Whilst Artaud sought to change the world by a direct assault on human emotions, Brecht set out to change peoples minds. Brecht aimed to use the theatre to show his audience what was wrong with society, and then convince them to go out and change it.
Bertolt Brecht was born in Germany in 1898. In 1917 he enrolled at Munich Universirt as a medical students but he was conscirpted into the army in 1918, right at the end of the First World War. During 1918, at the age of only twenty, he wrote his first play, Baal. Brecht never completed his medical studies. From 1919 onwards he became increasingly invovled in the theatre, both as a writer and a director. By 1924 he was already using some of the techniques which later became so famous, such as; actors wearing stark white face make upand big signs giving plot summaries before each scene in a play.
By 1927 Brecht was studying the writings of Karl Marx, and became increasingly involved in political theatre in Germany. In 1933 Hitler cam to power, and anyone with communist sympathies was in danger. Brecht fled with his family, living briefly in a number of different places before settling in Denmark. Between 1933 and 1941 he wrote some of his greatest plays, including Life of Galileo, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan and The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. As the Second World War spread across Europe, Brecht was forced to flee once more. In 1941 he sailed with his fmaily to America, settling in California. In 1943 he wrote one of his most fmaous plays The Caucasian Chalk Cirle. Although the Second World War ended in 1945, Brecht went on living in America until 1947. However, in that year he was called before McCarthy’s House Committee on Unamerican Activities, which was investigating the spread of Communism in America. Brecht and his wife left America and returned to Europe, living first in Zuric. In 1949 Brecht finally moved to Communist East Berlin and formed the Berliner Ensemble, which became one of the world’s greatest theatre companies.
In 1956, whilst preparing for a visit to England with his theatre company, Brecht suffered a heart attack. He died on 14 August.
Brecht called his plays Epic Theatre, a type a play which tells a story, usually historical, on a large scale, including a number of people in a series of events over a long period. Brecht used Epic Theatre as a way of presenting his political views. Put simply, his plays are propaganda, made interesting by Brecht’s theatrical genius. He compared his plays to scientific experiments. In them, types of human behaviour could be improved.
The plays tell stories in a way designed to make the audience feel they are simply observers, watching the events happening on stage and making judgments about them. His plays move in a series of independent scenes, sometimes skipping years in time and moving from place to place. Each scene is there to make a particular point about human behaviour for the audience to consider.
Brecht’s concept of the relationship between the play and its audience was the exact opposite of Artuad’s. In the Theatre of Cruelty Artuad sought to totally involve the audience, both physically and emotionally. In Brecht’s Epic Theatre, the audience became like scientists, sitting back and observing events in a completely detached and logical way. All Brecht’s theatrical techniques were designed to make sure this happened.
In the heart of all Brecht’s theatre is the idea of alienation (to make something strange). Brecht explained that he meant it as taking away from a character or an event the things that make them familiar and understandable. The idea was constantly to surprise and challenge the audience, whilst reminding them that the play they were watching was simply a story, being told to make a profound political point.
Set and staging
Brecht used fragments of scenery and single pieces of furniture to suggest whole locations. A single cut-out of a tree would be used to represent a forest. A plain chair and a bench for the judge represented an entire courtroom. The scenery was often changed in front of the audience, sometimes by the actors themselves, and there was no front curtain in Brecht’s theatre.
Costumes were sometimes complete, but often a single item of clothing or a simple prop was all the costume used. For example, an actor portraying a peasant would appear wearing a sheep-skin jacket over a plain dark outfit. At the end of the scene he would remove the jacket, put on a helmet and pick up a spear, and appear as a soldier in the next scene. Frequently these changes of costume and character were done on the stage in front of the audience, reinforcing the idea of alienation.
For many of Brecht’s plays, the stage was flooded with bright, white light the entire time, regardless of whether the scene was a summer’s day or a winter evening.
Most of Brecht’s plays made use of a screen, or large placards, somewhere on or above the stage. The placards gave the audience information about the play introduced the scenes, and often made comments about the action happening on stage. Sometimes Brecht also used a narrator, an actor who talked directly to the audience, giving them information and hammering home the message of the play.
The use of songs was another alienation effect. By breaking the mood or action of a scene and bursting into song, the actors were reminding the audience that they were watching a play, and that the play ahd a message. The songs were used to comment on the action, or make a particular point about one of the characters, or even to briefly summarise the message of the play. Sometimes the actors actually stepped out of character and sang songs directly to the audience.
Like Artaud, Brecht was interested in Asian theatre, particularly Japanese and Chinese theatre, but for opposite reasons. Brecht admired it for the skilled use of techniques, particularly physical movement, and the way this movement was used to tell a story in a stylised, unemotional way. Brecht encouraged his actors to learn the formal gestures of Chinese theatre and use them in a completely detached way, as though they were doing exercises or watching themselves in a mirror. In the Chinese theatre, the gesture which shows that a character is crying is moving the finger up and down in front of the eyes. Brecht encouraged his actors to use this gesture instead of actually weeping tears.
Brecht made enormous vocal demands on his actors. They were required to sing, chant, use mechanical and strange-sounding voices, produce disconnected and non-human sounds, and speak in a range of dialects and accents.
Often Brecht’s dialogue is powerful, simple and poetic, full of emotion, then suddenly it will be broken by strange or dissonant speech or sounds, designed to produce alienation. Class distinctions and accents are carefully written into the language of the plays, and are extensively used as part of the political and social messages of the plays.
Brecht described the actor’s role as being like an eye-witness at an accident. The actor’s job is to demonstrate what happened. He must not get carried away with his role in a play and deceive the audience into believing they are watching a real event. Nor must he try and become any of the characters he is portraying. His job is to ‘demonstrate’ the words and actions of his character. At no time should the actor, or his audiences identify with the character.
Brecht actually listed a series of rules his actors should follow. He believed you should:-
A famous German actress Lotte Lenya told the story of how she asked Brecht for advice about acting in one of his plays. Instead of giving her a list of rules, Brecht simply told her to follow her instincts and go about the business of acting. So Brecht himself was aware that his famous theories could only be taken so far. Brecht’s plays are a rich and complex mixture of the real and unreal, of politics and theatre, and must be treated as such. In the same way, his techniques for communicating ideas and concerns can be extremely powerful when used with care and in combination with other techniques which balance and enhance Brecht’s.