Sunday, September 5, 2010

German Drama Before Brecht: From Neo-Classicism to Expressionism

In his 1930 notes to the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) Brecht formulates for the first time the theory of drama to which, despite subsequent modifications, he adhered throughout his life. His chief concern is to distinguish two types of theatre, which he calls ‘dramatic’ and ‘epic’.

At the level of form, as Brecht outlines in a famous table of key phrases, ‘dramatic’ theatre relies on ‘linear development’ and ‘evolutionary determinism’, ensuring that ‘one scene makes another’ while ‘epic’ theatre moves in ‘curves’ and ‘jumps’, leaving ‘each scene for itself’. In terms of effect ‘dramatic’ theatre, by keeping the ‘eyes on the finish’, insisting on suggestion’ and appealing to ‘feeling’, ‘implicates the spectator in a stage situation’ and ‘wears down his capacity for action, while ‘epic’ theatre, by keeping the ‘eyes on the course’, insisting on ‘argument’ and appealing to ‘reason’, ‘turns the spectator into an observer’ and ‘arouses his capacity for action’. In the ideology of ‘dramatic’ theatre, where ‘thought determines being’, man is considered ‘unchangeable, while in that of ‘epic’ theatre, where ‘social being determines thought’, man is considered ‘changeable and able to bring about change’. In short Brecht postulates that ‘dramatic’ theatre, through its casually coherent structure, involves the audience’s emotions in the experience of the characters and thereby fosters a passive acceptance of the existing order, while ‘epic’ theatre, through its structural inconsistencies, distances the audience from the play and thereby promotes critical thinking and the will to change society.
The foremost authority of Neo-Classicism in German literature was the Leipzig professor, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700-66), who restored artistic merit to a stage left destitute after the decline of Baroque drama. Although he made a considerable practical impact by editing a compendium of derivative plays entitled The German Stage, according to the Rules of the Ancient Greeks and Romanys (1740-45) he is remembered chiefly as a theorist. Influenced by the rationalist Leibniz - Woiffian philosophy of the Enlightenment and the works of French playwrights and critics such as Boileau, Corneille, Racine, Moliere, Destouches and La Chaussee, he discusses the different poetic generes in (An Essay concerning Poetics for the Germans) (1730). The tragic dramatist, he legislates, must illustrate a moral axiom with an appropriate tale chosen from history, divided into five acts, and progressing through casually linked incidents; to achieve verisimilitude, he must observe the three Unities, as derived by French tragedians from Aristotle, restricting the time, place and action of each play to one day, one locality, and one main plot; to convey the message forcefully, he must maintain a serious mood, evoking the Aristotelian emotions of pity and terror by concentrating on the misfortunes of characters who belong to the highest ranks of society and who speak in dignified alexandrine verse. The comic dramatist must also observe the Unities, but since he is to edify through amusement, as in the French comedie larmoyante, he may include everyday expressions in his verse and depict the ludicrous quandaries of characters from the middle and lower classes.
The supremacy of Gottsched’s ‘regular’ drama was broken by Gott-hold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), the greatest literary representative of the German Enlightenment and a herald of the approaching   movements   of  Storm   and  Stress   and   Weimar Classicism.
Lessing’s most celebrated theoretical statements occur in the essays he contributed in Berlin to the series (Letters on the Subject of Recent Literature) (1759 - 65). He rebukes Gottsched for recommending French models, and he praises Shakespeare as a writer who comes closer to the essence of Greek tragedy while disregarding its form, whose English temperament is more congenial to Germans, and who by being a natural genius is more apt to inspire similar geniuses in Germany: this discovery marks the beginning of Shakespeare’s lasting importance for a long line of German authors, which is underlined, for example, by the fact that Brecht, albeit with various reservations, refers to him more often than to any other individual. Lessing continues to encourage German cultural nationalism by replacing French influences with those of the Greeks and Shakespeare and by expanding his novel concept of creativity. A theatrical genius, he explains, may ignore mechanical rules or historical accuracy, if his actions represent unbroken chains of causes and effects evolving from consistent characters and producing an illusion of unavoidable necessity. While all drama aims at moral improvement, comedy does so not by deriding specific vices but by sharpening the spectator’s general sense of humour, and tragedy not by exalting specific virtues but by making the callous spectator sensitive and the sentimental spectator stoic: this balancing of mental faculties in the latter genre is the Aristotelian ‘catharsis’ which is brought about through tragic pity and fear, meaning respectively the spectator’s sympathetic participation in the characters’ emotions and his apprehension that he could himself become the victim of their misfortunes. The need for the emotional involvement of increasingly middle-class audiences accounts for one of Lessing’s most far-reaching innovations: prompted by the comedie larmoyante in France and the works of Lillo and Richardson in England, he champions domestic tragedy, or burgerliches Trauerspiel, which endows middle-class characters, speaking contemporary prose and best by contemporary problems, with tragic dignity.
Among Lessing’s major plays, the ‘serious comedy’ Minna von Barnhelm (1767) has been hailed as the first recognizable theatrical presentation of contemporary German individuals and society, while the blank-verse drama Nathan der Weise (1779) is admired as an outstanding plea for religious tolerance and human brotherhood. The evolution of social drama owes most to his two domestic tragedies: Miss Sara Sampson (1755), featuring elopement, murder and suicide amid upper-crust but bourgeois-tempered English people, represents the breakthrough of the genre, and Emilia Galotti (1772), in which the officer Odoardo kills his daughter Emilia to save her from seduction by the unscrupulous prince, introduces to it, in an Italian disguise, the conflict of upright bourgeoisie and corrupt aristocracy that was to be copied, with deliberate political implications that Lessing denies for his part, by many subsequent practitioners.
