Brecht’s ‘Epic Theatre’ and ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ techniques
…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.
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.
Brecht was one of the most influential theatre practioners and pioneering figures of the 20th century. Not only did he make significant contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production but he also inspired many theatrical minds and styles since then. He was both playwright and producer/director of his own, and other peoples plays. He also wrote extensively on dramatic theory. Brecht and his fellow collaborator and wife, Helene Weigel toured with their post war theatre company, The Berliner Ensemble, who not only entertained but educated the audiences. His work with the Berliner Ensemble beagn in 1949 and it’s aim was to be was wholly didactic.
Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.
Bertolt Brecht (Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht) was born in 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria which is about 50 miles northwest of Munich. His mother had a great influence on him and taught him to read the bible, something that would have an impact on him and his writing throughout his life. He drifted towards the literary arts at an early age, writing poetry as a boy and even had a few poems published in 1914. His mother also inspired him with the “dangerous image of the self-denying woman” that recurs in his drama and writings.
Another great influence was Caspar Neher, who he met at school in Augsburg. Together they formed a lifelong creative partnership, Neher designing many of the sets for Brecht’s dramas and helping to forge the distinctive visual iconography of their epic theatre pieces.
From July, 1916, Brecht’s newspaper articles began appearing under the name ‘Bert Brecht’. The first world war broke out when Brecht was 16, at first he was enthusiastic about the war but soon changed his mind when he saw his classmates “swallowed by the army”. On his father’s recommendation, he registered with a medical course at Munich University in 1917. It was there that he studied drama and came into contact with Arthur Kutscher, who inspired in the young Brecht an admiration for the iconoclastic dramatist and cabaret-star Wedekind.
Brecht and the Theatre
His studies were interupted in 1918 as Brecht was drafted into military service, only to be posted back to Augsburg as a medical orderly in a military VD clinic and then the war ended a month later. Some time in either 1920 or 1921, Brecht took a small part in the political cabaret of the Munich comedian Karl Valentin. Brecht’s diaries for the next few years record numerous visits to see Valentin perform. Brecht compared Valentin to Chaplin, for his “virtually complete rejection of mimicry and cheap psychology”. Valentin was one of Brecht’s chief influences as he watched him perform his clowning sketches at a local beer hall. Valentin did short sketches in which he played refractory employees, orchestral musicians or photographers, who hated their employers and made them look ridiculous.
Brecht’s first full-length play, Baal was written in 1918, followed by his second major play, Drums in the Night, in February 1919. This was the first of Brecht’s plays to be performed, and his theatrical theories had, apparently, already begun to take shape. It was then in 1922 that Brecht came to the attention of an influential Berlin critic, Herbert Ihering, who was quoted to saying: “At 24 the writer Bert Brecht has changed Germany’s literary complexion overnight….he has given our time a new tone, a new melody, a new vision.” That same year, the promising young dramatist married the opera singer and actress Marianne Zoff. Their daughter, Hanne Hiob, born in 1923, would become a famous German actress.
Brecht in Berlin
Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality. Our audience must experience not only the ways to free Prometheus, but be schooled in the very desire to free him.
In 1924 Brecht moved to Berlin, a move he deemed necessary to continue his dramatic career. During the next few years, Brecht produced a string of well-received plays, the most popular of which was probably The Threepenny Opera, which he adapted from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera along with composer Kurt Weill. The Threepenny Opera would go on to become the biggest theatrical hit in Berlin during the 1920s and helped lead the way in a worldwide resurgence of the popularities of musicals in general.
In 1927, he had begun to study Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, and by 1929 he had embraced Communism. These political beliefs would soon become evident in his plays as well. Another Brecht and Weill collaboration, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, caused an uproar when it premiered in Leipzig in 1930 with Nazis protesting in the audience.
In 1929, Brecht married Helene Weigel after he had divorced his first wife, Marianne Zoff in 1927 who had alreadt borne him a son, Stefan. The new couple also had a daughter, Barbara who, like Brecht’s other daughter, would go on to become an actress also. In February 1933, however, Bertolt Brecht’s career was suddenly and violently interrupted as the Nazis came to power in Germany. Brecht fled with his family to Prague. His books and plays were soon banned in Germany and those who dared stage his plays found their productions unpleasantly interrupted by the police.
Brecht traveelled around from Prague to Vienna to Zurich to the island of Fyn to Finland, where he lived for a while in Villa Marlebäck as a guest of the Finnish author Hella Wuolijoki. During this period of exile, Brecht awaited a pending visa to the United States, but he kept himself busy by completed the plays Mother Courage and her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1941), and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Uri (1941).
Brecht in America
In May of 1941, Brecht finally received his U.S. visa and relocated to Santa Monica, California, where he attempted to become a Hollywood screenwriter, but his unusual concepts were dismissed by Hollywood producers who couldn’t seem to grasp his artistic visions. His only successful Hollywood film was Hangmen Also Die (1943). The money he made from this film allowed him to write The Visions of Simone Marchand, Schwyk in the Second World War and his adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
Unfortunately, Brecht’s stay in America would not be as successful or as lengthy as he might have hoped. In 1947, during the years of the “red scare,” the House Un-American Activities Committee called the playwright to account for his communist activities. On October 30, 1947, he appeared before the committee, wearing overalls, smoking a cigar and cracking jokes. Although he outwitted his investigators with half-truths and skilful innuendos, he feared the irrational political climate, and shortly after his testimony took a plane to Switzerland. He didn’t even wait to see the opening of his play Galileo in New York.
Brecht’s Later years
On October 22, 1948, after 15 years of exile, Bertolt Brecht returned to Germany, settling in East Berlin where he was welcomed by the Communist cultural establishment. In 1954 he was rewarded with his own theatre–the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Brecht wrote very few plays in his last years in Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works, but he wrote some of his most famous poems during these last years, including the “Buckower Elegies.” In 1955, Brecht received the Stalin Peace Prize. Unfortunately the following year, he contracted a lung inflammation and died of a heart attack on August 14, 1956.