BERTOLT BRECHT and EPIC
Robert Lauer's Notes for SPAN 4184
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 as such.
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
The 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
his 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 Galielo, 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. The
live by lies, fraud, and, occasionally, by feats of thought.
The Good Woman of Setzuan
UMBC Department of Theatre,
Caucasian Chalk Circle
MARTIN ESSLIN. BERTOLT
BRECHT: A CHOICE OF EVILS. LONDON: METHUEN, 1984:
Brecht's plays showed the influence
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.
The 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. Verfremdungseffekt (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
his 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 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 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
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
Stanislavsky ideal of
the actor who is completely alone and wrapped up in himself and unaware
of being observed.
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. Gestus: 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 Richard 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"
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
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 of unreality."
"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 the titles).
"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
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
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 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
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
you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs." [p. 280].
Goucher College, 2002
on 29 October 2003
A. Robert Lauer
13 November 2009