Terms like ‘epic theatre’, ‘non-aristotelian drama’, ‘alienation effect’ (‘Verfremdungseffekt’), and other catchphrases from Brecht’s theoretical writings have become more widely known than any of his creative work (with the exception perhaps of the song of ‘Mac the Knife’); having been taken up by enthusiasts of theatre reform on both sides of the
Atlantic, they have found their way into the currency of daily and weekly theatrical criticism and must have puzzled countless readers who had never heard of Brecht, let alone seen any of his plays.
Such Teutonic neologisms seem to exercise a powerful spell even on Anglo-Saxon minds, not excluding those who appreciate their usefulness in the sphere of lifemanship; from Kant to Marx down to our own times the difficulty and obscurity of a specialized and impenetrable jargon has contributed much to the success and influence of German ideologies. Brecht, unwittingly, achieved a similar result in his own, more modest theorizing: for even he, the clearest and most concrete of writers in his poetry and plays, often succumbed to the ponderous tradition of German aesthetic philosophy, when he tried to expound the underlying principles of his work.
Yet basically these principles are neither very complicated nor very new, however stimulating and revivifying their influence may yet prove in the present-day theatre. Towards the end of his life Brecht made repeated efforts to dissipate the fog of the Brechtian theories he himself had created in his youth.
The accounts (of my theatre) and many of the assessments based on them [he wrote] are applicable not to the theatre that I myself produce, but to the theatre that my critics imagine from reading my treatises. . . . My theories are altogether far more naive than one might think - more naive than my way of expressing them might allow one to suspect.
Brecht has always acknowledged his debt to a wide range of old theatrical conventions and traditions: the Elizabethan, the Chinese, Japanese, and Indian theatre, the use of the chorus in Greek tragedy, the techniques of clowns and fair-ground entertainers, the Austrian and Bavarian folk-play, and many others. Yet he somehow created the impression that he was advocating something radically new and entirely revolutionary - perhaps by the dogmatic and didactic tone of his earlier pronouncements, perhaps by his often excessive insistence that his was the only stage theory to meet the needs of a new, revolutionary, scientific age.
Nor must the Brechtian theory of the drama be regarded as a single, homogeneous body of doctrine: throughout his life it changed, developed, and finally mellowed in accordance with the changes in his styles of writing and stage production. The primary factor was always his creative work: the theories he put forward were postscripts to plays or poems rather than a priori principles on which these had been based. The rationalist Brecht deeply distrusted inspirations and intuitions. So he constructed his theories as rationalizations of changes in his style, taste, or stage practice. That is why so much of the discussion of these theories as general principles has proved barren and unreal: it remains yet to be proved that they have any validity apart from Brecht’s own works - and productions - which they were intended to explain and justify.
Brecht was a rebel. The Brechtian theatre can only be understood in the light of what he rebelled against: the theatre as he found it in Germany around I920 and as it still remains in many parts of the world to this day - a theatre in which bombastic productions of the classics alternate with empty photographic replicas of everyday life, whether in melodrama or drawing-room comedy, a theatre which oscillates between emotional uplift and after-dinner entertainment.
We are so used to the concept of the stage as a faithful representation of the world that we tend to forget how recent a growth the naturalistic theatre really is: before the second half of the nineteenth century, before the introduction of modern lighting techniques and stage machinery, historically accurate costumes, and three-dimensional properties, the theatre could not even pretend to create a complete illusion of actual life, observed through a missing fourth wall. On such a stage the styles of acting also had to be kept openly theatrical to match the surrounding scenery and lighting. Declamation, asides, and monologues formed part of a convention never intended to convey the illusion of real happenings on which the audience was merely eavesdropping.
So great was the effect of the new stage techniques that emerged from the efforts of producers like the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, Stanislavsky, Antoine, Brahm, Granville Barker, and Reinhardt, that the naturalistic theatre in the widest sense had become accepted as the only possible stage convention by the time Brecht was born. The previous convention only survived in the form of parody (as it does to this day in the skits on Shakespeare and Victorian melodrama one still sees in English music-halls).
The reaction against this theatrical convention, which had to come, is entirely analogous to the reaction against representational painting which came at the same time: for centuries painters had tried to get nearer and nearer to reality; the Impressionists had finally captured the very flicker of daylight, just as the naturalistic stage could simulate the changing light from the blazing sun of noon to the bluish tints of the moon at night. Such perfection having been attained, the next step had to he a new beginning, the initiation of an entirely different line of development: in painting away from nature into the realms of the primitive and the abstract; in the theatre away from the illusion of eavesdropping on real events.
Brecht belonged to the generation which had to make this new beginning; and his solution is one of many that were put forward by his contemporaries: German Expressionism, the poetic drama of T. S. Eliot, the satires of Mayakovsky, the Russian theatre of Meyerhold and Tairov, the monster pantomimes of Max Reinhardt, Piscator’s political theatre with its use of film and posters are all part of the same striving to overcome the limitations of the ‘theatre of illusion’.
When Brecht began to formulate his ideas in the late nineteen-twenties he had already experimented in a variety of techniques: he had written plays which showed the influence of the Expressionist trend in their loose construction, their treatment of the characters as types rather than individuals and their highly concentrated, poetic language; and he had worked in close collaboration with Erwin Piscator, the exponent of the ‘political theatre’ whose stage made use of every new technique in order to turn the theatre into a forum for the discussion of current affairs.
