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Theatre History (Part 3)

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"Ism"   ::   Berthold Brecht   ::   Postmodernism   ::   Activities

Berthold Brecht

Why devote an entire lesson to one guy who is not Shakespeare? Because Brecht (1898-1956), more than anyone else, is responsible for the way we do theatre today.
In the midst of all those 'isms,' Brecht decided that the search for verisimilitude wasn't enough. Why go to the theatre if theatre doesn't make you DO something, like help the poor, feed the needy, etc. Theatre, he felt, should be an art form that motivates people to do good things. Brecht was a playwright and a director and a theorist.

In one of his plays, The Good Person of Setzuan , a poor woman, Shen Te, is rewarded by the gods with a bag of money because she is the only good person they could find. She opens a tobacco shop with the money and doesn't have to be a prostitute anymore. Goodie! But when her distant relatives move in and become parasites, she is in a bad situation. She can't get rid of them and they are eating her out of house and home. Finally, she leaves for a business trip. Suddenly, her cousin, Shui Ta appears to manage her affairs. He is not so nice and "good" as Shen Te, and he soon has the relatives working and being productive. When Shen Te returns and Shui Ta leaves, her family is glad to see her and they begin to take advantage of her again. But whenever she leaves, Shui Ta appears and he fixes things. We finally come to find out that Shui Ta is actually Shen Te in disguise!

The gods come down to see how things are going with their one good person, and find Shen Te in a state of frustration. She wants to be good, but she just has to use Shui Ta once in a while. The gods don't seem to get it or care. As they go away, Shen Te shouts "Help!," which is the last line of the show. In writing the play, Brecht wants the audience to go out and help poor people like Shen Te so they can be good all of the time. He wants to motivate people to do good in society.

There are problems with the theatre, however, according to Brecht. As an audience, we become so entranced when watching a play that we forget that we are supposed to be thinking great thoughts and learning things. So Brecht decided the theatre needed some elements to keep the audience on it's toes. He called these elements verfremdungseffekte , which is a German word for alienation effects or "effects that keep thing alien or strange."

Alienation effects could be anything. Brecht thought that if the audience saw the lights and the lighting devices that were used in a play they wouldn't be able to get sucked in to the drama as much. He cast old bald men to play Juliet. He allowed the audience to see scene changes. All this stuff was brand new—at least to Western theatre. In many Oriental countries, they had been doing this all the time. Indeed, Brecht got many of his ideas from the Orient.

Brecht was also a playwright. A really good playwright. Too good for his own philosophies, I think. His plays are so good that the audience is pulled in and feels for the characters. It is easy to forget that one is in the theatre during his plays. My sister played the role of Shen Te when she lived in Colorado. I went to see her performance only to find the cast extremely nervous. It appears that the actor playing one of the main characters, Wang the waterseller, was ill and had lost his voice! The director, however, having a little Brecht in him, was clever. He simply gave a guy a script, dressed him in formal black oriental performance attire and had him follow the actor playing Wang around and read the script while the actor playing Wang mouthed the words. It worked marvelously! And despite my sister being in the play, despite Wang's voice being lost, despite every other alienation effect used in the play, I still lost myself in the play and felt sorry for Shen Te. I wasn't near as intellectual as I'm sure Berthold Brecht would have wanted.

Today, when you go to the theatre and you see the lighting instruments, or you see a set change, or you see anything that could possibly remind you that you are in a theatre and that theatre is NOT real life, it is largely because of Brecht that these conventions exist.

Activity
Brecht

See if you can spot some alienation effects! If you've seen a play already, note three or four alienation effects that you noticed. If you still have to see a play or two (or five), note them as you see them. Let me know whether or not they worked as Brecht intended, or if they have just become part of theatre convention and is something that just happens in theatre now.

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 10). Theatre History (Part 3). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.usu.edu/Theatre_Arts/Understanding_Theatre/Berthold_Brecht.html. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License