I Bertolt Brecht

by Victor A. Grauer

Scene 2

Voice from loudspeakers: Act I, Scene 2. In which our hero finds himself in yet another strange place: New York City. As in the previous scene, he acts out yet another episode from the same Brecht play. But with several fresh twists. In fact things get very twisted indeed as the scene progresses. One can almost see the strings attached to this poor fellow's mouth and limbs as he plays out his role. Some would call it: his "destiny." To make everything perfectly clear, there will also be a lecture. By a real professor. So pay attention! Oh, and by the way, the play's in German with English titles. Just like in the movies. Enjoy!

[The scene is New York City. Times Square as it used to look before being "gentrified." Large cutouts in the shape of various buildings are distributed around stage rear. A large billboard is mounted toward stage left -- this should be a replica of the famous Times Square billboard of a man smoking Camels. A smoke machine is hidden behind the rear of the billboard, so the smoke can emerge from the mouth of the man on the billboard, as in the original. Just under the billboard is a speaker's lectern. Beside the lectern is a rather large blackboard. At stage center is a cardboard cutout representing the old Times building at the square. On this prop, as on the original, is an electronic device upon which words can be displayed, scrolling across the screen.]

[An elderly street person (male or female), dressed in rags, is unobtrusively cleaning up the area, picking up odd pieces of paper, bottles, etc., and placing them in a large garbage bag. This person, who will become more important in Act III, remains largely in the background during this scene. Two street musicians, wearing shades, each on opposite sides of the stage, one with a bass, the other a guitar, toss a simple phrase back and forth, jamming together throughout the first part of the scene.]

[VG and BB are at an outdoor café, seated opposite one another at a table, stage right. Each is holding a very large unlit cigar in his hand, from which he takes a puff, from time to time. Drinks are on the table. Each is reading a newspaper. Whenever VG or BB puff, the smoke machine produces a puff of smoke from the billboard. The Translator is seated inconspicuously behind VG, typing continually on a portable computer in his lap.]

BB: [as the jamming of the street musicians continues, BB sings in his own key, accompanied by a reed organ.]

[deep puff on "cigar"]

In der Asphaltstadt bin ich daheim. Von allem Anfang

Versehen mit jedem Sterbsakrament:

Mit Zeitungen. Und Tabak. Und Branntwein. [puffs cigar]

Misstrauisch und faul und zufrieden am End.

[as BB sings, the strip on the billboard projects the text in English, phrase by phrase:]

"In the asphalt city I'm right at home. From the very first

With every last sacrament supplied:

With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy.

Mistrustful and lazy and, in the end, self-satisfied."

VG: (takes a sip from a large whiskey glass and a puff from his cigar -- he is obviously drunk)

[speaking, in a conversational voice:]

In New York City was I at home. Until the day I left

Supplied with every last sacrament:

The Village Voice. And Schimmelpfennig cigars. And Jack Daniels "Sippin" Whiskey.

[takes a sip]

Cynical and lazy and far too self-confident.

Secretary [dressed as a waitress -- chewing gum -- New Yahk accent -- speaks to VG]: So what'll it be gents? More drinks?

BB: [annoyed -- waves her away]

VG: No thank you, ma'm. [pause] This is a terrific cigar. And I love this place. Music. Fancy menus. Pretty waitresses. Look, they've even got Chicago sauce. It's a side dish. Chicago sauce, imagine. New York, New York. What a city. With connections you can get anything you want in this town. It's who you know, that's it.

BB: Ich kenn jedermann. [ Displayed on the Times building: "I know everyone."]

VG: [suddenly coming to his senses, looking around] Hey! How did we get here? Weren't we somewhere else? Some other country? [looks around some more] What did you say your name was, sir?

BB: Brecht. Bertolt Brecht. [Displayed: "Brecht. Bertolt Brecht."]

