Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theatre: Crash Course Theater #44


Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash
Course Theater, and today we are hanging with playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. As theatrical modernists go, Brecht is the
lace to Artaud’s leather. Or is it the other way around? His plays are hugely literary and staunchly
political—surprise surprise!—but they’re also designed to wake up the audience, providing
a more intense and essential vision of reality. Feeling alienated yet? Lights up! INTRO
Bertolt was born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1898. He studied medicine, but he also took classes
in theater. And in 1924…
he apprenticed himself to the director Max Reinhardt. His early works were episodic plays about
macho heroes and fragmenting societies in the expressionist style of Ernst Toller or
Georg Kaiser. In the late 1920s, he began to work with the
theater director Erwin Piscator, who we briefly discussed in our episode on expressionism. One of the first multimedia directors, Piscator
created a theater that was overtly political. He thought that theater could be a means of
educating the audience. And boy, did he love scaffolding. Brecht combined Piscator’s technique with
elements borrowed from cabaret, silent film, and Shakespeare’s history plays to create
his own unique style. In 1928, he had maybe his greatest success
with “The Threepenny Opera,” a tale of the criminal underclass, co-written with the
composer Kurt Weill. This became the runaway hit of Weimar Germany. Brecht, however, sensed that his politics
weren’t a great fit for Nazi Germany. He left in 1933, first for Denmark, then Sweden
and Finland, and then the United States. In exile, he wrote several of his major plays,
“Mother Courage and Her Children,” “The Life of Galileo Galilei,” and “The Good
Person of Setzuan,” and he formally articulated his theories. In 1947, he was summoned before the House
UnAmerican Activities Committee. He agreed to testify. But, while he didn’t name names, he also
didn’t win any popularity contests with Hollywood. So he left the U.S., ultimately resettling
in East Germany. Back in Germany, he and his wife, Helene Weigel,
created the Berliner Ensemble, a theater company that would perform his texts and put his theories
into practice. Brecht died in 1956. Brecht is credited with developing the idea
of “epic theater,” although Piscator used that term first. Epic theater is supposed to be the opposite
of dramatic theater and also the opposite of Aristotelian theater. It’s largely achieved using the Verfremdungseffekt
or the V-effekt. That’s often translated as the “alienation
effect,” or the “distancing effect”; a better translation is “the estrangement
effect.” Why would you want to estrange or alienate
an audience? Like a lot of dudes in the non-realist camp,
Brecht worried that conventional plays were too easy to sit through. You see a psychologically realistic show,
you have all the feels, and then you leave the theater mostly worrying about whether
the currywurst stand was still open. Currywurst is delicious! But using theater as mere escape is no way
to topple exploitative capitalism! Instead, Brecht tried to create plays that
would force an audience to think critical and uncomfortable thoughts about money, power,
and ethics. “Art,” he wrote, “is not a mirror with
which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Yes, this is about waking up an audience. Just like Artaud! But it’s not about working on an audience’s
unconscious and waking them up to myth and magic and violence and ritual. Epic theater is about working on their waking
brains and waking them up to the political realities just beyond the door of the playhouse. The appeal is intellectual, not emotional. There’s no crying in Dialectical Materialism. Brecht believed that an estranged audience
would be forced to engage with a play’s content actively and intellectually. Here’s how Brecht put it:
“The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too—Just like
me—It’s only natural—It’ll never change … I weep when they weep, I laugh when they
laugh. The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d
never have thought it—That’s not the way—That’s extraordinary, hardly believable—It’s
got to stop … I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.” How do you do this? Well, you know how, in most productions, lights,
sounds, sets, costumes, and songs all work together to produce one coherent vision? Brecht was all, how bout not? He wanted a theater in which the various elements
wouldn’t integrate but actually sort of cage fight each other, continuously ejecting
the audience from the theatrical illusion. DISBELIEF WILL NOT BE SUSPENDED. A good example is in “The Threepenny Opera,”
when the sweet and virginal Polly Peachum steps out to sing the violent revenge ballad
“Pirate Jenny.” The audience is supposed to be like, whaaa!? Why would she sing that!? But often the audience is like, hey! This is a Fun song! Because mimesis is powerful. And estrangement is hard. Brecht also encouraged a style of acting in
which actors don’t fully embody characters, but just sort of gesture at them, often with
an actual repeated, symbolic gesture that Brecht called the “gestus.” Brecht also provided dialogue in which actors
speak about their characters in the third person. He described this model in his essay “The
Street Scene.” In the essay, he imagined an eyewitness demonstrating
a traffic accident to some bystanders. The witness doesn’t try to fully become
the driver or the victim. Instead, he gestures at those roles, allowing