The subsequent movement of Weimar Classicism centred on the friendship of the mature Goethe and Schiller. Inspired by both Greek and Shakespearean values, Goethe developed his classical attitude through his responsibilities in the Weimar administration, his platonic relationship with Charlotte von Stein, his scientific researches and his Italian journey, while Schiller developed his abalities through the study of history and Kantian philosophy.
The major plays of Goethe’s classical phase, apart from the Helena interlude (1827) which became the nucleus of Faust II (1832) and which briefly unites the medieval German hero with the Hellenic heroine, are Iphigenia in Tauris (1787) and Torquato Tasso (1790). Iphigenie’s agonizing choice of absolute sincerity averts tragedy and wins divine blessing for human integrity; Tasso’s neurotic maladjustment is balanced by his poetic talent, and his conflict with the politician Antonio is resolved in a humane society, which synthesizes passion and decorum, material security and aesthetic culture: both plays dramatize the German Ideal of humanity, observing the Unities, employing refined blank verse, and exploring subtle moral and psychological problems of idealized characters in rarefied Greek-mythological or Italian-Renaissance settings. While Goethe’s contribution to the classical theory of drama is slight, his great classical plays thus prove eminently ‘dramatic’, as do many lesser plays written throughout his career, notably (The Natural Daughter) (1803), an expression of his conservative reaction to the French Revolution and of his Classicism at its most remote.
Unlike Goethe, Friedrich Schiller (1759 - 1805) expounds his philosophy in numerous substantial essays. He sees man torn between senses and reason, realism and idealism, spontaneous unity, as enjoyed by the Greeks or Shakespeare, and self-conscious fragmentation, as experienced by most moderns. He constantly seeks freedom, conceived predominantly in aesthetic or moral terms: aesthetic freedom, or beauty, derives from the balance of opposites found in the fusion of concrete subject-matter and abstract form in art or in the rare coincidence of inclination and duty in life; moral freedom, or sublimity, implies the victory of duty over inclination. Schiller’s specific theory of drama, particularly tragedy, carries on from Lessing, emphasizing passion in Sturm und Drang fashion, and postulating that the stage affects man’s entire constitution in accordance with the harmonious Humanitatsideal of Weimar Classicism. This notion first appears in the seminal The Theatre Considered as a Moral Institution (1785) where it is accompanied by a political interpretation of drama as an instrument of judgement over the German dukes and princes who, up to the mid-nineteenth century, ruled their states with feudal authority, granting their subjects few rights and swiftly stamping on dissent: this oppositional role, assigned to the theatre by a self-liberating bourgeoisie, has remained one of its basic functions to the present day.
In general, however, Schiller concentrates on less political issues. (On the Reasons for the Pleasure derived from Tragic Subjects) and (On Tragic Art) (both 1792) he stresses that the mixed sensation of pain and pleasure in tragedy results from the audience’s involvement in coherent actions and consistent characters, attained if necessary by sacrificing historical authenticity. In (On Pathos) (1793), (Of the Sublime) (1793) and (On the Sublime) (1801) he explains that the sublime in tragedy distresses the spectator by making him share the heroes’ sufferings, and at the same time instills in the spectator a joyful sense of escape, either by infecting him with the heroes’ own elation as they stoically accept physical or emotional ordeals for a moral purpose, or by reminding him that the anguish he and the heroes undergo is merely fictitious. In (On the use of the Chorus in Tragedy), the preface to his most severely classical play The Bride of Messina (1803), he argues that the intellectual comments and lyrical reflections of the chorus intervene between the action and the audience to defeat oppressive verism by poetic freedom. Thus the call for relentless precipitation and unfaltering participation makes Schiller a prime representative of ‘dramatic’ theatre, while his occasional attempts to distance the spectator from the stage come closer to the methods of ‘epic’ theatre than Brecht, who vehemently dislikes his idealism, would admit.
The transition to Classicism, which starts with the intricately woven tragic action, sonorous blank verse, elevated historical setting and discerning psychology of Don Carlos (1787), is completed in Schiller’s masterpieces, the Wallenstein trilogy (1798-99) and Maria Stuart (1800).
