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Alienation Effect

The alienation effect occurs when the writer makes a concerted effort to remind the audience that they’re engaged in something artificial.

The alienation effect, also known as the ‘distancing effect,’ ‘verfremdungseffekt,’ or ‘estrangement effect,’ is mainly used in theatre. The play’s characters, setting, and plot devices are intentionally distanced from those following the story. The audience won’t trust or identify with the storyline. They might be consistently reminded that they’re watching actors and following a story that someone wrote.

Alienation Effect pronunciation: ay-lee-in-ayh-shun eh-fect
Alienation Effect definition and examples

Definition of the Alienation Effect

The alienation effect is a feeling of distancing that a playwright or author creates in their work. When it’s used successfully, the reader or audience member will be constantly reminded of the artificiality of the literary work. This might be through revealing the actors are people simply engaged in a job, the set as a series of materials, etc. The illusion of the performance is disrupted, ensuring the metaphorical “fourth wall” never exists in the first place. In some instances, the playwright might include stage directions and require the actor to engage with the audience or to act ironically.

The term was coined by Bertolt Brecht, who is best-known for plays like “The Three Penny Opera,” “The Good Person of Szechwan,” and “Mother Courage and Her Children.” He used it in his 1936 essay, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting.” Brecht noted in this essay that the alienation effect occurred when the audience consciously rejected what they were seeing rather than identifying with the characters and plot subconsciously.

Alienation Effect Techniques

There are numerous ways in which a playwright or author might use the alienation effect in their work. These include:

  • 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.

Examples of the Alienation Effect

“The Hostage” by Brendan Behan

“The Hostage” is one of the playwright’s best-known works. It follows an IRA kidnapping of a British soldier. It was initially received with mixed reviews but is well-regarded by most critics today. The play is non-realistic and uses the alienation effect to ensure the audience remembers this. The character burst into song and dance at seemingly random moments.

“Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht

This commonly performed play is a great example of the lamination effect. The story follows Anna Fierling and her children, who struggle to survive. Over the course of the play, Fierling loses all of her children. The play conveys the powerful message that some people don’t care who wins a war as long as there is a profit to be made. The play is considered to be one of the best of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest anti-war play ever written.

This play is notorious for the different ways in which it can be performed, especially depending on whether it’s in English or German. The actors might verbalize their actions and intentions, focus single-mindedly on one scene and ignoring the broader storyline, and more.

Gestus and Spass

These are two other Brechtian techniques that are often found alongside the alienation effect. Gestus is a technique that refers to a character’s movements. It’s a movement that captures a moment rather than an emotion. This means that an actor’s gestures took on added meaning and were studied intensively before a play was performed. This relates to Brecht’s interesting in creating types of characters rather than individuals. His plays usually featured characters like “The Girl” or “The Boss.” These people evoked the feeling of a particular type of person, and their movements were an important part of the role.

Brecht also used guests to convey meaning in contextually different situations. For example, hugging someone who just committed a terrible crime juxtaposed against refusing to hug someone whose just done a good deed.

Spass is another literary technique Brecht is remembered for. The word translates to “fun” and is connected to Brecht’s interest in making the audience think and laugh. Despite the reputation many of his plays have as being serious, he also used comedic moments to break the tension. This was usually in the form of a song, using slapstick comedy.

Why Do Writers Use the Alienation Effect?

Writers use the alienation effect in order to force the viewer to analyze what they’re seeing/reading more critically. They should be less emotionally attached to the characters and storyline because they are constantly reminded it’s fake. The audience is incapable of sitting back and allowing themselves to be consumed by the story. It takes them to a different place, one that constantly reveals itself to be fictitious. When the audience is successfully alienated from the storyline, they’re able to look at the characters and plot objectively. This might help a writer, like Brecht, who is known for engaging with political and social themes, convey a particular opinion. It might also help readers better note a character’s (or type of character’s) hypocritical features.

Is the Alienation Effect Good to Use?

The alienation effect is a wonderful example of how modernist theatre evolved during the 1900s. The fact that writers like Brecht were willing to compromise the central tenants of theatre to try something new makes the effect well worth studying and using. Working to ensure the audience never believes one’s story is a risky endeavor to engage with. But, it allows for a unique experience, one that prior playwrights hadn’t achieved.


How did Bertolt Brecht use the alienation effect?

Brecht used this effect by having his actors perform in a certain way. They might read the stage directions out loud, use placards, prompters, or illustrations. They might also speak ironically as if they didn’t really believe what they were saying.

How does the alienation effect affect an individual?

The individual is unable to subconsciously connect to the storyline. They are constantly reminded that the play is fictional. This means they are able to think more clearly about the characters and the content.

What does Verfremdungseffekt mean in drama?

Verfremdungseffekt, also known as v-effect, is used to separate the audience from the play. By using a wide variety of techniques, the playwright ensures the audience is incapable of believing in the reality of the play. They are constantly reminded it’s fake.

Why did Brecht use the alienation effect?

Brecht used the alienation effect because he wanted to make his audiences think. Telling a story wasn’t enough for his plays. He wanted them to have an impact on the audience, especially when they dealt with political subjects.

What is Brechtian style?

Brechtian style is ironic, thoughtful, and sometimes mischievous. His writing allowed audiences to remain objective and analyze the characters and plot points. He often wanted to share information and messages through his work.

  • Act: a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
  • Dramatic Monologue: a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
  • Melodrama: a work of literature or a theatrical performance that uses exaggerated events and characters.
  • Surrealism: refers to a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporate dreams and the unconscious and fuse reality and pure imagination.

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