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Brecht's dramatic theory and practice


Aristotelean drama

Audience identification, emotion, hybris, catharsis, theodicy

Genres (epic, dramatic, lyric)

The dramatic genre

action being played out before the eyes of the audience, in 'real time'. Aristotelan aim, catharsis, required identification on the part of the audience. Brecht considered identification, and the attendant emotional involvement, too sloppy. Theatre in a scientific age needed to be detached, objective, unemotional. He considered it vital that theatre should be productive, i.e. that it should contribute towards social change, rather than merely reflecting or portraying society. That is, theatre should be experimental, progressive and dynamic, not normative, reactionary and static.

The epic genre

is narrative, 'erzählend'. Whereas the 'dramatic' approach to the theatre gets the characters and the audience themselves caught up in the action, the 'epic' approach turns both actors and audience into 'third-person' observers: A novelist desdribes his characters and their actions 'in the third person', i.e. in the epic mode. This ability to stand back and view the events of a play 'dispassionately' is the pre-requisite for 'epic theatre'. If the audience can 'distance' themselves from the events on stage, they can bring their mental and therefore critical faculties to bear. Thus they can analyse events, see why they have come about and above all figure out ways of changing things for the future: they can learn from the characters' experience, instead of merely wallowing in emotionalism at the characters' misfortune.

Brecht's use of the terms epic/dramatic; V-Effekt

1918: Whilst a student at Munich, Brecht began writing reviews, and started to get involved with the theatre.

1922: Became Dramaturg at Münchner Kammerspiele, persuaded Arnolt Bronnen to let him produce a play. From the start, then, Brecht's theatrical theory and practice were linked: a Theatermann.


Epic theatre


alienation, estrangement: a state of affairs in which the spectator looks at things that s/he has hitherto taken for granted, in a fresh light.

Verfremdungseffekt or V-Effekt

This is the term used to cover the whole range of techniques employed by Brecht to produce the right sort of atmosphere in which to create epic theatre, and the desired (i.e. critical) responses in the audience. It could include, for instance, the audience's basic surroundings (e.g. allowing them to smoke, drink and spit on the floor, which breaks with the hallowed tradition of theatre-going as a solemn 'occasion'); or the use of striking sets, e.g. a play about marriage set in a boxing-ring; or mixing tragedy with comedy so as to startle; or the use of music, as in (?) Der gute Mensch von Sezuan and Mutter Courage, in such a way as to produce a harsh contrast between the words of the song and the events in the background; or the use of placards or little summaries announcing the forthcoming action, so that the audience can concentrate on the niceties of the play 'Spannung auf den Gang' without being distracted by what is going to happen next: 'Spannung auf den Ausgang'.

Brecht said, by way of example: 'To see one's mother as a man's wife one needs a V-Effekt: this is provided, for example, when one acquires a stepfather. If one sees one's form-master hounded by the bailiffs a V-Effekt occurs: one is jerked out of a relationship in which the form-master seems big into one where he seems small.' (cit. John Willett, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht).


It is a commonplace of Brecht criticism, that his practice and his theory seldom coincided. There is a lot of truth in this, although it is a point of view that is almost impossible to argue coherently in the abstract: you would need to examine the theory (which evolved over time, too, of course); the text of the play in question (this wasn't static); and at least accounts of actual performances (ideally, you would have been to see them for yourselves, in Brechtian productions).

The best we can do is note the general point that theory and practice are not necessarily identical; and the particular point, that Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, at least in the first, Zürich, production, was not and could not be a wholly Brechtian creation, because (a) he was in the USA when it was put on; (b) the Zürich team had only a limited prior knowledge of his work. This was the second Brecht play to be staged there; the first was Mutter Courage in 1941; and (c) what they knew of his theories was inevitably out of date due to his being unable to publish and disseminate his ideas during the War.


Marxist idea of modern man's predicament: explain how modern, capitalist system, assembly-line production, 'alienates' the worker: MA craftsman: apprentice (Lehrling), journeyman (Geselle: hence Junggeselle), guild. Production process controlled and overseen by one man, from tree to chair. Mass production takes this control and overview away from individual: becomes operative instead of craftsman, only sees one lillte bit of the process. Loses pride, loses sense of identity with the product and self-identity. Capitalist controls the means of production, buys labour by the hour, as cheaply as he can. Worker has no way of influencing the production process, because has no 'capital' (= cash, but also = property and/or premises required for large-scale production, i.e. factory). Has to sell his labour in the market-place (cf. hiring fairs for farm labourers, Thomas Hardy) for the best price he can get. Our modern industrialised society is characterised by a sense of: Entfremdung on the part of individuals.

Entfremdung also oocurs as a result of the dislocation of the individual from his spiritual and psychological roots or anchors: the Reformation started the process of secularisation which is still going on, though perhaps now almost complete. On the one hand, freedom for the individual to think and pray for himself, without mediation by the Church: great sense of freedom; on the other, loss of the supprt systems and apparatus of the Church leaves some individuals feeling insecure, alienated.

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