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Brechtian

Brechtian

Do you feel amused when characters in a movie or television series stare straight into the camera or even talk to the viewer? This theatrical technique, like many others, originated from the work of the German playwright and writer Bertolt Brecht (1898– 1956).

Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, known professionally as Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany, on 10 February 1898. Brecht was one of the greatest playwrights and theorists of drama from the twentieth century. Brecht wore many hats around the stage as a director, playwright, manager, theorist, critic, and poet. Brecht challenged the Aristotelian theories and practices of theatre that were popular during his time.

Aristotle's theory of dramaturgy discussed in Poetics (c. 335 BCE) suggests that a play ideally should have a beginning, middle, and end. Depending on the subject and genre (comedy or tragedy), it should evoke specific reactions in the audience, ultimately leading to an emotional release or cleansing, known as catharsis.

Brechtian: meaning

Brechtian theatre refers to the theatrical tradition and style created and explored by Brecht. Brecht experimented with several methods of performance and engaging with the audience. These methods came to be known as features of Brechtian theatre.

The term 'Brechtian' is a referential term used to describe the theatrical tradition, theories, and techniques created or used by the German playwright and writer Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht was also a prolific writer and theorist of modern dramaturgy. Brecht’s work was influenced by the political and artistic backdrop of Germany in the early twentieth century. During the aftermath of World War I and the subsequent rise of fascism, artistic production and daily life in Germany came to be controlled and censored by the forces of fascism. As a result, politically conscious artists and playwrights like Brecht were forced to address the new political and social realities in their productions.

Brechtian theory

Brecht opposed the theatre of realism and avoided creating illusions on stage. Brecht was influenced by Marxism and rejected the age-old conventions that made art separate and divorced from the realities around it. After reading Marx in the 1920s, Brecht adopted the notion that history is open to interpretation and negotiable. Brecht saw the German theatre as bourgeois and divorced from the complex realities of Germany at the time.

  • Realism was a nineteenth-century movement in arts and literature that favoured authentic portrayals of life and objects without exaggeration or idealism.
  • Marxism is a political ideology that stemmed from the works of Karl Marx, who critiqued capitalism and its influence on society. Bourgeois is a term referring to the middle class, often characterised as materialistic and conservative. It is a commonly used term in the Marxist critique of capitalist society.

Instead of the Aristotelian notions of the tragic hero and fate, Brecht believed that life is characterised by a back and forth between basic human existence and the complexities of the world.

First comes eating, then morality.1

Bertolt Brecht

This famous quote by Brecht encapsulates his worldview, which became a recurrent theme in many of his works.

Tragic hero: a figure of grand stature and virtuosity who ultimately succumbs to his fate. Protagonists of the Greek tragedy were tragic heroes who rose up only to meet their downfall.

Brecht played a significant role in transforming modern theatre. He changed the nature of performance by taking power away from the sole hands of the playwright to be circulated among the playwright, actor, and spectator. Brechtian theatre is a collaborative effort where meaning is created through techniques like Verfremdungseffekt, Gestus, the 'epic' structure, and the audience’s perception.

Epic theatre

This is often confusing for people as Brechtian Epic theatre has no similarities to the Greek epics. Brecht uses the name to reject the Aristotelian theory that the end goal of the performance should be catharsis. Instead, Brecht's Epic theatre made use of different techniques such as the estrangement effect and historicisation to hinder the passive consumption of the play as entertainment. The name 'Epic theatre' was coined by Brecht's collaborator and German theatre director, Erwin Piscator.

Catharsis: emotional cleansing that takes place in the audience as a result of witnessing a dramatic performance.

The themes of the Epic theatre were always socially and politically relevant, adding to its didactic nature. The practitioners of the Epic theatre considered it to be a sort of moral institution.

Didactic: educational or with a motive to instruct.

Brechtian techniques

Here are a few techniques commonly used in Brechtian theatre.

Breaking the fourth wall

Interruptions of the storyline to directly communicate with the audience were among the many features of Brechtian theatre. Brecht and his collaborators actively experimented with the limits of the stage and performance. The illusory boundary between the audience and the performers was first broken in the Brechtian theatre.

V-effect or estrangement effect

Brecht's concept of Verfremdungseffekt, often translated from German as alienation effect or distancing effect, is a way to prevent the audience from identifying or empathising with the characters in the play. Brecht first discussed this concept in his essay on Chinese theatre published in 1936. The idea has close similarities to the Formalist concept of defamiliarisation proposed by Victor Shkolvsky.

Defamiliarisation is a literary technique where commonplace objects or actions are described in a strange manner to help us see them from a new perspective.

