The Dramatic Theatre Versus Epic Theatre
| Dramatic Theatre
|| Epic Theatre|
| Implicates the spectator in a stage situation
|| Turns the spectator into an observer|
| Wears down his capacity for action
|| Arouses his capacity for action|
| Provides him with sensations
|| Forces him to take decisions|
|| Picture of the world|
| The spectator is involved in something
|| He is made to face something|
| 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 of the enquiry|
| He is unalterable
|| He is alterable and able to alter|
| Eyes on the finish
|| Eyes on the course|
| One scene makes another
|| Each scene for itself|
| Linear development
|| In curves|
| Evolutionary determinism
| Man as a fixed point
|| Man as a process|
| Thought determines being
|| Social being determines thought|
Taken from: Brecht, Bertolt, Willet, John. Brecht on Theatre. Methuen, 1982.
The trick in the above is applying this in practice and in action on the stage, so he invented the following elements to make his ‘Epic style’ a reality on the stage.
Often translated as the ‘alienation effect’, verfremdungseffekt is better explained as the ‘making strange effect’, or the ‘defamiliarisation effect’. ‘Alienation’ implies that the audience is disconnected completely from the performance, which is not quite correct. While they are disconnected from empathizing with the characters and their plight, as in naturalistic theatre, they are still completely involved in critically-analysing the play and its broader social significance. The ‘V-effekt’ is a technique of taking human social incidents and labelling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, something not to be taken for granted, not just “natural” (Brecht on Theatre 143). Brecht uses the analogy of a watch to explain; have you ever actually looked at your watch? It is something so every day that we take for granted, and yet, when you really look at it, it is the strangest thing in the world. The same goes for social groups as portrayed by Brecht; he takes the natural and makes it strange, forces us to really look so that we can see the mechanisms that place people in certain positions.
In the USQ production of The Threepenny Opera, we have focused on the nature of business and making it strange. The play points out that capitalism is not necessarily the natural state of society and we have attempted to aid this discussion by showing the ease with which Mr Peachum runs his business. The quintessential businessman, he quotes numbers like a machine, smacking them in the air with his fingers so they linger there; he quotes the Bible while he takes the money of the poorest of people; he turns a man in to be killed; all with a smile on his face and under the guise of ‘good business’. When you actually look, as we have done in the creation of this production and as the audience will hopefully do, you can see that many things can swept under the rug under the guise of ‘business’ and that capitalism is perhaps nastier than we realized. This is all the intention of the ‘V-effekt’; to force all involved to look closely, so close that they can see the cogs and wheels of society turning.
Exercises to bring out the Verfremdungseffekt
Brecht wanted to break away from the naturalistic style, so this exercise is all about establishing this. Ask the students to break into pairs and improvise a short, simple scene of the everyday; like a boy negotiating with his boss to get Saturday off work, or two friends discussing their dresses for the formal, etc. Encourage them to perform it as naturalistically as they can, just like they would speak and act in real life. Once they have done that, ask them to really look at one aspect of the scene, like with the watch, and to make it ‘strange’, to expose the underlying nature of the ordinary. It is essential that they find a message that they wish to convey through the scene. Ask the students to name it with a single sentence title, like “some girls can be very superficial” or “bosses try to exploit their employees”. For example, with the two girls discussing formal dresses, you could have them speak as robots, to show that they are the product of a consumer society. Or you could have them dressed in rags, to highlight a class difference. The key of this exercise is to make strange something ordinary, to show the politics of something we take for granted every day. Feel free to try it several times, as the students will understand it better by trying it more than once.
Questions for teachers and students
- Looking at the USQ production of The Threepenny Opera, what the times in the production when you felt that something normal was made ‘strange’, that you looked at something with new eyes, like with the watch?