The box-office success of Lessing, Goethe and Schiller was surpassed by such authors as Friedrich Ludwig Schroder, August Wilhelm Iffland and August Kotzebue, whose sentimental prose dramas portray contemporary bourgeois society in ‘dramatic’ patterns and contribute to the subsequent development of nineteenth-century Realism. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, however, serious German literature was dominated by Romanticism. Although the romantic movement made little impact on stage, its innovations are not negligible. Romantic theory, represented chiefly by the brothers Friedrich Schlegel and August Wilhelm Schlegel, may be associated with ‘dramatic’ idealism in so far as it proclaims the sovereignty of mind over matter, but it shows ‘epic’ potential in demanding that writers mix the different genres in one poetic whole, and in promoting Shakespeare and Calderon, who were also introduced to Germans in influential Romantic translations. Romantic practice, represented in the theatre chiefly by Ludwig Tieck, appears at its most typical in two species: the Romantic chronicle play features episodic narratives borrowed from popular chap-books, a variety of lyrical styles, and pageants of legendary figures in medieval settings, extolling Catholic mysticism or chivalresque nationalism, revealing subconscious impulses, and steeping men and nature in supernatural magic; Romantic comedy withdraws from reality into fairy-tales or satirical literary feuds, and asserts poetic freedom through deliberate inconsistencies in the sequence of events, overt role-playing by the actors, addresses to the audience and other methods of underlining the fictitiousness of plays, known as ‘Romantic irony’. While Brecht might dismiss the metaphysics as ‘dramatic’, the disjointed structure of the Romantic chronicle play is ‘epic’, as is the peculiar irony of Romantic comedy which directly anticipates his own technique of (distancing or alienation).
The greatest dramatist of the period was Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), a Prussian nobleman who after restless wanderings committed suicide near Berlin. Kleist’s awareness of irrational and subconscious forces links him with Romanticism, but his stringent actions and tense, mimetic, blank verse contrast in ‘dramatic’ fashion with the ‘epic’ diffuseness of Romantic drama. As is gleaned from his letters and occasional essays, he sometimes believes that spontaneous certainty destroyed by reflection may be regained at a higher level of spiritual insight, but generally he feels, under the influence of Kant, that all human perception is inadequate: error, misunderstanding and confusion are therefore his recurrent themes. In his tragicomic adaptation of the familiar Greek myth in Amphitryon (1807), the failure of Alkmene to distinguish her seducer Jupiter from her husband Amphitryon proves reason, senses and emotions equally fallible. In Penthesilea (1808), the tragedy of the legendary Amazon queen who kills her lover Achilles and herself in extreme bewilderment demonstrates the ambiguity of passion, foreshadowing Freud’s psycho-analytic concept of sadomasochism and Nietzsche’s discovery of the Dionysian aspects of Greek civilization.
Leaving aside Austrain variants of Classicism, Romanticism and indigenous folk theatre in the works of Ferdinand Raimund, Johann Nestroy and Franz Grillparzer, German drama between the 1820s and 1880s became increasingly realistic. The evolution of science, the materialist neo-Hegelian philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss, the French-inspired political resistance of bourgeois liberalism against the conservative Restoration, and the subsequent attacks, led by Marx and Engels, of socialism against bourgeois capitalism, transformed earlier attempts at depicting outward reality into a new realistic style based on the empirical observation of people determined by physical, psychological and socio-economic factors in specific times and places. The first dramatists of German Realism were Grabbe and Buchner.
Christian Dietrich Grabbe (1801-1836), who died young of syphilis and alcoholism in his native Detmold, advances ‘dramatic’ theories in On Shakespeare-mania (1827) and other essays, but his own practice is very different. His plays include a Gothic melodrama Duke Theodore of Gothland and a romantically ironic comedy Jest, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning both completed in 1822 and published in 1827, a tragic phantasmagoria Don Juan und Faust (1829) and historical dramas such as Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa (1829), Kaiser Heinrich der Sechste (1830), Napoleon or the Hundred Days (1831), Hannibal (1835) and Die Hermannsschlacht (completed in 1836, published in 1838): in all these he exhibits his troubled psyche through violent incidents and overdrawn heroes, but frequently brings to bear a realistic understanding of the interaction of individuals and mass movements in history, mixing prose with verse and colloquialism with turgid hyperbole, sketching broad vistas of society in disconnected snatches, and revelling in grotesque contrasts of moods. The anti-idealistic outlook and discontinuous form of his plays make him a notable precursor of Brecht’s ‘epic’ theatre.
George Buchner (1813-1837), whose death from typhus cut short a promising scientific and artistic career, combines uncompromisingly realistic qualities with anticipations of Naturalism and Expressionism. His notorious fatalism apart, his contribution to Brecht’s ‘epic’ methods exceeds even Grabbe’s. In literature he rejects the idealism of Schiller in favour of a realism, adumbrated by Shakespeare, Goethe and Lenz, which reproduces everyday life or history faithfully, regardless of morality or beauty. But his left-wing radicalism, which necessitated his flight to Strasbourg and Zurich after revolutionary activities in Darmstadt and Giessen, is accompanied by the realization that the German poor are not ready to rise against the rich and mighty. Disillusioned with contemporary conditions, horrified by his study of the French Revolution, prone to the Byronic melancholy rife among post-Romantic young Europeans, he sees a ghastly fatality at work in individuals and masses alike. Determinism is the keynote of his comedy Leonce and Lena (written in 1836, published in 1838), which both reaffirms and parodies Romantic decadence, and his tragedies Danton’s Death (1835), and Woyzeck (left unfinished in 1837, published in 1879.
Dantons Tod, relying largely on authentic historical accounts, he pictures the Revolution as a superhuman force that blindly destroys its human agents; opposing to the ideological postures of the Jacobins the cynicism, hedonism and nihilism of the Dantonists. Woyzeck, based on an actual court case, indicts social injustice through the cruel jokes and degrading experiments inflicted by the captain and the doctor on the penniless, inarticulate soldier of the title, the first proletarian anti-hero of German drama, but the sexual jealousy culminating in the voices that urge him to stab his unfaithful mistress Marie link psychopathology with metaphysical mystery. Both tragedies then exhibit humanity as a passive object of irresistible compulsions in an incomprehensibly hostile universe; and both convey this pessimistic message in a multitude of self-contained episodes united not by casual continuity but by subtle correspondences and contrasts in the themes, characters, incidents and above all in the colloquial prose dialogue which thus acquires the richness of poetry.
