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Spotlight on: Bertolt Brecht

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Modern theatre owes a lot to Bertolt Brecht, the renowned theatre practitioner who pioneered Epic theatre.

Living and working in Germany, at a time of great political and cultural upheaval, the central tenets of Brecht’s theatrical vision remain important today, shaping the way in which modern theatre is staged and performed. 

Image courtesy of Mike Steele on Flickr

Brechtian performance is very much attuned to its own theatricality. Unlike the naturalist movements which came before, Brecht’s plays do not set out to create a piece of reality for the audience but rather look to encourage a process of realisation and contemplation.

Brecht’s theatre teases the audience with uncomfortable truths regarding the nature of society and, to some extent, humanity itself. Watching a Brechtian production, one is never allowed to become a voyeur, passively observing the action. Epic (or dialectical) theatre both immerses and distances its audience, creating a thrilling dichotomy of familiarity and unfamiliarity. 

Brecht’s plays and performances uphold deeply political and social messages. Writing during before, during and after World War Two, much of Brecht’s theatre is reactionary. Brecht fled from Germany just as Hitler rose to power in 1933, afraid of the persecution he might face due to his political views. A Marxist himself, Brecht rallied against the ideology of the fascist Nazi party.

It is evident that many of his plays are critiques of and reactions against the authoritarian regimes which had engulfed much of Europe at the time. Plays such as Mother Courage and Saint Joan of the Stockyard see the protagonists pitted against oppressive capitalist or totalitarian systems, explicitly delivering and emphasising Brecht’s socialist sympathies. 

Through his theatre, Brecht set out to change the world and its political landscape. Although he may not have been overtly successful on this front, his work had a monumental effect upon the politics of performance and on the accepted model of theatre. Many of the techniques which Brecht employed were revolutionary at the time of their conception.

Perhaps the technique most closely associated with Brecht, the verfremdungseffekt or ‘alienation’ effect, broke down the popular conventions of theatre at the time and transformed the way in which audiences approach theatricality. Brecht wanted his theatre to act as a way of reflecting the truth of society, unsettling the audience and forcing them to recognise the similarities of the message of his productions to their own lives. His plays act as modern parables, didactic in principal and practice. 

The conventions which Brecht conceived have had a monumental effect upon modern theatre. Perhaps the primary example of this can be observed in Tony Kushner’s ground-breaking two-part masterpiece, Angels in America, which detailed the plight of those suffering from AIDs in 1980s America. Kushner’s drama has an essentially political message regarding society’s appalling treatment of AIDs victims. This message is fiercely yet sophisticatedly conveyed via both Kushner’s awe-inspiring experimentation with the boundaries of theatricality. The philosophy of Brecht is clearly imprinted on the play’s identity. 

The theatre which Brecht envisioned allows for a diagnostic exploration of society and culture: one which does not allow for comfortable or complacent viewing. Epic theatre encourages audiences to sit up and listen, delving into the minute details of ideology, oppression and, most of all, theatricality.

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