Brecht’s theories show the influence of all these experiments. He
too was convinced that the theatre must become a tool of social engineering, a laboratory of social change.
Today [he wrote in 1931] when human character must be understood as the ‘totality of all social conditions’ the epic form is the only one that can comprehend all the processes, which could serve the drama as materials for a fully representative picture of the world.1
Why did Brecht consider the existing stage convention incapable of providing such a picture of the world? His objections against the theatre of illusion concern both the means employed and the uses to which these means are put.
In formulating his theory of ‘epic’ theatre Brecht was reacting against the German classics’ theory of drama: in 1797 Goethe and Schiller, the two giants of the German tradition, had jointly presented their point of view in an essay, ‘On Epic and Dramatic Poetry’. It is against this specific theory that Brecht offered his counter-theory.
Goethe and Schiller had described the distinction between the epic and dramatic genres of poetry as follows : ‘Their great essential difference lies in the fact that the epic poet presents the event as totally past, while the dramatic poet presents it as totally present.’ Goethe and Schiller had urged their readers ‘always to keep before (their) mental eyes a rhapsodic singer and an actor, both being poets the one surrounded by a circle of quiet listeners, the other by impatiently watching and listening spectators’. Thus the epic poet, the rhapsodic singer, relates what has happened in calm contemplation ‘... he will freely range forward and backward in time.... The actor, on the other hand, is in exactly the opposite position: he represents himself as a definite individual; he wants the spectators to participate ... in his action, to feel the sufferings of his soul and of his body with him, share his embarrassments and forget their own personalities for the sake of his. . . . The spectator must not be allowed to rise to thoughtful contemplation; he must passionately follow the action; his imagination is completely silenced....’
It was this conception that Brecht abhorred, and that he called, knowing that Goethe and Schiller had based their theory on Aristotle’s Poetics, the Aristotelian concept of drama, the drama of catharsis by terror and pity, the drama of spectator-identification with the actors, the drama of illusion, which tries to create magical effects by conjuring up events which are represented as ‘totally present’, while palpably they are not. Such a theatre therefore was a fraud. Brecht, the rationalist, demanded a theatre of calm contemplation and detachment, a theatre of critical thoughtfulness; in other words, a theatre to correspond to the mood described by Goethe and Schiller as an attribute of the rhapsodic singer of epic poetry: an epic theatre.
Brecht regarded a theatre of illusion and identification as downright obscene:
looking around one discovers more or less motionless bodies in a curious state - they seem to be contracting their muscles in a strong physical effort, or else to have relaxed them after violent strain ... they have their eyes open, but they don’t look, they stare . . . they stare at the stage as if spellbound, which is an expression from the Middle Ages, an age of witches and obscurantists…
Identification with the characters on the stage appeared equally indecent to Brecht:
How long are our souls going to have to leave our ‘gross’ bodies under cover of darkness to penetrate into those dream figures up there on the rostrum, in order to share their transports that would otherwise be denied to us ?
Such an audience, Brecht argues, may indeed leave the theatre purged by its vicarious emotions, but it will have remained uninstructed and unimproved. For them the theatre will be a means of mental refreshment in the same sense as a good meal, which is consumed with enjoyment, provides physical refreshment, but leaves no lasting trace behind. Brecht regarded the art of the theatre as more than a mere article of consumption and despised what he called the ‘culinary theatre’, the theatre which merely provides mental foodstuffs, to be gobbled up and then forgotten. The audience, in his view, should not be made to feel emotions, it should be made to think. But identification with the characters of the play makes thinking almost impossible: the audience whose souls have crept into that of the hero will see the action entirely from his point of view, and as they are breathlessly following a course of events which, in suspension of disbelief, they accept as really happening before their very eyes, they have neither the time nor the detachment to sit back and reflect in a truly critical spirit on the social and moral implications of the play. And all this because the author, the producer, and the actors have conspired to create so powerful an illusion of reality!
Brecht’s answer is clear: the theatre must not only not attempt to create such an illusion, it must do its best to destroy in the bud any illusion of reality as it will continuously, and mischievously, tend to arise.
It must therefore at all times be made apparent to the spectators that they are not witnessing real events happening before their very eyes at this very moment, but that they are sitting in a theatre, listening to an account (however vividly presented) of things which have happened in the past at a certain time in a certain place. They are to sit back, relax, and reflect on the lessons to be learnt from those events of long ago, like the audience of the bards who sang of the deeds of heroes in the houses of Greek kings or Saxon earls, while the guests me and drank. Hence the term epic theatre. While the theatre of illusion is trying to re-create a spurious present, by pretending that the events of the play are actually taking place at the time of each performance, the ‘epic’ theatre is strictly historical; it constantly reminds the audience that it is merely getting a report of past events.
Moreover, the audience must be discouraged from losing its critical detachment by identification with one or more of the characters: the opposite of identification is the maintenance of a separate existence by being kept apart, alien, strange - therefore the producer must strive to produce by all the means at his disposal effects which will keep the audience separate, estranged, alienated from the action. That is the meaning of the famous ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, a term which has never been successfully rendered in English, because terms like alienation or estrangement have entirely different, and unfortunate, emotional overtones. In French distantiation is a happier term.