[As BB speaks, The Professor strides quickly from offstage to the lectern. He doesn't look at all like a professor, though. He is a man in his fifties, has long hair, in a braid, and is wearing a work shirt and blue jeans. He begins to read. After the first few words of this "lecture" -- taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1995 -- the dialogue (see below) continues, but The Professor nevertheless persists to the end. After the first paragraph, however, his voice drops to barely more than a whisper -- it should not seriously compete with the other voices, but should always be audible. At certain points, as indicated in boldface in the text, he will both raise his voice and write on the blackboard in large letters.]: Bertold Brecht. (Ahem.) Original name EUGEN BERTHOLD FRIEDRICH BRECHT (b. Feb. 10, 1898, Augsburg, Ger.--d. Aug. 14, 1956, East Berlin), German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer whose epic theatre departed from the conventions of theatrical illusion and developed the drama as a social and ideological forum for leftist causes.

[see remainder of the professor's lecture below]


[The drama continues from shortly after the second paragraph of the lecture -- the lecturer drones on softly during the following dialogue:]

BB: [with a sudden sense of urgency] Lieber Herr, Sie sind in der Lage, drei armen Leuten in Bedrängnis einen kleinen Gefallen zu erweisen, ohne das es für Sie etwas ausmacht.

[displayed on Times Bldg: "My dear sir. You are in a position to do a small favor for three poor people in a difficult situation, without going to hardly any trouble at all."]

VG: A favor? How did you say we got here? I'm confused.

BB: Es wäre uns also geholfen, wenn Sie diese Kleidung anzögen . . .

[displayed: It would therefore be a great help to us if you would put on this outfit . . . ]

Secretary: [holds up some clothing, sits on VG's lap and strokes his cheek] What Mr. Brecht is trying to say, sweetie, is that he needs you to be him. Just for a little while.

BB: Eine Zigarre mehr oder weniger [takes puff], die Sie dabei vielleicht auf unsere Kosten zu rauchen wünschen, spielt natürlich keine Rolle.

[displayed: A cigar more or less, that you perhaps thereby wish to smoke at our expense, naturally plays no part in this matter.]

VG: Look, I'm sorry, I've gotta get going. Gotta get home to the wife, you know. We can't always do what we'd like, I'm afraid. (Where am I?)

BB: [looking relieved] Ich danke Ihnen. Ich habe das -- offen gestanden -- von Ihnen erwartet. Das ist es: Sie können nicht, wie Sie möchten. Sie möchten heim, aber Sie können nicht. Ich danke Ihnen, mein Herr, dass Sie das Vertrauen, das wir in Sie setzten, als wir Sie sahen, rechtfertigen. Ihre Hand, mein Herr!

[displayed: I thank you. I expected -- I openly confess -- this sort of response from you. That's it: You cannot do as you would like. You would like to go home, but you cannot. I thank you, my dear sir, for justifying the confidence you inspired in us when we first set eyes on you. Your hand, dear sir!]

[BB fervently takes VG's hand and kisses it.]

[Suddenly a very deep gong is struck. All the lights go out, except for the light of a Jewish memorial (Yohrzeit) candle placed at center stage rear. This candle, in full view, is always kept lit. It's so dim, however, that it can only be seen when all the other lights are out. A mysterious figure in a violet cape can just barely be seen hovering around the candle, holding his hands up to it, as if for warmth. Everyone else is suddenly frozen in place and silent until the sound of the gong has completely died away. At that moment, the lights are turned on again, the violet figure quickly rushes offstage, and the dialogue resumes where it left off.]

BB: Erlauben Sie, dass wir Ihnen zu dem genannten Zwecke das Ehrenkleid vom Meister selbst -- Meister Bertolt Brecht anlegen. [he looks meaningfully at the secretary]

[displayed: Permit us to garb you for this purpose in the honorable vestments of the Maestro himself: Maestro Bertolt Brecht. (Actually, you can just call me Bert.)]

Secretary: [to BB] I just happen to have exactly the right thing in my tote bag. [holds up a huge cloth bag] A little "souvenir," shall we say, "Bert," which you left in my apartment some time ago and then -- forgot. [bitterly:] Forgotten.

