Brechtian Acting & Realism

In this article, I unpack some of Bertolt Brecht’s theories. What follows is a discussion about the Alienation Effect, Epic Theatre, Gestus, Contradiction and Complex Seeing. I also explore what realism means and question how one can be ‘innovative’ today.

The Alienation Effect

Brecht’s alienation effect is about encouraging the audience to look at the familiar in a new way: that is, to make the familiar unfamiliar or strange. When performing the alienation effect, the actor has to not only inhabit their character, but remember that they are simply an actor portraying that character. This duality, or double vision, has to come across during the actor’s performance.

Portraying to the audience that the actor is also merely an actor stops the audience from getting lost in the performance and finding cathartic release as they typically would from traditional theatre and self-indulgent acting. Instead, they are constantly reminded that this is a performance and, so, are alienated from the events on stage, constantly reminded they are watching an actor. So how would an actor go about acting in a Brechtian way? Well, Unwin writes in The Complete Brecht Toolkit that:

‘Brecht sometimes asked his actors in rehearsal to perform in the third person, prefacing each speech with ‘he said…she said….’ At other times, he made them highlight particularly important moments by adding ‘instead of responding like this, he responded like that.’ At other times he asked them to read the stage directions aloud. […] He wanted his actors to do two things at once: play the scene and provoke a discussion with the audience about its content.’

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 54

Brecht required his actors to break the fourth wall and be constantly aware of their audience. He even wanted them to address the audience directly, an approach that is also prevalent in Shakespearean acting. Eliminating the fourth wall prevented the audience from getting sucked into to the drama and empathising with the characters as much as they would with other types of acting.

Epic Theatre

Another term you’ll hear associated with Brecht is ‘epic theatre’, which Unwin describes as ‘dialectics in practice’ in his book The Complete Brecht Toolkit. ‘Epic theatre’ is where the narrative is told through a juxtaposition of contrasting scenes. Not only can the content of each scene be incongruous, but also the style and/or approach of each scene. Unwin writes that:

‘Interruptions are encouraged, text is set against action, music introduced, scenery is cut away, unconnected scenes follow on from each other, and a new kind of unity emerges. By exposing the audience to such a broad range of conflicting elements, Brecht hoped they would think independently and come to their own conclusions. And so, the ‘epic theatre’ is nothing less than dialectics in practice.’

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, pp. 59-60

In a nutshell, ‘epic theatre’ is a disconnected collection of incidents that should be embraced by the actor. The contradictions should be relished, and the actor must play each scene one after the other and not try to introduce consistency. As Unwin writes, they should ‘embrace the jagged, disconnected elements of the story.’ (p. 60) It’s not only contradiction that is central to Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’ but also change. Brecht writes explains that this juxtaposition of incongruous scenes or segments in the play:

‘not altogether add up to a single unchangeable character but to one which changes all the time and becomes more and more clearly defined in the course of ‘this way of changing’.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting’ (1931) in Unwin, p. 61

In Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’, the actors themselves change the props, scenery, and their own costumes all in full view of the audience. When I went to see Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, the changing rooms were placed in the lobby outside the staging area, and the audience could see all the costumes. By letting the audience see behind the curtain (as it were), they’re constantly made aware that what they’re watching is a play. This alienates them from the events in the play. It prevents them from getting sucked in. As Unwin describes it, it forces the audience to see the play as ‘a gesture towards illusion […] a presentation of a world that is capable of being changed.’ (p. 61) You might be wondering why Brecht did all this in his theatre. Well, as Unwin writes, ‘Brecht wanted to encourage his audience to think critically about what was being presented, and to see ‘natural’ events […] as unnatural and resistible.’ (p. 61)

Gestus

As a basic starting point, the word ‘gestus’ can be compared to the English word ‘gesture’. Unwin writes that “Walter Benjamin said that ‘Epic theatre is gestural’, and ‘gestic theatre’ is nothing less than a dramatic and physical demonstration of the way that the world works.’ (p. 66) Put simply, gestus involves a focus on physical actions that convey meaning. As Unwin explains, ‘gestus means presenting action with quotation marks around it’ (p. 64): it’s things like ‘the pointed finger, the shrugged shoulder, the turned back, and so on’ (p. 62) ‘Gestus’ is basically gestures or actions that are easily recognisable and understood by an audience. Unwin writes that:  

“…Brecht would sometimes as his actors to preface each action with a little comment: ‘this is how the landlord pays his peasants’ wages’ […]. The point was to encourage a kind of acting that was playful and objective and demonstrated individual observations with a set of clearly defined physical attitudes, which could be easily understood.”

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 66

Brecht liked to contrast different gestures (or ‘gests) in a striking way to get his audiences to critique what they were watching. I suppose these stark contrasts help with the alienation effect:

“Brecht was keen to emphasise that a performance should be made up of a series of ‘gests’, many of which might seem strikingly contradictory.”

