Brecht and Method

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Many modern dramatists have some claim to being regarded as theorists by virtue of having contributed theatrical manifestos along with their plays. Among the more important of these are August Strindberg on naturalism and expressionism; Antonin Artaud on theater of cruelty; Tennessee Williams on a plastic theater; and Arthur Miller on modern tragedy. Yet probably none has been more pervasive on later dramaturgical practice than Bertolt Brecht’s “Short Organum for the Theatre,” in which he distinguishes between the dramatic form and the epic form of playwriting. The former refers to a theater that is linear in construction, one that embodies and incarnates events so as to involve and draw audiences into the action and thus promote their feeling, whereas the latter designates a theater that is more episodic in nature, one that narrates or relates events and characters from the outside and asks audiences to observe and confront what they see, thereby provoking thought. When Brecht— whom Fredric Jameson sees as influencing Walter Benjamin and, most decisively, Roland Barthes— broke onto the French theatrical scene in 1954 with performances of Mother Courage and Her Children (1949) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1954), he not only came to “crystallize” Marxism for a generation of postwar intellectuals but also introduced a mode of thinking that was itself a new kind of aesthetic. What Jameson, probably the most influential of the neo- Marxist literary theorists, provides in Brecht and Method is both a description and a cultural analysis of that theory and aesthetic.

Jameson touts Brecht as responding in his plays to several social and artistic impetuses: an interest in dramaturgical and theoretical innovation; a demand for a new kind of political literature; and a desire to provide voice to diverse groups that previously had been kept in a condition of subalternity. Yet for all of his radical innovation at the time, his works now might appear—in the wake of such theater artists as Samuel Beckett and Robert Wilson—“obsolescent,” while his influence on contemporary thought seems submerged and not readily apparent. Jameson would argue, though, that Brecht is “everywhere” present today without his name necessarily being attached and without the public’s generally being aware of it. Jameson’s project is thus to reclaim, or rescue, the body of work for a postmodern age. Jameson himself, in his 1991 study Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, delineated three stages in the development of capitalism and then linked each one to a literary/theoretical/philosophical movement: market capitalism to realism; monopoly or imperialistic capitalism to modernism; and postindustrial or international capitalism to postmodernism. What he sets out to do with subtlety and ingenuity in Brecht and Method is to recuperate Brecht for modernism and appropriate him for postmodernism.

Jameson defines the Brechtian dialectical method in terms of its style, its thought or doctrine, and its plot or narrative. Insisting that it should not be regarded as a philosophical system, Jameson sees it as a construction of “contradictions,” breaking up elements so that they then can be subjected to analysis. Consequently, Brecht has often been viewed—though perhaps unjustly—as coldly intellectual, propagandistic, even off-putting when contrasted with more traditional dramaturgical practice that aims at achieving empathic identification between audience and characters. It is not difficult to see why Aristotelian models, built on catharsis that arises from perceiving universal dimensions that flatten out social distinctions and so unify the audience, would be antithetical to the Marxian analysis occurring in an epic theater whose intent is to divide audience members one from the other and thereby recast and replay the class struggle. Jameson, more systematically than might at first appear, discusses the stylistic techniques that mark Brecht’s plays. Most of these exist in service of distantiation or estrangement—Brecht’s famous V-effect—which forestalls or even defeats emotional response so that acts of intellection or rational analysis remain primary.

Jameson fruitfully likens Brecht’s distantiation method in theater to Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory in film, in that for both of these modern artists, technique has meaning in and of itself and form is not only inseparable from, but also in service to, content. At various points in his text, Jameson considers Brecht’s “non-formalist” storytelling, with its tendency to break down the narrative into brief episodes, themselves often introduced by printed (or spoken) lines. Jameson compares these to the chapter headings in eighteenth century novels and, in fact, employs similar headings before each of the twenty brief sections of his own text. Often, the episodes are preceded or interrupted by songs, and then perhaps followed by a moral or proverb, an abstract formulation that, if not actually juxtaposed in some way with the acted-out anecdote, reduces the narrative content to a “grammatical minimum.” Whether the moral requires the audience members to reflect and arrive at their own judgment or offers them a judgment for their assent that has already been formulated, the challenge for them is to question rather than simply to reaffirm existing norms. Jameson even proposes that what is offered in Brecht’s great final plays—Mother Courage and Her Children, The...

(The entire section is 2260 words.)