Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5639
Bertolt Brecht’s early dramas are anarchic, nihilistic, and antibourgeois. In them, he glorifies antisocial outsiders such as adventurers, pirates, and prostitutes; the tone of these works is often cynical. In the years after his conversion to Marxism, Brecht wrote didactic plays, similar in many respects to late medieval morality plays, whose style is austere and functional. These plays were intended to be performed in schools and factories by nonprofessional actors. In his later plays, Brecht combined the vitality of his early period with his Marxist beliefs to create plays that are dramatically effective, socially committed, and peopled with realistic characters. To the end of his life, Brecht thought of the theater as both a place of entertainment and of learning. By making people aware of social abuses, he believed, literature can help make the world a better place; it can help bring the Marxist goal of a classless Utopia closer to realization.
Brecht is well known for his theories on epic theater . Although this concept did not originate with Brecht, he developed it into a revolutionary form of drama. (Toward the end of his life, Brecht wanted to change the name of his theater from “epic” to “dialectical,” to stress the central role of argument in his plays.) Brecht summarizes his theories of epic theater in his notes to Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny; he later recapitulated and revised his theories in Kleines Organon für das Theater (1948; A Little Organum for the Theater, 1951) and in other theoretical writings. In his notes to Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Brecht lists the differences he perceives between his epic theater and the Aristotelian (or dramatic) theater. Unlike dramatic theater, in which the tightly constructed plot creates suspense, epic theater uses loosely connected scenes that are set off against one another. The loose narrative structure helps to break the suspense and makes the audience focus on the course of the play, not on how the play will be resolved at the end. Brecht is extremely critical of dramatic theater: According to him, it is static; it shows universally human, that is, fixed and unchangeable, traits. Epic theater depicts the world as it changes and shows how it can be changed. It shows that human behavior can be altered. Therefore, epic theater should make people aware of social abuses and provoke them to change social evils.
Instead of activating its spectators, dramatic theater, in Brecht’s view, numbs the audience by making it identify with the characters and become involved in the action. When spectators attend such plays, he remarks caustically, they hang up their brains with their coats. Brecht satirically describes the typical audience at a dramatic play, sunk into a peculiarly drugged state, wholly passive. Brecht comments that the worst gangster film shows more respect for its audience as thinking beings than does the conventional dramatic play. If people are to learn from the theater, they should be alert, rational, and socially concerned. Instead of identifying with the characters, they should remain critically aloof—certainly a necessary attitude if they are to come to grips with the ideas that Brecht presents. In his notes to The Threepenny Opera, Brecht expresses his wish to create a theater full of experts like those in sporting arenas. To prevent empathy, he says, theaters should allow people to smoke: He suggests that people who are puffing on cigars (Brecht himself was an inveterate cigar smoker) would be less easily carried away by events onstage.
Nevertheless, while epic theater stresses reason, it does not dispense with all emotions. In a discussion with playwright Friedrich Wolf in 1949, Brecht noted that his theater actually tries to reinforce certain...
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