Gestus, Brecht said, was the base building block of Epic Theatre. It is both gist and gesture; an attitude expressible in words and actions (Chalk). A basic equation for gestus is: a gesture of the body (gest) + a message (gist) = gestus (Chalk). The message is an essential part of this equation, because without a broader social context, the gesture is redundant. The most famous example of this particular element is from the original production of Mother Courage and Her Children. In the scene where Mother Courage’s son is killed, she lifts her head back, stretches her mouth wide, and holds this grotesque position in a “silent scream”. This showed her devastation at the loss of her son, but her inability to show that feeling. So the physicality of the scream + her contradictory feelings = the gestus of the ‘silent scream’.
In this production of The Threepenny Opera, we have explored this element of Brechtian practice through the physical stances of some of the characters (Peachum, Mrs Peachum, Polly, Jenny, and Brown); they hold a fixed gesture that seems unnatural but shows their character-type. For example, it shows Peachum as the businessman, Polly as the debutante and Jenny as the whore. All of these examples use a physical gesture, plus a message that the audience requires to understand their character and this comes together to create a layered understanding of that role and its place in the play.
Exercises to bring out Gestus
Collect some newspaper clippings from your local newspaper, ones with a basic story and simplistic elements, but still an interesting and perhaps controversial topic. Break the class into small groups of three or so, and send them off to read it aloud. When they have finished, ask them to do a short improvisation based on the event in the clipping. Then ask them to improvise what they think would have happened before, and then after the incident. They may start out a little silly, so it’s probably a good idea to find several news stories and do this exercise several times so they can get used to it. Once they have finished, find a confident group and ask them to show their improvisations in front of the class, in order from before the incident, to the incident, to after, making sure to specify where the improvisations change from one to another. Once they have done this, ask them to create a freeze-frame for each improvisation that sums up the gist of the issue discussed. Make sure that they really make brave choices here, to actually sum up the story of before, during and after with one simple tableau. Once they have all three, ask them to jump between all three freeze-frames by calling ‘Before!’, ‘During!’ or ‘After!’ Repeat with different newspaper clippings, as the students will benefit from more than one go at this exercise.
Brecht is all about exposing contradiction: in character, in life and in society. We see this when we read his un-realistic characters, ones that simply don’t make sense by modern, naturalistic standards. Brecht’s characters are written to make a political point, so they are very different to what you would see on All Saints. When we say that the characters are contradictory, it means that they have completely opposing characteristics. For example, if Brecht were to hypothetically write a play about Robin Hood, he would show him robbing from the rich to give to the poor, he would also show the lawlessness and the devastation that it caused the people he stole from. In doing this, the question would be: does that Robin Hood do right or wrong?
In presenting this dialectic, we are able to hold the conflicting characteristics in mind, compare and contrast them, and see them in a completely new light, as with the ‘V-effekt’. In the characters of The Threepenny Opera, we see this contradiction plainly. In Jenny, we see her love Mac genuinely, but also betray him and set him up to be hanged. In Brown, we see the ‘Tiger’; shrewd, violent and very powerful, but also ‘Jackie’; meek, wilting, and cowardly. This contradiction is so extreme sometimes that it feels like we are watching several different characters as opposed to one, but this is all to do with defamiliarising the opposing characteristics so we can see them, like we do with the watch, as ‘strange’.
Exercises to bring out Contradiction
This is a great exercise to understand the contradiction in Brechtian characters. Have your students collect famous speeches, bits of verbatim text spoken by famous people and have them do some research into those famous people’s lives (this can be very basic, Wikipedia is fine). Then set them up in the space with the speech (there is no need for them to learn it) and ask them, from their research, to find two opposing parts of the person’s personality. For example, for someone like Michael Jackson, they could choose the successful pop star and the paedophile, for Martin Luther King, the campaigner for social change and the adulterer, and for someone like Paris Hilton, the ditzy blonde and the millionaire businesswoman. Ask them to also find a completely different physicality for the different aspects of the personality that sums up, for example, the ‘blonde ditz’, and the ‘businesswoman’. Then have them all walking around the room and ask them to start reading their speeches in one of the aspects of their person, so Paris Hilton as ‘the ditz’. Then, yell ‘Change!’ and have them switch to the other aspect, so Paris Hilton as ‘the businesswoman’. You can choose to have the class stop and focus on a particular, confident student if you wish. This will help them to understand the disconnection from character required for Brechtian acting.