Realistic tendencies appear in the work of Friedrich Hebbel (1813 — 63) but are often subordinated to a brooding Hegelesque metaphysic (A Word on the Drama) (1843) Hebbel, who suffered abject poverty in Wesselburen. Hamburg and Munich before he settled comfortably in Vienna, argues that tragedy must pit human nature against historical events, which may be altered if necessary, to prove that all life is a struggle between the individual and the universal: the individual cannot help asserting himself against the equilibrium of the universal, which punishes this existential rather than moral guilt by destroying him. In his prefaratory note to ‘Maria Magdalene’ (1844) Hebbel suggests that the universal itself changes, perhaps through its clash with the individual: great drama occurs in eras of universal change, as it did with the Greeks and Shakespeare and as it may do again in the nineteenth century, a time, he claims conservatively, of growing calls for a better foundation of the prevailing order; the great dramatist is one who succeeds best in conveying abstract ideas through concrete characters and actions, creating mounting suspense and unflagging interest. Hebbel’s habit of bracketing his metaphysical speculations with the realistic, semi-autobiographical, psychological conflicts of overbearing male and resentful female protagonists underlies the ‘dramatic’ actions of the legend-based tragedies Judith (1840), Herodes und Mariamne (1849) and Gyges und sein Ring (1856). Hebbel explains in his preface, he hopes to rejuvenate domestic tragedy by deriving the conflict not from the stereotyped opposition of middle class and aristocracy but from the narrow-mindedness of the middle class itself; abandoning metaphysical dialectics, he thus achieves a bleak realistic masterpiece, which may be ‘epic’ in its criticism of the ossification of formerly progressive middle-class attitudes, but which is rendered powerfully ‘dramatic’ by the inexorable interaction of clearly outlined characters at the mercy of their own weakness and their claustrophobic, petty-bourgeois surroundings.
Realism assumed extreme proportions in Naturalism during the 1880s and 1890s, when the wealth of business and professional circles contrasted harshly with the destitution of the proletariat under the impact of spreading industrialization and urbanization, socialism was suppressed with bourgeois approval by the military-bureaucratic establishment of the newly founded Second Reich, and a materialistic outlook, based on the philosophical positivism of August comte, reinforced by the biological principles of Charles Darwin and expressed with singular refinement by Nietzsche, finally ousted metaphysical idealism. The writers of German Naturalism accordingly regarded man as entirely determined by his inherited characteristics and his physical and social environment. Influenced by Hippolyte Taine, Zola, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, they held that art must devote itself to the allegedly scientific study of external reality; although they oscillated between demanding total objectivity and admitting a degree of subjective imagination, and although they were divided between pessimistic fatalism and optimistic belief in progress, they all shared a preoccupation with the sordid and miserable aspects of everyday living. The general aims of Naturalism, which evolved chiefly in Berlin and Munich, were proclaimed in many programmatic statements by such men as Wilhelm Bolsche, Karl Bleibtreu and the brothers Julius and Heinrich Hart. The most important theorist of drama in particular was Arno Holz (1863-1929). He hails the introduction of the revolutionary innovations of Naturalist theatre. The foremost Naturalist dramatist, however, was Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946), whose work may epitomize the movement as a whole.
Hauptmann’s aesthetic notions emerge from slight occasional articles, aphorisms and autobiographical sketches, rather than from sustained theoretical essays, and their ambivalence illustrates the contradictions inherent in Naturalism in general. He advocates unpolished, everyday dialogues and objectively observed, autonomous characters, rejecting plots as artificial constructions and the writer’s subjective comments as untruthful intrusions, but he also argues that art must not merely copy the individual external features of natural objects but disclose their inner essence by capturing their typical characteristics, and he interprets human irrationality in increasingly metaphysical and mystical terms. Similar discrepancies occur in his politics: while he detested German nationalism and militarism, his patriotism prevented him from effectively resisting the Nazis, who displayed him as a figure-head of their ‘blood-and-soil’ ideology: and although his compassion for suffering humanity led him to sympathize with socialism in his youth, he preferred to remain an uncommitted individualist.
Hauptmann’s best plays are those written in the Naturalist mode and set aside Berlin, where he spent the longest periods of his life. They concentrate on lower- or middle-class figures labouring solitarily under biological, psychological and social compulsions, the plays dwell on static ‘slices of life’, with decisive events often assumed to occur off-stage or initiated by outsiders: thus they mix the ‘dramatic’ illusion of ineluctably determined reality with the ‘epic’ disjunction of characters, scenes and linguistic devices. The theory and practice of Naturalism merge in a brilliant tragicomedy that was Hauptman’s last unqualified success.
The early twentieth century saw the revival of classical and romantic approaches and the evolution of ‘symbolistic’ and ‘impressionistic’ methods, particularly in the plays of the older Hauptmann and Paul Ernst in Germany, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler in Austria. The mainstream of German drama, however, moved towards Expressionism through Wedekind and Sternheim.
Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) shares the Naturalist’s predilection for the seamy side of life, but his work as a whole is not naturalistic, as an examination of his three best-known plays may indicate. In (Spring Awakening) (1891), a group of small­town adolescents in the throes of sexual awakening face the incomprehension of parents and teachers; the boy Moritz commits suicide under these pressures and the girl Wendla dies of a botched abortion, but Wendla’s juvenile lover Melchior, expelled from school for immorality, refuses death and walks out into life guided by a masked stranger. Although his irrational individualism is unlike Brecht’s Marxist rationality, from wederind’s anti-bourgeois iconoclasm is close to Brecht’s sentiments, and his formal innovations pave the way not only for Expressionism but also for Brecht’s ‘epic’ theatre.
While Wedekind is distinguished by his grotesque tragicomedy. Carl Sternheim (1878-1942), who after frequent changes of residence emigrated to Brussels, is one of Germany’s rare all-out satirists. In his essay (Thoughts on the Nature of Drama) (1914), he explains that the dramatist depicts the battle of divine values and human obduracy, in tragedy by setting the heroes against corruption, in comedy by placing corruption in the heroes themselves. His plots are traditionally ‘dramatic’, his characters appear as dehumanized automata, and his dialogues, parodying the jargon of specific classes or professions; reduce language to clipped ‘telegraphic’ utterances: this use of sarcastic abstraction and stylization for merciless social criticism makes Sternheim another important fore-runner of both Expressionist drama and the ‘epic’ theatre of Brecht.
Expressionism, which lasted roughly from 1910 to 1925 and which centred on Berlin, Munich, Dresden and Leipzig, mirrors the unsettling effects of modern technology, Freudian psychology, Nietzschean philosophy, the political confrontations of right and left, and the catastrophe of the First World War. Despite individual differences, the Expressionists condemned as perniciously materialistic, the existing social order in general and the artistic determinism of Naturalism in particular; instead, they called for the regeneration of mankind, to be brought about by a new kind of art which penetrates to the spiritual essence of life by replacing external reality with the artist’s private imaginative vision. The drama of Expressionism was shaped by the German influences already noted in Wedekind and by the more experimental plays of Ibsen and Strindberg. The dialogues abound in lexical, grammatical and metaphorical neologisms, often ending in the notorious, passionately inarticulate (cry). The protagonists are personifications of ideas, emotions or typical modes of human existance, frequently described by generic abstractions rather than individual names. The actions, which may be Utopian or apocalyptic, mystical or satirical, propelled by subconscious associations or inspired by propagandist intentions, usually highlight isolated ‘stations’ in the heroes’ inner development in symbolic fashion: one recurrent incident is the clash of sons and fathers, signalling the rebellion of the new idealism against the old corruption. Parallel innovations in stagecraft use technological aids to provide appropriately surrealistic surroundings for the actors’ frantic histrionics. Among the countless manifestos of the movement, Kurt Pinthus’ review Towards a Drama of the Future (1914) explains rhapsodically how these methods jettison firmly outlined plots and rounded characters to convey a subjective world picture with explosive intensity, while Paul Kornfeld’s tract Inspired Man and Psychological Man (1917) glorifies ecstasy with all the prophetic zeal and effusive rhetoric of which Expressionism was capable. The best-known Expressionist playwrights include Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Barlach, Reinhard Johannes Sorge, Fritz von Unruh, Walter Hasenclever and Franz Werfel, all of whom, however, are overshadowed by Kaiser and Toller.
George Kaiser (1878-1945), who travelled widely, with longer spells in Magdeburg, Berlin and Switzerland where he died in exile, was the most prolific dramatist of the movement. While his themes and stage technique bear all the Expressionist hallmarks, his highly intellectual dialogue displays a terse sobriety and wit rarely found in his fellow Expressionists.
Kaiser belonged to the politically uncommitted section of Expressionism, Ernst Toller (1893-1939), who served voluntarily in the First World War, suffered imprisonment for his influential role in the Bavarian Soviet of 1919 and committed suicide in New York, was one of its prominent left-wing activists. His major plays include (The Machine Wreckers) (1922), about the Luddite riots in England, and Hinkemann (1923), about the plight of the returning German soldier, but his fame rests on two other plays, in which he employs Expressionist approaches to action and characterization as skilfully as Kaiser, while his dialogue has considerable depth of feeling: in (Transfiguration) (1919) the autobiographical hero Friedrich leaves his middle-class home to seek community in the army, but, faced with the horrors of war, becomes a pacifist agitator and unites the people in a bloodless revolution in which love overcomes the inhumanity of the military, clerical and scientific authorities as well as of the violent radical intelligentsia: in (Masses and Man) (1920) the heroine, a middle-class woman with a social conscience, agrees to lead a peaceful strike to end a war but finds herself unable to resist the spokesman of mass violence, who foments a bloody insurrection during which the workers are suppressed by the army and the heroine is executed.
Kaiser and Toller, then, exemplify most powerfully the rise and fall of the Expressionist dream. Their work, and Expressionism in general, is ‘dramatic’ in its emotional urgency, its spiritual idealism and its decline into tragic fatalism; it is ‘epic’ in its fundamental social criticism, its rejection of empirical observation and casual logic, its preference for detached scenes, distorted characters and stylized dialogues, and its modernistic innovations in stagecraft.