The abolition of the old theatre of illusion which Brecht once described as having sunk to the level of a ‘branch of the bourgeois drug traffic’ not only frees the critical faculty of the audience, it also absolves the playwright from being cramped by the narrow and rigid conventions which the pretence of presenting real happenings imposes on the dramatist: in the realistic convention one can show only the action of the characters themselves, it is quite impossible to supply the sociological background to their actions or to comment on them from a higher viewpoint than their own. In the ‘epic’ theatre the author is able to dispense with the tedious ritual of the naturalist exposition through which the characters laboriously have to establish their names and relationships in the framework of seemingly casual, ‘natural’ conversation; he can now make them introduce themselves directly to the audience, or flash their names on to a screen. He can go further: he can tell the audience in advance how the play will end, thus freeing their minds from the distraction of suspense; he can supply background material of all kinds by letting a narrator describe the thoughts and motives of the characters or, as in Brecht’s adaptation of Gorky’s The Mother, by flashing the prices of basic foodstuffs on to the backdrop during a scene in which the cost of living is mentioned in the dialogue Brecht claimed that the ‘epic’ theatre alone could present the complexity of the human condition in an age in which the life of individuals could no longer be understood in isolation from the powerful trend of social, economical, or historical forces affecting the lives of millions.
By abandoning the pretence that the audience is eavesdropping on actual events, by openly admitting that the theatre is a theatre and not the world itself, the Brechtian stage approximates to the lecture hall to which audiences come in the expectation that they will be informed; but also to the circus arena, where an audience, without identification or illusion, watches performers exhibit their special skills. What distinguishes the theatre from the lecture room or the circus, however, is the fact that it ‘produces living illustrations of historical or imaginary happenings among human beings’.
To what purpose are these happenings re-created? It is in this point that Brecht’s thought changed most radically between his earlier and later periods. In the beginning Brecht proclaimed his conviction that the theatre had to be strictly didactic: he saw it as his task ‘to develop the article of consumption into a teaching aid and to refashion certain institutions from places of entertainment into organs of information’. In this period of the ‘didactic plays’ and ‘school operas’ the austerity of Brecht’s conception was such that he wrote plays which were to serve for the instruction of the participants alone. ‘They need no audience.’
By 1948 he had mellowed to the extent of openly repudiating much of this severity of approach:
Let us therefore recant . . . our intention of emigrating from the realm of the pleasing and let us … proclaim our intention of settling in this realm. Let us treat the theatre as a place of entertainment.... But let us inquire what kind of entertainment we regard as acceptable.’
Brecht answered this question by rejecting the old idea of entertainment through emotional catharsis. The pleasure which his theatre was now permitted to give was the pleasure we feel when we discover new truths, the exhilaration we experience when we enlarge our understanding. In this scientific age Brecht wanted his audience to experience some of the exaltation felt by the scientist who has uncovered one of the mysteries of the universe. For Brecht, whose own curiosity and thirst for knowledge were boundless, regarded the ‘instinct of inquiry as a social phenomenon not less pleasurable, nor less imperious, than the instinct of procreation’.
To keep the audience relaxed and yet receptive, to stimulate their critical faculties and to make them think, the ‘epic’ theatre employs a variety of means. In Brecht’s view, the abolition of the dramatic illusion alone removes a good many of the less desirable implications of the ‘Aristotelian’ theatre: the very fact that the action was each time assumed to be happening anew before the eyes of the audience implied that the passions and attitudes of the characters were unchangeable expressions of a fixed ‘human nature’; the dynamic, tautly logical construction of such plays indicated the relentless course of fate and made it appear unfathomable and incapable of being influenced by human initiative. In the ‘epic’ theatre therefore there is no attempt to create fixed, highly individualized characters. Character emerges from the social function of the individual and changes with that function. As Brecht once put it, character
should not be regarded like a stain of grease on a pair of trousers, which, however much you try to rub and wipe it away, will always come up again. In actual fact the question is always how a given person is going to act in a specified set of circumstances and conditions’.
The construction of the plays of the ‘epic’ theatre, which rejects the logically built, well-made play, is free from the need of creating suspense, loosely knit, and episodic; instead of mounting to a dynamic climax, the story unfolds in a number of separate situations, each rounded and complete in itself. The total effect of the play will be built up through the juxtaposition and ‘montage’ of contrasting episodes. While the ‘Aristotelian’ drama can only be understood as a whole, the ‘epic’ drama can be cut into slices which will continue to make sense and give pleasure, like the favourite chapters of a novel that can be read by themselves, or the extracts from plays of great length that are performed as self-contained units in the Chinese classical theatre.
Just as isolated episodes of the play retain their individual significance, even if taken out of the context of the play as a whole, the non-literary elements of the production - decor, music, and choreography - also retain their independence; instead of serving as mere auxiliaries of the text, reinforcing it by stressing some of its features and painting in atmosphere, mood, or descriptive details, they are raised to the level of autonomous elements; instead of pulling in the same direction as the words, they enter into a dialectical, contrapuntal relationship with them. The musical numbers are no longer smuggled in at the point when the emotional charge of a scene rises to a climax and speech merges into song - but arc introduced as entirely distinct ingredients of the play, which interrupt its flow, break the illusion, and thereby render the action ‘strange’. And within the musical numbers themselves the music does not merely express the mood of the words: it often stands in contradiction to them, comments on them, or reveals the falsity of the sentiments they express.
The stage designer, who is no longer bound by the necessity of trying to create the illusion of a real locality in which the action takes place, is now free to supply his own, independent contribution to the play by providing background material of all kinds (in Galileo Caspar Neher backed the action by projections of maps, documents, and works of art of the Renaissance) or even by duplicating the action by showing it from a different angle (in the first production of Mahagonny the scene in which greedy Jakob cats himself to death was played in front of a backdrop showing a large portrait of Jakob eating, so that the audience saw the episode split into two).
