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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 9 - Modern Drama  


Bertolt Brecht on "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting"

Brecht's theory of "epic theatre" was designed to encourage audiences to remain alert by reminding them that they are watching a play. Associating epic with the ancient bards who sang of heroic deeds to an audience which sat back and reflected on those events (see Aristotle's description of tragedy in Chapter 3), Brecht sets epic in sharp contrast to the dramatic mode that emphasizes emotion. What Brecht called "Aristotelian" theatre relied to a great extent on empathy, on the ability to identify with the protagonist, who was traditionally a figure of genuinely heroic proportions. Aristotelian theatre, Brecht believed, was meant to arouse in the spectator feelings of fear and pity -- pity for the suffering individual and fear that it might happen to oneself -- which led to a catharsis, a purging of emotions and release.

Brecht, by contrast, wanted spectators to retain some distance from the events depicted onstage. Audiences should not be encouraged to think that the action of the play occurs in the present, taking place independently, while the missing fourth wall enabled the spectator to eavesdrop. To forestall such illusions, the epic playwright makes use of various distancing devices, called in German Verfremdungseffekte, a term which Brecht condensed into V-effekt, or, in the English translation A-(for alienation) effect.

This "alienation," however, does not mean that Brecht wanted theatregoers to be put off by the play they had paid to see. He believed rather that they must recognize the "strangeness" of having feelings for fictitious beings. Moreover, while he argued that audiences should guard against identifying with the characters in the play, he thought that actors, too, must avoid identifying with their parts, thinking of themselves in the third person, as demonstrating, rather than enacting events. He compares the experience of an eyewitness to a traffic accident at a street corner where an old man has been run over. All of the eyewitnesses try to convey by means of certain statements and gestures their observations -- information other bystanders may dispute. Actors should be like the eyewitness who "acts the behaviour of driver or victim or both in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident."(1)

This ability to form independent judgments must not be compromised. Brecht believed that presented with the facts alone and allowed to reflect on them, audiences will reach the necessary and desired conclusion that the world needs changing and that they must help bring about that change. Consequently Brecht advocated a number of unorthodox devices, such as permitting smoking in the theatre, on the assumption that a person smoking is too self-absorbed to empathize with the characters on stage. To keep audiences from losing their critical perspective and diminish the seductive power of theatrical suspense and surprise, in several plays Brecht has a brief verbal summary of the contents of each upcoming scene projected onto a screen, subordinating the "dramatic" to the "epic" aspect. Toward the same end, the Brechtian stage is bathed in light, with the sources of light visible to the public; the backdrop is also simple, sparse, and nonillusionistic. Similarly, musical numbers, announced in advance, further break the illusion of a realistic action; musicians usually sit on the stage in full view of the audience and actors break the spell of their songs with asides directed to the audience.

On a trip to Moscow in 1935, Brecht viewed Chinese theatre and one of its great actors, Mei Lan-Fang, for the first time, and found that traditional Chinese acting also used alienation effects. Not only Chinese theatre, but Asian culture in general began to play an important part in Brecht's writing, influencing his play The Good Person of Setzuan (written between 1938 and 1941 and also translated as The Good Woman of Setzuan). In the following excerpt from his first writing on the subject, published in 1936, Brecht analyzes the differences between traditional Western drama and the Chinese theatre.

Excerpts From "Alienation Effects In Chinese Acting"

The Chinese artist's performance often strikes the Western actor as cold. That does not mean that the Chinese theatre rejects all representation of feelings. The performer portrays incidents of utmost passion, but without his delivery becoming heated. At those points where the character portrayed is deeply excited the performer takes a lock of hair between his lips and chews it. But this is like a ritual, there is nothing eruptive about it. It is quite clearly somebody else's repetition of the incident: a representation, even though an artistic one. The performer shows that this man is not in control of himself, and he points to the outward signs. And so lack of control is decorously expressed, or if not decorously at any rate decorously for the stage. Among all the possible signs certain particular ones are picked out, with careful and visible consideration. Anger is naturally different from sulkiness, hatred from distaste, love from liking; but the corresponding fluctations of feeling are portrayed economically. The coldness comes from the actor's holding himself remote from the character portrayed, along the lines described. He is careful not to make its sensations into those of the spectator. Nobody gets raped by the individual he portrays; this individual is not the spectator himself but his neighbour.