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 65

The takeaway point here is the emphasis on contradiction of recognisable actions. This is Brecht playing the familiarity of such recognisable actions: he’s adding unfamiliarity into the mix and this is what should cause the audience to question what they’re watching and their preconceived ideas about what was familiar to them. It should cause the audience to think about how what they ‘know’ might be socially conditioned, and therefore maybe they could just as easily ‘know’ something different. Brecht is saying ‘the world doesn’t have to be like this’, but in a way that allows the audience members to come to these conclusions themselves. I’ll explain this a bit more when we talk about ‘complex seeing’.

As Unwin writes, “…gestus presents human relationships as shaped by their underlying social circumstances and – especially when presented as ‘epic theatre’ and including the ‘alienation effect’ – holds them up to scrutiny in such a way that they seem changeable.” (p. 64)

Contradiction

A defining characteristic of Brecht’s work is contradiction. Brecht knew that society is made up of contradictions and that “contradictions inherent in society appear in the make-up of the individual” (p. 67). Essentially, therefore, an individual person is a product of their society. But the main point here is that contradictions run throughout society and therefore also individuals. Now in this instance, contradictions are seen in a negative light; however, this would change as Unwin writes:

‘In his [Brecht’s] late work, this interest [in contradictions] became more positive. His reading of Voltaire and the other philosophies [Unwin’s italics] of the Enlightenment, as well as classical Chinese philosophy, turned it into an exercise in dialectical thinking: ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that’ was, he felt, the approach that stood most chance of approximating to the truth of the world.’

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 67

Now, Unwin is majorly simplifying dialectics here. I dare say he’s talking about a more classical view of dialectics, but this isn’t to say that Brecht viewed dialectics in this way. In fact, I’m inclined to believe Brecht had a more solid understanding of dialectics. This isn’t to say that Unwin doesn’t, but he’s not really tapped into the essence of the dialectic in this part of the text. I’ll discuss dialectics in more detail in another video/blog post, but for now, to get a better understanding of dialectics, read Adorno’s An Introduction to Dialectics.

Unwin does write more about the importance of contradictions, and alludes to a sort of dialectical way of thinking (but not in a way that really explains the role of actual dialectical thinking in Brecht’s work):

“The greatest plays offer us a Hegelian syllogism, a conflict of opposites: one group wants one thing, another wants the opposite and the disagreement between the two resolves itself into a third position.”

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 66

This, to me, sounds like thesis, antithesis, synthesis which isn’t at all dialectical because it’s a simplification, a structure, and dialectics are about intrinsic contradictions on absolutely every level, therefore you can’t systematise dialectical thinking at all.  In Unwin’s defence, though, he doesn’t actually mention the word ‘dialectic’ in this sentence, he calls it a syllogism doesn’t he.  But I’m not actually sure this is what Hegel proposed. I think this is an oversimplification of Hegel.

Complex Seeing

Complex seeing is where the contradictions that Brecht presents us cause us to critically think about the play’s events. It’s what essentially prevents us from getting totally sucked into the narrative. Complex seeing:

‘…is something much more dynamic than stoical despair at the contradictions of the world; instead, Brecht asked his actors to make these contradictions visible, and show the link between wealth and poverty, money and power, injustice and greed. By exposing the different sides of the argument, he hoped to encourage understanding and provoke debate.’

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 67

Brecht’s characters are built on contradictory principles: mothers sacrifice their children to make a living so they can provide for their children so they can in turn sacrifice them (presumably) – I’m thinking of Mother Courage and her Children, now. In other plays, ‘good’ women become ‘bad men’ in order to survive their worlds. “The point is that these observations are deliberately counterintuitive and make us rethink our usual notions of ‘common sense’ or ‘nature’. (p. 68) “…these contradictions […] are deliberate and realistic portraits of the way that people behave in a contradictory world. Contradictions, Brecht believed, express underlying realities…” (p. 68)

Realism

But what is it to express reality in a play?

‘Brecht frequently argued that his theoretical innovations were simply a way of bringing a greater degree of ‘realism’ to his portrayals of modern experience. Just as the Cubists claimed that their paintings – by combining a variety of perspectives – were a truer portrayal of their subjects than Impressionism, so Brecht insisted that his theoretical style was a better way of depicting the reality of twentieth-century naturalism. The word Brecht insisted on was ‘realism’.’

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 69

This notion of trying to present different perspectives simultaneously really interests me. I find it fascinating because, life is a melange of contradictions and contrasting perspectives, this is just natural and we live this, but when you’re presented with these contradictions in one fell swoop, there’s a sort of ‘jarring’, it’s somehow unfamiliar and you’re alienated from what you’re seeing, and you’re forced to critically think about things. Unwin writes that “‘Realism’ is […] best regarded as an attitude to the world, not an artistic style in its own right.” (p. 69) Yes, it’s not a style because it doesn’t render an artwork with specific traits that can be replicated in pastiche.

As Brecht writes on pp. 71-72 of his 1937 text ‘The Popular and the Realistic’:

‘We shall take care not to ascribe realism to a particular period […] so to set up merely formal and literary criteria of realism. […] Our conception of realism needs to be broad and political, free from independent restrictions and independent of convention.’

