If Bertolt Brecht were alive today he would probably be called a socialist playwright, or an alternative theatre practitioner, or both. So imagine how it must have been him to be employed by the bourgeois theatres of 1930s Nazi Germany? To find himself in the heart of an Establishment that both put food on his table and represented everything he hated.
Brecht had some choices to make. He could have kept his head down and ignored what was going on around him. He could have chosen to run away from the Establishment (which he did later to avoid persecution). I guess he could have chosen to join or start a political movement to try and overthrow the fascists. I have no way of knowing what processes Brecht went through to reach his decision but it seems clear that he chose to stay in the heart of the establishment and use his craft, as a playmaker, to try and bring about change from the inside. His supporters thought him naïve and his critics believed he had sold out, but this did not deter Brecht in his endeavours.
Brecht knew that the people who went to the theatres in Berlin at that time were predominantly from the middle and upper classes (some would argue this is still true today). He knew that these people were unlikely to rise up and overthrow the government as they were quite happy with the way things were. So he knew he had to use his plays to create a disturbance in the status quo.
However there was a problem. In Establishment theatres, as now, most customers went to escape from reality; to be transported to a fantasy where their emotions could be stirred with a guarantee of catharsis at the end. In this state, that Brecht himself described as slumber, he felt his audience were unlikely to engage critically with any issues he raised, let alone take action.
Brecht solved this problem by creating verfremdungseffekt, the alienation effect, as a method to create purposeful instability in the system. He relished the energy created by upsetting the equilibrium, knowing that something new could only emerge if things were first destabilised.
The most famous example of verfremdungseffekt is what is known as breaking the fourth wall. This would involve actors talking to the audience during a play, perhaps getting their opinion on the issues raised. In Mother Courage and her Children, perhaps Brecht’s most famous play, the mother figure is haggling with kidnappers over how much she should pay for the return of her son. She is poor and does not have enough money to feed her two other children. She is grappling with a dilemma. The action stops, she turns to the audience and asks “What would you do?”
Other effects included the use of disturbing music, unusual lighting, paradoxical images and unexpected noises. His aim was to never let the audience be seduced into empathy and catharsis, so that they always knew they were watching a play. It was by this strategy of purposeful instability that he believed he could encourage the audience to discuss and act on the issues he raised in his plays.
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