'Making strange' is a way to remind the audience that what they see on stage is fiction, with an objective to make them think rationally.

The estrangement effect is a Brechtian technique of acting in a manner that prevents the audience from passively identifying with the elements on the stage. Similar to the concept of defamiliarisation, this involved showing ordinary things in a different way to cause intrigue.

Gestus

Brecht's concept of Gestus is an acting technique or a way of performance that combines attitude along with physical gestures. The term 'Gestus' first appeared in Brecht's writing as one of the cornerstones of Epic theatre. It is often described as the totality of gestures, facial expressions, speech patterns, and interactions an actor displays while performing a character on stage. Gestus is related to the social status of the character being played, set in contrast to the other characters.

In the production of Brecht's Drums in the Night (1922), the acting was very stylised and showed the actors in grotesque or exaggerated poses. The actor's performances were described as expressionistic.

Historicisation

Most of Brecht's work carries a commentary on contemporary realities. Brecht manipulated the dramatic structure of his plays to function as a vehicle for those commentaries. Brecht weaved historical threads into social commentary in his plays. Adding historical information relevant to events discussed in the play was Brecht's way of contextualising the narrative within the play. This also served to educate and morally instruct the audience, which, as mentioned above, was one of the features of Brechtian theatre.

Brechtian: examples

Brecht wrote and produced many plays in his lifetime. However, the term Brechtian is not exclusive to the plays written by Brecht. Artists and playwrights like Augusto Boal, who were practitioners of socially engaged theatre, are also studied under the Brechtian tradition.

Some of the most celebrated plays in the Brechtian style include: The Threepenny Opera (1928)

Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Life of Galileo (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1942), Man Equals Man (1926), Mr Puntila and his Man Matti (1948), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945).

Brechtian - Key takeaways

  • Brechtian refers to the plays and theories of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
  • Brecht is a key figure who transformed modern theatrical performance with his innovative techniques and ideas.
  • Brechtian theatre, known as Epic theatre, is a didactic play where the audience is encouraged to think objectively and engage with the theatre production directly instead of being a passive spectator.
  • The most famous Brechtian techniques include V-effect, historicisation, and Gestus.
  • Brechtian theatre is known for interruptions and non-sequential juxtapositions that prevent the audience from empathising with the events on stage.

Frequently Asked Questions about Brechtian

Brechtian theatre style involves using narratives and techniques that achieve an instructional or morally didactic performance that hinder emotional reactions and identification from the audience. 

Brecht is most famous for developing the Epic theatre style, which uses techniques such as V-effect, historicisation, and Gestus to offer a social commentary. 

Brechtian theatre refers to Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical style called ‘Epic theatre. Epic theatre is well known for its techniques in staging, storytelling and performance that encourage the audience to detach themselves from the story and think objectively about the issues that are presented. 

Brecht is famous for the concepts Verfremdungseffekt or V-effect, Gestus, historicisation in the storyline, and breaking the imaginary wall between the performers and spectators.

  • Epic theatre used non-linear, fragmented plots comprising unrelated episodes in time
  • Brecht often incorporated the use of songs of a morally didactic nature to harp on the message of the play
  • Interruptions in the middle of scenes to address the audience
  • Historical background in relation to the current events discussed in the plot

Final Brechtian Quiz

Question

What is meant by Brechtian?

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Answer

The term Brechtian refers to the works and theories of the German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht.

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Question

What is Brecht most famous for?

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Answer

Brecht is most famous for his concept and practice called 'Epic theatre'. 

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Question

What is Epic theatre?

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Answer

Epic theatre refers to the dramatic works in the Brechtian tradition that used experimental techniques to shape audience perception. 

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Question

Give examples of Brechtian techniques

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Answer

V-effect, Gestus, the 'epic' structure, historicisation

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Question

What is Verfremdungseffekt?

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Answer

It is a Brechtian technique based on Chinese theatre. The goal is to defamiliarize the audience with ordinary things to make them think objectively. 

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Define Historicisation

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Answer

Historicisation is the interlinking of historical events to contemporary political issues as a way to educate the audience.

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Question

What is meant by Gestus?

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Answer

Gestus in Brechtian theory refers to the total process of performance, including physical and verbal gestures, costumes, and facial expressions used to play a character.

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Question

Name a play by Brecht

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Answer

The Life of Galileo (1939)

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Question

What is meant by 'breaking the fourth wall'

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Answer

Breaking the fourth wall is breaking the imaginary wall between the actors and the audience, by addressing the audience directly. 

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Question

Who coined the name 'Epic theatre'?

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Answer

Erwin Piscator

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