Brechtian Techniques

Brechtian techniques of theatrical performance greatly challenge and deviate from traditional dramaturgical practices. The intent behind the techniques is to liberate social consciousness and provide access to a critical space in which to not only re-evaluate but also re-construct social reality. A performance or “demonstration” employing Brechtian techniques must emphasize reflexivity. Everyone participating in the performative experience has to be constantly conscious of the fact that they are engaged in a discourse within an abstracted theater space. The theatre itself need not pretend to be a moment of everyday social reality. It is acceptable and sometimes crucial for all participants, performers and audiences alike, to realize that the theatre is only a constructed representation of the real. It is not the objective of those presenting the theatrical demonstration to achieve verisimilitude when imagining the arrangement of the stage space. “His job is not to cast a spell over anyone… He need not possess special powers of suggestion” (Brecht 427). All participants of the demonstrations must understand that there is a distinction to be made between the event that took place in a past reality and the “repetition” of the event demonstrated on stage. Brechtian Theatre makes no concerted effort to concealing the fact that it serves as the mediating apparatus that links the signifier (demonstration/performance) and the signified (the event being demonstrated). On the contrary, the spectators of the audience must always be reminded that they are present before a theater stage. Brechtian guidelines encourage that the physical properties of the theater apparatus be revealed to the audience. “Hence the absence of illusion: the sources of light are visible, the sets are schematic with placards and billboards to indicate time and place or to summarize the action” (Dort 237).

The demystification of the mediating apparatus is significant in the process of challenging the audience to adopt a critical gaze when experiencing the theatrical demonstration. For Brecht, adopting a critical perspective implied actively seeing and hearing on the part of the spectator, as opposed to passively staring and listening, which are the effects of presenting dramatic performances invoking identification with the characters and pleasure through the spectacles. Brechtian techniques summon the effects of distanciation or alienation, which are intended to awaken spectators from habitually entering into a mode of surrendering or subordinating their consciousness to pure sensations (238). This is not to claim that Brechtian techniques aim to destroy all pleasures and opportunities for identification that might emerge when viewers experience the theatre. On the contrary, the effect of distanciation requires that demonstrators attract the attention of the viewers by presenting objects and situations familiar or at least recognizable to them. Brechtian theatre provides the audience with commonly known references to the quotidian and allows its spectators to feel a sense of connection to the subject of the discourse. However, as soon as the viewers begin to relate to the material on stage, the demonstration proceeds to deconstruct it until the presented situation is rendered strange and nearly incomprehensible. As Bernard Dort suggests, “The alienation techniques are designed precisely to make such a fresh look possible” (239). Subsequently, the audience is able to engage with the demonstration of the quotidian experience in unfamiliar ways and critically perceive the relations between human existence, actions, environments, and history that produce certain social dynamics and everyday rituals. Ultimately, through this alienation effect, each spectator is to form his/her own critique of the social context that molds the situation being portrayed on stage.

Just as it is important in Brechtian theatre to alienate or abstract an everyday situation to carefully examine, deconstruct, interrogate, and re-contextualize its emergence by taking account of the possibly relevant social factors, human characters must also be critically analyzed in similar ways to incite debate among the audience. First of all, the demonstrators lead the way by not only imitating but also providing commentary or explaining the characters of the story. These “actors” engage in a performance of describing the characters more so than completely identifying with or manifesting their personalities. The demonstrators often interrupt the narrative flow of the performance with moments of reflection on the characters exhibited in the theatre. “The choruses and projected documents of Epic Theater, the turning-directly-to-the-audience of the actors, are interruptions of exactly the same sort” (Brecht 433). The actors periodically distance or remove themselves from their characters to reveal the theatrical apparatus separating the signifier from its referent and the signification from the reader/viewer. On the level of story content, the characters in question are always subjected to complex relationships with their social environments and the circumstances of their everyday existences that impact their development. Brecht emphasizes the lack of freedom his characters are able to practice or express. What is internal to the characters is always in dialogue with that which is external to them. The formation of an individual character’s identity never occurs independently out of his/her sheer will. “Nothing is insignificant, nothing exists simply in itself; every word, every gesture, every action a character performs refers back to the society and tells us both about that society and about that character” (Dort 242).

While the conditions for every character’s existence is predetermined and ultimately delimits control over his/her “destiny,” the spectator is “free” to critically evaluate the society that produces these characters or social subjects. And because of the open-ended nature of Brechtian theatre, the spectators are invited to continue deconstructing the existing socio-political dynamics and discussing how to imagine more just social conditions with more even distribution of power. Audiences who have witnessed this particular kind of demonstration are held accountable for thinking about ways by which to re-construct the social fabric that could possibly empower social actors to re-configure everyday practices of social interaction.

Works Consulted:

Brecht, Bertolt. “A Model for Epic Theater.” The Sewanee Review 57.3 (1949): 425-36.

Dort, Bernard. “Towards a Brechtian Criticism of Cinema.” In Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahier du Cinéma 1960- 1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. 236-47.

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