Brecht, interruptions and epic theatre

Bertolt Brecht wanted his work to revolutionise theatre's bourgeois values and bring about social and political change. Robert Gordon introduces the aesthetic principles and techniques that Brecht believed could achieve these aims, and explores how they operate in some of his best-known plays.

As a writer, director, dramaturg and theatre theorist, Brecht’s impact on European theatre was unrivalled in the 20th century. Valued highly as a poet for his vivid use of German, his primary artistic objective was to create theatre appropriate for a scientific age. By the late 1920s it had become apparent to Brecht that this would require not only a new kind of dramatic writing but also the destruction of the bourgeois theatre system.

His earliest drama was influenced by the plays of Büchner and Frank Wedekind, manifesting some of the subjectivity and heightened emotion of Expressionist drama, but also showing a gradual transition to the greater detachment evident in his later plays. In rebelling against bourgeois values, the protagonists of these early plays anticipate the Marxist critique that Brecht was to articulate more coherently in later plays.

What is epic theatre?

Brecht was interested in self-consciously retelling a story rather than realistically embodying the events of a narrative. His techniques encouraged the spectator to view the way in which playwright and actors presented the tale, exposing the mechanisms of theatre, and promoting an attitude of curiosity rather than the emotional and empathic response to the acting typical of the naturalistic and expressionistic forms dominant in German theatre at the time. His admiration for the political comedian Karl Valentin and the films of Charlie Chaplin provided models for the combination of social observation and Spass (fun) with which he intended to animate the theatre so that a proletarian audience might attend with the enthusiasm and critical interest of spectators at a sports match.

Photograph of Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp in The Gold Rush, c. 1925

Photograph of Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp in The Gold Rush, c. 1925

Brecht admired the films of Charlie Chaplin.

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Brecht’s first proper experiment in epic theatre was Man Equals Man (1926), written and produced by the ‘Brecht collective’ with the significant participation of Elisabeth Hauptmann, whose translations of Kipling were employed in the writing of the play. The production encouraged the spectator to view its unfolding narrative with the ‘expert’ attention of a boxing fan who, while concerned about the outcome, was critically engaged in judging the boxers’ methods of achieving it. Somewhat vaguely located in colonial British India, Man Equals Man is a parable of the malleability of human identity, exposing the way in which an authoritarian social order – in this case, the army – manipulates and moulds individuals to make them useful as soldiers, factory workers, pupils, etc.:

Tonight you will see

A man reassembled like a car.

Leaving all his individual components

Just as they are.

(Translator, Gerhard Nellhaus)

The transformation of the fish-seller Galy Gay into a missing soldier whose pay-book he receives from the man’s three mates is an emblem of the way capitalist society exploits the proletariat as workers. Viewed from a Marxist perspective, the play could conversely be interpreted as a parable of how a working person such as Galy Gay might choose to surrender some aspects of his personal identity to transform himself into a ‘comrade’ in a revolutionary society of equals. Although not made explicit in the play, this is the first time that Brecht’s drama explores what is essentially a Marxist view of how the base (economic) structure of a society shapes the specific class identity of any individual, and how a change in material circumstances might offer the dialectical possibility of changing social and therefore personal relationships. Already committed to a socialist view of the need for change, Brecht began to read Marx in the mid 1920s, studying the Marxian concept of dialectics under the tutelage of the communist dissident Karl Korsch.

The Communist Party manifesto

The Communist Party Manifesto, front cover

From the 1920s Brecht studied writings by Marx.

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His new understanding of Marxism, together with his work as dramaturg for Erwin Piscator (1926–27) on the development of epic theatre, led Brecht to collaborate with Hauptmann and the composer Kurt Weill on achieving the ‘literarisation of theatre’ by way of a satirical musical, The Threepenny Opera (1928). Piscator’s epic theatre involved supplementing the core drama of human relationships with information and opinion communicated via modern technological devices such as photographs, literary captions and documentary films. These technologies would politically contextualise the fictional representation in order to provoke reflections on the playwright’s point of view. In The Threepenny Opera Brecht refunctioned the apparatus of Piscator’s theatre in an effort to make the dramatic structure itself an instrument for analysing social reality and promoting change.

Photograph of a 1930s production of The Threepenny Opera, Moscow

Photograph of a 1930s production of The Threepenny Opera, Moscow

Brecht and Weill employed a wide variety of art forms in The Threepenny Opera.

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Rejecting Richard Wagner’s influential theory of the synthesis of all art forms in the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work), Brecht and Weill emphasised the separation of the component parts. Every art form employed in their new type of musical drama – music, lyrics, dialogue, dance, visual art – would stand in ironic juxtaposition to the others. By interrupting the flow of dramatic action with projected surtitles announcing the outcome of each scene, abrupt changes in lighting to signal a break between dialogue and songs and actors stepping out of the scene to sing directly to the audience, Brecht ‘literarised’ the performance by openly displaying the technical and dramaturgical mechanism of the play’s construction. By emphasising the spectator’s awareness of the methods of its production, the show aimed to expose the contradictions between the characters’ outmoded ideology of romantic love and the economic circumstances that actually motivate their calculated attempts to exploit one another for financial profit. As the most popular German theatre production of the 1920s, The Threepenny Opera ironically became the victim of its own success: bourgeois audiences were able to ignore its demand for social change by treating it as an entertaining joke at their own expense.

