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  • Hey there, I'm Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course Theater, and today we are hanging with

  • playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht.

  • As theatrical modernists go, Brecht is the lace to Artaud's leather.

  • Or is it the other way around?

  • His plays are hugely literary and staunchly politicalsurprise surprise!—but they're

  • also designed to wake up the audience, providing a more intense and essential vision of reality.

  • Feeling alienated yet?

  • Lights up!

  • INTRO Bertolt was born in Augsburg, Germany, in

  • 1898.

  • He studied medicine, but he also took classes in theater.

  • And in 1924... he apprenticed himself to the director Max

  • Reinhardt.

  • His early works were episodic plays about macho heroes and fragmenting societies in

  • the expressionist style of Ernst Toller or Georg Kaiser.

  • In the late 1920s, he began to work with the theater director Erwin Piscator, who we briefly

  • discussed in our episode on expressionism.

  • One of the first multimedia directors, Piscator created a theater that was overtly political.

  • He thought that theater could be a means of educating the audience.

  • And boy, did he love scaffolding.

  • Brecht combined Piscator's technique with elements borrowed from cabaret, silent film,

  • and Shakespeare's history plays to create his own unique style.

  • In 1928, he had maybe his greatest success withThe Threepenny Opera,” a tale of

  • the criminal underclass, co-written with the composer Kurt Weill.

  • This became the runaway hit of Weimar Germany.

  • Brecht, however, sensed that his politics weren't a great fit for Nazi Germany.

  • He left in 1933, first for Denmark, then Sweden and Finland, and then the United States.

  • In exile, he wrote several of his major plays, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” “The

  • Life of Galileo Galilei,” andThe Good Person of Setzuan,” and he formally articulated

  • his theories.

  • In 1947, he was summoned before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

  • He agreed to testify.

  • But, while he didn't name names, he also didn't win any popularity contests with

  • Hollywood.

  • So he left the U.S., ultimately resettling in East Germany.

  • Back in Germany, he and his wife, Helene Weigel, created the Berliner Ensemble, a theater company

  • that would perform his texts and put his theories into practice.

  • Brecht died in 1956.

  • Brecht is credited with developing the idea ofepic theater,” although Piscator used

  • that term first.

  • Epic theater is supposed to be the opposite of dramatic theater and also the opposite

  • of Aristotelian theater.

  • It's largely achieved using the Verfremdungseffekt or the V-effekt.

  • That's often translated as thealienation effect,” or thedistancing effect”;

  • a better translation isthe estrangement effect.”

  • Why would you want to estrange or alienate an audience?

  • Like a lot of dudes in the non-realist camp, Brecht worried that conventional plays were

  • too easy to sit through.

  • You see a psychologically realistic show, you have all the feels, and then you leave

  • the theater mostly worrying about whether the currywurst stand was still open.

  • Currywurst is delicious!

  • But using theater as mere escape is no way to topple exploitative capitalism!

  • Instead, Brecht tried to create plays that would force an audience to think critical

  • and uncomfortable thoughts about money, power, and ethics.

  • Art,” he wrote, “is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with

  • which to shape it.”

  • Yes, this is about waking up an audience.

  • Just like Artaud!

  • But it's not about working on an audience's unconscious and waking them up to myth and

  • magic and violence and ritual.

  • Epic theater is about working on their waking brains and waking them up to the political

  • realities just beyond the door of the playhouse.

  • The appeal is intellectual, not emotional.

  • There's no crying in Dialectical Materialism.

  • Brecht believed that an estranged audience would be forced to engage with a play's

  • content actively and intellectually.

  • Here's how Brecht put it: “The dramatic theatre's spectator says:

  • Yes, I have felt like that tooJust like meIt's only naturalIt'll never change

  • … I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

  • The epic theatre's spectator says: I'd never have thought itThat's not the wayThat's

  • extraordinary, hardly believableIt's got to stop … I laugh when they weep, I

  • weep when they laugh.”

  • How do you do this?

