Understanding Brecht

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.”


  • Acts of Dissent Through History

    The Verso Book of Dissent: Revolutionary Words from Three Millennia of Rebellion and Resistance is a compendium of revolt and resistance throughout the ages, updated to include resistance to war and economic oppression from Beijing and Cairo to Moscow and New York City.

    To celebrate the release of the new edition - 50% off at the moment as part of our end-of-year sale
    we've present a selection of key moments of dissent from the book.

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  • Those in Glass Houses Laugh

    Artist Zoe Beloff's A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood is a multimedia exploration of the projects undertaken by two Marxist writers who found themselves in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. Originally presented as an installation, it comprises three films — Two Marxists in Hollywood, Glass House, and Model Family; all viewable online — as well as drawings, architectural models, and archival materials.

    Beloff has now published a book of the same title, which collects images and documents from the installation alongside texts by herself, scholar Hannah Frank, and Esther Leslie — author of 
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    Zoe Beloff, drawing after a still from Ha Ha Ha, a film by Dave Fleischer, 1934.

    Har De Har

    Laughter, in Walter Benjamin’s words, is “shattered articulation.” Laughter breaks up both words and the body. Everything is disarticulated. A person in movement might be stopped in their tracks. A person speaking has the stream of words cut off. The listener hears only a clatter of stuttering sounds. Laughter is an interruption to the ongoingness of life and meaning. The flow of walking or talking is held up, stymied, while the disruptive event occurs. The body collapses in laughter, contorts and crumples, the face distends, the eyes close, the neck flips back, the arms and legs flail. Animation is often designed to induce laughter, but it also represents it. There are countless animated GIFS that loop a character’s spasms while laughing, the arms clutching the chest, the mouth as wide as can be, the eyes crinkled shut, the explosions of noise. In some depictions, the eyebrows even leave the face and judder in a space above the head for a few moments. The body is outside itself or beside itself, beside itself with laughter.

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  • Frankfurt School Bookshelf

    In 1923, a group of young radical German thinkers and intellectuals came together, determined to explain the workings of the modern world. Their lives, like their ideas, profoundly, sometimes tragically, reflected and shaped the shattering events of the twentieth century. 

    Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School is a brilliant new group biography by Stuart Jeffries, looking at the enduring importance and influence of the Frankfurt School.

    To celebrate publication we bring you a Frankfurt School Bookshelf with 40% off Grand Hotel Abyss, alongside Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, & more. Ends on Friday September 23rd, and includes free worldwide shipping (and bundled ebooks where available).

    We'll also be posting pieces & excerpts from works by Frankfurt School thinkers throughout the week, including a Frankfurt School Timeline by Stuart Jeffries. See everything here

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Other books by Walter Benjamin Translated by Anna Bostock Introduction by Stanley Mitchell

  • One-way-street-front-1050-max_141

    One-Way Street

    A collection of aphorisms and townscapes, esoteric meditation and reminiscences of childhood, and reflections on language, psychology, aesthetics and politics.

    4 posts