The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht as Critical Incident
Bertolt Brecht was a Marxist. Perhaps, in part, this explains why his ideas have not been fully assimilated into business and organisational development. However, Brecht’s ideas about the application of theatre as a learning medium – as a catalyst for purposeful debate within society – does offer those with an interest in how The Arts can inform business learning much food for thought.
Like most great thinkers, Brecht’s ideas about theatre and its application as an agency of change matured slowly. His earliest work in the theatre was ‘expressionistic’ in style and not especially political. However, with the rise of Fascism in his native Germany, Brecht’s theatre became increasingly engaged with the problems of society.
Brecht’s first socially engaged plays were didactic– presenting problem and solution for the audience and entreating the audience to act on the evidence of his plays. These plays were known as Lehrstuke (learning plays) and were terse pieces performed with minimal staging, usually in non-theatre venues. However, as Brecht matured, both as a dramatist and as a social thinker, his plays became less instructional and more dialectical and philosophical in tone. Brecht’s concern in these later plays was to engage his audience in dialogue and debate; to provoke his audience into recognition of society’s problems and to encourage discussion at the level of ideas about solutions to societal ills.
Indeed, Brecht has been variously quoted as saying that his ideal for overhearing an audience leaving the theatre after a performance would be for them not to be discussing the performances of the leading actors, the author’s poetry or the designer’s sets, but to be deeply engaged in discussion of the issues raised and the action that needs to be taken in response.
Brecht’s mature plays and theatre practice, in which he explored human behaviour (in part) through the dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, employed several techniques which had a long history in the theatre but which Brecht adapted and developed to form the basis of his own Epic Theatre. Brecht’s theatre was an amalgam of many forms including morality and chronicle plays as well as contemporary cabaret. The term Epic, in the Brechtian sense, should not be confused with Heroic. Brecht took an anti-heroic attitude to his protagonists. He did not want his audience (or Spectators as he preferred to call them) to identify unconditionally, but to be held at a distance so as to objectively understand the choices and actions portrayed. Brecht was particularly intrigued by the nature of human choices and consequent actions. Consequently, Brecht’s Epic Theatre forces a Spectator to confront a world and make decisions about that world. It aims to send a spectator active into the world at the end of the play. Brecht’s preference was progressive and not determinist. The connection between the story and the wider historical and social context is always emphasised.
The technique that lies at the heart of Brecht’s Epic Theatre – its engine – is what has become known in translation as Alienation. Alienation always implies a switch of viewpoint. It involves seeing with someone else’s eyes so that the familiar becomes strange and the strange becomes familiar. This encourages spectators to think about the situations that provoke behaviour. Use of anachronism and Paradox is applied to surprise the spectator into thought. Alienation does not mean the elimination of feeling. It aims to complicate feeling by eliminating single viewpoints and preventing simple processes of identification.
Brecht wished to ask questions about the situations in which he placed his characters and, in order to show the “gist” or essence of situations he sought a cool objective acting style which isolated and clarified a character’s emotions and social attitudes.
Episodic structure allows the audience time to think. “Each scene for itself” said Brecht, rather than “one scene makes another”.
In narrative terms he applied a Montage technique that would encourage the spectator to make comparisons, to contrast and think about the discrepancies between stage pictures rather than become totally and uncritically absorbed in the play’s fiction; the narrative proceeding by jumps and curves rather than in a linear progression.
Brecht’s Epic Theatre (and the techniques that comprised it) was designed to make the spectator’s experience of the play a “critical Incident” – a catalytic event that would act as an agent of change.
Written with Chris Stagg