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Brecht: He Doesn’t Want You To Like Him. No Hugs.

He wants the two of you to be able to do it, but not get too close. Is he me in my 20s?

No. Bertolt Brecht, for the non thesbian among you,  is a reknowned German theater director from the early 20th century, who reached his zenith during the Weimar years (thought we left that behind, did you? Nah, we got a little bit of mileage left). Far and wide his most famous work is The Threepenny Opera, written with composer Kurt Weill and a “collective of writers” (think big Marxist fanboy), from which comes the song Mac The Knife. (Interestingly, it was not originally in the opera. It was added at the last minute only after one of the stars threw a tizzy and demanded to have an opening song.)

So why is he a big deal?

He wanted to drastically change theater and drama. He wanted to do away with most accepted ideas about entertainment and create a new from of theater that exists primarily as an agent of social and political change. He called this new form Epic Theater.

Sound good so far?

So, the problem is that entertainment sets out to entertain first and foremost. It draws you in and touches your heart. He wanted none of this. Plays should speak first and foremost to the the intellect. Anything which precludes thought, excites emotion and reinforces capitalistic values (did i mention he was a pretty hard core Marxist?) should be done away with.

Still with me? Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. The audience should not be emotionally engaged, as this interferes with the intellect the play should be speaking to. Thus, the audience is to be discouraged from feeling sympathy or identifying with the characters. The audience should not be allowed to be too comfortable in any respect. Dramatic devices should continuously be employed that keep the audience from losing themselves in the play, and in fact they should always feel detached and distant, alienated from the drama in front of  them.

Lighting should be bright and plain. No mood should be created.

Not only should the audience feel distant from the play, but the performers themselves should. They are not to identify with their characters either, as this would only serve to draw the audience in. Often they would speak in 3rd person and read the staging directions. Here’s an example:

“Has your excellency seen the new dancing master?”


“He asked whether Madame had seen the new dancing-master. ”

I would pay money to see someone pitch this entire approach to a TV network as the basis for a show. I believe the closest TV ever came to this is Twin Peaks. Come to think of it, Twin Peaks is a rather decent example to show what a modern day version of this type of approach might look like. Hmm… or almost any David Lynch film after Blue Velvet now that i think about this.  I think there’s something here, but perhaps i’ll get to it some other day.

Okay. So as you can see, it’s a pretty radical approach. Brecht doesn’t want you to like his work. He wants it to be a cold, highly political, unempathic anti-experience in detached social commentary. This goes against every artistic virtue i subscribe to as an artist. Every one.

So why don’t i hate him?

First, despite his declared intention, his works were rarely so purely hard core. He would end up making decisions that favored his artistic instinct over his declared manifesto of technique.

More importantly, in seeking to break free of all the conventions of drama, he did, in fact create incredibly creative new ideas in storytelling and pioneered all types of non-linear storytelling ideas. Multiple veiwpoints of an event? Done. Breaking of the 4th wall? Jesus, he did that before eating breakfast. He built an entire career around it.

He suggested an absolutely ridiculous notion in how to create drama,, one that admit it, while reading this you’re saying to yourself is either not possible or flat out insane, and then bloody well did it, putting on performance after performance, work after work in which he innovated absolutely unseen methods of storytelling. And yeah. They’re kind of batshit insane sometimes.

In order to tell more interesting stories, someones’ gotta push the envelope and occasionally someone gotta have the balls to burn the envelope outright.

The following clip is from the opera Rise And Fall OF The City Of Mahagonny. It’s an opera, written once again with Kurt Weill. It’s not as extreme as Brecht’s later plays, but the only examples of the later stuff i could find online are all in German. Mahagonny is… an opera that satirizes operas and gives a stern lesson about the pitfalls of capitalism, but since this is Brecht we can pretty much assume this theme will be readily present at some point.

“It tells the story of Mahagonny (pronounced “Mah-ha-GO-knee”), an imaginary American city founded by three criminals on the run, where everything has been commodified, the only real crime is to be poor, and a lifestyle of over-consumption and never-ending vice is unhindered by ethics or morality. Sound familiar? Two of the city’s denizens, a prostitute named Jenny Smith, and a lumberjack named Jim Macintyre, fall in love; but when Jim runs out of cash and can’t pay his bar bill, the boss and co-founder of the corrupt city, Leocadia Begbick, has him arrested. Tried in a kangaroo court organized by the shady and the crooked, Jim is found guilty of having no money – and then summarily executed.”

Here’s an excerpt:

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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in Uncategorized


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