BERTOLT BRECHT and EPIC
Stalin Peace Prize (1949-1956)
Biography: Born in Augsburg, Germany, on 10 February 1898.
Died in [East] Berlin on 14 August 1956.
Received Stalin Peace Prize in 1955.
1. Three-penny-opera (1928),
2. Mahagonny (1930),
3. Mother Courage (1940),
4. The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943).
5. The Life of Galileo (1943)
6. Caucasian Chalk Circle (1954).
LIONEL ABEL. METATHEATRE.
NEW YORK: HILL AND WANG, 1963:
Bertolt Brecht's protagonists
are morally divided beings (Puntilla, Courage, Azdak, Galileo). To appreciate
them we must divide our moral judgment. We have to condemn these characters
even as we approve them. They are too complex to be merely admired or blamed.
Brecht's plays have a grayness that is characteristically his. In Baal,
Brecht announces the object of his enduring hatred, contempt, and disbelief:
the individual, that is to say, moral experience: "the individual...our
age groans too heavily under the weight of this child of the sixteenth
century that the nineteenth fed to monstrous size...We are anonymous forces.
Individuality is an arabesque we have discarded. All the ominous events
we have been witnessing in the last twelve years are nothing but a very
awkward and longwinded way of burying the concept of the European individual
in the grave it has dug for itself." Brecht was always against tragedy,
which requires that one take moral suffering seriously. He was also opposed
to realism, the theatrical form inherited from Ibsen in which
the individual plays so large a role. In A Man's a Man, Brecht expressed
his hatred for the individual analytically. In Three-penny-opera,
all moral values are swept away to a music that is overwhelming. Communism
was a way for Brecht of denying the individual and the value of moral experience
It is the human body which is
the hero of every important play Brecht wrote. The human body in its desire
to feed, sustain, and expend itself is the real hero of Mother Courage,
Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo. Brecht adored the body.
Brecht was interested neither in condemning his characters nor in justifying
them. His main characters are morally incoherent. Brecht was not interested
in them as individuals, but as striking images of the human body in its
assertiveness, natural ectasy, and desire to endure.
Puntilla (Mr. Puntila and
His Man Matti) is a negative character when he is sober. When drunk,
Puntilla is generous, natural, large minded, and amiable. This is because
he is under the influence of his body. A great moment of the play: Puntilla
dead drunk urinates ecstatically with his chauffeur against a wall: "I
couldn't live in the city. I need the open air, I have to piss freely under
the stars. If I can't have that, what have I? They say that to do this
outdoors is primitive. But I think it primitive to piss on tile."
Brecht's characters are negative
heroes (Bentley) like Mother Courage. We are not to approve her morally.
But the affecting thing about her is not her moral consciousness but her
vitality, her physical endurance, her ability to go on from horror to horror,
her unbearable animality. All our confusions about her character arise
from the error of considering her as an individual, with a moral consciousness
of a sort we must condemn or approve. Courage is not a negative figure;
her positive attributes are those of the body, not of the soul.
Galileo is perhaps Brecht's
best play. Brecht regarded his protagonist as a criminal for yielding to
the pressure of the Church. He also wanted audiences to condemn Galileo
for his cowardice. Brecht thought science had suffered from Galileo's recantation
and, hence, that Galileo was a criminal for not enduring martyrdom. Galileo
is Brecht's anti-Christ, the god who failed us. But Galileo is charming.
He is a genius and a rogue. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard said that martyrdom
is unjustifiable except in the name of something whose victory is uncertain.
It is not really martyrdom to die for the sake of something you know will
succeed. Hence, according to critic Lionel Abel, there was no need for
Galileo to have become a martyr since his ideas, if true, would eventually
be accepted. Galileo is a man interested in eating, drinking, and thinking.
Thought is reduced to a physical activity ("he has thinking bouts").
The mind, according to Galileo, ought to serve the body ("I donít understand
a man who doesn't use his mind to fill his belly"). Galileo is a representative
of the human body, not of the mind or the spirit.
On the death of the individual:
A similar conviction about the individual is discoverable in the works
of Western writers before and during Brecht's time. That the individual
was dead or dying lies behind Eliot's suspicion of individual insight,
Joyce's cult of impersonality, the surrealist's dependence on automatic
writing, Lawrence's assertion that he was not interested in describing
individuals but only psychic and biological forces. Brecht never believed
the individual in society could be quite real or that moral experience
could be anything but an imposture. He is simply not a humanist.
