Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3782
Brecht’s status as Germany’s greatest twentieth century playwright is by now securely established. He joins the pantheon of his country’s most commanding dramatists, which includes Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Büchner, and Gerhart Hauptmann. Moreover, he is also a distinguished poet, with an astonishingly wide lyric range spanning folk ballads, Rimbaudesque prose poems, political epistles, and luminously concrete sonnets. Additionally, he is a provocative theorist of drama, whose concept of theatrical presentation has had enormous influence.
To address Brecht’s dramaturgy first: He had nothing but contempt for what he called illusionist, bourgeois, Aristotelian theater. He scorned all devices of composition and production that sought to seduce an audience into responding empathically to the events on stage, into identifying with one or more of the characters. He sought to produce the opposite effect, one of estrangement or distancing, which he called Verfremdung, the process of alienating. He wanted the audience not to identify strongly with the characters, not to be transported emotionally by the actions on stage. Instead, he wished to initiate contemplation and critical judgment in his spectators, to have them remain aware that they were witnessing “nothing but” a play on whose meaning they were invited to exercise their critical intelligence during the performance rather than after it.
To deliver his audience from what he regarded as the captivity of illusion and bring it to a state of social reform, Brecht rejected many of the hitherto unquestioned criteria of dramatic art. He sought to avoid a firmly coherent and climactic structure in his plays, instead unfolding the action in numerous loosely connected episodes that he termed “epic form.” He instructed his actors to remain detached from the personages that they portrayed, instead telling them to play openly to the public in the theater, making their roles commentaries rather than representations. He had brief synopses, often songs, at the beginning of each scene; they were intended to empty the following action of suspense. Instead of eliciting strong emotions to purge the spectators of pity and terror, Brecht sought to stress the unheroic, the grotesque, and the farcical, with his characters often speaking in colloquial, and even low, language.
Nonetheless, despite Brecht’s intense efforts to achieve distance and estrangement, to make his theater a school for educating the audience to revolutionary acts, he usually succeeded as a dramatist in proportion to his failure as a didactic theoretician. The differences between illusionist and epic theater turn out to be ones of degree rather than direct opposition. After all, in no theater does complete identification of the spectators with the characters occur, or they would rush on stage to save Desdemona from Othello. In no theater can there be complete detachment of the spectators from the drama, or they would doze off or walk out.
Brecht’s plays, despite his strenuous efforts to circumvent the emotional response of his audience by the negation of illusion, are charged with the energies of his moral and political passions. They have the effect of enthralling and, at best, deeply moving those who witness them. In his finest dramas, though he wished only to hone his audience to critical keenness, he also moved it to tears and wonder and laughter. Though he sought to shock his audience with sardonic humor and savage indignation, he could not help letting his compassion flood through self-imposed dikes of ferocious cynicism. Though he concentrated on such vices as greed, envy, brutality, and disloyalty in many of his works, he also rose above these pessimistic indictments. In...
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