Historification is a term invented and used by playwright Bertolt Brecht in his plays. Brecht's theater was a revolt against the theater of realism. His epic theater, as he called it, told large narrative stories spread across many locations and episodes. Brecht believed that most modern theater of his day (the 1920s to the 1950s) was like a drug on the audience, sending them to sleep. He wanted to wake up audiences, and he wanted to present vital theatrical productions that were also didactic and made people think.
The alienation effect was another primary tool Brecht used in his plays. Definitions have varied over the years, but he basically wanted to "make the familiar strange" for audiences, while at the same time using historification, which means (for him) to set the story of the play in past. The purpose of this is for audiences to view the action with enough emotional detachment that they can have a thinking response that creates parallels between the play's events and the modern world.
In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which premiered in 1948, Brecht first "historifies" the play by creating a frame around the central play. There is a play within a play. The frame play shows a conflict between two communes in Soviet Russia at the end of World War 2 over who is to manage a piece of land. To help everyone understand the conflict better, one of the communes has arranged for the production of a play, a parable, so everyone can watch and perhaps find illumination about their dispute.
The players who are going to tell the parable of The Caucasian Chalk Circle take the stage. A Singer leads them. This Singer character tells us, as well as the commune audience, that this is an ancient Chinese fable, but now it will be told with modern twists.
The central concept of Brecht's play is the play within the play. As we in the audience are watching the play, we are also watching the Russian watchers who are watching the play. This layering of viewpoint—the real life audience watching two different narratives, both set in the past—was a technique that Brecht hoped would help create the distancing effect he wanted to achieve for his audiences.
So, the different locations of the two plays—the prologue/epilogue framing play in the USSR and the performed Chinese parable set in Georgia, Russia (called Grusinia in the play)—exemplify the use of the historification technique.
We may also identify historification by comparing and contrasting the different styles of stagecraft used to identify the two locations. For instance, if a cart is used in the commune framing play and a carriage is used in the parable play, that is use of historification. Different productions of the play, if they are aware of what Brecht wanted to do with his plays in general, may find many ways to create these contrasts.
In a 2010 San Francisco production of the play, director John Doyle created the commune frame play and set with an encircling chain link fence, hanging tarps, and a litter-scattered central space. The commune soldiers are wearing military fatigues, their faces covered with soot and blackened to hide themselves if there should be more combat. Inside of this grim wartime reality, the parable play is told with music, with performers often singing and playing musical instruments, creating a vaudeville-style performance with just a smattering of story-specific props. Did the historification contrast work for the audience in this instance? It is always worthwhile creating experiments onstage, and if the performance kept the audience awake and thinking as the story was presented, then Brecht probably would have approved.