Disrupting the Principles of Realism
Brecht wished to create theatre that did more than just result in the audience feeling, but instead, in the audience thinking. He was of the opinion that the theatre being produced in Europe at the time created an illusion where what was happening on the stage was depicted as real life, and therefore any opportunity to instruct or make social or political comment was restricted. By deliberately changing these ‘rules', Brecht was able to create a theatre that, in its time, was seen as radical and had obvious overtones of political and societal purposes. To understand the theatre of Brecht, it is handy to first understand how realism works.
Realism was a theatre movement that came to the forefront in the early 20th Century. It was the theory of Naturalism put into practice. It aimed to take a ‘slice of life', as such, and reproduce it on the stage. The proscenium arch acted as the fourth wall of a room, and the audience looked into this ‘laboratory-type' set up and examined what may happen to a real person.
The movement was interested in looking at the complexity of the human psyche; analysing why it is humans act the way we do, thus the main challenge of the actor was to be as realistic and as close to life as possible.
Now that we have had a very basic look at realism, we can understand that its premise was to take a ‘slice of life' and reproduce it on stage, as close to life as possible. To achieve this, certain guidelines or principles were established. For example, actors did not address the audience, and instead were trained to ‘become' the character they were playing: to feel their emotion and believe that they were living the characters life. The theory being ‘I feel it, therefore I am it.'
The majority of mainstream theatre today works on the principles of realism.
Changing the Rules
The theatre of the early 20th Century (realism) dealt with issues in the first person: the audience watched as Nora desperately struggled with her situation in Ibsen's A Doll's House (a well known piece of realist theatre). However for Brecht, he did not wish the audience's thinking ability to be held back because of an overwhelming personal sympathy or empathy for a character. To achieve this, he needed to create situations within his plays that allowed his characters to comment on the action, as if relaying an event that was observed from a distance.
Early 20th Century theatre also relied heavily on presenting the audience with situations that were familiar to them: either from real life or other theatre experiences. A man declares his love for a woman with red roses and chocolates; a mother nurtures her child through warm caresses and kisses. Brecht wished to make these familiar situations strange and force his audience to not just accept these events, but instead to question and critique what they were witnessing. By making the familiar strange, Brecht was often more honest in his portrayals of both characters and situations: not all proposals of marriage happen under a star-studded sky with a string quartet playing softly in the background, some happen out of a mutual need.
Brecht believed strongly in creating contradictory characters: the only way to create characters that were three and not two-dimensional. According to Brecht, "Freedom comes with the principle of contradiction, which is continually active and vocal in us all." (Willet, 218) A person is made up of layers of experience upon experience, and it is these multi-dimensional layers that cause contradictory actions and statements: there is always an exception to the rule.
Brecht states, "The one tribute we can pay the audience is to treat it as thoroughly intelligent. It is utterly wrong to treat people as simpletons when they are grown up at seventeen. I appeal to the reason." (Willet, 14) Brecht delivered the audience of the early 20th Century from a theatre which required an inactive audience, to a theatre where the audience was not only encouraged to think actively, but was forced to do so. By disrupting these principles that govern realism, Brecht gave his audience the ability and right to reflect on a performance from a social and political point of view, and theatre was no longer simply for art's sake, but for meaning's sake.
Brecht in a Nutshell
Brecht disrupted the principles of realism in these ways:
retelling a story, like one would an accident that they had witnessed, but not been a part of. This removes the actors and the audience from having too much of an emotional involvement with what they are watching;
making the familiar strange. By presenting the audience with something that they did not expect, Brecht was able to force them into thinking about what they were seeing, instead of accepting it; and
the Use of Contradictions. To create complex characters and situations, Brecht believed that the use of contradictions was vital. Remember, this is a man who used to wear tailored suits with a silk lining, but on the outside they would look like workers clothes.