Friday, April 4, 2014

Influences and Characteristics of Brechtian Theatre

With Signature Theatre's fast approaching production of The Threepenny Opera, we thought it would be useful to explore some influences on the man himself and just what Brechtian Theatre is and how it will no doubt influence the upcoming production. 

From a young age, Brecht had strong opinions about the ideas, art, events and politics that significantly affected Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Brecht was constantly questioning authority in his plays and forcing his audiences to critique the established order too.


Karl Marx
While researching economics for a play in the 1920s, Brecht began studying Marxism. He started developing his “alienation” theory for theatre based on Marx’s ideas about production. Under capitalism, Marx contended that since everything is a product for sale, all human lives, relationships and values become products. The workers become de-humanized and are incorporated into the machinery of production. Brecht applied this idea to theatre, both in content and style. Many of his plays deal with socio-economic problems of capitalism and power, but Brecht also applied Marx’s ideas about production to how his plays were performed. He wanted audiences to see the literal production process of the play, such as the lighting grid or the action backstage, so that they would have to think about the process, not just the final product.


To appreciate Brechtian theatre, it is necessary to understand two of Brecht’s key theoretical terms:

1.      Epic Theatre - Form of didactic drama presenting a series of loosely connected scenes that avoid illusion and often interrupt the story line to address the audience directly with analysis, argument, or documentation; associated particularly with the German theatre movement led by Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s

2.      The Alienation Effect - Technique designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance.

In his book Das Kapital, Marx argued that, in modern industry, commodities seemed alien because capitalistic production did not reveal the signs of its production. We see the final product without knowing where it came from. The pervading world view of capitalism, where products confront workers as something entirely separate from their makers, was to Marx a false one, perpetuated to the political advantage of the wealthy ruling classes.

This production of The Threepenny Opera uses Brechtian 
techniques such as exposing the sides of the stage 
in addition to commenting about capitalism with the Coca-Cola design. 
Brecht reinterpreted Marx's concept of alienation as a theatrical ideology, in order to displace realism and to show up the hidden agenda of the theatre of the time. Brecht's theatre aimed to provide its audience with ways of looking at bourgeois reality as an unnatural political ideology produced in the interests of profiteering. He wanted to alienate or estrange the audience from everyday reality so that it could be reinterpreted in a new light.

In his essay The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre, Brecht stated that his theatre work is based on a "radical separation of the elements of production,” rather than the unity of action seen in Realism. Brecht found this supposedly realistic illusion to be dishonest, in that it seduced the audience to accept subliminally its representation of reality as an unchangeable and apolitical view of the world.
By distancing his audience from the world within the play, Brecht wanted to make audiences aware that stage realism, like life outside the theatre, is made, not given.

Brechtian techniques in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The stage is mostly bare; the child is clearly a toy
The German description of Brecht’s alienation effect literally translated means “to make strange.” This concept requires the audience and actors to retain a degree of critical detachment from a play and its performance, to be objective and not empathize or identify with the characters or the events that take place in the play. Some of the techniques Brecht used to create alienation included changing the scenery in front of the audience, projections, treadmills, hoists and musicians on the stage.

Through using these techniques, Brecht aimed to involve the audience in the process of the play's production and what it was communicating. The audience of Epic Theatre is invited to consider and enjoy how the theatre fabricates its fiction, rather than passively accepting an illusion of reality onstage.

Although Brecht criticized capitalism, he was also criticized by the Communist Party for not enforcing social realism and providing solutions in his plays. But Brecht, of course, didn't want to immerse his audiences in “reality” and then tell them what to do. Instead he wanted them to "cry tears from the brain," to absorb messages that they could interpret on their own and then make their choices to act.

Characteristics of Brechtian Theatre
Example of Brechtian Technique: Recent London West End performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus had the actors sit in chairs onstage and watch each other perform instead of disappearing offstage when they have said their lines.
Structure: Audience should construct their own interpretation of events.
·        Episodic, disconnected montage of scenes.
·        Often not in chronological order.
·        Purposefully open ended so that the audience needs to arrive at its own conclusion of how the events are linked together.
·        Events are narrated on a grand scale, unrestricted to time and place.

Staging: Audiences should see what’s happening “behind-the-scenes.”
·        Often a bare stage to prevent the audience from being absorbed in the fictional reality of the play’s setting.
·        Exposed stage “machinery” such as the lighting grid and exposed wires.
·        Back wall and wings of stage exposed.

Design: Intentionally shatter the feeling of “realism.”
·        Use of technology to project words and film onto the stage that comments on the performance.
·        Historification – projecting news clips to make the audience put the play into a historical context.
·        Placards that announce when the scene will begin.
·        Design looks mechanical or industrial (i.e. conveyor belts, pipes, wheels)

Music: Meant to comment on the action, not add to the mood of the scene.
  • Discordant with the action onstage.
  • Musicians are onstage with the actors, not “hidden” under the stage.
  • Incorporating popular culture in an ironic way.
Acting & Characters: Keep the audience critical of the play’s heroes.
  • Actors should not be 100% connected to their character.
  • Actors should present their character instead of be their character.
  • Even the “hero” of the story has flaws.
Bretolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera runs from April 22nd - June 1st at Signature Theatre. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtime information. 


Thanks for giving information about the characteristics of epic theater.

Very informative with just the right to keep you wanting to read more, well done!!
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