What Brecht affirmed was the
body, the human body in its warmth, its weakness, its susceptibility, its
appetites, its longing and its thought. Brecht's best characters are mainly
passive, morally inconsequentional, inconsistent. They live by lies, fraud,
and, occasionally, by feats of thought.
The Good Woman of Setzuan
UM-BC Department of Theatre,
Caucasian Chalk Circle
MARTIN ESSLIN. BERTOLT BRECHT:
A CHOICE OF EVILS. LONDON: METHUEN, 1984:
Bertolt Brecht's plays showed
the influence of the
Expressionist trend in their loose construction,
their treatment of the characters as types rather than individuals, and
their highly concentrated poetic language. Brecht's theories show the influence
of all these experiments. He was convinced that the theater must become
a tool of social engineering, a laboratory of social change.
In 1797 Goethe and Schiller
had jointly presented their point of view in an essay, "On Epic and
Dramatic Poetry." It was against this specific theory that Brecht offered
his counter-theory. Goethe and Schiller said that the epic poet presents
the event as totally past, while the dramatic poet presents it as totally
present. The epic poet relates what has happened in calm contemplation.
The actor, on the other hand, is in exactly the opposite position: he represents
himself as a definite individual; he wants the spectators to participate
in his action, to feel the sufferings of his soul and of his body with
him, share his embarrassments and forget their own personalities for the
sake of his. The spectator must not be allowed to rise to thoughtful contemplation;
he must passionately follow the action; his imagination is completely silenced.
It was this conception that
Brecht abhorred, and that he called, knowing that Goethe and Schiller had
based their theory on Aristotle's Poetics, the Aristotelian concept
of drama, the drama of catharsis by terror and pity, the drama of
spectator identification with the actors, the drama of illusion,
which tries to create magical effects by conjuring up events which are
represented as totally present, while palpably they are not. Such a theater
therefore was a fraud. Brecht, the rationalist demanded a theater of
critical thoughtfulness, an epic theater.
Brecht regarded a theater
of illusion and identification as downright obscene, and identification
with the characters on the stage appeared equally indecent to him. Such
an audience, Brecht argues, may indeed leave the theater purged by its
vicarious emotions, but it will have remained uninstructed and unimproved.
audience in his view should not be made to feel emotions; it should be
made to think. But identification with the characters of the play makes
thinking almost impossible. The theater must not attempt at creating an
illusion of present reality (hence, Brecht goes instead to the remote past).
The epic theater is strictly historical; it constantly reminds the audience
that it is merely getting a report of past events. The audience must be
discouraged from losing its critical detachment by identification with
one or more of the characters: the opposite of identification is the maintenance
of a separate existence by being kept apart, alien, strange.
(the effect of making something strange, foreign, alienated, distant from
us and the present moment). The author can make characters introduce themselves
directly to the audience, or flash their names onto a screen. He can tell
the audience in advance how the play will end, thus freeing their minds
from the distraction of suspense. The epic theater alone could present
the complexity of the human condition in an age in which the life of individuals
could no longer be understood in isolation from the powerful trend of social,
economical, or historical forces affecting the lives of millions.
At first Brecht declared that
theater was strictly didactic. Later he made it a place of entertainment,
but not one of catharsis. Rather, the pleasure of theater consisted in
the discovery of a new truth.
In the epic theater there is
no attempt to create fixed, highly individualized dramatic characters.
Character emerges from the social function of the individual and changes
with that function. Character (ethos) is always how a given
person is going to act in a specified set of circumstances and conditions.
The story unfolds in a number of separate situations, each rounded and
complete in itself. The story is a juxtaposition and montage of contrasting
episodes. The Aristotelian drama can only be understood as a whole,
while the epic drama can be cut into slices which will continue to make
sense and give pleasure. Decor, music, and choreography maintain
their independence. They are autonomous elements which instead of pulling
in the same direction as the words, enter into a dialectical contrapuntal
relationship with them. The music does not merely express the mood of the
words: it often stands in contradiction to them, comments on them, or reveals
the falsity of the sentiments they express.
The epic theater does not use
decor and music to produce a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk with
its diabolically strong narcotic and hypnotic effect and concerted onslaught
of the sense, but to destroy the illusion of reality. The spectator of
the dramatic theater says "Life is like that." The spectator of the epic
theater says: "Life does not have to be like that. There are options."
The actor should not regard
himself as impersonating the character so much as narrating ("quoting")
the actions of another person at a definite time in the past. A theater
which aims at preventing the identification of the audience with the characters
cannot allow the identification of the actor with the character either.