Questions for teachers and students
- Are there any examples of contradictory characters in films, plays or television shows that you have seen? What are they and what makes that character contradictory?
The acting techniques utilised in Brecht are very different to those we are used to in the theatre and film of today. Mostly, modern acting is in the naturalist tradition, that is, actors try to be as true to life as possible in their portrayal of a role. Brechtian acting is quite different. The actor is intended to have no emotional connection to the character, meaning they could drop the ‘character’ with a click of their fingers and go back to being themselves. It is better to think of the Brechtian actor as a ‘demonstrator’; they demonstrate the actions of a character, without ever ‘being’ the character.
The physicality of the Brechtian actor is always highly stylised and often exaggerated uses of gesture, intonation, and tempo, which is unfamiliar and causes the audience member to look closer. Perhaps most importantly, the characters are less like real people; they are intended to represent broader social groups. This is why Brecht considers that the building of a role must always begin on a social level, so that it is able to represent the society it is being performed for. These techniques are all visible in the USQ production of The Threepenny Opera; the actors drop their characters once they leave a scene, and become themselves again, in some instances, for example in the case of Mr Peachum, he drops the character and speaks to the audience simply as the actor. Many of the characters have exaggerated and stylised physicality’s, certain characters move in unison, some work to the same rhythm. The entire play is choreographed, like a dance, which contributes to its unnatural nature, which causes us to stay uninvolved, as we cannot empathize with the characters because they are unrealistic, but we watch with intrigue for their next movement and what it means.
Tips to bring out this acting style
Really, one of the most important things you can do with your students is to encourage discussion about modern society when you discuss Brecht and acting his style. This really means discussing the use of critical thinking and critical reflection of not WHAT happens, but HOW things happen. His work in inherently political, and to try to remove the politics from the teaching of his style is completely redundant. As the students to bring in newspaper clippings of stories that interest or frustrate them, to discuss issues from their lives that they feel are unjust. You could ask them to change the words of a popular song to reflect an issue they would like to express, to improvise a scene with subject matter that they are passionate about. You could ask your students when in their life they have been told that something is ‘natural’ or ‘that’s just the way things are, and ask them to question this. Is it natural? Has it always been that way? In my opinion, true Brecht is about exposing in society what is contradictory and unjust, and encouraging students to develop a personal sense of justice and passion is never a bad thing.
Questions for teachers and students
- What is the difference between preparing for a realistic role and preparing for a Brechtian role?
- What are some exercises you could use to prepare for a Brechtian role?
The “V-effekt” was also made possible in Epic Theatre with help from the music. In many of Brecht’s plays where music was used, the musicians were set up where they could be seen. In the original Berlin production of The Threepenny Opera, the titles of the songs were projected on placards on stage, the orchestra was lit up, and the actors changed position in order to sing their songs. This is just another way of showing that it is just a theatre show, that the actors are simply actors and that the musicians were just that, musicians.
Brecht had a very specific idea of how actors should sing on the Epic stage; he said “there is nothing more revolting than when an actor pretends not to notice that they have gone from the level of plain speech and started to sing” (Brecht on Theatre 44). For this reason, he was insistent that actors make a visible change when moving from speaking into singing, in the form of changing positions or physicality and visibly preparing for the song, taking a drink of water or cueing the band. In this production, we have also attempted to make visible the performative nature of the music; the band is clearly visible and referred to, the narrators introduce the songs to break up the action and the actors use hand-held microphones to highlight the theatricality of the performance.
Questions for teachers and students
- How is the USQ production of The Threepenny Opera similar or different to other operas or musicals that you have seen? For example, does someone introduce the song like in Cabaret or Chicago or does the character monologue in song, like in High School Musical or Phantom of the Opera?