Photograph of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 2013

Photograph of The Rise and Fall of Mahogonny, 2013

Placards used in a crown scene within Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

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Having learned that a new form of theatre could not be established by merely burlesquing the conventions of bourgeois theatre, Brecht’s experiments before his exile from Germany in 1933 involved the exploration of the Lehrstück (learning play) – a new type of proletarian theatre in which workers or students would be both spectators and actors. The series of short plays written in 1930 (He Who Said Yes/He Who Said No, The Measures Taken, The Exception and the Rule) represent the most radical development of his drama as an instrument for modelling and investigating social relationships. Their transformation of dialectical praxis into a Marxian aesthetics of theatre was exemplified in the plays created during his enforced exile from Germany between 1933 and 1947. Lacking the material conditions to conduct experiments in production, Brecht focussed his energy on the writing of plays, as well as the theorisation of his aesthetic practice in a series of groundbreaking essays. Four of these plays – Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Life of Galileo (1939), The Good Person of Setzuan (1942) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945) – have achieved the status of modern classics.

Three fundamental aesthetic principles are manifest in the plays and explained in the essays: 

  1. Verfremdungseffekt 

    The Verfremdungseffekt, a distancing device or defamiliarisation effect, is often misleadingly translated as ‘alienation effect’. The V-effekt is a technique of writing and performance that makes the everyday appear surprising in order to enable a spectator to interrogate each dramatic event rather than regard it as part of a ‘natural’ order. By exposing the existing social system with its injustice, inequality and corruption as arbitrary rather than normal, the V-effekt demonstrates that it can be changed. The primary V-effekt in performance should be to ‘show the showing’ – to remind the spectator that the play itself is an illustration of the author’s point of view rather than a slice of reality. By making the spectator conscious of the art of its construction, a performance enables her to participate actively in a dialogical argument about how and why a change in society should be effected. 

  2. Historicisation

    Historicisation was used by Brecht as a V-effekt which would serve to contrast the past with the present in order to identify the historical determinants of contemporary life. Rather than representing human nature as universal and unchanging, Brecht required the actor to portray every incident in a play as a unique response to a given historical situation. In Mother Courage, for instance, Brecht deliberately engineered a comparison of historical and then present-day circumstances: by setting the play during the Thirty Years War (1618–48) – a different yet comparable historical situation to 1939 – he encouraged the spectator to think in historical terms about the material conditions that had precipitated the war which was about to engulf Europe.

  3. Gestus

    Brecht’s most original principle of dramaturgical and theatrical construction was his notion of Gestus. With an implication in German of both ‘gist’ and ‘gesture’, the Gestus is a piece of physical action on stage that communicates social meaning. The fable (story) of the play is constructed by the writer to present a series of nodal points, each of which is displayed by the actors in the form of a Gestus. Instead of emphasising the emotional or psychological predisposition of characters, the Gestus allows the actor to demonstrate the social attitudes of one character by contrast with others, in collaboration sculpting a momentary tableau that the spectator views as a picture of the social relationships pertaining under a specific set of historical circumstances. The careful composition of each visual grouping also reminds the spectator of the conscious artistry of the work’s construction, openly indicating the author’s viewpoint. 

Premier of Brecht’s musical, The Threepenny Opera, at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin

Premiere of 'The Threepenny Opera' at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin

Brecht was influenced by Piscator and used technology on stage including placards, slide or film projections, sound and lighting effects. The aim was to reject naturalism and draw attention to the artifice of the theatrical process.

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Most of Brecht’s plays include songs, which allow the performer to comment upon the action and illustrate selected characters’ emotions in an artistic mode without manipulating the spectator to empathise directly with the characters in action. The cognitive disruption provoked by all of Brecht’s techniques serves to alter the spectator’s habitual way of thinking about the way things are. By exposing the contradictions inherent in capitalist society, a play could enable the spectator to devise ways to change the world into a place fit for people to live in.

Premier of Brecht’s musical, The Threepenny Opera, at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin

Photographs of The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper), 1928

Brecht's first masterpiece, The Threepenny Opera was a daring experiment in bringing ‘low’ art into a high-art setting.

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After their return to Berlin in 1948, Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel established the Berliner Ensemble, where Brecht was able to produce his later masterpieces in the manner of the dialectical theatre he had envisaged since 1930. The performances given by the company around Europe made a huge impact on theatre practitioners, first in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Britain, but eventually influencing the growth of consciously political modes of theatre throughout the world.

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  • Robert Gordon
  • Robert Gordon is Professor of Drama at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of the Pinter Centre for Research in Writing and Performance.