the bystanders to make up their minds. “The actor is not Lear,” Brecht wrote. “He shows Lear.” Brecht also cut off interest in story or suspense
by describing what would happen at the beginning of a scene or actually writing it out on a
half-curtain. Because full curtains are too disbelief suspending. There’s often a narrator and a use of signs
and placards. He wanted each scene to exist independently
and for the audience to have to work out how to put them all together. He was also big on speaking stage directions
out loud. Brecht wrote that he wanted theater to feel
like a boxing match. No one attending a boxing match thinks that
these guys pummeling each other are doing it because they’re super mad at each other. The audience understands that the construct
is artificial. That said, maybe Brecht didn’t choose the
best metaphor, because in boxing the punches are real. And if you’ve been to a match, you’ll
know that the ringside audience is not especially … distanced. But here’s a funny thing about Brecht’s
plays: yes, they’re episodic and brainy, and they keep reminding you that YOU ARE DEFINITELY
WATCHING A PLAY. But even when they’re directed in a V-effect
style, you usually end up pretty engaged with the characters and the story, and not necessarily
with the dialectics. Curse you, entertainment! “The Threepenny Opera” was such a runaway
success not because people were so on fire for Brecht rendering London’s criminal underworld
as an allegory for exploitative labor practices in a play-staged-as-such. It was probably because Kurt Weill wrote some
fire tracks. I mean “Mack the Knife.” Come on! And all that stuff about girls, crimes, and
general skulduggery was pretty fun. UH HUH SURE A SKULL JOKE
Brecht wrote in a bunch of styles—comedies, dramas, biographies, history plays, musicals,
and folk dramas. His plays cover a huge temporal and geographical
range, too—part of the whole estrangement thing. They’re smart and playful. They often have really good roles for women,
which isn’t always a given. And the balance of political dynamics with
narrative pull is usually fascinating. But there’s one more thing to know about
Brecht. His own labor practices were maybe exploitative,
too. He had a whole bunch of co-writers, usually
women he was involved with, and he almost never gave them credit for their significant
contributions… Like mostly writing some of the plays! I guess maybe that partly explains his well
written female roles? Let’s look at “The Good Person of Setzuan,”
first performed in 1943 with songs by Paul Dessau added later. It’s the heartwarming fable of a kindly
prostitute who learns to protect herself from exploitation by dressing and acting like a
really, really mean dude. It’s full of sweet, sweet Brechtian devices
like talking directly to the audience and explaining the action before it happens. Help us out, ThoughtBubble:
A bunch of gods drop in on Setzuan, looking for a really good person. They have trouble finding one until they come
to the door of the prostitute Shen Teh, who takes them in even though she’s penniless. The gods reward Shen Teh with money and tell
her to continue to be good. She takes the money, buys a tobacco shop,
and tries to be good, but her generosity just makes her a target. She falls for a pilot, Yang Sun, but he steals
her money and leaves her pregnant. Then Shen Teh has a bright idea. She invents a cousin named Shui Ta, dresses
up as him, and orders all of the freeloaders to leave the shop. Turns out, Shui Ta is really good at business,
so good that he turns Shen Teh’s tobacco shop into a full-on tobacco factory. But this subterfuge is hard on Shen Teh. People hear her crying behind a door when
only Shiu Ta is supposed to be around, and they find some of her clothing. So they try Shui Ta for murder. Shui Ta convinces the judge to close the courtroom
and reveals all. The gods are present, but they leave Shen
Teh, who cries out that it’s impossible to be good AND survive in the real world. In an epilogue, the responsibility is foisted
onto the audience: “You should now consider as you go
What sort of measures you would recommend To help good people to a happy end. Ladies and gentlemen, in you we trust:
There must be happy endings, must, must, must!” Thanks, Thought Bubble. Was that happy? In having the same actor play both Shen Teh
and Shui Ta, Brecht distances us from strictly identifying with the character, and the story
creates a dialectical conflict between right moral action and social survival. The gods can’t resolve that – can you? Be the change Shen Teh needs to see in the
world. Maybe Brecht never really achieved his goal
of turning the theater from a place of entertainment to a place of education. His plays are too entertaining! But his style became a huge influence on modern
and postmodern theater, television, and film. Or is that just what Mike Rugnetta would say? We’ll see you next time, when things are
going to get absurd. [[[Yorick flies in, and they have a moment
in which everyone acknowledges that our sidekick is a non-verbal skull.]]] More absurd. We’ll be exploring the Theater of the Absurd
with Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett—the whole madcap and deeply-pessimistic-about-the-human-condition
gang. Until then… curtain. Which is a device the theater uses to obfuscate
the machinery of stage craft, and maintain the illusion of the stage as a location subject
to different rules than the so called “real world”, a division that is ultimately [[the
curtain actually closes]] HEY HEY C’MON

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