Thus the ‘epic’ theatre does not use décor and music to produce a Wagnerian ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ with its, in Brecht’s view, diabolically strong narcotic and hypnotic effect and concerted onslaught on the senses, but to destroy the illusion of reality. As Brecht put it, ‘sie verfremden sich gegenseitig’ (‘they mutually make each other appear strange’).
The destruction of stage illusion, however, is not an end in itself. The ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ has its positive side. By inhibiting the process of identification between the spectator and the characters, by creating a distance between them and enabling the audience to look at the action in a detached and critical spirit, familiar things, attitudes, and situations appear in a new and strange light, and create, through astonishment and wonder, a new understanding of the human situation. The great discoveries of mankind, Brecht points out, were made by men who looked at familiar things as if they had never seen them before - Newton at the falling apple, Galileo at the swinging chandelier - and in the same way the theatre public should be taught to look at the relationships between men with the critical ‘estranged’ eye of the discoverer. ‘The natural must be made to look surprising.’
This is how Brecht has summed up the distinction between the old convention and his own conception of the theatre:
The spectator of the dramatic theatre says: ‘Yes, I have felt the same. - I am just like this. –– This is only natural. - It will always be like this. - This human being’s suffering moves me, because there is no way out for him. - This is great art: it bears the mark of the inevitable. - I am weeping with those who weep on the stage, laughing with those who laugh.’
The spectator of the epic theatre says: ‘I should never have thought so. - That is not the way to do it. - This is most surprising, hardly credible. - This will have to stop. - This human being’s suffering moves me, because there would have been a way out for him. This is great art: nothing here seems inevitable - I am laughing about those who weep on the stage, weeping about those who laugh.’
Brecht has written a great deal about the methods of production and the technique of acting he required to translate these theories into practice. And he has left detailed records of some of his most successful productions in the form of ‘model books’ - scene-by-scene descriptions of the performances illustrated by photographs of every movement on the stage.
The basis of the Brechtian technique of acting is the conception that the actor should not regard himself as impersonating the character so much as narrating the actions of another person at a definite time in the past. To illustrate these actions and to make them fully understood by the audience he goes through the motions the character made, imitates the tone of his voice, repeats his facial expression, but only to the extent of quoting them. The Brechtian style of acting is acting in quotation marks.
Brecht liked to illustrate his basic concept of acting by the example of an everyday occurrence one might observe in any large town: a street accident has happened. A crowd has collected on the scene, and an eyewitness is telling the bystanders what has taken place: he wants to indicate that the old man who has been run over walked very slowly, and so he will imitate his gait to show exactly what he means. He is in fact quoting the old man’s walk. And he is only quoting those elements of the old man’s movements which are relevant to the situation that he wants to describe. The eyewitness concerned is far from wanting to impersonate the victim: ‘he never forgets, nor does he allow anyone to forget, that he is not the one whose action is being demonstrated, but the one who demonstrates it’. The character who is being shown and the actor who demonstrates him remain clearly differentiated. And the actor retains his freedom to comment on the actions of the person whose behaviour he is displaying.
A theatre which aims at preventing the identification of the audience with the characters cannot allow the identification of the actor with the character either. Brecht was fully aware of the contagious nature of anything that takes place on the stage, which is the essence of the mystery and magic of the theatre. He did not deny the teaching of Stanislavsky in this respect: if the actor believes that he is Lear, the audience will also believe it and will share his emotions. But Brecht did not want the audience to be taken in. For the ‘epic’ actor, he says, the assertion: ‘he did not merely act Lear, he was Lear’, would be a devastating criticism.
As the ‘epic’ actor does not intend to put his audience into a trance, he must also keep himself free from any state of trance.
His muscles must remain relaxed, for even a turn of the head with tensed muscles ‘magically’ carries away with it the eyes, and even the heads of the spectators - and this would reduce their ability to reflect or feel emotion about this gesture. . . . Even if playing one possessed, the actor must not appear possessed himself: how else could the spectators find out what it is that possesses the possessed ?
These views express Brecht’s revulsion against the cramped and convulsive style of acting which is still widely prevalent in the German theatre, where actors still tend to be rated according to the violence, the frenetic intensity of the emotions they portray. The frantic ‘Ausbruch’ (outburst) represents the highest peak of acting to the adherents of this style. The Brechtian actor is always loose-limbed and relaxed, always clearly in control of himself and his emotions. In Brecht’s view the actor’s task is far wider, and far more complex, than the mere identification with the character, the merging of actor and character, postulated by Stanislavsky. At one stage in his preparatory work the Brechtian actor also has to feel himself into the character; but the results of this process of empathy are only one among a number of elements which fuse in the final performance on the stage. They must be supplemented by acute and fully rational observations; by implied comment on the character’s actions so that the audience can see the actor’s approval or disapproval, his pity, or contempt for the character. Moreover, the actor must also show that he is never taken by surprise by the character’s experiences, that, in fact, he knows exactly where the character’s conduct will eventually lead him. And he must also be able to suggest to the audience that the character’s behaviour is by no means the only possible course of action, that there are always alternatives. The actor must be able to suggest at suitable moments
apart from what he does, something else ... he does not do: i.e. he acts in such a manner that one can see the alternative course of action, so that the acting allows the audience to detect the other possibilities, so that any given action can be seen as only one among a number of variants.