The Western actor does all he can to bring his spectator into the closest proximity to the events and the character he has to portray. To this end he persuades him [the spectator] to identify himself with him (the actor) and uses every energy to convert himself as completely as possible into a different type, that of the character in question. If this complete conversion succeeds then his art has been more or less expended. Once he has become the bank-clerk, doctor or general concerned he will need no more art than any of these people need 'in real life'.

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In point of fact the only people who can profitably study a piece of technique like Chinese acting A-effect are those who need such a technique for quite definite social purposes.

The experiments conducted by the modern German theatre led to a wholly independent development of the A-effect. So far Asiatic acting has exerted no influence.

The A-effect was achieved in the German epic theatre not only by the actor, but also by the music (choruses, songs) and the setting (placards, film, etc.). It was principally designed to historicize the incidents portrayed. By this is meant the following:

The bourgeois theatre emphasized the timelessness of its objects. Its representation of people is bound by the alleged 'eternally human'. Its story is arranged in such a way as to create 'universal' situations that allow Man with a capital M to express himself: man of every period and every colour. All its incidents are just one enormous cue, and this cue is followed by the 'eternal' response: the inevitable, usual, natural, purely human response. . . . But for the historicizing theatre everything is different. The theatre concentrates entirely on whatever in this perfectly everyday event is remarkable, particular and demanding inquiry. What! A family letting one of its members leave the nest to earn her future living independently and without help? Is she up to it? Will what she has learnt here as a member of the family help her to earn her living? Can't families keep a grip on their children any longer? Have they become (or remained) a burden? Is it like that with every family? Was it always like that? Is this the way of the world, something that can't be affected? The fruit falls off the tree when ripe: does this sentence apply here? Do children always make themselves independent? Did they do so in every age? If so, and if it's biological, does it always happen in the same way, for the same reasons and with the same results? These are the questions (or a few of them) that the actors must answer if they want to show the incident as a unique historical one: if they want to demonstrate a custom which leads to conclusions about the entire structure of a society at a particular (transient) time. But how is such an incident to be represented if its historic character is to be brought out? How can the confusion of our unfortunate epoch be striking? When the mother, in between warnings and moral injunctions, packs her daughter's case -- a very small one -- how is the following to be shown: So many injunctions and so few clothes? Moral injunctions for a lifetime and bread for five hours? How is the actress to speak the mother's sentence as she hands over such a very small case - 'There, I guess that ought to do you' - in such a way that it is understood as a historic dictum? This can only be achieved if the A-effect is brought out. The actress must not make the sentence her own affair, she must hand it over for criticism, she must help us to understand its causes and protest.

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In setting up new artistic principles and working out new methods of representation we must start with the compelling demands of a changing epoch; the necessity and the possibility of remodelling society looms ahead. All incidents between men must be noted, and everything must be seen from a social point of view. Among other effects that a new theatre will need for its social criticism and its historical reporting of completed transformations is the A-effect.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Read the excerpts from the Sanskrit Shakuntala and the Japanese treatise on the No theatre from Chapter 3. How do these examples of dramatic practice in other Asian cultures compare with Brecht's description of Chinese acting?
  2. What connection does Brecht make between ritual and drama? How does ritual (as in a religious ceremony) differ from theatrical presentation? Why does Brecht say there is "nothing eruptive" about ritualized action?
  3. Brecht here articulates a key idea of modern social criticism, that human experience is not "universal" but "historical." Explain the anecdote which he uses here to illustrate this notion. Do you agree with this rejection of the concept of eternal truths?
  4. Many television shows use alienation effects by having actors step out of character and address the viewer directly. Consider the impact of such moments. Do they lead to the political motivation that Brecht seeks to achieve by his use of similar devices?


(1) Berolt Brecht, "The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre," Brecht on Theatre: The Develpment of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans., John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 121. previous table of contents