Thesis And Antithesis: Brecht Outlines His Theatre

An exploration of Brecht’s aesthetics and their relation to contemporary theatre through study of his “Short Organum For Theatre”.  

–>Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is an enemy of modern American theatre.  He was a distant, egg-headed theoretician, consumed by politics.  His alienation effects, which deliberately distance the audience from the drama of the performances on-stage, have no place in a theatre dedicated to the frisson of collective identification or the brave plumbing of emotional depths.  America, thankfully, has moved past him, to a place of fuller, red-blooded expression.
<–But Brecht was, in fact, a consummate entertainer, whose greatest early influence was the cabaret, who insisted theatre “needs no other passport than fun, but this it has got to have.”  And Brecht became, by consensus, one of the truly indispensible theatrical inventors of the 20th century.  In Peter Brook’s estimation, only Beckett gave as much or deserved as much recognition.
<–>To the extent, then, that contemporary regard for Brecht has been warped, is it possible a poor understanding of his art is to blame?  Who is this cold Marxist agitator?  What has he to do with Brook’s hero, or the man partly responsible for bringing the world “The Ballad Of Mack The Knife”?  If poor understanding is the problem, perhaps it can be fixed with a close look at his writing.  Brecht’s essay from 1949, “A Short Organum For Theatre”, attempts to define the aesthetic he had spent so many years developing.
In the earliest pages of “A Short Organum For Theatre”, Brecht sets his theatre, and its relative valuation of pleasure, directly alongside all other historical theatres.
“What the ancients, following Aristotle, demanded of tragedy is nothing higher or lower than that it should entertain people.  Theatre may be said to be derived from ritual, but that is only to say that it becomes theatre once the two have separated…And the catharsis of which Aristotle writes – cleansing by fear and pity, or from fear and pity – is a purification which is performed not only in a pleasurable way, but precisely for the purpose of pleasure.  To ask or to accept more of the theatre is to set one’s own mark too low.”
He continues to write of how the various aesthetics were designed to give pleasure to the people of the societies and periods in which they flourished.  He notes that not only subject matter but every aspect of form had to be reshaped.
Brecht’s theatre could not be the theatre of other times and places, because those methods were no longer sufficiently entertaining.  Though audiences still flocked to see plays written or performed in the style of past centuries, their relation to the action on-stage was impoverished in comparison to what those plays would have meant to former theatergoers.  “Our whole way of appreciation is starting to get out of date,” he writes.  “For when we look about us for an entertainment whose impact is immediate, for a comprehensive and penetrating pleasure such as our theatre could give us by representations of men’s life together, we have to think of ourselves as children of a scientific age.”
Here Brecht pauses to illustrate what he means by “scientific age.”  He draws a line from the discoveries of the renaissance and enlightenment, to the industrialization his father’s generation experienced and whose shocks he saw rebounding across the western world.  “It was as if mankind for the first time now began a conscious and coordinated effort to make the planet that was its home fit to live on…in all directions man looked about himself with a new vision, to see how he could adapt to his convenience familiar but as yet unexploited objects.”
Yet the scientific spirit that was nearly everywhere present in society had not turned inward to examine and improve society itself.  In the age of industry, civilization ramified, and the gains in productive methods buoyed the lot of the bourgeoisie, while leaving workers more miserable than before.  Further, the most marvelous of new discoveries were being applied to the task of killing men in greater and more terrifying wars.
Brecht suggests that with Marxist economic theory the new science of man had been born, the eye turned inward to examine the relations between citizens.  Marxism made sense of the tension between rulers and ruled under a materialist interpretation of historical forces.  Marx’s inquiry dealt openly with the social consequences of a newly industrialized society, in which international capital had come to supplant economic imperatives hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.  What is the role of this new science in theatre, Brecht asks: “What is the productive attitude in the face of nature and of society which we children of a scientific age would like to take up pleasurably in our theatre?”
The attitude is a critical one.  Faced with a river, it consists in regulating the river; faced with a fruit tree, in spraying the fruit tree; faced with movement, in constructing vehicles and aeroplanes; faced with society, in turning society upside down.  Our representations of human social life are designed for river-dwellers, fruit farmers, builders of vehicles and upturners of society, whom we invite into our theatres and beg not to forget their cheerful occupations while we hand the world over to their minds and hearts, for them to change as they think fit.