In other words, the actor’s attitude must always be so conscious, so fully rational, and demonstrative, that he is in fact telling the public: ‘I have decided to go left rather than right. I could have gone to the right, but I am going to the left and not to the right.’ This implies a deliberateness of action, a consciousness of the presence of the audience, which is diametrically opposed to Stanislavsky’s ideal of an actor who is completely alone, completely wrapped up in himself and unaware of being observed. In fact, Brecht compares the style of acting he advocates to the manner in which the producer would demonstrate an intonation to his cast. He too, by the deliberateness of his demonstration, says in effect: ‘I want it done this way and not that way.’ Nor can there be any question of the actor’s thought or action arising spontaneously from the situation: there must be nothing improvised in the delivery of the lines. As Brecht puts it: ‘the actor’s performance must present an attitude which denotes the delivery of a finished product’.
Like all attempts to describe a style of acting in theory, these maxims appear more complicated than they are in fact: the villain as he was acted in Victorian melodrama is the perfect example of a style of acting without identification between the actor and the character he portrays; there too the audience is never left in doubt as to what the actor thinks of the character, nor that he knows that he will come to a had end, nor that he enjoys the virtuosity with which he portrays wickedness, nor that he behaves in a manner to which there would be a clear and obvious alternative. And this applies to some extent to all the villains in drama. As Brecht pointed out: ‘Why is the principal negative character so much more interesting than the positive hero? Because he is performed in a spirit of criticism.’
In the theatre of illusion and identification the actor works through introspection. He delves into the character he is to portray and tries to merge with him. Only after this work is accomplished are the characters brought into relation with each other. The nature of the characters determines their relationships. The basic unit of such a theatre is the single character.
Brecht’s theatre, on the other hand, is extrovert. The inner life of the characters is irrelevant to him except in so far as it is expressed in their outward attitudes and actions. ‘For the smallest social unit is not one human being, but two human beings.’ The eyewitness in the example of the street accident
derives his characters wholly from their actions. He imitates what they have done and thus permits inferences as to their nature. A theatre which follows him will to a large extent break with the habit of the conventional theatre, which derives its action from the nature of the characters ....
The study of human nature is thus replaced by that of human relations. Not the characters, but the story in which they are involved becomes the main concern of the epic, narrative, historical, theatre. ‘Everything depends on the story; it is the centre-piece of the performance.’ For the story (Brecht uses the German word Fabel, with its didactic overtones) is the sequence of events which constitutes the social experiment of the play; it provides the dialectical field for the interplay of social forces, from which the lesson of the play will be seen to emerge.
Characters acting and reacting upon each other thus become the basic unit of the Brechtian theatre. The basic attitudes of human beings are expressed by what Brecht called Gestus, a term which does not merely mean ‘gesture’ but covers the whole range of the outward signs of social relationships, including ‘deportment, intonation, facial expression’. Each scene of a play has its basic Gestus (Grundgestus).
By his emphasis on ‘Gestus’ - the clear and stylized expression of the social behaviour of human beings towards each other - Brecht shifts the emphasis from the inner life of characters towards the way in which they behave towards each other: the way in which the downtrodden tutor in Der Hofmeister bows to his master, the way in which the kindly prostitute of Setzuan moves differently when she turns into her ruthless cousin, assumes a greater importance than the supposed inner life or emotions of these characters. Brecht wanted to arrive at a ‘Gestus’ so simple and expressive that it could be quoted with the same ease as a well-turned line of dialogue is quoted. And he placed great emphasis on writing dialogue which would contain the appropriate ‘Gestus’ and almost force the actor to assume the correct stance, movement, and tone of voice. He himself was a master of this ‘gestische Sprache’ (gestic language). His sentences, with their contrapuntal construction, subtle rhythms, and cunningly placed pauses, their Biblical parallelism and sudden changes of cadence compel the speaker to follow the author’s intentions and to act as he utters them.
Brecht’s ‘songs’ also have this gestic character. They are even more pronounced, even more clearly magnified, exhibits of basic attitudes, for the music makes the fusion of words and gesture even more compelling. Brecht used to point to the way street singers render the more vulgar kind of popular song with large and simple gestures. His own ‘songs’ were designed to achieve a similar effect on actor and audience alike by crystallizing an essential, fundamental attitude and exhibiting it with the utmost clarity: despair or resignation, defiance or submission.
The fundamental importance of the ‘Gestus’ determines the method by which actors and producer tackle the play. By analysing the action t: e determine the basic story line (Fabel), which is then broken down into smaller and smaller elements until each scene appears as the expression of one simple, basic action, which can be translated into a single sentence (e.g. ‘Richard Gloucester woos the widow of his victim’ or ‘God wagers against the devil for the soul of Dr Faustus’ or ‘Woyzeck buys a cheap knife to kill his wife’). This sentence or title contains the basic ‘Gestus’ of the scene which the producer and the actors will now have to put on to the stage. The arrangement and grouping of the actors, their manner of speaking and moving must be made to convey all the implications of this ‘basic Gestus’ with the greatest possible expressiveness, elegance, and economy of means. It is entirely irrelevant what the scene concerned might have looked like in real life, the producer is only concerned with bringing out its social content and significance.
