- 1898, Born, Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht in Augsburg, Germany
- 1904-1917, Primary and secondary education
- 1914, First contribution to a newspaper, a short piece of prose fiction
- 1917, Starts studying Medicine and Natural Science at Munich University
- 1918, Writes first play ‘Baal’. Military service as a medical orderly
- 1920, Writes ‘A Reckoning’, his first published thoughts on theatre
- 1924, Moves to Berlin, Germany’s capital city
- 1928, First performance of ‘The Threepenny Opera’
- 1930, First performance of ‘Rise and Fall of the City Of Mahagonny’
- 1933, Brecht leaves Germany, travels through Vienna, Switzerland, France and settles in Denmark
- 1935, Visits New York
- 1939, Writes ‘Mother Courage and her Children’
- 1940, Moves to Finland, then the USA
- 1943, First performance of ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’
- 1945, Writes ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’
- 1947, Appears before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused of being a communist
- 1948, Returns to Berlin
- 1949, Returns to Zurich and writes ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, his most complete theatrical statement. Sets up his own company, the Berliner Ensemble
- 1950, Becomes a citizen of Austria
- 1952, Berliner Ensemble tours Poland
- 1954, First Night of ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’
- 1955, ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ at the Paris International Festival
- 1956, Dies from a heart attack. Berliner Ensemble performs in London
In Theory and Practice
Even in his own opinion, Brecht is over-theorised –
My theories are altogether far more naïve than one might think – more naïve than my way of expressing them might allow one to suspect. 
His theories create an interesting working method for theatre, but as Martin Esslin notes –
Basically these principles are neither very complicated nor very new 
Therefore, there is no need to be mystified by Brecht’s ideas. Let us look at them simply.
Takes its name from the epic poetry of the ancient Greeks. The Greek words ‘epikos’ and ‘epos’ mean ‘word, story, poem’. An epic poem is one that tells a story through narration. Epic theatre that uses a narrator differs from theatre that only uses characters to tell a story.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that being emotionally involved with the characters in a story leads the audience to a point of release when that story reaches its climax –
Tragedy, therefore, is an imitation of a worthy or illustrious and perfect action … by men acting, and not through narration, through pity and fear effecting a purification from such like passions 
Hollywood is a great user of this idea, presenting a story that gives us an emotional experience and makes us feel better about the world.
Brecht wanted to create a theatre contrary to Aristotle’s. He didn’t want the audience to be always carried away in an emotional experience. He wanted to make the audience think, as well as feel. He wanted the audience to leave the theatre fired up with ideas, rather than relaxed by emotions. He wrote –
The essential point of the epic theatre is perhaps that it appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason. 
He wanted his audience to question the play, not to take it for granted, so they realised that they have the power to change the world. He compared how traditional and epic theatre audiences react –
Brecht’s leading actress, Helene Weigel, sums up the aim of Epic Theatre –
People are intelligent and, looking at plays who [sic] are intelligent, they understand them; and understand too, that it’s not destiny, deity or kings who have the absolute power to change their life. 
How did Brecht stop his audiences from getting emotionally involved, and start them thinking?
Other names for Epic Theatre
Verfremdungseffekt is the act of stopping an audience becoming emotionally involved in on-stage action. Martin Esslin –
the audience must be discouraged from losing its critical detachment … the producer must strive to produce by all means at his disposal effects which will keep the audience separate, estranged, alienated from the action 
Here is a list of means that Brecht used to create the verfremdungseffekt, and some of his comments on them –
- Using a narrator – stands outside the action, talks directly to the audience, comments in an unemotional way.
- Direct address – actors come out of character and talk directly to the audience. Also known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’.
- Dramatic irony – giving the audience information that the characters do not possess destroys the suspense of the story.
- Signs / Projection – tells the audience what will happen, so shifts the focus to how it happens. Example – ‘A short song allows Miss Polly Peachum to confess to her Horrified Parents that she is wedded to the Murderer Macheath’ 
- Mechanics of theatre – making the means of production visible reminds the audience that they are in a theatre. Examples – showing lights, sound equipment, costume changes. ‘It is one of the means of preventing an unwanted element of illusion’ 
- Episodic – the plot does not build to a climax, it is a montage of scenes that are complete in themselves.
- Music – interrupts the flow of the action and comments on it. 
- Masks – ‘classical and medieval theatre alienated its characters by making them wear human or animal masks’ 
- Acting – ‘everything to do with the emotions has to be externalized … it must be developed in to a gesture … some action that gives away what is going on inside him’ 
Other names for Verfremdungseffekt
Brecht didn’t discuss his theories when rehearsing. Angelika Hurwicz, the first actress to play the character Grusha, has said that over months of rehearsal Brecht only mentioned Verfremdungseffekt once. 
In reality, Brecht was a practical rather than a theoretical director. His directing assistant, now a Professor at Stanford University, Carl Weber explains –
If an actor asked Brecht … what do you think, how should I do this? I have an idea. He says ‘Well show me, don’t tell me’
His rehearsals were democratic, encouraging input from everyone in the rehearsal room. Hans Mayer, a professor of literature who worked with Brecht confirms –
Brecht always discussed … he wanted to have a collective responsibility
Brecht was aware that his theories could slow down a performance, and was concerned that the practice of his theatre remained quick and vital. One of his final rehearsal notes reads –
there is in England a long standing fear that German art … must be terribly heavy, slow, labourious and pedestrian. So our playing needs to be quick, light, strong. This is not a question of hurry, but of speed, not simply of quick playing, but of quick thinking. We must keep the tempo of a run-through and infect it with quiet strength, with our own fun … The audience has to see that here are a number of artists working together as a collective (ensemble) in order to convey stories, ideas, virtuoso feats to the spectator by common effort. 
© Tom Neill, 2011
 Cited in Martin Esslin, ‘Brecht: A Choice of Evils’, (Heinemann, London, 1959), 106.  Martin Esslin, ‘Brecht: A Choice of Evils’, (Heinemann, London, 1959), 106.  Aristotle, ‘The Poetics’, (Prometheus Books, New York, 1992), 10-11.  Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Epic Theatre and its Difficulties’, in ‘Brecht on Theatre’, (ed. John Willett, Methuen, London, 1964), 23.  Bertolt Brecht, ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’, in ‘Brecht on Theatre’, (ed. John Willett, Methuen, London, 1964), 71.  Helene Weigel, cited in ‘Brecht on Stage’, (BBC / Open University, 1989).  Cited in Martin Esslin, ‘Brecht: A Choice of Evils’, (Heinemann, London, 1959), 110-111.  Bertolt Brecht, ‘On the use of Music in an Epic Theatre’, in ‘Brecht on Theatre’, (ed. John Willett, Methuen, London, 1964), 85.  Bertolt Brecht, ‘Making Visible the Sources of Light’, in ‘Brecht on Theatre’, (ed. John Willett, Methuen, London, 1964), 141.  See ‘On the Use of Music in an Epic Theatre’, in ‘Brecht on Theatre’, (ed. John Willett, Methuen, London, 1964), 85.  Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, in ‘Brecht on Theatre’, (ed. John Willett, Methuen, London, 1964), 192.  Bertolt Brecht, ‘Short Description of a New Technique of Acting’, in ‘Brecht on Theatre’, (ed. John Willett, Methuen, London, 1964), 139.  Cited in Margaret Eddershaw, ‘Performing Brecht’, (Routledge, London, 1996), 37.  Cited in Margaret Eddershaw, ‘Performing Brecht’, (Routledge, London, 1996), 39.