His sometimes controversial plays and essays helped shape a new age of German literature and were influential throughout Europe and into the United States. Brecht’s plays, in particular, his practice of “epic theatre.” He explored theatre as a way of asserting and experimenting with political ideas and the creation of dialectical materialism. The latter refers to a philosophy of science, history, and nature that was developed by Marx and Engels. It emphasizes the importance of real-world conditions and contradictions in relation to socioeconomic interactions.
The term “Brechtian” is used to describe any literary work that is inspired by or conveys the attributes of Bertolt Brecht’s writing. The term can be applied to poetry, essays, but most commonly it’s used to describe elements of the theatre.
If a contemporary playwright uses some of the characteristics listed below then it’s likely that their work is going to be described as “Brechtian.” This is similar to the way that some dystopian novels are described as “Orwellian.” (A direct reference to George Orwell’s writings.)
Brecht’s epic theatre was incredibly influential. But, he didn’t coin the term. It was first used by Erwin Piscator while working as the director of the Volksbühne in Berlin. He encouraged those working beneath him to address contemporary life in their work. This meant that plays included attempts to elicit different audience responses and clear assessments of the political climate. Later in his career, Brecht preferred the term “dialectical theatre.” When writing and creating, Brecht attempted to avoid obvious plot lines that were meant to manipulate the audience into thinking a certain way, the effects of melodrama, and any shallow attempt at entertaining for entertainment’s purpose alone.
There are some similarities between Brecht’s theatrical performances and those pioneered by Antonin Artaud, known as the Theatre of Cruelty. But, the latter was more interested in a visceral reaction than a new level of comprehension as Brecht was.
Brecht also popularized “Verfremdungseffekt” or the “estrangement effect,” sometimes also known as the “alienation effect.” Explore its effects below.
Below are a few of the ways that verfremdungseffekt is achieved:
- Captions explaining what’s going on on stage/screen.
- Actors summarizing events that have just played out.
- Exposing set functions, like ropes, pulleys, and extras.
- Screen projections or placards.
- Actors interacting with the audience members.
- Bringing audience members on stage.
- Intentionally poor or ironic acting.
- The actor steps out of their role.
- The actor speaks the stage directions.
It’s the writer’s intention that these steps, and others, keep viewers from being able to suspend disbelief while watching a play. Instead, they’re encouraged to analyze it and learn something.
Who Was Bertolt Brecht?
Brecht was born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht in Februar 1898. He was a German playwright and poet who spent much of his life collaborating with composer Hanns Eisler. He is noted for his work on theories of epic theatre and what he called “the so-called V-effect.” He lived in exile during World War II in the United States. When he returned to East Berlin after the war he established the Berliner Ensemble. He then worked at Wolfgang Langhoff’s Deutsches Theater and then later at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.
It was at the latter The Three Penny Opera premiered. Today, Bretcht is well regarded for his contributions to theatre as well as to political and social philosophy. He often used his work to criticize cultural happenings he disagreed with. This included the Nazis and the bourgeoisie.
Gestus and Spas
These are two more techniques that Brecht used and that are sometimes combined with the alienation effect.
Gestus: a technique that refers to a character’s movements. Their movements capture a moment rather than an emotion. The gestures have added meaning and were studied intensely before the performance. Gestus relates to Brecht’s interest in creating types, like “The Girl” or “The Boss.” These characters evoked the feeling of a type of person rather than an individual personality.
Spass: translates to “fun” and is connected to Brecht’s interest in making the audience think and laugh. He often used comedic moments to break the tension something that feels uncharacteristic considering the serious and dark reputation that many of his plays have.
Characteristics of Brechtian Literature
- Direct interaction with the audience.
- Use of placards or signs.
- Revealing how the mechanics of the theatre.
- Response to political conditions at the time.
- Emphasizes the audience’s perceptive and reaction.
- Forces audiences to see the world the way it is.
Examples of Brechtian Literature
“Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht
This is one of Brecht’s most commonly performed plays. It is a great example of the alienation effect. A main female character, Anna Fierling, and her children, and their struggle to survive. Over the course of the play, she loses all of her children. Through the play, Brecht wanted to convey the message that some people don’t care who wins a war as long as there is a profit to be made.
Throughout this play, the actors might verbalize their actions and intentions, focus single-mindedly on one scene and ignoring the broader storyline, and more. “Mother Courage and Her Children” is considered to be one of the best of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest anti-war play ever written.
Writers use distancing techniques and the alienation effect to make audiences consider narratives in a new way. They become a critical observer rather than becoming engaged in a form of escapist fiction.
It is important because of the way he changed how writers considered theatre and how audiences enjoyed it. He wanted to create theatre for a new age, something he achieved.
He wanted the audience to be objective and unemotional during his plays. This meant he avoided melodrama and escapist narratives. Instead, he addressed political themes and used techniques to distance the audience from the play.
Related Literary Terms
- The Alienation Effect: occurs when the writer makes a concerted effort to remind the audience that they’re engaged in something artificial.
- Dystopia: the opposite of a utopia. It is an imagined place or community in which the majority of the people suffer.
- Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
- Play (Theatre): a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
- Read: Bertolt Brecht Theatre Database
- Watch: Brecht and Epic Theatre
- Listen: An Introduction to Brechtian Theatre