The new theatre uses the simplest kind of grouping which will express the meaning of the action in the clearest possible manner. Any ‘accidental’ grouping which might try to simulate ‘real life’ ... is to be avoided. The stage does not reflect the ‘natural disorder’ of things. The opposite of ‘natural disorder’ which it aims at is ‘natural order’. The point of view adopted to achieve this order is historical and sociological.
Once the basic elements of the story have been isolated, they must be linked together again, but not in such a way that they imperceptibly merge into each other. The links between the separate sections must be clearly marked, so that the audience has time to use its judgment instead of drifting helplessly through the story. The component parts have to be carefully juxtaposed to set each other off, preferably by the use of written chapter headings which will not only indicate what will happen next (and thereby inhibit suspense) but also set the tone of the ensuing scene by the way in which they are phrased - ‘In the style of a chronicle or a ballad or a newspaper or a description of manners and customs.’
As Brecht sought to banish trance, illusion, magical effects, and orgies of emotion from the theatre, he tried to replace them by lucidity, rationality, and elegance. The numerous and varied devices by which the illusion of reality was to be dispelled must bear the hallmark of honest craftsmanship, the perfection which comes from the unpretentious use of undisguised materials.
Above all, the stage must be bathed in light:
Give us light on the stage, lighting engineer! How can we,
Playwrights and actors, present our images of the world
In semi-darkness? Nebulous twilight
Lulls to sleep. But we need the spectators’
Wakefulness, even watchfulness. Let them dream
In blazing clarity !
Brecht was against the use of lighting effects to create atmosphere and mood. The coming of night was indicated, in his theatre as in that of the Elizabethans, by properties such as lamps or the appearance of a moon disk, not by a dimming of the uniformly bright light in which his stage was bathed. To dispel any illusion of reality he insisted that the sources of light should remain visible to the public. ‘Nobody would expect the spotlights over a boxing ring to be hidden,’ why should they therefore be concealed in the theatre?
Nor was the curtain to be used to allow illusions to be prepared in secret:
... and make
My curtain half high, don’t seal off the stage!
Leaning back in his chair, let the spectator
Be aware of busy preparations, made for him
Cunningly; he sees a tinfoil moon
Float down, or a tiled roof
Being carried in; do not show him too much,
But show him something! And let him notice
That you are not wizards,
Friends, but workers....
The curtain often also serves to show the projected titles of the scenes. When it parts, it reveals sets which suggest the locale of the action rather than depicting it. Brecht’s favourite designers - his childhood friend Caspar Neher, Teo Otto, and Karl von Appen - each in his individual way leave much to the imagination of the spectator. The backdrops arc often intentionally two-dimensional and derived from known pictorial models (old prints in Der Hofmeister, or Persian miniatures in Der Kaukasis he Kreidekrcis, etc.). The use of decor to supply independent comment on the action has already been mentioned.
Just as the sources of light remain unconcealed, the source of any music must also remain visible. Often the musicians are placed on the stage itself.
The musical numbers and ‘songs’ arc used to interrupt the action and to give the audience an opportunity to reflect. The coming of such an interruption is usually announced beforehand by some visible change on the stage: the title of the song may flash on to a screen, special lights may be put oft, or a symbolic emblem (e.g. flags and trumpets) may come down from the flies.
These mechanical devices may help the actors in creating the ‘Verfrenidungseflekt’, but they nevertheless leave the brunt of the work of ‘making things strange to the audience’ to them. The temptation to identify himself with the character must always remain strong for the actor. Brecht used a variety of techniques to enable him to overcome this temptation.
During rehearsals the actors were invited to translate their text into the third person, so that they were made to relate the stone of the actions and speeches of the characters they were later to act. Brecht has published a number of examples of this technique. In scene three of his adaptation of Lenz’s play Der Hcffmeister (The Private Tutor) there occurs the following passage:
(Enter Count Wermuth. After a few silent compliments lie sits down on the sofa.)
count: Has Your Excellency seen the new dancing master who has arrived from
? He is a Marchese from Dresden . His name is. . . . On all my travels I have only met two dancers… I would put above him.... Florence
During rehearsals the actor who played the count was made to say:
Then Count Wermuth entered. After a few silent compliments he sat down on the sofa and asked whether Madame had seen the new dancing master, who had arrived from
. He was a Marchese from Dresden .... The Count made a slight pause, as his memory failed him. He nimbly added, that on all his travels he had only met two dancers whom he would put above him ... etc. Florence
Another device for inhibiting the identification of actor an I character is the inclusion of all stage directions in the test spoken during rehearsals. For his production of Antigone at Chur in 1948 Brecht composed linking passages in hexameters, which the characters spoke during rehearsals and which transformed the tragedy into the recitation of an epic poem. In this production the actors who were not involved in the action sat in a semicircle at the back of the stage. Brecht advised them that ‘they could read, freely make small movements, put on their make-up, or leave the stage quietly’.
Brecht also wrote Practice Scenes for Actors. These include ‘parallel scenes’ by which the actors are to be made to see hackneyed classical situations in a new - estranged - light (the murder scene in Macbeth is qua d with the pangs of conscience of a concierge’s wife who has broken off head of a china statue belonging to the lady of the horse, and finally blames the deed on a passing beggar); and ‘bridge scenes’, to be aced during rehearsal but omitted in performance (Hamlet learns that Caudius has ceded a strip of land to Norway in return for a trade agreement, which guarantees the sale of Danish salted herrings to Norway; this puts him into the right mood to hear of Fortinbras’s expedition to Poland and explains his change of mind in ‘How all occasions do inform against me’). But as Brecht never tackled Macbeth, Hamlet, or any of the other plays for which he wrote these practice scenes, they remain expressions of his love of debunking and parody rather than constructive contribution; to the art of acting.