BB: Offen heraus, mein Schatz, es handelt sich um einen Spass.

[displayed: Honest, my love, this just has to do with a little joke.]

Secy: A joke? Ah so.

BB: Ist es vielleicht nicht wahr, lieber Herr? Handelt es sich nicht um einen Spass?

[displayed: Isn't that, perhaps, true, Sir? Doesn't this just have to do with a joke?]

VG: Yah. [sips his drink] Yeah. I suppose. It has to do, I guess, with a -- cigar. [laughs -- then all laugh]

[All three laugh uncontrollably for 15 seconds. The following text is displayed on the Times Bldg.: "When Laugh laughed we all laughed with him" -- Amos Tutuola]

[Suddenly all are serious.]

VG: What's this all about, actually?

BB: Es ist eigentlich gar nichts.

[display: Actually, nothing at all.]

VG: Won't it be dangerous if someone finds out?

BB: Gar nicht. Und für Sie ist einmal keinmal.

[display: Not at all. And for you, one time is no time.]

VG: True enough. Einmal ist keinmal. One time is no time, so they say. One time -- no time. [to the audience: Do they really say that? What's he talking about? Is that some kind of idiomatic expression?]

Secy: Idiotic expression, I'd say. Anyhow, "Bert," the outfit is going to cost you. One hundred bucks. [snaps gum -- reaches into her pocket, pulls out her waitress pad and writes the sum into it.]

BB: [Rises. Chants over and over again, very slowly, as in a trance] Einmal keinmal einmal keinmal einmal keinmal [etc.]

[display keeps repeating: one time no time one time no time [etc.]]

Secy: [while BB is chanting -- addresses VG] OK, buddy, this is the deal. "Bert" here is a big time playwright, director, poet, you name it. I'm his -- secretary. And last year we made a deal with this professor at New York University. This guy wants Bert to direct one of his old plays. So he's making him a professor too -- visiting professor, for big big bucks. And, well, you see, Bert owes us a lot -- of money, so it's kinda important to us that this deal goes through, but there's just one teensy little hitch.

[pause]

VG: You know, my wife is going to be really really upset. I went to buy a fish. For dinner.

Secy: I thought you said you didn't have a wife anymore. [warming to him, smiling] Don't you get lonely from time to time, eh? A good looking guy like you should be out and about more, do things, meet people, mingle. [she strokes his beard]

VG: [sips his drink] What's the --- hitch?

[the translator has risen and is now standing behind VG]

T: The "hitch," my dear sir, is that Herr Brecht is, how shall I put it, not quite "all there."

[the three of them turn to look at BB, still repeating his mantra]

VG: Oh, sure, I see, you mean he's a bit [twirls his finger while pointing it at his ear].

T: Oh, yes, that too. But what I really meant was . . .

Secy: What he meant was that Bert here is slightly -- invisible. It's kinda hard to explain, really.

BB: [stops reciting, slumps in his chair, dejected] Ein Gespenst. Ich bin ein Gespenst. Wie der Kommunismus. Ich bin Kaput. Nichts mehr. Ein Gespenst.

[display: A specter. I am a specter. Like Communism. I am finished. No more. A specter.]

T: A "specter," yes. A ghost. Or spirit, you might say. Except he never really believed in that sort of thing.

BB: I still don't believe in it. A lot of superstitious nonsense. What's important is what's real. When you're dead you're gone, that's it, I'll never believe otherwise, never. [he pounds on the table, but there is no sound -- irritated, he keeps pounding, but can make no sound]

T: See. No sound. He can't make a sound, he can't be heard, can't be seen, we made a deal, we need the money, he was going to be a Mellon Distinguished Visiting Professor, he was going to direct a play, he was going to pay us, finally, after all these years and now, nothing, nichts, nada, niente.

VG: But. I can see him. I can hear him speak. I can even understand what he says. Which is very strange. Since I hardly know any German at all. Come to think of it. Hmmmm.

T: You two have a strange rapport. Very unusual. Very strange. We can see him. You can see him. No one else can see him. No one else can hear him. He's a specter, a ghost, he's gone, forgotten, lost.

BB: [almost sobbing] Wie der Kommunismus. [display: Like Communism]

Secy: Here. Try this on for size. [she holds out a kind of Nehru jacket, exactly like the one BB is wearing]

VG: What's this for? I don't get it?

Secy: I told you. He needs you to be him. Just for a while. To meet with the professor and seal the deal, just have a drink with the guy, smoke a cigar, talk about the theater, talk politics, make cracks about women, sign the contract.

VG: Too small. I won't be able to get into it.

BB: Hören Sie, er kommt nicht hinein.

[display: Do you hear that, it's not going to work.]

[The secretary struggles to get the jacket on him -- it's so small, his arms remain outstretched to the sides -- then she gets down on her hands and knees, and starts lacing a pair of shoes on his feet.]

VG: And the shoes really pinch. Ow!

BB: Alles zu klein. Unbrauchbar! Fünfzig Dollar, keiner mehr!

[Display: Entirely too small. Useless. Fifty dollars, no more!]

Secy: Now just one more little touch. [she combs VG's hair to the front, Brecht style] Perfect!

T: And just in time. Here comes the professor.

VG: Just one thing, please keep my name out of it, OK? Don't mention my name.

[The Secretary seizes hold of VG and literally pushes him into his chair. BB places himself silently beside VG, squatting on the sidewalk, his face next to VG's ear. The Translator and Secretary take their seats and look toward The Professor, who has now completed his lecture and is making his way to their table.]

P: Far out! [to VG:]Herr Brecht, Ich würde Sie überall erkennen. Willkommen in New York.

VG: [taking a sip] Yes, Bertolt Brecht, that's me. Bertolt Brecht. But please, if you don't mind, speak English. I need to practice.

P: But your English sounds fine. I don't even notice an accent.

[The Secretary elbows VG quite strongly. BB whispers into his ear, as he will continue to do throughout the rest of the scene.]

VG: [with a pronounced German accent] Vell, you see, it comes und goes, comes und goes. Moztly mine eggzent ist werry prrronounced, werry werry prronounced.

P: Yes. Uh. Of course. [pause] Well. [smiles] I'm so glad you were able to make it. There were rumors about your health, you know.

VG: Vell, ze rumors of mine demise haff been grrossly exaggerated, grrossly exaggerated.

[The Secretary, the Translator and BB break out in laughter all at once, continuing for about 15 seconds, after which all stop together.]

T: Allow me to introduce myself. I am Herr Brecht's assistant, his translator, right hand man, his eyes and ears, so to speak.

P: [shaking his hand] How do you do. And the lady?

S: [blushing] I am die Meister's secretary, Herr Professor. Only his secretary. Nothing more. Just an old fashioned gal. Always with the typing, you know, the typing. Tak tak tak tak tak.

[she holds out her hand and he takes it -- they look into one another's eyes -- pause]

P: Well. I have the contract right here. If you'll just sign this, sir, we can get this formality out of the way and start working first thing in the morning.

VG: OK, where do I sign? [BB nudges him and whispers] But vait ein moment, better I should look it over first, you nefer know . . . [he takes the document in his hands -- BB stands up and studies it carefully, his eyes pressed inches away, he scans it carefully from top to bottom]

P: I hope the terms are acceptable, Herr Brecht. It's just as we agreed last year over the phone.

[BB whispers to VG]

VG: Ja, ja, gut, ziss I can sign. [guided by BB's hand, he signs the document]

[now the Translator the Secretary and BB are all whispering in VG's ear at once -- at first he looks confused, then he nods, turns to the Secretary and, unobserved by the Professor, winks.]

