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University of Durham
School of Modern Languages and Cultures
Hispanic Studies

Bertolt Brecht:
Proposals for an epic theatre


Extracts from:
Bertolt Brecht.  Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964)

1. ‘Certain changes of emphasis as between the dramatic and the epic theatre’ (37)

plot narrative
implicates the spectator in a stage situation turns the spectator into an observer
wears down his capacity for action arouses his capacity for action
provides him with sensations forces him to take decisions
experience picture of the world
the spectator is involved in something he is made to face something
suggestion  argument
instinctive feelings are preserved brought to the point of recognition
the spectator is in the thick of it, shares the experience the spectator stands outside, studies
the human being is taken for granted the human being is the object of the enquiry
he is unalterable he is alterable and able to alter
eyes on the finish eyes on the course
one scene makes another each scene for itself
growth montage
linear development in curves
evolutionary determinism jumps
man as a fixed point man as a process
thought determines being social being determines thought
feeling reason

2. Points from ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’ (first published in 1949)

  • Entertaining the children of the scientific age: ‘A theatre which makes productivity its main source of entertainment has also to take it for its theme, and with greater keenness than ever now that man is everywhere hampered by men from self-production: i.e. from maintaining himself, entertaining and being entertained. The theatre has to become geared into reality if it is to be in a position to turn out effective representations of reality, and to be allowed to do so. But this makes it simpler for theatre to edge as close as possible to the apparatus of education and mass communication. For although we cannot bother it with the raw material of knowledge in all its variety, which would stop it from being enjoyable, it is still free to find enjoyment in teaching and enquiring. It constructs its workable representations of society, which are then in a position to influence society, wholly and entirely as a game’ (186).
  • Changing society: ‘We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself’ (190).
  • The alienation effect (A-effect): ‘A representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar. [...] For it seems impossible to alter what has long not been altered. We are always coming on things that are too obvious for us to bother to understand them. What men experience among themselves they think of as “the” human experience’ (192).
  • Playing the character: ‘In order to produce A-effects the actor has to discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself. [...] At no moment must he go so far as to be wholly transformed into the character played. The verdict: “he didn’t act Lear, he was Lear” would be an annihilating blow to him. He has just to show the character, or rather he has to do more than just get into it’ (193).
  • The structure of the story: ‘As we cannot invite the audience to fling itself into the story as if it were a river and let itself be carried vaguely hither and thither, the individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed. The episodes must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgement. (If it were above all the obscurity of the original interrelations that interested us, then just this circumstance would have to be sufficiently alienated.)’ (201).
  • Multiple media: ‘Not everything depends on the actor, even though nothing may be done without taking him into account. The “story” is set out, brought forward and shown by the theatre as a whole, by actors, stage designers, mask-makers, costumiers, composers and choreographers. They unite their various arts for the joint operation, without of course sacrificing their independence in the process. [...] Just as the composer wins back his freedom by no longer having to create atmosphere so that the audience may be helped to lose itself unreservedly in the events on stage, so also the stage designer gets considerable freedom as he no longer has to give the illusion of a room or locality when he is building his sets. It is enough for him to give hints, though these must make statements of greater historical or social interest than does the real setting’ (202-3).
  • Stylization: ‘It is a relatively recent error to suppose that [choreography] has nothing to do with the representation of “people as they really are”. If art reflects life it does so with special mirrors. Art does not become unrealistic by changing the proportions but by changing them in such a way that if the audience took its representations as a practical guide to insights and impulses it would go astray in real life. It is of course essential that stylization should not remove the natural element but heighten it’ (203-4).


    There are also useful accounts of Brecht’s dramatic theories and practice in:
    Peter Thomson & Glendyr Sacks (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to Brecht (Cambridge: CUP, 1994).
    George J. Watson. Drama: An Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1983), Chapter 8.
    Raymond Williams. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), Chapter 4.7.

    M.P. Thompson
    October  2001