The epic actor does not intend to put his audience into a trance, he must
also keep himself free from any state of trance. His muscles must remain
relaxed. The frantic outburst reflects the highest peak of acting of the
dramatic style of acting. The Brechtian actor is always loose limbed and
relaxed, always clearly in control of himself and his emotions. He must
also be able to suggest to the audience that the character's behavior is
by no means the only possible course of action, that there are always alternatives.
The actor is always conscious of the presence of the audience, unlike the
ideal of the actor who is completely alone and wrapped up in himself and
unaware of being observed.
Sigourney Weaver as Mother Courage
The Stanislavsky Method ("method
Heath Ledger as The Joker
The study of human nature is
replaced by that of human relations. Not the characters but the story in
which they are involved becomes the main concern of the epic, narrative,
historical, theatre. Everything depends on the story. Character acting
and reacting upon each other becomes the basic unit of the Brechtian theater.
the whole range of the outward signs of social relationships, including
deportment, intonation, facial expression. Each scene of a play has
its basic Gestus (Grundgestus). The Gestus (the correct
stance, movement, and tone of voice) assumes greater importance than the
supposed inner life or emotions of these characters. By analyzing the action
the actors determine the basic story line (Fabel) which is then
broken down into smaller and smaller elements until each scene appears
as the expression of one simple, basic action, which can be translated
into a single sentence. This sentence or title ("Woyzeck buys a cheap knife
to kill his wife") contains the basic Gestus of the scene which
the producer and the actors will now have to put on the stage. The producer
is only concerned with bringing out its social content and significance.
As Brecht tried to banish trance,
illusion, magical effects, and orgies of emotion from the theater, he tried
to replace them by lucidity, rationality, and elegance. The stage must
be bathed in light. Brecht insisted that the sources of light should
remain visible to the public. Nor was the curtain to be used to allow illusions
to be prepared in secret (hence his use of the half curtain). The
source of the music must also be visible, sometimes by placing
the musicians on the stage itself (this would be the contrary of
Wagner's innovation of "hiding" the orchestra below the stage).
The songs interrupt the action and give the audience an opportunity to
reflect. The coming of such an interruption is usually announced beforehand
by some visible change on the stage; the title of the song may flash on
to a screen, special lights may be put on, or a symbolic emblem (flags
and trumpets) may come down from the flies.
Richard Wagner's "hidden" orchestra
Bertolt Brecht's "Gestus"
Mother Courage (with
half-curtain and titles)
To avoid identification
with the character, the actors translated their texts in the third person
in the past tense. Another device for inhibiting the identification of
actor and character is the inclusion of all stage directions in the text
spoken during rehearsals. In Brecht's Antigone (1948), the actors
not involved in the action sat in a semicircle at the back of the stage.
Brecht adivised them they should read, make small movements, put their
make up, or leave the stage quietly.
The Brechtian theater is a theater
designed to arouse indignation in the audience, dissatisfaction, a realization
of contradictions. It is a theater supremely fitted for parody, caricature,
and denunciation, therefore essentially a negative theater. That is
why Brecht's plays conspicuously lack positive heroes, why the good characters
are invariably crushed and defeated. If Brecht believed that the epic theater
was the truly Marxist theater, the authorities of the Communist world certainly
did not. They preferred the Stanislavsky method of identification
and illusion, which was the official acting method of the Soviet Union.
JOHN WILLETT. BRECHT
ON THEATER. LONDON: METHUEN, 1964:
8. "The Epic Theatre and its
Difficulties" (1927): "The essential point of the epic theatre is perhaps
that it appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator's reason. Instead
of sharing an experience the spectator must come to grips with things."
13. "The Modern Theatre is the
Epic Theatre" (1930): "Our existing opera is a culinary opera." "The irrationality
of opera lies in the fact that rational elements are employed, solid reality
is aimed at, but at the same time it is all washed out by the music. A
dying man is real. If at the same time he sings we are translated to the
sphere of the irrational (if the audience sang at the sight of him the
case would be different)." "The pleasure grows in proportion to the degree
"The modern theater is the epic
theatre. [p. 37. LIST]
"When the epic theatre's methods begin to penetrate the
opera the first result is a radical separation of the elements. So long
as the expression
Gesamtkunstwerk ('integrated work of art') means
that the integration is a muddle, so long as the arts are supposed to be
'fused' together, the various elements will all be equally degraded, and
each will act as a mere 'feed' to the rest. The process of fusion extends
to the spectator, who gets thrown into the melting pot too and becomes
a passive (suffering) part of the total work of art. Witchcraft of this
sort must of course be fought against. Whatever is intended to produce
hypnosis is likely to induce sordid intoxication, or create a fog: this
must be given up. Words, music, and setting must become more independent
of one another. TEXT: We had to make something straightforward and
instructive of our fun. The form employed was that of the moral tableau.
