…the epic poet presents the event as totally past, while the dramatic poet presents it as totally present.
From his late twenties Brecht remained a lifelong committed Marxist who, in developing the combined theory and practice of his “epic theatre”, synthesized and extended the experiments of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold to explore the theatre as a forum for political ideas.
Epic Theatre proposed that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage. They must not sit back and feel, but sit forward and think. He wanted his audiences to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation and to be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change in the world outside.
To do this, Brecht designed various theatrical techniques so that the audience would always be reminded that ‘the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself’. His modernist concern with drama-as-a-medium led to his refinement of the “epic form” of the drama. This dramatic form is related to similar modernist innovations in other arts, including the strategy of divergent chapters in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Sergei Eisenstein’s evolution of a constructivist “montage” in the cinema, and Picasso’s introduction of cubist “collage” in the visual arts.
One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ which is roughly translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or the “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as the “alienation effect”. To achieve this Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. he used various theatrical techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, very harsh bright stage lighting and the use of songs which would interupt the stage action. In addition to this he used placards and even made the actors recite the stage directions out loud during the play itself.
All these elements discouraged the audience from identifying with characters and so losing detachment, the action must continually be made strange, alien, remote, separate. To do this, the director must use any devices that preserve or establish this distancing.
Brecht had no desire to destroy art as an institution; rather, he hoped to “re-function” the theatre to a new social use. Brechtian theatre articulated popular themes and forms with avant-garde formal experimentation. “Brecht’s work is the most important and original in European drama since Ibsen and Strindberg,” Raymond Williams argues, while Peter Bürger dubs him “the most important materialist writer of our time.”
Brecht’s theory of acting
The Brechtian style of acting is acting in quotation marks.
Brecht’s view is that actor should not impersonate, but narrate actions of another person, as if quoting facial gesture and movement. Brecht uses the example of an accident-eyewitness. To show bystanders what happened, he may imitate, say, the victim’s gait but will only quote what is relevant and necessary to his explanation. Moreover, the actor remains free to comment on what he shows. As the audience is not to be allowed to identify with the character, so, too, the actor is not to identify with it either. Brecht agrees with Stanislavsky that, if the actor believes he is Lear, the audience will also believe it, and share his emotions. But, unlike Stanislavsky, he does not wish this to happen. The Brechtian actor must always be in control of his emotions. Brecht sees the actor’s task as greater than Stanislavsky’s merging of character and actor.
Chinese theatre and other influences
Brecht was also influenced by Chinese theatre, and used its aesthetic as an argument for Verfremdungseffekt. Brecht believed, “Traditional Chinese acting also knows the alienation effect, and applies it most subtly…… The [Chinese] performer portrays incidents of utmost passion, but without his delivery becoming heated.” Brecht attended a Chinese opera performance and was introduced to the famous Chinese opera performer Mei LanFang in 1935. However, Brecht was sure to distinguish between Epic and Chinese theatre. He recognized that the Chinese style was not a “transportable piece of technique,” and that Epic theatre sought to historicize and address social and political issues.
His drama also owes much to a wide range of global theatrical conventions: Elizabethan, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Greek idea of Chorus, Austrian and Bavarian folk-plays, techniques of clowns and fairground entertainers. They are all evident in his work.
Photo Credit: National Theatre
Brecht left the Berliner Ensemble to his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, which she ran until her death in 1971. Perhaps the most famous German touring theatre of the postwar era, it was primarily devoted to performing Brecht’s plays. By the 1970s, however, Brecht’s plays had surpassed Shakespeare’s in the number of annual performances in Germany.
There are few areas of modern theatrical culture that have felt the impact or influence of Brecht’s ideas and practices; dramatists and directors in whom one may trace a clear Brechtian legacy include: Dario Fo, Augusto Boal, Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook, Peter Weiss, Heiner Müller, Pina Bausch, Tony Kushner, Robert Bolt and Caryl Churchill.
In addition to the theatre, Brechtian theories and techniques have swayed over certain strands of film theory and cinematic practice; Brecht’s influence may be detected in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Lindsay Anderson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Joseph Losey, Nagisa Oshima, Ritwik Ghatak, Lars von Trier, Jan Bucquoy and Hal Hartley.