This critical attitude is one of pleasure and productivity: if represented properly on-stage, it engenders the joys of discovery and deciding; it presents the construction of society as a kind of game, in which the spectator is at last no longer passive witness; and the emotional thrills common to theatre are inspired once again, this time in the forms that delight the children of the age of science.
The critical theatre must cause investigation.  Famously, Brecht portrayed audiences of contemporary theatre as a “lot of sleepers” – “their eyes are open, but they stare rather than see.”  What real pleasure, critical or otherwise, could be had in this state?  How could a hypnotized audience ever share in the productive attitude of the new age?
A theatre meant to do for popular entertainment as Marxism had done for economics must situate its dramas in historical and material terms.  Brecht laments the habit of companies rendering period plays without the distinguishing characteristics of their settings.  Settings, and characters, too, must be put forth in such a way that an audience sees them for what they are: an arrangement of situations that might be otherwise.  Brecht was looking for a way to bring choice and the possibility of change into the experience of drama, substituting them for the cheap psychological identification that narcotized his “lot of sleepers.”
The principal method he hit upon was to preserve contradictions other theatres had shorn out, most famously through his alienation effects.  Alienation effects are theatrical devices that make a common object foreign, so that it may be seen with fresh eyes.  They are “designed to free socially-conditioned phenomena from that stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today.”  To wake the sleepers, in other words.
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…to transform himself from general passive acceptance to a corresponding state of suspicious inquiry he would need to develop that detached eye with which the great Galileo observed a swinging chandelier.
Alienation is a profound break from historical theatre.  With respect to character, Brecht was no longer interested in the clear continuity expected in an actor’s portrayal.  Rather, he sought contradiction and the confrontation between different aspects of a personality.  “The bourgeois theatre’s performances always aim at smooth over contradictions, at creating false harmony, at idealization…none of this is like reality, so a realistic theatre must give it up.”  He spoke of “Not/But”, a kind of shadow-life for the character, worked out in rehearsal, in which each choice could be made in opposing ways, in the hopes that the final performance might retain some of this suggested dialectic.  Dialectical materialism, he writes, “regards nothing as existing in so far as it changes, in other words is in disharmony with itself.”  To alienate an individual is to make them particular, disharmonious, and less susceptible to identification.
Actors no longer ought to lose themselves in their parts, but should at all times be aware, and make the audience aware, that it is a dual role: of actor and of character.  The actor’s own viewpoint is to be present and never subsumed into the feelings of the character.
Scenes, too, are redefined through alienation.  Brecht’s favorite method of alienating a scene was using titles.  Rather than flow seamlessly together, new sequences were bracketed off by descriptive titles, indicating basic plot details and some of the social character of the upcoming action.  In his example from the “Short Organum”, Brecht muses that a title suggesting a universal lesson will cause the audience watching the next scene to wonder if the lesson really does have any validity or universality.  “As soon as we ask whether in fact it should have become such, or what about it should have done so, we are alienating the incident.”
In Peter Brook’s opinion, what alienation did was relieve theatre of illusion for illusion’s sake.  Brecht offered a cascade of different, and often oppositional, illusions (devices), to keep the audience in a constant state of awareness and amazement.
Alienation is a profound, if unremarked upon, trait of modern theatre.  Naturalistic acting is probably more the exception than the rule in experimental productions.  Playwrights commonly employ shorter scenes, proceeding in dialectical steps (the influence of film deserves some credit).  Spectators are habituated to a babel of conventions, often used interchangeably, and that goes from a no-budget Erik Ehn play to a Broadway extravaganza like The Lion King.  An artist like Len Jenkin, whose aesthetic is arguably common tongue for young people raised on post-modernism and pop-culture mash-ups, is unthinkable without Brecht.
Much like his acolyte Godard, who saw his cinematic innovations swallowed and regurgitated in commercial advertisements, Brecht’s revolutionary techniques have had the misfortune to survive long enough to become furniture in the modern theatre. His alienation effects are in need of alienating.
