Bertolt Brecht- Brecht on Theatre

Brecht, B., & Willett, J. (1964). Brecht on theatre: the development of an aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bertolt Brecht was originally from Germany and was a theatre creator/innovator in the 20th century.  This book serves to chronicle the development of his theories and practices, specifically as related to his socio-political philosophy of socialist enlightenment. His philosophy examined the role of theater on society and the use of the actor as a primary means of theatrical communication.

Part 1 comes from Brecht’s years as an influential theatre creator in Germany. He draws connections between the way in which society in general is beginning to move towards a more socialistically enlightened perspective and explores how theatre can simultaneously function as both a mirror and a trigger of such change. Part 2 comes from Brecht’s life in exile from Germany (following Hitler’s rise to power). It is here he develops specific terminology. Part 3 is what Brecht calls an “organum”. He clarifies the idea of “epic theatre” and how those ideas should be executed. Part 4, however, his ideas begin to take a slightly different direction with a stronger emphasis on human emotion in plays and from the audience. Over time, his principles have shifted, from a place of rigid idealism and intellectualism into broader, more open emotionality.

Brecht’s personal agenda and artistic philosophy were entirely intertwined and often overlapped. At the core of each of his beliefs was Marxism/Socialism. For Brecht, the personal and artistic goal was power and wisdom for the people, equality (economic, social, political) for all, and the overthrow of what he and like-minded socialists believed to be the elitist social and power structure of the time. He advocated in the power  of and need for transformation and saw the work as a theatre artist as a necessary component of that transformation. Were his plays then a contribution to or manifestation of socialist power?

Theatre- Theatre has been in existence since the rituals of Ancient Greece (humans relationship with gods). Since then, theatre has evolved to explore other aspects of being human, but always been a variation on two basic questions: (1) What does it mean to be a human being? and (2) How do we function as human beings when faced by oppression – of the self, of sin, of the gods, of other human beings?

Epic Theatre– is the form of theatre with the intent of awakening the audience’s, and by extension humanity’s, intellectual consciousness rather than its emotions. The dramatic aesthetic is the strong centralization of the story and a momentum that draws the six poetic elements (plot, character, theme, dialog, rhythm, and spectacle) into common relationship that brought audience’s under a sort of trance (a total identification with the hero to the point of complete self-oblivion, resulting in feelings of terror and pity and, ultimately, an emotional catharsis). He hated this. The epic aesthetic, by contrast, can take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual pieces, which remain fully capable of life (p. 70).  For centuries, theatre on the single stage was thought to be dramatic spectacle, while festivals and carnivals were presented on multiple and simultaneous sites was something done outside the theatre building. However, Brecht’s innovation in staging brought the epic on stage, and revealed that the relationship of dramatic and epic spectator is not a duality; it is dialectic, there are dramatic aspects to epic pieces and epic aspects in drama. Epic theatre invites the spectator to take a critical and intelligent role; the actors and the script purposely do not invite an empathetic viewing. It assumes the audience is capable of thinking and reasoning and making judgment in the theater. It also assumed emotional maturity (79). Dramatic theater assumes the opposite-the audience wants to be passive spectators, which can only be reached through its emotions; that it has the mental immaturity and the high emotional suggestibility of a mob (79).

A-Effect: the alienation-effect is needed for spectators to break out of empathy with characters and storyline in order to become aware. Purge the stage of everything fictional in order to prevent the audience’s tendency to plunge into such illusions (p. 136). The spectator cannot find the illusion in the spontaneous, transitory, authentic, unrehearsed event in the epic performance (p. 141). The spectator is invited out of the passive role designed for them in dramatic theatre and is asked to take on a critical and suspicious role.  It is accomplished in epic theatre by doing everything dramaturgically imaginable to avoid the spectator from falling into disbelief. The A-effect is in both ways not to let spectators slip into disillusionment and to awaken them (p.193 # 45).

Brecht advocated for abolishing aesthetics in order to  develop the epic. Brecht used staging devices such as having actors break the4th wall/frame of the story to engage them in reflective dialogue and to avoid letting the audience fall into a dramatic aesthetic trap of empathy (i.e. de-personifying & de-mystifying systemic motive forces of hegemony & oppression). In empathetic viewing, the spectator identifies with the hero and accepts the dramatic viewpoint as a source of entertainment. All the important critical forces, of interest to management and organization, remain hegemonic. Hegemony is something that the dramatic spectacle perpetuates. Epic theatre makes hegemonic power visible, so that its dynamics can be understood, and change can by initiated by the spectator.  An epic story is constructed of discrete episodes rearranged, and characters reimagined less empathetically, to allow the storyteller’s ideas of hegemonic domination and exploitation to find expression (Appendices to the Short Organum).

An epic theatre actor is not completely transformed into the character he is portraying; he “must invest what he has to show with a definite gist of showing” (Bertolt Brecht, “Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces the Alienation Effect,” Brecht on Theatre, p. 136 in Willett).

To depersonify and demystify the environmental and systemic (hegemonic) forces of economy, introducing epic theatre into management and organization is a contemporary pedagogic device.  The value of epic theatre is to de-center the central character’s taken-for-granted point of view on the systemic forces, using an aesthetic that opens up a multiplicity of voices and views points and presenting the hegemonic forces in ways that does not cop out to idealism, or present simple or mystical solutions to complex problems. Dramatic theatre can, on occasion, present hegemonic situations, but generally, it is only the hero’s point of view and the hero’s circumstance, which the spectators empathetically identify with in ways that camouflage the systemic forces.


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