Understanding Brecht
by Walter Benjamin Translated by Anna Bostock Introduction by Stanley Mitchell
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124 pages / / 9781859844182

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The relationship between philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin and playwright-poet Bertolt Brecht was both a lasting friendship and a powerful intellectual partnership. Having met in the late 1920s in Germany, Benjamin and Brecht both independently minded Marxists with a deep understanding of and passionate commitment to the emancipatory potential of cultural practices continued to discuss, argue and correspond on topics as varied as Fascism and the work of Franz Kafka. Faced by the onset of the ‘midnight of the century’, with the Nazi subversion of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the Stalinist degeneration of the revolution in Russia, both men, in their own way, strove to keep alive the tradition of dialectical critique of the existing order and radical intervention in the world to transform it.

In Understanding Brecht we find collected together Benjamin’s most sensitive and probing writing on the dramatic and poetic work of his friend and tutor. Stimulated by Brecht’s oeuvre and theorising his particular dramatic techniques—such as the famous ‘estrangement effect’—Benjamin developed his own ideas about the role of art and the artist in crisis-ridden society. This volume contains Benjamin’s introductions to Brecht’s theory or epic theatre and close textual analyses of twelve poems by Brecht (printed in translation here) which exemplify Benjamin’s insistence that literary form and content are indivisible. Elsewhere Benjamin discusses the plays The MotherTerror and Misery of the Third Reich, and The Threepenny Opera, digressing for some general remarks on Marx and satire.

Here we also find Benjamin’s masterful essay “The Author as Producer” as well as an extract from his diaries that records the intense conversations held in the late 1930s in Denmark (Brecht’s place of exile) between the two most important cultural theorists of this century. In these discussions, the two men talked of subjects as diverse as the work of Franz Kafka, the unfolding Soviet Trials, and the problems of literary work on the edge of international war.


“A small bomb of ideas and vital argument.”

“He does not abolish the distance between us and Leskov, or Brecht, or Kafka; he brings it to life.”

“If the killing of Lorca was Fascism’s first crime against literature, Benjamin’s death was undoubtedly the second.”

“Reading Walter Benjamin’s Understanding Brecht is like stumbling on a heap of gold that has been buried in a coal cellar for more than 30 years.”

“Walter Benjamin is the most important German aesthetician and literary critic of this century.”

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