VG: [starts to cough -- speaks in a weak, hoarse, voice] You know, Herr Professor, eggshually mine healt ain't de grreatest, ass you zay. I'm not feeling any too vell for zome time. No strengt. Mine get up und go has got up und vent. [starts to laugh, but the laugh turns into prolonged coughing] But not to vorry, mine assistant here, und mine zecretary are werry werry experienced in directing mine plays. Zometimes I zink zey know more about zem zan I do.

[Prolonged laughter from T, S, BB and VG, suddenly stopping together, as before.]

P: Oh. That's too bad. Bummer.

[pause -- they all look at him]

P: Well -- it's the Dean. Dean Fairchild. She's one tough cookie. Really up tight. Everything has to be just so. With her, a contract is a contract. If the contract says Mr. Brecht agrees to direct his play and Mr. Brecht doesn't direct, well then. Jeez, I dunno. You'll appreciate the nickname I've given her, sir: Bloody Five. Just like the character in your play. She holds the record. Five tenure appointments turned down in one year. Went over everyones credentials with a fine tooth comb. Took no prisoners. Heh heh heh.

[pause]

P: So I really hope you'll be feeling all right soon, sir. If you're not available in person to direct, we'll probably have to cancel the whole project.

[Pause. The Translator, Secretary and BB are speechless, mouths open wide.]

VG: [on his own this time] Vell, ass dey alvays zay, venn you got your healt, you got everyting. Und now, Herr Professor, it's been grreat talking to you, but I'm going to haff to get going, a small matter of a fish, gotta get to the Fulton fish market und buy a fish.

[VG rises but the others push him back down.]

T and S together: I'm sure he'll be just fine in the morning, Professor.

T: He's tired, just needs

S: to rest.

T: to rest. A good night's

S: sleep

T: sleep

S: and he'll be

T: fine

S: fine

T: just needs some

S: rest

T: rest

S: rest

T: rest

S: and he'll be

T: fine

[pause]

P: [cheerfully] Fine! Then I look forward to seeing all of you tomorrow. At the theater. Ciao!

T, S and VG [half-heartedly]: Ciao, ciao.

[the Professor exits]

[Suddenly a very deep gong is struck. All the lights go out, except for the light of a Jewish memorial (Yohrzeit) candle placed at center stage rear. This candle, in full view, is always kept lit. It's so dim, however, that it can only be seen when all the other lights are out. The violet figure can once again be seen, this time briefly lifting the candle to his lips, and making a kissing gesture. Everyone else is suddenly frozen in place and silent until the sound of the gong has completely died away. At that moment, the lights are turned on again, the violet figure vanishes, and the dialogue resumes where it left off.]

VG: [takes a big sip] Well, a little favor among friends can't hurt can it? You see, live and let live. I'm enjoying my drink and saying to myself: I've been of use to these folks. And that's what really matters isn't it, that one just once sends up a little balloon and says "Bertolt Brecht," just as easily as one might say "good evening," and you're what people want you to be.

[display: So eine kleine Gefälligkeit unter Männern kann nie schaden. Sehen Sie, leben und leben lassen. Ich trinke jetzt gleich ein Glas und sage mir: diesen Herren war damit genützt. Und es kommt auch nur darauf an in der Welt, dass man auch einmal einen kleinen Ballon steigen lässt und "Bertolt Brecht" sagt wie ein anderer "guten Abend" und so ist, wie die Leute einen haben wollen, denn es ist ja so leicht.]

[pause -- T, S and BB slowly make their way to the opposite side of the stage -- VG doesn't notice]]

VG: So how was I? I think I did a pretty good job. No problem at all. You know I never acted a day in my life, but I did pretty well don't you think? Maybe I should quit my job and become an actor. Do you think I have some talent?

[pause]

VG: Where did everybody go? Strange. Oh well [yawns], it's been a busy day. Strange, but busy. Maybe I was dreaming . . . [stretches and begins to nod, then -- during the following dialogue -- falls asleep, snores]

T: Our little plan didn't quite work the way we'd hoped. There's no getting around that contract. Only Brecht himself can direct the play.

