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Brecht, Bertolt (1898-1956)  

Born in 1896, Bertolt (Eugen Berthold) Brecht became Germany's most celebrated and influential dramatist of the twentieth century. His depictions of homosexual desire are found only in a few of his earliest writings. In these works, homosexuality is often cloaked in ambiguity and almost always is tied to issues of power struggle, manipulation, and sadomasochism.

As Eric Bentley has stated: "Brecht is not the poet of Gay Liberation." Only in the early short story "Bargan läßt es sein" ("Bargan Gives Up" [1921]) and the poem "Ballade vor der Freundschaft" ("Ballad of Friendship" [1920]) do homosexual relationships in works by Brecht survive more or less intact. Nevertheless, it is significant that Brecht, as one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century literature and theater, chose to portray same-sex desire in several literary works.

One example is Leben Eduards des Zweiten von England, the adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II that Brecht undertook in 1923 in collaboration with Lion Feuchtwanger. Performed and published in 1924, the play's dramatic action concerns Edward's overthrow, a plot prompted by what is perceived as a socially disruptive sexual relationship, the monarch's physical and emotional infatuation with Gaveston, in Brecht's version an attractive butcher's son on whom the King lavishes his affections, sexual favors, and wealth. Edward refuses to relinquish his favorite even at the risk of the throne being forcibly wrested from him by his enemies. Edward loses Gaveston, the throne, and eventually, his life but gains in the process spiritual transcendence and the status of tragic hero.

Young Brecht was an avid reader and became enthralled with the works of Arthur Rimbaud. He was also intrigued by Rimbaud's tempestuous relationship with Paul Verlaine. The plays Baal and Im Dickicht der Städte (In the Jungle of Cities) both bear influences of Rimbaud's poetic discourse and the Rimbaud-Verlaine liaison.

Baal, begun in 1918 and published in 1922, comprises twenty-two scenes that depict Baal's shameless, voracious pursuit of total pleasure and sensual self-fulfillment. Baal is lecherous, gluttonous, adulterous, and hedonistic, yet it is his companionship with Ekart, an itinerant composer, in the wilderness that fills a major portion of the dramatic action. Their complex love-hate relationship, by turns erotic, nurturing, violent, and indifferent, comes to an abrupt end when Baal, provoked into a jealous rage, murders Ekart in a tavern.

Similar passionate extremes characterize the prolonged, seemingly unmotivated battle that occurs in Im Dickicht der Städte between Shlink, a Malayan timber merchant, and George Garga, an impoverished clerk at a lending library who cryptically quotes Rimbaud. The play, which Brecht began writing in 1921 but was not performed and published until 1927, contains no overt scenes of homosexual love.

A tension, however, must be viewed as underlying the two rivals' revenge and humiliation tactics and their quest for control of not only each other's destinies and financial resources but also Garga's family and girlfriend. The attractiveness of their chaotic conflict and the desire it has produced are finally acknowledged by both, overtly by Shlink prior to his death and obliquely by Garga afterward.

These early writings have led to questions about Brecht's own sexual orientation. Although his heterosexual exploits are well documented by biographers, memoirists, and by Brecht himself in his diaries, the playwright's possible gayness remains speculative. Brechtian scholar Erika Munk has asserted that Brecht "preferred male company" during his late teens and early twenties and has suggested that Brecht's "bisexuality is not reasonably in doubt."

Jay Scott Chipman


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A sculpture of Bertolt Brecht in Berlin.
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   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  German and Austrian Literature: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

With major periodic setbacks, over the last two centuries German-speaking authors have gradually developed a gay and lesbian positive literature.

literature >> Overview:  Modern Drama

Before Stonewall, censorship of the theater caused authors to encode homosexual content in publicly-presented plays.

literature >> Bentley, Eric

An eminent professor and translator as well as a drama critic and playwright, Eric Bentley--whether writing from inside or outside the closet--has consistently supported the representation of same-sex desire in the theater.

social sciences >> Edward II, King of England

Edward II, an early fourteenth-century king of England, formed intense relationships with his favorites, which ultimately cost him his throne and his life.

literature >> Lehmann, John

One of the most distinguished and discerning British men of letters of the mid-twentieth century, John Lehmann is best known as an editor and publisher.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Rimbaud, Arthur

Because his writing stresses liberation, the French "boy-poet" Arthur Rimbaud, whose art is based solely on his individual creativity, is a progenitor of modern gay poetics.

literature >> Verlaine, Paul

The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.


Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Chronicles. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

Case, Sue-Ellen. "Brecht and Women: Homosexuality and the Mother." Brecht: Women and Politics. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985. 131-145.

Munk, Erika. "Alas or Thank God: The Private Dialectic of Bertolt Brecht." Brecht: Women and Politics. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985. 245-254.


    Citation Information
    Author: Chipman, Jay Scott  
    Entry Title: Brecht, Bertolt  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 13, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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