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Bertolt Brecht 1898 - 1956 “I am a playwright. I would actually like to have been a cabinetmaker, but of course you don’t earn enough doing that.”

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Bertolt Brecht 1898 - 1956

“I am a playwright. I would actually like to have been a cabinetmaker, but of course you don’t earn enough doing that.”

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Social Context

1914-1918 First World War

• Brecht posted as a medical orderly in his home town.

• Not attached to the emotion of the frontline but witness the effects of war.

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1919-1933 Munich and Berlin

1922 - Directs first production. 1925 – Sees Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein – introduced to

the idea of montage.1926 - Produces Baal – riot in the auditorium.

Begins to study Karl Marx.1927 – First collaboration with musician Kurt Weill (also

collaborates with Piscator)1928 - The Threepenny Opera is a box-office success.1930 -Performances of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany

picketed by Nazis. Brecht sees Meyerhold’s theatre on tour. 1932 - Agit-prop sequence in Brecht’s film Kuhle Wampe is censored. 1932 - Nazis come to power, Brecht flees the country.

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1933-1948 The Years of Exile

Most of Brecht’s major plays were completed before he reached the safety of America in 1941.

1935 - Begins to use Verfremdungseffekt. Nazis formally remove German citizenship. Friends and colleagues in Russia start to disappear.

1935-41 - Moves around Europe away from Nazis.1941 - Leaves Europe to go to California. 1947 - Appears before the House of Un-American


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1949 – 1956 The Berliner Ensemble

1949 - Goes on recruiting tour for the Berliner Ensemble. 1951 - Post-war Berlin premiere of The Mother, Brecht

uses background projection. 1954 - Berliner Ensemble takes residence at A,

Schiffbauerdamm Theatre. The original Berlin production of Mother Courage is taken on tour – establishes Brecht as the leading director in post-war Europe.

1955-6 - The Caucasian Chalk Circle tours Paris and London. Brecht is at the height of his power.

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Brecht’s Plays

1918 – Begins to write Baal and Drums in the Night 1928 – The Threepenny Opera is a box-office success.1929 – First two didactic plays The Lindbergh Flight and The

Baden Didactic Play1930 -The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny1932 -The Mother (a key text for understanding the Epic in

practice.) 1938 – Premiere of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich1939 – Mother Courage and Her Children 1941 – The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui 1941-7 – Works on The Caucasian Chalk Circle

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The Good Woman of Setzuan , 2001

Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1971

Mahagonny (Berlin Komische Oper, 1984)

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The Street SceneA Basic Model for Epic Theatre

Activity: An eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident

took place.

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The Street SceneA Basic Model for Epic Theatre

• Audience are aware that it is a demonstrator not the driver/victim. (Distinction between actor and character).

• Characters are derived entirely from their action. (Brecht works from the outside-in)

• The demonstrator imitates the action of the driver/victim but the audience are not caught in the emotion of their experience so can form an opinion.

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Distinctions between the Dramatic and EpicDramatic Theatre Epic Theatre

Plot Narrative

Implicates the spectator in a stage situation. Turns the spectator into an observer.

Wears down the spectator’s capacity for action. Arouses the spectator’s capacity for action.

Provides the audience with sensations. Forces the audience to make decisions.

The spectator is involved in something. The spectator is made to face something.

Suggestion Argument

Instinctive feelings are preserved. Brought to the point of recognition.

The spectator is in the thick of it, shares the experience. The spectator stands outside, studies.

The human being is taken for granted. The human being is the object for enquiry.

The human being is unalterable. The human being is alterable and able to alter.

One scene makes another. Each scene for itself.

Growth Montage

Linear Development Broken up

A human being as a fixed point. A human being as a process.

Thought determines being. Social being determines thought.

Feeling Reason.

From Willett, J. (1978) Brecht on Theatre

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• Inspired by alienation in Chinese acting and the Russian phrase ‘priem ostraneinye’ the device or trick of making something strange.

• Making the familiar seem strange. • Literal English translation ‘alienation effect’ isn’t

really what Brecht intended. ‘Distancing’ is a more positive expression.

• Distance the audience to enable them to see more clearly the world in which they lived so they could be more objective and change it.

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Explorative StrategyMarking the Moment

‘having created a piece of drama work, individuals identify a significant moment in the piece. This can be done in discussion, marked by

freezing the action, using captions, inner thoughts spoken out loud, using lighting to spotlight the moment, etc. The moment will represent significance for the individual in terms of revealing an understanding, an insight or evoking a feeling about the issue or idea being explored’

Brecht used a number of techniques to ‘Mark the Moment’, for example:• An unfamiliar pause at an important/dramatic moment of the play.• Playing a dramatic moment in slow motion.• Using narration.• A song or music. These were used to comment on the action not to

move the narrative on and also to interrupt the action.

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Explorative Strategy Cross-cutting

‘creating a scene or scenes and then reordering the action by ‘cutting’ forwards and backwards to

different moments’• Montage• Introduced to the concept in 1925 watching Sergei

Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.• Montage connected unrelated scenes to give new

meanings. • Broke down action into minute details. Not a

moment is wasted.

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Explorative StrategyNarration

‘providing a spoken commentary that accompanies stage action, or a story being related by a character’

• Narration is a key element of Brechtian writing and again serves a purpose; to make the audience aware that they are witnessing ‘drama’.

• The narration is mostly expressed through the use of titles.

• Brecht often encouraged his actors to comment in character(while on stage), on how to play the next part of the scene .

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Has been interpreted in many different ways. Can relate to:

- Individual characters Combination of gesture and facial expression and body language is deliberately used to emphasise meaning and communicate a message to the audience. Influenced by the control and attention to detail of Charlie Chaplin.

- Whole scenes Thinking about the meaning conveyed by the ‘whole picture’ of a scene.

- MusicIllustrates an incident on the stage – comments on the action and reinforces and exemplifies a text’s meaning.

‘Attitude’ Creating meaning and communicating a message to the


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"For it is what happens between people," Brecht insists, "that provides them with all the material that they can discuss, criticize, alter.”

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Staging Curtain is used to display

titles, captions or comments (placards)

Set is suggestive, not realistic – authentic props may be used (Mother Courage’s cart) but they

are not put into a naturalistic setting.

Other techniques: - Use of projection- No curtain- Breaking down the fourth wall- Musicians and crew present on the


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Brecht’s Influence

‘...all theatre work today at some point starts of returns to his statements and achievement.’

Brook, P. (1986) The Empty Space