If they are made to stand up and be recognized, they could be seen for the entertaining inventions they are, rather than cold water tossed on the spectators’ faces.  Alienation effects are the means by which an audience’s relationship to the stage (and action on it) moves perpetually, allowing them to engage both heart and mind.  The critical attitude is an entertaining one. And it is a richer, more complex entertainment than the soporific hand-me-downs of other ages.
Lest the “Short Organum” be seen as lofty theory, Brecht is careful to include detailed considerations of his own play, discussing how his ideas might be put into practice.
The work he considers is Life Of Galileo (usually just called Galileo in the versions produced in the US).  The principle of character inconsistency is drawn out with uncommon clarity through the first several scenes of the drama.  Galileo happily teaches an inquisitive young student about the earth’s rotation around the sun.  Then he shoos him away to instruct a wealthier pupil.  From the wealthy young man he learns of the telescope invented in Holland.  Soon he is proposing a thesis to the Rector of the university, drawing on the work he performs enthusiastically (and shares with the inquisitive student). When this is met coldly, he pivots.
The prophet of a new age of scientific truth considers how he can swindle some money out of the Republic by offering her the telescope as his own invention…if you move on to the second scene you will find that while he is selling the invention to the Venetian Signoria with a speech that disgraces him by its falsehoods he has already almost forgotten the money, because he has realized that the instrument has not only military but astronomical significance…perhaps, looked at in this way, his charlatanry does not mean much, but it still shows how determined this man is to take the easy course, and to apply his reason in a base as well as a noble manner.
Those familiar with the play will recognize the competing character traits that will come to the center of the drama when Galileo is forced to recant his heliocentric theory.  Worth noting, also, is a parallel thematic disharmony in later versions of the play: on one hand Brecht’s drama valorizes scientific discovery and rationalism as the progress of a liberated society (versus, German fascism or American anti-communism), and on the other he foreshadows the horrible military application scientists are willing to accept for their pay (Hiroshima being foremost in the mind).
The average scene length in Galileo is quite short, and the scenes themselves are often interrupted with songs.  These songs, in Brechtian fashion, comment on the action instead of advancing it (“it cannot simply express itself by discharging the emotions with which the incidents of the play have filled it”).  Many of the scenes are introduced with nursery rhymes, standing in for the kinds of titles described above.  The effect is to frame the entirety of the play as a lesson composed of smaller lessons.  But the meaning of the lesson appears to contradict itself, and confronted with relatively simple story materials, the audience is forced to answer rather difficult questions.
Brecht’s dialectical approach to storytelling extends to the design elements.  He advocates a musical score that operates independently from the conventional scenic needs.  Similarly, he speaks of the stage designer gaining “considerable freedom as soon as he no longer has to give the illusion of a room or a locality.”  He lauds a march written by Eisler for Galileo that gave a threatening undercurrent to an otherwise bright scene and a projection-based set design from Neher that communicated the social milieu in a flexible, non-naturalistic way.  Brecht felt the theatre could not work without choreography.  Elaborately designed movement and miming were a regular practice of the Berliner Ensemble.  In Brecht’s theatre, it is the opposition between design elements that creates synthetic meaning, “and their relations with one another consist in this: that they lead to mutual alienation.”
Rather than a distant, poor theatre, possessing only tools for agitation, Brecht’s theatre draws on a nearly bottomless design and performance vocabulary in order to enliven his admirably clear, rigorous dramaturgy.
The theatre of the scientific age is in a position to make dialectics into a source of enjoyment.  The unexpectedness of logically progressive or zigzag development, the instability of every circumstance, the joke of contradiction and so forth: all these are ways of enjoying the liveliness of men, things and processes.
Brecht’s theatre, which can seem so alien from the vantage of the 21st century, may only be hiding in plain sight.  For who could go back to a theatre of unexamined naturalism and smooth, certain progression?  And though he may have been more politically motivated than most contemporary American theatre, this was in the service of greater entertainment (a term we have starved hollow through poor use).  His inventions, shocking as they may once have been, and cerebral as they might appear now, were the discoveries of a true artist, who wanted us to see with fresh pleasure.
Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager