Friday, 20 October 2017

Bigging up Brecht

Brecht commands such an influence over the theatre of the late twentieth century that any production that features a member of the cast addressing the audience is called Brechtian. Whether this can helpfully be applied to a principal boy slapping their thigh and announcing 'oh no it isn't!' in a pantomime is debatable, but the reduction of Brecht's complex and evolving theory into a single word reveals both the power that his work exerts, and the laziness of contemporary criticism (and its lack of grounding in academic theory, perhaps).

It's possible that the importance of Brecht is another hangover of historiography's habit of ascribing the movements of a past to a singular white male: Brecht might be a Marxist, but even left-wing history tends to simplify matters down to the dynamism of individuals. Brecht's biography suggests that his participation in the great upheavals of the early twentieth century - escaping from Nazi Germany, giving hilarious testimony at the Committee for Unamerican Activities, returning to post-war Germany and getting a whole company from the East German state - influenced a particular set of theories that have become known as 'Brechtian' - which have then been simplified into any breaking of the 'fourth wall'. But this denies both the hard work of the many dramaturgs who worked at his Berliner Ensemble, and the artists, like Boal, who developed his ideas. And, of course, the vaudeville tradition that was chatting away to audiences long before Brecht recognised that this could change the relationship between the stage and the auditorium.

 The importance of Brecht's ideas can be traced back to his decision, in the 1930s, that he believed in Marxism and that theatre was a valuable weapon in the revolution. This faith in the possibly of theatre to effect social conditions is the foundation of his systems, and contributes to his most important strategies. Above all, he rejected the ideal of tragedy, as described by Aristotle, because its performance suggested a certain fatalism. The events being shown on stage - take Oedipus Rex as an example - follow their inevitable path. The National Theatre's production of Hedda Gabbler concludes with the protagonist realising that she is trapped, kills herself. 

The problem for Brecht's Marxist beliefs lies in this fatalism. It suggests that social change is impossible. Rejecting the tragic mode, Brecht advocates for an epic theatre. Often through a process of adaptation - his version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus being the easiest example - he sought to demonstrate both the power of the working classes to change events, and the fiction that the status quo is immutable. The alienation effect, which operates both as a strategy and a theory of dramaturgy, sought to challenge determinism and suggest that another world is possible.

The breaking of the fourth wall is merely one of Brecht's tricks to encourage the audience to become more active observers. The revelation of how the on-stage illusion is created is another one: instead of a photo-realistic backdrop, he's use a moon on a stick: lighting rigs can be exposed, props would serve for scenery and characters - well, characters did not exist as consistent entities, amenable to psycho-analytical interpretation. They were replaced by examples of the class conditions that created them, and frequently act inconsistently to make a political point or move the plot along.

If this doesn't sound like fun, Brecht's plays don't always keep to his doctrinaire line. Mother Courage, restaged by Glasgow's Birds of Paradise, was driven by Alison Peeble's portrayal of the protagonist. While Brecht's intention was to show how Mother Courage was unable to learn from her experiences because of her petty capitalist desire to make profit from the war, Peebles lent her a dignity and ferocity and celebrated her ability to survive and protect her family. 

By encouraging the audience to question the characters and events, however, Brecht wanted to engage theatre in the battle for socialism. Directly addressing the audience is only one of the tactics he used

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