Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theory

Verfremdung

“Verfremdung”, pronounced “fair-frem-doong”, is a German word used by Bertolt Brecht that lies at the very heart of his theories on epic theatre. In practice he called it “verfremdungseffekt”. The term has variously been translated as “alienation effect”, “distancing effect” and “estrangement effect”. For decades, “alienation effect” was the accepted term for Brecht’s acting and staging devices in the belief they were used to distance the spectators from the action of the drama, particularly the detachment of a strong emotional connection.

However, in more recent years “alienation effect” is considered a misleading translation. A similar word, “entfremdung”, is a Marxist term usually translated as alienation. The meaning of this word relates to the social alienation of individuals due to class structure, but has no connection to the theatre. There is evidence of Brecht using this term as well, and coupled with the fact that he was a Marxist, this may have been enough for scholars to confuse the two words. So today, “verfremdung” is translated as “defamiliarisation” or “to make the familiar, strange” and not alienation. These more recent interpretations appear to best suit Brecht’s principles.

The V-effect consists of turning the object of which one is to be made aware … from something ordinary, familiar, immediately accessible, into something peculiar, striking and unexpected. – Bertolt Brecht

Brecht saw little value in the realistic theatre as we know it. Epic theatre was markedly different from the naturalistic and realistic theatre which arrived on European stages toward the end of the 19th century with works by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. Brecht once likened realism to that of a drug where the audience became pacified in a weakened state of awareness. He wanted his epic theatre to awaken the audience, even referring to them as “spectators” – they were to be observers, not participants.

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The audience should never be allowed to confuse what it sees on stage with reality. Rather, the play must always be thought of as a comment upon life – something to be watched and judged critically. – Oscar Brockett

Nevertheless, some scholars believe Brecht’s theatre was realistic in a sense, only it was a different notion of realism – one that was interested in the reasons behind why people behaved as they did and what can we do to solve a problem or issue?

Brecht preferred to look behind the surface of what we encounter every day. His realism was based on accounting for behaviours and opinions, and was thus a ‘philosophical realism’, one based on a series of ideas about how people ‘work’ and interact with each other……to be realistic was thus to be true to one’s social position and to the options that that position offered in the moment – David Barnett

Critical to a student’s understanding of epic theatre is Brecht’s embrace of Marxism…

Plays, theories and practices of Brecht’s from 1926 onwards should be viewed with a lens that critiques the work from a Marxist perspective. Marxism is a set of economic, social and political beliefs based chiefly on the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marxism sees social change in terms of economic factors. In essence, Marxism is the theory that underpins the practice of socialism and communism. A communist system of government aims to distribute the wealth evenly amongst the people. It is important to note, however, Brecht never officially became a card-carrying member of the German Communist Party.

To a Marxist, things have meaning only when they are seen in their social context. – David Barnett 

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Similarly, students of epic theatre must also understand capitalism…

Capitalism is an economic system where the four factors of production – entrepreneurship, natural resources, capital goods and labour – are owned by private companies and institutions intent on making a profit. Capitalism requires a competitive, free market economy to exist. Prices and the distribution of goods and services are determined by competition in the marketplace and supply and demand. One of the pitfalls of capitalism is that the rich get wealthier while the poverty-stricken in society get poorer. Brecht warned of the dangers of a capitalist society in a number of his plays. His 1928 play with music The Threepenny Opera was a satire on bourgeois capitalist society.

Other articles in this recent series on epic theatre include:

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