top of page

Brecht’s Charisma:  A Weberian Analysis 

"Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes” - The Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht 

Max Weber (1864–1920) has been one of the most influential thinkers in sociology and political science. Weber’s selected papers, On Charisma and Institution Building, reflect on the nature of charismatic authority. His earliest and most classic definition of charisma borrowed from concepts of religion, referring to individuals with special access to God. Weber later pressed this definition into a secular one in his pre-World War 1 writing, then teased out new aspects of his idea of charisma in his wartime political writings, then changed his meaning again in his post-war writing, where he took the idea even further from its religious point of origin.


I think it can be argued that, in certain aesthetic contexts, the charismatic artist can function similarly to the charismatic figures Weber talks about in his later papers. Undoubtedly, there is a substantial difference between the features of institutionalizing a theatre and the earliest stages of the formation of religious institutions. To use the concept in Brecht’s context, one must establish a modulated comparison, both understanding the conceptual content of Brecht’s theatre, and understanding Brecht as a charismatic leader,  as well as distinguishing between the different forms, pre-modern and modern charismatic dominance. 


Max Weber considered that two major features resulted in charismatic leadership. We can trace Brecht’s relevance as a charismatic artist using these two key features. 


To begin with, Brecht was an unscrupulous dramatist with the force of charisma, or with “extraordinariness or exceptional powers or qualities,” in Weber’s terms. His ontological status drew talent, creative assistance and collaborators. Throughout his life, artists, dramatists and women were drawn to him professionally and personally—Kurt Weill, Helene Weigel, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, and Ruth Berlau. The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper), one of Brecht’s most financially successful shows, testifies that he was capable of exercising his control by melding the creative energies of many workers into one coherent artistic whole. There were many collaborators involved--Elisabeth Hauptmann translated the classic English operetta to German, Kurt Weill produced a score incorporating jazz, opera, and original operetta. Yet Brecht glued these fragmented pieces into a production, marked by low comedy and succinct use of the alienation effect. The center of the creative circle almost always shifts back to Brecht himself. He was passionate about theatrical experimentation, founding pages of writing formed from his own theories. What is interesting about most of his collaborators is that most of them never sought credit for their work. They continued working with him mostly because working with him meant they could remain in his charismatic orbit. The essential anonymity of many around Brecht falls into line with what Weber says about the overwhelming power of the charismatic figure in subsuming distinct individualities.


Brecht’s charismatic pull was also energized by external circumstances. Brecht’s The Life of Galileo illustrates how a period of instability forges these charismatic heroes. Brecht’s charisma thrived in an environment of social instability; the least fruitful periods in his life are the ones in which, facing chaos, he did not have to exercise charismatic dominance to write his works (this is especially true of his postwar time in the DDR). In a stable pre-existing institution, where politics are moderated and people are generally satisfied, charismatic leadership cannot easily thrive. Yet Brecht lived through a time where there was real political and aesthetic desperation. His charisma must be seen in this context as necessary to his aesthetic success.


Brecht’s charismatic leadership and his theatre of his time form an interesting dynamic-- the revolutionary force of his writings did not jell with his charisma. John Fuegi, John Willett, Martin Esslin, and many others have pointed out how in so many ways his theory was a negation of his personal charisma; many other critics as well are still uncertain about how seriously to take his vaunting theoretical pronouncements. He never provided the audience with ideal or charismatic characters; rather his personal charisma is the magnetic force that binds the plays. On his own, Brecht was usually a misogynist. But--drawn by his personal charisma, Hauptmann, Seffin, and Berlau and other female contributors nudged him to create some of the most memorable women characters in drama. Charisma was in this sense part of his artistic process, and Brecht was able to hold much of his small circle together, even in exile.  


What emerged as a result of his charismatic leadership was Brecht’s establishment of his own theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble, an institution that still continues today. Essentially, he attracted a community formed by emotional ties of his personal charisma. Weber uses the German term Vergemeinschaftung. For Brecht, Vergemeinschaftung became a kind of a community composed of disciples personally devoted to him. So, in this precise sense seen in Weber’s later papers on charisma,  Brecht is a charismatic figure whose aura led to the creation of an ongoing institution, one that continues to this day.

bottom of page