Those with an interest in modern theatre will be very familiar with the work of the following playwrights: Henrik Ibsen and Bertolt Brecht. From Ibsen’s female Hamlet to Brecht’s Mother Courage, these two authors created characters for the ages and works which will be remembered far into the future. Not only did they engage with and inspire their audiences, their works also clearly show the development of the modern theatre itself. Here we’ll take a look at a snapshot of each great dramatist.
Ibsen was born in the early 19th century and started life as part of a wealthy middle-class family in Norway. Despite initial indications that his career path would lie elsewhere, he began writing at a young age and published his first play at the age of 22. Rather than remaining ‘behind the scenes’, as it were, he later went on to become a theatre director and to throw himself headfirst into theatre society. He completely turned the status quo on its head in the process and reinvented what was meant by a drama production.
Taking inspiration from the society that he lived in, Ibsen penned many an inflammatory piece of work calling on his audience to dissect for themselves the culture of the time. He explored wide-ranging themes in his writing that, for some, felt uncomfortable when depicted on the stage. However, he won a lot of respect and admiration from both his peers and his audiences.
Ibsen found fame with plays like Brand and Peer Gynt but perhaps his most creatively rich period was during the time that he lived in Germany. This is where he wrote some of his greatest works such as Emperor and Galilean, A Doll’s House and Ghosts indicating what is sometimes referred to as his ‘Golden Age’. In fact, he wrote most of his best work outside of his home country of Norway, instead living in Italy and Germany before returning to his birthplace as a literary icon.
There can be no doubt that Ibsen helped to kickstart a new movement in the theatre; one that inspired future generations of writers and directors. His character of Hedda Gabler has been called a female Hamlet, and his works are still taught in schools across the world. His uncompromising attitude towards his vocation meant that he pushed boundaries and helped to reshape the world of theatre going into the 20th century, inspiring generations of artists to come.
Brecht was a visionary German theatre director, playwright and poet at the beginning of the 20th century who pioneered the modernist style of epic theatre that he referred to as ‘dialectical theatre’. He lived much of his life in his home country of Germany, but also travelled to Scandinavia and the USA where he had some success in Hollywood. Inspired by Ibsen before him, it is an undeniable fact that Brecht had an enormous impact on other artists in his field at the time. His influence continues to be felt all over the world today in the arenas of theatre, poetry and literature.
Brecht’s presence is perhaps most strongly felt today in the city of Berlin, Germany. This is where, towards the end of his life, he established his theatre company Berliner Ensemble. Founded in 1949, the company are still performing and put on regular shows at their eponymously named theatre building in Bertolt-Brecht-Platz. The troupe stay true to Brecht’s ideal, inviting theatre-goers into the inquisitive world of epic theatre by engaging the thoughts of their audience and inviting them to become critics of the performance night after night.
Berlin has long been known as a city that welcomes the weird, the wonderful and the bizarre with open arms, allowing the arts to flourish and people to express themselves without judgement. This city of freedom has always been full of the best quality entertainment including cabarets, casinos, theatres and nightclubs, and became known as a place to party as well as to think. Whilst much of the casino games scene has now moved online and you’re more likely to hear techno in the nightclubs than Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, the inclusive nature of the Berlin underground lives on. Through Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s progressive ideas about theatre continue to play their part in weaving the rich tapestry of art and culture present in the city of Berlin.
As you look further into the lives of these two great playwrights, it becomes obvious that they were both heavily inspired and motivated by the growth of the society around them. Both men had unpopular but prescient opinions and expressed these without compromise through their work, inviting their audiences to be part of the method of transformation along with them. Without these two European dissenters, modern theatre would not be what it is today.