The tableau is performed by the characters in the play. The text had to
be neither moralizing nor sentimental, but to put morals and sentimentality
on view. Equally important was the spoken word and the written word (of
"In our present society the
old opera cannot be 'wished away.' Its illusions have an important social
function. The drug is irreplaceable; it cannot be done without." [The life
imposed on us is too hard; it brings us too many agonies, disappointments,
impossible tasks. In order to stand it we have to have some kind of palliative.
There seem to be three classes of these: overpowering distractions, which
allow us to find our sufferings unimportant, pseudo satisfactions which
reduce them, and drugs which make us insensitive to them."]
A "Gesamntkunstwerk" production
(Troika Ranch 04)
Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal
(a perfect Gesamntkunstwerk)
20. "Theatre for Pleasure or
Theatre for Instruction" (1957): "The epic theatre was often objected to
as moralizing too much. Yet in the epic theatre moral arguments
only took second place. Its aim was less to moralize than to observe. The
object of our inquiry was not just to arouse moral objections to such circumstances.
We were not in fact speaking in the name of morality but in that of the
victims. Stylistically speaking, there is nothing at all that new
about the epic theatre. Its expository character and its emphasis on virtuosity
bring it close to the old Asiatic theater. Didactic tendencies are to be
found in the medieval mystery plays and the classical Spanish theatre,
and also in the theatre of the Jesuits.
23. "On the Use of Music in
an Epic Theatre" (1957): Music introduced variety but must be separated
from the other elements. 3po (1928): The small orchestra was
visible on the stage. Titles appeared before songs were sung.
The actors changed their positions before the songs would start. The musical
items had the immediacy of a ballad and were of a reflective and moralizing
nature ("Song concerning the Insufficiency of Human Endeavour"). The music
was supposed to strip bare the middle class corpus of ideas.
The epic theater is chiefly
concerned with the attitudes which people adopt towards one another, wherever
they are socio-historically significant. The concern of the epic theatre
is thus eminently practical. Human behaviour is shown as alterable;
man himself as dependent on certain political and economic factors and
at the same time as capable of altering them. The spectator is given the
chance to criticize human behaviour from a social point of view, and the
scene is played as a piece of history.
38. "A Short Organum for the
Theatre" (1949): Theater consists in this: in making live representations
of reported or invented happenings between human beings and doing so with
a view to entertainment. It needs no other passport than fun. Yet there
are weaker (simple) and stronger (complex) pleasures. And different periods'
pleasures varied naturally according to the system under which people lived
in society at the time. The theater is still free to find enjoyment in
teaching and inquiring. Even the wholly anti-social can be a source of
enjoyment to society so long as it is presented forcefully and on the grand
scale. It then often proves to have considerable powers of understanding
and other unusually valuable capacities, applied admittedly to a destructive
end. Even the bursting flood of a vast catastrophe can be appreciated in
all its majesty by society, if society knows how to master it; then we
make it our own. For such an operation as this we can hardly accept the
theatre as we see it before us. Let us go into one of these houses and
observe the effect which it has on the spectatores. Looking about us, we
see somewhat motionless figures in a peculiar condition: they seem strenuously
to be tensing all their muscles, except where these are flabby and exhausted.
They scarcely communicate with each other; their relations are those of
a lot of sleepers. True, their eyes are open, but they stare rather than
see, just as they listen rather than hear. They look at the stage as if
in a trance: an expression which comes from the Middle Ages, the days of
witches and priests.
The alienation effect:
A representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its
subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar. The classical and
medieval theatre alienated its characters by making them wear human or
animal masks; the Asiatic theatre even today uses musical and pantomimic
V effects. Such barriers were certainly a barrier to empathy. The new alienations
are only designed to free socially conditioned phenomena from that stamp
of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today. It must amaze
its public, and this can be achieved by a technique of alienating the familiar.