Returning to Brecht’s Mahagonny notes, one remembers that in his schematic table he claims to show ‘shifts of accent’ rather than ‘absolute antitheses, Accordingly, each point in the tradition of German drama is marked by a different combination rather than mutual exclusion of ‘dramatic’ and ‘epic’ elements, and Brecht has more in common with many earlier dramatists than his black-and-white dichotomy might suggest. To assist the reader in relating Brecht to the tradition, this survey will conclude with a brief summary of the most important aspects he shares with his predecessors.
In Nee-Classicism the development of aesthetic and social values still present in Brecht begins with Lessing’s assault on Gottsched’s rules, his discovery of Shakespeare and his introduction of domestic tragedy. Including the young Goethe and Schiller and particularly Lenz contribute directly to Brecht’s approaches through their disruption of the Unities, their continuing emulation of Shakespeare and their violent rebellion against society as a whole. In the period of Realism, when social actuality became a dominant theme, we find Brecht foreshadowed in the discontinuous actions, un-idealized characters and concrete historical motivation seen in Grabbe and in the politically radical Buchner; Laube and Gutzkow anticipate Brecht as the first committed writers of Germany. The Naturalist movement, at its best in Hauptman, meets Brecht in its materialistic concern with socio-economic circumstances and its near-socialist criticism of the middle class, whose eighteenth-century reputation as a force of liberation had given way to accusations of conservative restrictiveness by the latter half of the nineteenth century. Situated between Naturalism and Expressionism, Wedekind is one of Brecht’s most immediate forerunners, owing to his tragicomic showmanship and his anti-bourgeois anarchism. Expressionism, represented chiefly by Kaiser and Toller, comes close to Brecht with its disjointed structures, its global protest against established society, and its new stage devices.
While it is dangerous to assume an organic evolution in the history of any artistic genre, it is possible to recognize a line running straight from Lenz through Buchner to Wedekind, and thence to Brecht, whose works also bear certain similarities to those of other major writers and movements. This chapter may have indicated the extent to which he is rooted in both the comprehensive tradition of German drama and its most revolutionary strand.

Epic Theatre:
A Theatre for the Scientific Age

The most common term used to characterize Brecht’s dramatic theory and practice is ‘epic theatre’, one that Brecht himself defined and promoted from the late 1920s. In subsequent years he attempted to vary and refine this description, partly because of the broad generalizations it engendered, partly because of shifts in his own attitudes to theatre. ‘Dialectical’ and ‘scientific’ were adjectives he introduced from about 1938 to adumbrate his modified and more sophisticated theatrical practice from then on. Yet ‘epic’ does adequately embrace the major premises of Brecht’s theatre. This seeks, through careful choice of theme and normal structural means, to inculcate in the audience the detached, distancing attitude of the historian towards the events portrayed. The intention of epic theatre is thus not only to present a situation but to surprise the audience into a fresh and critical appreciation of the causes and processes underlying what is enacted.
‘Epic’ is, of course, a generic label for a model of literature that has always been contrasted, for convenience, to the lyric and dramatic forms. Though it is manifestly impossible to say that a piece of writing must be purely lyrical or narrative or dramatic—there are many celebrated works that mingle the genres—it is helpful to bear in mind the dominant characteristics of a genre that particularly reflect the perspective of the author and influence the formal structure of what he writes. Thus the lyrical mode is subjective, focusing on the poet’s personal feelings and reactions to external reality. The dramatic aims at the enactment of incidents and events between individuals, generally structured to involve a conflict and its solution. The author is excluded in so far as the action is cast totally in dialogue between the characters. The epic mode is regarded as the most objective; the author excludes himself from the work but is present in the form of a narrator who conveys events through description and comment. The tense of the epic tends to be past, its span often of considerable length, both in narrated and narrative time. From the Gesta Romanorum and the medieval lays to the modern novel the epic has appeared to be the most objective literary representation of external reality positing, as it does, an author and audience in a detached, observing relationship to the events and characters portrayed. Dictionary definitions tend to emphasize the narrative aspect with its concomitant distance from the action. In common parlance, too, the use of the epithet ‘epic’ implies a large-scale, panoramic span of events often covering a person’s life or even several generations; essential to this is the vantage-point of the spectator standing outside the action and able to see it in its totality.
The formal aspects of epic detachment and narration are, however, only starting-points for the fundamental changes Brecht and others wished to achieve in the drama. He recognized and appreciated the tradition of epic narration in a dramatic context, from Shakespeare to crude fairground presentations of historical personages and their deeds. But these were still only a matter of technique, not of deliberate and systematic intention; that is to say, representation - not illumination—was still the aim. In 1938 Brecht wrote as the opening sentence to his important essay.
In the decade and a half that followed the World War a comparatively new way of acting was tried out in a number of German theatres. Its qualities of clear description and reporting and its use of choruses and projections as a means of commentary earned it the name ‘epic’ (JW adapted)
It is true that Brecht consistently acknowledged the immense debt of the epic theatre to the pioneering work of the Naturalist movement a generation earlier, particularly in making social and political questions the explicit theme of literature. The impetus derived from the new topics of the great French bourgeois novelists began to penetrate the stage. Nevertheless, Naturalism never went beyond a surface realism and simply replaced ‘fate’ by ‘heredity and environment’.
(A crude and superficial realism which never revealed the deeper connections... The environment was regarded as a part of nature. Unchangeable and inescapable.)