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, pp. 71-72

The way I see it is it’s an organic attitude that changes with each artistic medium and that medium’s subsequent styles. It’s basically an intention to portray reality as truthfully as possible. The artworks themselves might bring up different styles in the process (compare Impressionism with Cubism, for instance), but the traits of these styles don’t define the attitude behind the work that is ‘realism’. Here’s a quote Brecht’s ‘The Popular and the Realistic’ (1937):

“In the theatre, reality can be represented in a factual or fantastic form. The actors can do without make-up, appearing ‘natural’, and the whole thing can be a fake; they can wear grotesque masks and represent the truth.”

Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Popular and the Realistic’ (1937) in Unwin, p. 71

And this precisely is why I have trouble with the term ‘realistic acting’ and phrases like ‘how to act realistically’ because acting is generally fake anyway so what are you trying to portray exactly? I do know what people mean by ‘acting realistically’ obviously, but I think it’s become a bit of a style now.   

Think about it: when you want to ‘act realistically’, is it just a particular style you’re after or are you genuinely trying to portray a truth? Because Brecht arguably portrayed a truth with his alienation and gestus and so on. And these mannerisms aren’t really obviously natural although they are naturally existent in society.

Here’s another quote from Brecht’s ‘The Popular and the Realistic’ (1937):

‘The words Popularity and Realism therefore are natural companions. It is in the interest of the people, the broad working masses, that literature should give them truthful representations of life; and truthful representations of life are in fact only of use to the broad working masses, the people; so that they have to be suggestive and intelligible to them, i.e. popular…’

Unwin, The Complete Brecht Toolkit, p. 70

Some Idle Musings:

I’m now wondering if ‘realism’ is like being ‘avant garde’ (genuinely so). If this is the case, then does essentially pandering to the masses simultaneously free art from ‘high society’ but also restrict it in the sense that the artwork in question has to reduce itself to ‘pop’ in order to be intelligible? Would the artwork have to become commodified in doing so? Or is it at least in danger of becoming commodified in doing so? Is it even possible to free art from high esoteric circles of upper classes and at the same time not have to reduce it to reproduceable popularity? Is Brecht’s work the solution to this conundrum? How popular were Brecht’s plays? They’re not part of the mass pop culture today but the narratives are still relevant, so have they managed to be relatable to the masses yet somehow eschewed the constraints of commodity fetishism? No, I don’t think so because I think they’re seen as being high art now. I don’t think, unless you study Brecht’s theories, the function of his plays is self-evident.

Innovation vs Formalism

OK, so this is where things get really interesting.  Just to get you up to speed, we’ve looked at Brecht’s alienation, gestus, epic theatre, and so on. Basically, all this thought-out methodical approach to forcing an audience to critically think about their situation can be seen as systematised and formalistic, even though essentially it attempts to break all these preconceived socially-conditioned boundaries by highlighting the inherent contradictions in society and people. So, here’s some gossip:  Brecht was accused of dwelling with artistic formalism and being “more interested in artistic innovation than in reaching out to popular audiences.” (p. 71) Notice how the two things are seen as things that can’t work together?  Anyway, it was Georg Lukács who accused Brecht of “turning his back on the working class.” (p. 71) But Brecht “argued that working people had the least to lose in abandoning the old ways and were uniquely suited to enjoy radical and progressive art.” (p. 71) and that “those who insisted on traditional forms were […] the real ‘formalists’…” (p. 71) So, here, Brecht is arguing that artistic innovation and popular audiences can go hand in hand more so than the otherwise assumed partnership between artistic innovation and high society.

Another reason why the working people will be more open-minded to progressive art than the more privileged is that they’re less likely to be educated in the ways of how art has been historically. They won’t be bogged down by all those preconceived ideas about how art should be. I’ll explain this better with an example:

In my own compositional practice, I like to challenge notions of an ‘Avant Garde’ style. I deliberately go against all the agreed upon stylistic traits such as atonality, extended instrumental techniques, noise for the sake of noise and so on. But I still integrate atonality and extended instrumental techniques, but not in ways that satisfy a typical audience of Avant Garde music (this is avant garde with a capital ‘A’ ‘G’). I basically like to see the composition as an ‘open space of frequency’ that I can traverse freely, and it doesn’t matter if aspects of the music sound tonal and others atonal. Nevertheless, this blatant care-free disregard for the Avant Garde ways jars very much with audiences educated in the Avant Garde style. People who don’t really pay attention to this sort of stuff actually like my music. I understand the importance of studying the history of art and politics because without it we can’t move forward without repeating what’s gone before. However, at the same time, I feel that in order to be able to create freely, we mustn’t get bogged down by rules and methods and specific ways (and preconceived ideas about how things should be). I don’t know, I might be wrong. I’ve still got a lot of reading and thinking to do…


You can watch my video Brechtian Acting & Realism: How CAN we act “Realistically”? on my YouTube channel: YouTube [dot] com [forward slash] Alannah Marie

P.S. if this is badly written it’s because it’s mainly a transcript from the accompanying YouTube video and I’m very tired.

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