Brecht's Epic Theatre
Although Bertolt Brecht's first plays were written in Germany during the 1920s, he was not widely known until much later. Eventually his theories of stage presentation exerted more influence on the course of mid-century theatre in the West than did those of any other individual. This was largely because he proposed the major alternative to the Stanislavsky-oriented realism that dominated acting and the "well-made play" construction that dominated playwriting.
Brecht's earliest work was heavily influenced by German Expressionism, but it was his preoccupation with Marxism and the idea that man and society could be intellectually analyzed that led him to develop his theory of "epic theatre." Brecht believed that theatre should appeal not to the spectator's feelings but to his reason. While still providing entertainment, it should be strongly didactic and capable of provoking social change. In the Realistic theatre of illusion, he argued, the spectator tended to identify with the characters on stage and become emotionally involved with them rather than being stirred to think about his own life. To encourage the audience to adopt a more critical attitude to what was happening on stage, Brecht developed his Verfremdungs-effekt ("alienation effect")--i.e., the use of anti-illusive techniques to remind the spectators that they are in a theatre watching an enactment of reality instead of reality itself. Such techniques included flooding the stage with harsh white light, regardless of where the action was taking place, and leaving the stage lamps in full view of the audience; making use of minimal props and "indicative" scenery; intentionally interrupting the action at key junctures with songs in order to drive home an important point or message; and projecting explanatory captions onto a screen or employing placards. From his actors Brecht demanded not realism and identification with the role but an objective style of playing, to become in a sense detached observers.
Brecht's most important plays, which included Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo), Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children), and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan, or The Good Woman of Setzwan), were written between 1937 and 1945 when he was in exile from the Nazi regime, first in Scandinavia and then in the United States. At the invitation of the newly formed East German government, he returned to found the Berliner Ensemble in 1949 with his wife, Helene Weigel, as leading actress. It was only at this point, through his own productions of his plays, that Brecht earned his reputation as one of the most important figures of 20th-century theatre.
Certainly Brecht's attack on the illusive theatre influenced, directly or indirectly, the theatre of every Western country. In Britain the effect became evident in the work of such playwrights as John Arden and Edward Bond and in some of the bare-stage productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Western theatre in the 20th century, however, has proved to be a cross-fertilization of many styles (Brecht himself acknowledged a debt to traditional Oriental theatre), and by the 1950s other approaches were gaining influence.
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