The systematic experimentation in the 1920s aimed at a coherent use of theatre as a social art and to that end the epic drama was most actively promoted in Erwin Piscator’s political theatre. Brecht almost certainly had Piscator’s productions in mind when he wrote the opening sentence of The Street-Scene, but although he often praised them he never perhaps sufficiently indicated how they pioneered many elements of his own drama. The reason for this may indeed lie in the fact that Piscator was solely a producer, while Brecht, as a dramatist, viewed theatrical presentation more as the creator of imaginary persons and situations. Piscator’s concept of political drama was clear and forcefully formulated and practised: the task of the theatre was ‘to intervene actively in contemporary events’ by instructing and altering the audience. He saw three stages in this process of opening the spectator’s eyes - knowledge, understanding, conviction - and, like Brecht, he sought fresh formal means of dramatic presentation to achieve this goal. The aim of exposing ‘objectively’ the workings of society, the desire to alter the spectator’s consciousness, and shared political convictions made for close parallels between Piscator’s political and Brecht’s epic theatre.
Brecht’s first and best-known contribution to a systematic theory of epic theatre appeared in 1930 in his notes to the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. This was the culmination of his prolonged polemic against the established theatre that, in his opinion, was solely interested in selling superficial, mindless entertainment and side-stepped the serious concerns of the day. He called this theatre ‘culinary’, as it was no more mentally stimulating than was the eating of food. At this stage, and unlike Piscator who identified the function of epic theatre in a more aggressively political manner, Brecht concentrated on differentiating between the modern epic theatre and the ‘dramatic’ theatre he wanted it to oust. Thus, in his famous tabulation in the Mahagonny notes he compiled a list of contrasts between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian forms of drama that, despite his cautionary footnote that these were not mutually exclusive characteristics but rather ‘shifts of accent’, was taken to be the assertion of a new dramatic dogma. In 1983 Brecht had to revise his tabulation ‘because of possible misunderstandings’, toning down the starkness of his initial formulation but with no radical alteration. If one remembers Brecht’s caution that he was not promulgating total rejection of the ‘dramatic’ theatre, these notes do offer a lucid outline of the tendency in epic theatre towards on ‘open’ form that differed in a marked degree from the ‘closed’ structure of traditional classical theatre. The contrasts relate to three main areas: the ‘hero’ or human being as the subject of drama, the structure of the play, and the spectator. With unerring theatrical instinct Brecht unconsciously identified the crucial aspects of a drama (theme, presentation, reception) and centred his proposed changes on these. The principle that linked all three aspects into a coherent whole was the idea of process, that nothing is determined, absolute and fixed, but subject to influence and change. Thus Brecht attacked the prevailing conception that the hero (and all human beings) possess innate characteristics that cannot be altered by circumstances, a nature that determines his behaviour ineluctably. The consequent irresolvable conflict between the ‘fixed’ hero and the world, which is the stuff of classical drama, was rejected by Brecht as inappropriate and unrealistic; in its place he posited a hero subject to alteration and development, adapting to society, but also by his actions changing society.
Brecht castigated the established bourgeois theatre in the 1920s for encouraging the spectator to leave his reasoning powers with his hat and coat in the cloak-room and enter the darkened auditorium simply to engage in a trance-like orgy of feeling, as if he were drugged. Brecht had far more active designs on the spectator: he wanted him to use his critical faculties in assessing what was being enacted, and gain insights from this process that would influence his own further thinking, that is, alter his consciousness. Thus Brecht sought in the first instance to inculcate in the spectator the attitude of the observing historian who, however excited he may be by them, can stand back from the passions of personalities, register events and evidence, and come to a reasoned conclusion about a situation. But he also viewed the spectator as a person to be influenced and changed, so that the educative, instructive thrust of epic theatre, which was deliberately designed to convey an understanding of the causes underlying what was depicted, opened into a wider perspective than the play itself and aimed at ‘arousing the spectator’s capacity for action’ or,, in other words, altering his consciousness.
By the time Brecht came to revise his table of contrasts he no longer needed to define his type of drama by setting it against the Aristotelian model.
In that same year he set out his view of the essentials of epic theatre. Whereas earlier it could be inferred that the epic theatre was clearly best suited to dealing with social and political problems, public matters, Brecht now went further, unequivocally defining its function and purpose entirely in a political context:
Supporters of this epic theatre argued that the new subject-matter, the highly involved incidents of the class war in its acutest and most terrible stage, would be mastered more easily by such a method, since it would thereby become possible to portray social processes in their causal relationships (JW adapted)
... an incident such as can be seen at any street corner, an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident took place. The bystanders may not have observed what happened, or they may simply not agree with him, may ‘see things a different way’; the point is that the demonstrator acts the behaviour of driver or victim or both in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident. (JW)
One of the key elements of epic theatre that was to become indissolubly associated with Brecht’s theatre and a commonplace of twentieth-century drama in general, the alienation effect, was first described in 1935 in Brecht’s essay, Alienation effects in Chinese acting, although it had been part and parcel of his practice from much earlier (e.g. in the prologue and epilogue spoken by the actors in (The Exception and the Rule), (1929). In The Exception and The Rule it is given one of many later formulations, as
(a technique of taking the human social incidents to be portrayed and labelling them as something striking, some­thing that calls for explanation, and is not to be taken for granted, not just natural. The object of this ‘effect’ is to allow the spectator to criticize constructively from a social point of view.) (JW adapted)
As a technique the alienation effect can be easily identified, especially in Brecht’s later plays, for it emerges in the major areas of the theatrical experience: in the play’s structure, the disposition and contrasting of scenes and episodes; in the language, the conflict of dialogue and the contradictions highlighted between the speech and actions of the characters: in the actor’s effort to play at being and to stand outside a character; and in the handling of ‘sister’ arts such as music, lighting and scenic design in a stage production. But the alienation effect in Brecht’s theatre is not confined to formal techniques, a vehicle for the author’s message, it is simultaneously the content itself, namely the matter the author is structuring and his perspective on it. The social content that operates in the same way as the technique of alienation is the Gestus, a term Brecht devised to denote the essential theme of an incident, a scene, a whole play. Later, in (Short Organum), Brecht indicated how the Gestus arises from the interaction of people, their attitudes and behaviour towards each other. The integration of content with the formal means of presenting it is the distinguishing feature of the alienation technique in Brecht’s works.