In his own work as a director with the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht refrained from expounding his theories to the actors. For an author of copious theoretical writings on the art of acting, lie was surprisingly empirical. Leading actors who worked with him found little difference in his approach from that of other directors with a literary background, except that he was perhaps more patient and ready to listen to suggestions than most. As one observer of rehearsals of the Berliner Ensemble put it:
In this theatre everyone is allowed to state his opinion. The actors make all sorts of suggestions to the director. The director is all ear and greatly praises the suggestions. But in the end it is done as the director wanted it in the first place.... Everything is given a trial: Mr K. is asked to insert an occasional grunt - ‘oeh!’. But ‘oeh’ can be said with the most varied nuances. The most significant, the most comical ‘oeh’ will have to be found. Six different kinds are tried, and in the end perhaps the most effective ‘oeh’ has been discovered.
In spite of Brecht’s untheoretical approach it is astonishing that the Berliner Ensemble’s splendidly produced publication on its work, Theaterarbeit, discloses that in the course of a survey of the views of the members of the company it became clear that ‘the majority of the actors showed considerable uncertainty’, when asked whether the Berliner Ensemble was using a special style of acting! This is explained as
probably due to the fact that neither Brecht nor other directors of the Berliner Ensemble refer to Brecht’s theoretical writings during rehearsals. For certain plays some practical hints from these works are made use of, but in Brecht’s view the present state of the theatre does not permit their full application.
Whether Brecht’s theories were merely rationalizations of his intuition, taste, and imagination (which they almost certainly were), or whether they were the results of the application of ice-cold logic and deeply probing sociological analysis (as he sometimes claimed them to be), they have had a most stimulating effect in freeing the stage froth a narrow and cramping convention and will certainly continue to play their part within the much wider movement for the renewal of the theatre.
Brecht, who loved the exotic and the ‘vulgar’, often drew attention to his debt to the oriental theatre of China,
India, and Japan, and the folk theatre of Austria and . These exotic and folk influences, however, should not lead one to overlook the large extent to which the Brechtian theatre represents a return to the main stream of the European classical tradition. As Jean-Paul Sartre has pointed out, the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, the idea that the playwright should not show characters or situations too familiar to the audience, v; as one of the basic principles of classical French tragedy. Bavaria anticipates much of Brecht’s ideas in his preface to Bajazet: Racine
Les personnages tragiques doivent être regardés d’un autre oeil que nous ne regardons d’ordinaire les personnages que nous avons vus de si prés. On peut dire que le respect que l’on a pour les héros augmente à mesure qu’ils s’éloignent de nous: major e longinquo reverentia.
The same is true of the rejection of empathy as the basis of great acting. Diderot in his Paradoxe sur le Comédien foreshadows Brecht’s demand for critical, ‘cool’ acting by condemning the idea that actors should be able to feel the emotions they portray, or even that they should be people of more than average sensibility.
C’est ‘‘extreme sensibilité qui fait les acteurs médiocres : c’est la sensibilité médiocre qui fait la multitude des mauvais acteurs; et c’est le manque absolu de sensibilité qui prépare les acteurs sublimes. Les larmes du comédien descendent de son cerveau; celles de l’homme sensible montent de son coeur: cc sont les entrailles qui troublent sans mesure la tête de l’homme sensible; c’est la tête du comédien qui porte quelquefois un trouble passager dans ses entrailles; it pleure comme un pretre incrédule qui prêche la Passion; comme un séducteur aux genoux d’une femme qu’il n’aime pas, mais qu’il veut tromper; comme tin gueux Bans la rue ou à la porte d’une église, qui vous injuric lorsqu’il déespère ire de vous toucher; ou comme une courtisane qui ne sent rien, mais qui se pâme entre vos bras.
Brecht’s most original contribution to the theory of the theatre -but also the most disputable - concerns the reactions of the audience. From Greek tragedy to Gerhart Hauptmann and Ibsen the audience was supposed to be moved by what was presented on the stage. Whether they were to believe in the play as real or artificial, to regard the actors as skilful mimics or suffering human beings, they were to feel pity with them and to identify themselves with the experiences of the hero. Towards the end of his life I react defended himself against the reproach that he wanted to banish emotion from the theatre altogether. But the emotions he wanted to produce were of an entirely different nature. The ‘epic’ theatre, he said,
in no way renounces emotion. Least of all emotions like the love of justice, the urge to freedom or justified anger: so little does it renounce these emotions, that it does not rely on their being there, but tries to strengthen or to evoke them. The ‘critical attitude’ into which it is trying to put its public cannot be passionate enough.
It is more than doubtful whether such emotions could ever be made to play a more than merely marginal part among the feelings engendered by the theatre. In his rejection of identification between audience and characters Brecht comes into conflict with the fundamental concepts of psychology which regards processes of identification as the basic mechanisms by which one human being communicates with another. Without identification and empathy each person would be irrevocably imprisoned within himself. Even the spectators of a sporting contest, whom Brecht so often invoked as the ideal of a critical audience, identify themselves with the contestants. And, of course, the use of the various ‘estranging’ devices in Brecht’s theatre shows that he was aware of the constant need to counteract the powerful effect of these tendencies in the audience. In practice, he succeeded at best merely in reducing to some extent the emotional identification of the audience with his characters. He never succeeded in evoking the critical attitude he postulated. The audience stubbornly went on being moved to terror and to pity.