This technique allows the theatre to make use in its representations of
the new social scientific method known as dialectical materialism. In order
to unearth society's laws of motion this method treats social situations
as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies. It regards
nothing as existing except in so far as it changes, in other words is in
disharmony with itself. In order to produce V effects, the actor has to
discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify
itself with the characters which he plays, aiming not to put his audience
into a trance. His way of speaking has to be free from parsonical sing-song
and from all those cadences which lull the spectator so that the sense
gets lost. At no moment must he go so far as to be wholly transformed
into the character played. The verdict: 'he didn't act Lear, he was
Lear' would be an annihilating blow to him. His feelings must not
at bottom be those of the character, so that the audience's may not at
bottom be those of the character either. The actor must appear on the stage
in a double role (e.g., as Charles Laughton [the actor] and as Galileo
[the character]). Also he need not pretend that the events taking place
on the stage have never been rehearsed, and are now happening for the first
and only time. It should be apparent all through his performance that even
at the start and in the middle he knows how it ends and he must thus maintain
a calm independence throughout. The coherence of the character is in fact
shown by the way in which its individual qualities contradict one another.
The choice of viewpoint is a
major element of the actor's art, and it has to be decided outside the
theatre. Like the transformation of nature, that of society is a liberating
act; and it is the joys of liberation which the theater of a scientific
age has got to convey.
The actors should sometimes
swap roles with their partners during rehearsal and not dominate the others
by making them terrified and attentive (to him). If the part is played
by somebody of the opposite sex, the sex of the character will be more
clearly brought out.
The actors ought not to drop
into song but should clearly mark it off from the rest of the text; and
this is best reinforced by a few theatrical methods such as changing the
lighting or inserting a title. The music must strongly resist the smooth
incorporation which is generally expected of it and turns it into an unthinking
slavery. Music does not accompany except in the form of comment. Music
can make its point in a number of ways and with full independence, and
can react in its own manner to the subjects dealt with; at the same time
it can also quite simply help to lend variety to the entertainment.
The stage designer gets considerable
freedom as soon as he no longer has to give the illusion of a room or a
locality when he is building his sets. It is enough for him to give hints
(i.e., use of reversible flags to show changes in political situation).
Elegant movement and graceful
grouping can alienate and inventive miming greatly helps the story.
So let us invite all the sister
arts of the drama, not in order to create an integrated work of art in
which they all offer themselves up and are lost, but so that together with
the drama they may further the common task in their different ways; and
their relations with one another consist in this: that they lead to mutual
Their task is to entertain the
children of the scientific age, and to do so with sensuousness and humor.
43. "Stage Design for the Epic
Theatre" (1951): Just to copy reality is not enough. Reality needs not
only to be recognized but also to be understood. It is more important nowadays
for the set to tell the spectator he's in a theatre than to tell him he's
in, say, Aulis. The best thing is to show the machinery, the ropes and
the flies. If the set represents a town it must look like a town that has
been built to last precisely two hours. Everything must be provisional.
The materials of the set must be visible.
52. "Can the Present day World
be Reproduced by Means of Theatre?" (1955): The present day world can only
be described to present-day people if it is described as capable of transformation.
In an age whose science is in a position to change nature to such an extent
as to make the world seem almost habitable, man can no longer describe
man as a victim, the object of a fixed but unknown environment.
53. "Appendices to the Short
Organum" (1960): True V effects are of a combative nature. Every art contributes
to the greatest art of all, the art of living. The bourgeois theatre's
performances always aim at smoothing over contradictions, at creating false
harmony, at idealization. Conditions are reported as if they could not
be otherwise; characters as individuals, incapable by definition of being
divided, cast in one block, manifesting themselves in the most various
situations, likewise for that matter existing without any situation at
all. If there is any development it is always steady, never by jerks, the
developments always take place within a definite framework which cannot
be broken through. None of this is like reality, so a realistic theater
must give it up. For a genuine story to emerge it is most important that
the scenes should to start with be played quite simply one after another,
using the experience of real life, without taking account of what follows
or even of the play's overall sense. The story then unreels in a contradictory
manner; the individual scenes retain their meaning; they yield and stimulate
a wealth of ideas; and their sum, the story, unfolds authentically without
any cheap all pervading idealization (one word leading to another) or directing
of subordinate, purely functional component parts to an ending in which
everything is resolved.
A quotation from Lenin: "It
is impossible to recognize the various happenings in the world in their
independence of movement, their spontaneity of development, their vitality
of being, without recognizing them as a unity of opposites."
What about the art of primitive
peoples, madmen, and children? "We suspect that unduly subjective representations
of the world have antisocial effects."
RE: FAUST'S TRAGEDY: "Whoever
wishes to rise higher on earth must inevitably create pain, [that] the
need to pay for development and satisfaction is the unavoidable tragedy
of life i.e., the cruellest and most commonplace principle: that
can't make omelettes without breaking eggs." [p. 280].
Goucher College, 2002
on 29 October 2003
A. Robert Lauer
28 March 2016