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200 × 130 × 16 mm
240 pages
23 illustrations
01 Feb 2014
Critical Lives

Bertolt Brecht Philip Glahn

Playwright, poet and activist Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) was known for his theory of the Epic Theatre and his attempts to break down the division between high art and popular culture. The Threepenny Opera, his collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, was a milestone in musical theatre, and plays like Mother Courage and Galileo changed the course of modern drama and aesthetic theory. 

Framed by two world wars, the Weimar Republic and a global depression, Nazism and exile and East German socialism, Brecht’s own life became a project, illuminating and intervening in the ongoing crisis of modern experience, shaped by capitalism, nationalism and visions of social utopia. Brecht upended and used as weapons the language and gestures of philosophers and beggars, bureaucrats and thieves, priests and workers. The results are at once funny and tragic, popular and complex, sharp, accessible and full of pleasure in the contradictions of being an active part in the production of history. This book examines Brecht’s life and work as a pivotal contribution to the history and legacy of art as social labour in the twentieth century.

‘Through skillful integration of biographical details and conceptual framing, Glahn succeeds in constructing a complex picture of Brecht that is neither adulatory nor condemning but situated within a specific historical reality. In the process, Brecht’s ghost is given a chance to compete in contemporary iterations of debates he was once central to.’ — Brooklyn Rail

‘Though Bertoldt Brecht is classified as a biography, such a label obscures, in part, all of what Glahn has accomplished with it. More than just an exposition on events of Brecht’s life, the book is also a subtle, discerning intertwining of biographical moments, erudite commentary on Brecht’s artistic expressions, and elucidation of and engagement with Brecht’s philosophical concerns . . . this is one of the best entry points into Brecht, biographically, historically, thematically and artistically. Glahn has demonstrated a singular ability to capture the essential elements of what Benjamin called the complex phenomenon which is Brecht, in all his intricacies, in a penetrating and pithy fashion. It is a fantastic incursion into Brecht as a man, Brecht as a social and aesthetic thinker and Brecht as a revolutionary.’ — Anthony Squiers, Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

‘Everything Brecht wrote plays, dialogues, and poetry was his attempt to clarify the inner contradictions not only of the capitalism and fascism of his times, but also of the communism that was always disappointing his deepest hopes. In a book that makes Brecht’s struggle to reveal these hidden contradictions its central theme, Glahn issues, by implication, a call to arms to today’s artists who are faced with a world that seems to defy attempts to treat the global crisis with an art that is rarely more than notes on local angst.’ — Richard Foreman, Bomb Magazine

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Philip Glahn is Associate Professor of Critical Studies and Aesthetics at Temple University, Philadelphia, and a contributor to Afterimage, Art Journal, The Brooklyn Rail and Public.

1. Poet of Crisis, 1898-1923
2. ‘Mehr guten Sport’: Brecht in Berlin, 1924-8
3. Work, Class, and the Struggle with Marxism, 1929-33
4. Early Exile: ‘Singing about Dark Times’, 1933-41
5. U.S. Exile: The Dialectics of Alienation and ‘Culinary’ Art, 1941-7
6. Realpolitik: Theatre of Socialism, 1947-56

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Photo Acknowledgements