S: This guy, what's his name, Victor Grauer -- of Poughkeepsie.

T: Must become Bertolt Brecht of Augsburg.

VG: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ [etc.]

S: But all we have is this contract.

BB: Das genügt. Das muss einen neuen Brecht geben. Man macht zuviel Aufhebens mit Leuten. Einer is keiner. [pause]

[display: That's enough. There has to be a new Brecht. One makes too much fuss over people. One is none.]

BB: [rises, chanting] Einer ist keiner einer ist keiner einer ist keiner einer ist keiner einer ist keiner einer ist keiner.

[display: One is none one is none one is none one is none one is none one is none]

BB: [Shouting into VG's ear] Ueber weniger als 200 zusammen kann man gar nichts sagen.

[display: There's nothing whatsoever to be said of less than 200 people at once.]

BB: Wie es immer für ihn ist, wir müssen einen wirklichen Brecht haben. Weckt ihn auf!

[display: No matter how it's going to work out for him eventually, we must have a real flesh and blood Brecht. Wake him up!]

[they stride back to the table -- T shakes VG awake -- he blinks and rubs his eyes.]

T: Sir, it's lucky you haven't left.

BB: Sind Sie deutscher Abkunft? [display: Are you German by any chance?]

VG: Jewish, actually.

BB: Besser, besser. Haben Sie vielleicht Plattfuesse? [display: even better. Do you have flat feet?]

VG: Yes, as a matter of fact I do.

BB: Das ist ausschlaggebend. Ihr Glueck ist gemacht. Sie koennen vorlaufig hierbleiben.

[display: That does it. Your happiness is assured. You can remain with us.]

VG: I'm afraid my wife's waiting for me. Because of a fish.

BB: Aber Ihre Erscheinung gefällt uns. Und was mehr ist, sie passt. Es ist vielleicht die Moeglichkeit vorhanden, dass Sie Direktor werden konnen.

[display: But we enjoy being in your presence. And besides, you fit in. Perhaps the moment is at hand for you to become a theater director.]

VG: Actually, that sounds rather nice. A director.

BB: Sicher. Sie behalten also ohne weiteres Ihren Brechtsrock und haben ein Recht darauf, dass man Sie jederzeit Herr, Herr Brecht anspricht.

[display: Certainly. You could keep your Brecht outfit and would have a right to be addressed as Herr. Herr Brecht.]

VG: [takes another sip] But my name is Victor Grauer. Doctor Grauer. My students call me Doc G! [sings] "Let's go to Benares, where the sun is shining." [stretches and nods off again]

BB: [to the audience] Bevor die Sonne einmal untergangen ist, muss der Mann ein anderer Mann sein.

[display: Before the sun sets one more time, this man must become another man.]

BB: Ja, ein Mann ist wie der andere. Mann ist Mann.

[End of scene 2 -- as the set is being changed, the chorus sings the Zwischengesang.]

[remainder of the Professor's lecture (as taken from the Encyclopedia Brittanica)]:

Until 1924 Brecht lived in Bavaria, where he was born, studied medicine (Munich, 1917-21), and served in an army hospital (1918). From this period date his first play, Baal (produced 1923); his first success, Trommeln in der Nacht (Kleist Preis, 1922; Drums in the Night); the poems and songs collected as Die Hauspostille (1927; A Manual of Piety, 1966), his first professional production (Edward II, 1924); and his admiration for Wedekind, Rimbaud, Villon, and Kipling.

During this period he also developed a violently anti-bourgeois attitude that reflected his generation's deep disappointment in the civilization that had come crashing down at the end of World War I. Among Brecht's friends were members of the Dadaist group, who aimed at destroying what they condemned as the false standards of bourgeois art through derision and iconoclastic satire. The man who taught him the elements of Marxism in the late 1920s was Karl Korsch, an eminent Marxist theoretician who had been a Communist member of the Reichstag but had been expelled from the German Communist Party in 1926.

