Brecht's Influence on Theatre
By 1936 a wide range of experimentation and innovation had established the parameters of the contemporary theatre. The training of actors in the Western theatre has since become more organized to take in concepts and programs from the earlier innovators. There are few schools today that do not acknowledge the work of Stanislavsky in their training. Less obvious but equally pervasive is the influence of Reinhardt and Copeau, largely by way of their pupils in teaching. And towering above all others (save perhaps Stanislavsky) is the figure of Brecht. It is reasonable to argue that Brecht absorbed, and in turn perpetuated, more influences than any other individual in the modern theatre.
Of central importance in establishing this argument is Brecht's essay "On Experimental Theatre" (1940), in which he reviews the work of Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, Antoine, Reinhardt, Okhlopkov, Stanislavsky, Jessner, and other Expressionists. Brecht traces through the modern theatre the two lines running from Naturalism and Expressionism. Naturalism he sees as the "assimilation of art to science," which gave the Naturalistic theatre great social influence, but at the expense of its capacity to arouse aesthetic pleasure. Expressionism (and by implication the other anti-illusionist theatres), he acknowledges, "vastly enriched the theatre's means of expression and brought aesthetic gains that still remain to be exploited." But it proved incapable of shedding any light on the world as an object of human activity, and the theatre's educational value collapsed. Brecht recognized the great achievements of Piscator's work, in which he himself played a significant role, but proposed a further advance in the development of so-called epic theatre.
Brecht's Marxist political convictions led him to propose an alternative direction for the theatre that would fuse the two functions of instruction and entertainment. In this way the theatre could project a picture of the world by artistic means and offer models of life that could help the spectators to understand their social environment and to master it both rationally and emotionally. The main concept of Brecht's program was that of Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation"). In order to induce a critical frame of mind in the spectator, Brecht considered it necessary to dispense with the empathetic involvement with the stage that the illusionary theatre sought to induce. Generally, this has been understood as a deadening coldness in the productions, but such an interpretation proceeds from a general ignorance of Brecht's own writings on the subject. Rather, he insisted, as Appia, Craig, and the Symbolists did before him, that the audience must be reminded that it is watching a play.
Brecht's ideas can be approached through the image presented by the theatre he chose to work in on his return to East Germany in 1947. The auditorium of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm is lavish to the point of fantasy, decorated with ornate plaster figures. The stage, by complete contrast, is a vast mechanized scenic space in which everything is clearly exposed to view as theatrical and man-made. In the contrast between the comfort of the auditorium and the science of the stage lies the condition of Brecht's theatre. The audience was there to be entertained but also to think scientifically.
Many of the techniques of Brecht's staging were developments of earlier work. The use of three-dimensional set pieces in a large volume of space clearly derived from Jessner. His delight in the use of machinery and in particular the revolving stage came from Piscator. The insistence on the actors' demonstrating through the physical disposition of the body their gestus ("attitude") toward what is happening derived from Meyerhold, though with Brecht the gestus was always socially based. The clearest of his alienation devices, the projection of captions preceding the scene so that the audience knows in advance what will happen and therefore can concentrate on how it happens, derived from Piscator's jotter screens and film captions.
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