Mutter (The Mother) deals explicitly and didactically with political revolution – written in a restrained puritanical style.
Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe
Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe (The Roundheads and the Peakheads) is a strange play which takes its plot from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but presents also Hitler’s theory of inferior and superior races via the Peakheads and the Roundheads (the latter being the “master race”).
The Plays of Brecht’s Maturity
Brecht’s output of written works were huge. Esslin lists forty-nine stage works – which includes operas, adaptations and interludes. But four of the later plays stand out:
Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children; first performed 1941;) Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo; 1943) Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Sezuan; 1943) Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk-Circle; performed in English, 1947; in German, not till 1954)
In the first two we see episodic narrative theatre, each scene is prefaced by a caption indicating what happens. In performance, these could be displayed, projected or read out by the actors. In the third, scenes presenting the action are followed by interludes in which actors stand back from their roles and comment on the actions of the characters. In The Caucasian Chalk-Circle, Brecht uses a play within the play: in order to resolve the conflict of two groups of peasants who wish to farm a valley, a play is presented by singer, musicians and actors. The singer and musicians stand outside the drama of Grusche, Azdak, Simon and Natella, and provide both narrative and commentary.
The construction of the plays
In order to achieve unity of action, to build suspense, and sustain its naturalistic illusion the dramatic play must be taut, well made and leading to a climax of catharsis. The epic play is more free. Suspense is not needed, and the whole can be loosely knit and episodic – each part making sense on its own.
The later, mature plays do lead to some definite end: Mother Courage’s loss of all her children, Azdak’s judgement in favour of Grusche or the non-solution of the gods to Shen-Te’s problem. But we can isolate episodes that stand alone – Mother Courage being the most simply episodic of the later plays.
In an earlier piece, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches, 1934-37), this episodic structure is much more marked. The “play” is, in fact, a series of related sketches on the theme suggested by the play’s title. The work started off as five playlets, became eight, then nineteen, grew to twenty-seven and was, at last, cut to twenty-four. In performance one could (and, perhaps, should) present a selection from the total without harm to the work’s integrity.