On the other hand, it is perhaps precisely this contradiction between the author’s and director’s intention and the audience’s natural tendency to react, which creates the peculiar effect of the Brechtian theatre: the conflict between head and heart in the actors and in the spectators, the ambiguity created by the tug of war between the intended and the actual reaction of the audience gives depth to two-dimensional characters and sophistication to what was intended as naive. If the audience were merely repelled by the rascality and baseness of the robber Macheath, they might conceivably leave the theatre convinced, as Brecht intended, of the corruption of bourgeois society. But in fact, while they are to a certain extent repelled by Macheath, they also identify themselves with him; while they are made to loathe his sentimentality they are also made to participate in it. And they leave the theatre by no means entirely convinced that bourgeois society is rotten, but having greatly enjoyed a poetical experience. And so Brecht’s success lies in his partial failure to realize his own intentions.
Brecht believed that his ‘non-aristotelian’, ‘epic’ theatre was destined to become the theatre of the scientific age.
In an age whose science is able to change nature to an extent which makes the world appear almost habitable, man can no longer be described to man as a mere victim, the object of an unknown, but unalterable environment.... The world of today can be described to the human beings of today only as a world that can be changed.
He thought that the ‘epic’ theatre which aimed at awakening the spectator’s critical faculty, which concentrated on showing mankind from the point of view of social relationships, would serve as an instrument of social change, a laboratory of revolutionary enlightenment; in other words, that the ‘epic’ theatre was the Marxist theatre par excellence. But the chain of reasoning by which he arrives at this conclusion contains more than one weak link. A narrative theatre, he argues, can show far more than just the way people act and suffer. It is not compelled, as the conventional theatre is, to leave the conclusions entirely to the audience. It can provide sociological background material; it can comment on the action. By keeping the spectator in a critical frame of mind it prevents him from seeing the conflict entirely from the point of view of the characters involved in it and from accepting their passions and motives as being conditioned by ‘eternal human nature’. Such a theatre will make the audience see the contradictions in the existing state of society; it might even make them ask themselves how it might be changed. But there is nothing in this particular stage convention which in itself would lead the public to a Marxist answer to this question. Of course, the characters, or the chorus, can be made to advocate Marxist solutions - but so can the characters in the conventional theatre, as innumerable Soviet propaganda plays, excellently acted in the tradition of Stanislavsky, amply prove. Brecht disliked and despised the openly propagandist play in the naturalistic convention. In his speech to the Fourth East German Writers’ Congress in January 1956 he ridiculed plays in which ‘the new’ was being advocated through
the playwright giving a representative of ‘the new’ so much freedom of speech, that his point of view does in fact get the better of his opponent’s point of view. But you must not forget that the representation of militant action on the stage, even from a set point of view, does not by itself automatically produce a militant effect. What we must achieve is the creation of militancy in the audience, the militancy of the new against the old.
But there is little evidence that Brecht’s own, more subtle methods ever roused the audience to a militantly Marxist point of view. For the Brechtian theatre is a theatre designed to arouse indignation in the audience, dissatisfaction, a realization of contradictions - it is a theatre supremely fitted for parody, caricature, and denunciation, therefore essentially a negative theatre. That is why Brecht’s plays conspicuously lack positive heroes, why the good characters are invariably crushed and defeated. Brecht believed that the audience’s indignation with the existing order would necessarily and automatically lead them to support the Marxist alternative. But this belief presupposes a touching faith in the self-evident truth of the Marxist creed. What Brecht says, in effect, is: ‘show the world in a critical spirit - and the audience will automatically see the need for a Marxist solution! It is enough to point out the contradictions in the existing state of society to make people clamour for Communism.’ This is not only a non sequitur in theory, but has been shown to be one in practice. The Threepenny Opera ran for years in
without turning the thousands of people who saw it into Communists. The New York East Berlin audience who followed the adventures of Mother Courage and saw poor dumb Katrin raped by the brutal soldiery knowingly compared what they had seen in the theatre with their experiences with the Russian soldiers, and concluded that in fact human nature had not changed....
If Brecht believed that the ‘epic’ theatre was the truly Marxist theatre, the authorities of the Communist world certainly did not. The Brechtian theatre still only exists on the fringes of the Communist world, while the doctrines of Stanislavsky, the theatre of identification and illusion, remain the prescribed, official norm for actors, producers, and critics from Vladivostok to Prague.
Brecht’s life-long struggle for the acceptance of his theories as those of the truly Marxist theatre (which is described in Chapter VII) finally led him to abandon the very name of the ‘epic’ theatre. His last theoretical essays, entitled Dialectics in the Theatre, foreshadow its substitution by the term ‘dialectical theatre’. His disciple Manfred Wekwerth describes how he spoke of his theatre as a ‘dialectical theatre’ shortly before he died. But in the introductory note to Dialectics in the Theatre, published after his death, Brecht merely says:
The essays which follow suggest that the term ‘epic theatre’ may be too formal for the theatre we mean Land practise - up to a point). The epic theatre may be the underlying basis of these presentations, but it does not fully account for the way they show the productivity and malleability of society, which is the source of most of the enjoyment they provide. The term ‘epic theatre’ must therefore be regarded as inadequate, without our being able to offer a new one.