Brecht’s intensive study of Marx’s dialectical materialism in 1926 bore fruit for his drama in the classic Marxist categories deployed in Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthofe (St. Joan of the Stock-yards) (1929-30). These didactic ‘learning’ plays were an experiment in articulating social and political issues in a simple, lucid but schematic form for the benefit of the performers, not for an audience. Brecht was clearly aware that epic theatre had come to be associated almost exclusively with formal aspects, focusing particularly on structural differences from traditional plays. His concern was to re-establish the significance of contradiction and dialectics in the content as well as the external mechanics of drama. Dialectics shifts the centre of gravity back to the ideas of society (political, economic, sociological) that see society as an organic process of men’s living together in continual flux and change. Hence the less dogmatic, more flexible and ambiguous structures of the plays Brecht wrote after he left Germany compared with the relatively rigid illustrations of Marxist theory he favoured in the late Weimar Republic.
A further designation that Brecht used increasingly was ‘theatre of a scientific age’, though he felt that this, too, was not broad enough and perhaps already ‘contaminated’ by the problem of the social and moral responsibility of science. In the prologue to the Organon Brecht calls for scientifically exact representations of human society in the theatre and several times later refers to contemporary men as ‘the children of a scientific age’, for our life has come to be determined by the sciences to a new and formidable extent.
Undoubtedly Brecht strove to induce in the spectator a detached, observant approach to the depiction on stage, but it was only objective in that it depended as much on the spectator’s reasoning faculties as his emotions. A major intention of the Organon is to indicate ways in which Brecht’s ‘scientific’ theatre can be harnessed to change the consciousness of the audience and hence facilitate the altering of the reality that is reflected on the stage.
The keynote of this scientific theatre is then change. Whereas the theatre as we know it shows the structure of society depicted on stage as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium), Brecht calls for a type of theatre that generates new thoughts and feelings in the spectator and leaves him productively disposed, even after the spectacle is over. The uncertainty principle that would have a deleterious, distorting effect in scientific observation is positively striven for as an active corrective in Brecht’s theatre - the desired aim is that the audience should intervene in the processes of society and should itself change its own thinking. The renowned detachment of the spectator in epic theatre has in the first instance the quality of the historian’s critical view of events: he re-enacts them through description and indicates their relevance and significance through comment. This bifocal perspective is retained by Brecht through the manipulation of his material by means of alienation techniques; but while the insight into society is being mediated, the emancipatory dimension simultaneously comes into play and the audience is encouraged to adopt an actively critical stance towards the representation on stage. The audience is put into a position to see more than the protagonists, to grasp the wider context, to assess the evidence presented and adopt an attitude as to its significance. The spectator is thus not regarded as just the passive recipient of a description of circumstances, however naturalistic, but as an active and integral component of the total process of a play.
Brecht’s later plays have little to do with historical authenticity and nothing whatever with naturalism. Indeed, his dominant preoccupations became the parable form and realism which, paradoxically, are intimately connected. In a revealing work-diary entry of 30 March 1947 Brecht went to the lengths of setting out in tabular form - as he had done for epic and dramatic - some contrasts between naturalism and realism, the former being merely a ‘surrogate’ realism (Aj 780). Some of these distinctions illuminate Brecht’s dramatic thinking and methods. His predilection for the parable, for instance, facilitated the ‘stylization’ of reality and gave him the freedom to devise models of society that, unhampered by historical facts, could be structured at will to incorporate the didactic message with maximum impact. While the parable lacked the force of actual historical concreteness. Brecht was well aware that it had a vicarious authenticity that accommodates the author’s intent, namely a clarification of the ‘system’.
Time after time Brecht defined realism as a productive, ‘scientifically’ analytical attitude towards reality rather than a recognizable imitation of the world, and he formulated specific guidelines for realistic art. The most popular Brecht plays in East German theatres since 1945 have been Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar (Senora Carrar’s Rifles), Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (Herr Puntila and his Servant Matti), all with considerable ‘entertainment’ value and none an obvious model of scientific theatre. It is indisputable, however, that at the theoretical and exemplary level at least Brecht has powerfully influenced drama wherever it is socially and politically conscious, as the widespread currency of the epithet ‘Brechtian’ testifies.

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