In Berlin (1924-33) he worked briefly for the directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, but mainly with his own group of associates. With the composer Kurt Weill (q.v.) he wrote the satirical, successful ballad opera Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera) and the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930; Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahoganny). He also wrote what he called "Lehr-stucke" ("exemplary plays")--baldly didactic works for performance outside the orthodox theatre--to music by Weill, Hindemith, and Hanns Eisler. In these years he developed his theory of "epic theatre" and an austere form of irregular verse. He also became a Marxist.

In 1933 he went into exile--in Scandinavia (1933-41), mainly in Denmark, and then in the United States (1941-47), where he did some film work in Hollywood. In Germany his books were burned and his citizenship was withdrawn. He was cut off from the German theatre; but between 1937 and 1941 he wrote most of his great plays, his major theoretical essays and dialogues, and many of the poems collected as Svendborger Gedichte (1939). The plays of these years became famous in the author's own and other productions: notable among them are Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and Her Children), a chronicle play of the Thirty Years' War; Leben des Galilei (1943; The Life of Galileo); Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1943; The Good Woman of Setzuan), a parable play set in prewar China; Der Aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (1957; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui), a parable play of Hitler's rise to power set in prewar Chicago; Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1948; Herr Puntila and His Man Matti), a Volksstuck (popular play) about a Finnish farmer who oscillates between churlish sobriety and drunken good humour; and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (first produced in English, 1948; Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, 1949), the story of a struggle for possession of a child between its highborn mother, who deserts it, and the servant girl who looks after it.

Brecht left the United States in 1947 after having had to give evidence before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He spent a year in Zurich, working mainly on Antigone-Modell 1948 (adapted from Hölderlin's translation of Sophocles; produced 1948) and on his most important theoretical work, the Kleines Organon fur das Theater (1949; "A Little Organum for the Theatre"). The essence of his theory of drama, as revealed in this work, is the idea that a truly Marxist drama must avoid the Aristotelian premise that the audience should be made to believe that what they are witnessing is happening here and now. For he saw that if the audience really felt that the emotions of heroes of the past--Oedipus, or Lear, or Hamlet--could equally have been their own reactions, then the Marxist idea that human nature is not constant but a result of changing historical conditions would automatically be invalidated. Brecht therefore argued that the theatre should not seek to make its audience believe in the presence of the characters on the stage--should not make it identify with them, but should rather follow the method of the epic poet's art, which is to make the audience realize that what it sees on the stage is merely an account of past events that it should watch with critical detachment. Hence, the "epic" (narrative, nondramatic) theatre is based on detachment, on the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect), achieved through a number of devices that remind the spectator that he is being presented with a demonstration of human behaviour in scientific spirit rather than with an illusion of reality, in short, that the theatre is only a theatre and not the world itself.

In 1949 Brecht went to Berlin to help stage Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (with his wife, Helene Weigel, in the title part) at Reinhardt's old Deutsches Theater in the Soviet sector. This led to formation of the Brechts' own company, the Berliner Ensemble, and to permanent return to Berlin. Henceforward the Ensemble and the staging of his own plays had first claim on Brecht's time. Often suspect in eastern Europe because of his unorthodox aesthetic theories and denigrated or boycotted in the West for his Communist opinions, he yet had a great triumph at the Paris Theatre des Nations in 1955, and in the same year in Moscow he received a Stalin Peace Prize. He died of a heart attack in East Berlin the following year.

Brecht was, first, a superior poet, with a command of many styles and moods. As a playwright he was an intensive worker, a restless piecer-together of ideas not always his own (The Threepenny Opera is based on John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and Edward II on Marlowe), a sardonic humorist, and a man of rare musical and visual awareness; but he was often bad at creating living characters or at giving his plays tension and shape. As a producer he liked lightness, clarity, and firmly knotted narrative sequence; a perfectionist, he forced the German theatre, against its nature, to underplay. As a theoretician he made principles out of his preferences--and even out of his faults.