  • Well, you know how, in most productions, lights, sounds, sets, costumes, and songs all work

  • together to produce one coherent vision?

  • Brecht was all, how bout not?

  • He wanted a theater in which the various elements wouldn't integrate but actually sort of

  • cage fight each other, continuously ejecting the audience from the theatrical illusion.

  • DISBELIEF WILL NOT BE SUSPENDED.

  • A good example is inThe Threepenny Opera,” when the sweet and virginal Polly Peachum

  • steps out to sing the violent revenge balladPirate Jenny.”

  • The audience is supposed to be like, whaaa!?

  • Why would she sing that!?

  • But often the audience is like, hey!

  • This is a Fun song!

  • Because mimesis is powerful.

  • And estrangement is hard.

  • Brecht also encouraged a style of acting in which actors don't fully embody characters,

  • but just sort of gesture at them, often with an actual repeated, symbolic gesture that

  • Brecht called thegestus.”

  • Brecht also provided dialogue in which actors speak about their characters in the third

  • person.

  • He described this model in his essayThe Street Scene.”

  • In the essay, he imagined an eyewitness demonstrating a traffic accident to some bystanders.

  • The witness doesn't try to fully become the driver or the victim.

  • Instead, he gestures at those roles, allowing the bystanders to make up their minds.

  • The actor is not Lear,” Brecht wrote.

  • He shows Lear.”

  • Brecht also cut off interest in story or suspense by describing what would happen at the beginning

  • of a scene or actually writing it out on a half-curtain.

  • Because full curtains are too disbelief suspending.

  • There's often a narrator and a use of signs and placards.

  • He wanted each scene to exist independently and for the audience to have to work out how

  • to put them all together.

  • He was also big on speaking stage directions out loud.

  • Brecht wrote that he wanted theater to feel like a boxing match.

  • No one attending a boxing match thinks that these guys pummeling each other are doing

  • it because they're super mad at each other.

  • The audience understands that the construct is artificial.

  • That said, maybe Brecht didn't choose the best metaphor, because in boxing the punches

  • are real.

  • And if you've been to a match, you'll know that the ringside audience is not especially

  • distanced.

  • But here's a funny thing about Brecht's plays: yes, they're episodic and brainy,

  • and they keep reminding you that YOU ARE DEFINITELY WATCHING A PLAY.

  • But even when they're directed in a V-effect style, you usually end up pretty engaged with

  • the characters and the story, and not necessarily with the dialectics.

  • Curse you, entertainment!

  • The Threepenny Operawas such a runaway success not because people were so on fire

  • for Brecht rendering London's criminal underworld as an allegory for exploitative labor practices

  • in a play-staged-as-such.

  • It was probably because Kurt Weill wrote some fire tracks.

  • I meanMack the Knife.”

  • Come on!

  • And all that stuff about girls, crimes, and general skulduggery was pretty fun.

  • UH HUH SURE A SKULL JOKE Brecht wrote in a bunch of stylescomedies,

  • dramas, biographies, history plays, musicals, and folk dramas.

  • His plays cover a huge temporal and geographical range, toopart of the whole estrangement

  • thing.

  • They're smart and playful.

  • They often have really good roles for women, which isn't always a given.

  • And the balance of political dynamics with narrative pull is usually fascinating.

  • But there's one more thing to know about Brecht.

  • His own labor practices were maybe exploitative, too.

  • He had a whole bunch of co-writers, usually women he was involved with, and he almost

  • never gave them credit for their significant contributions

  • Like mostly writing some of the plays!

  • I guess maybe that partly explains his well written female roles?

  • Let's look atThe Good Person of Setzuan,” first performed in 1943 with songs by Paul

  • Dessau added later.

  • It's the heartwarming fable of a kindly prostitute who learns to protect herself from

  • exploitation by dressing and acting like a really, really mean dude.

  • It's full of sweet, sweet Brechtian devices like talking directly to the audience and

  • explaining the action before it happens.

  • Help us out, ThoughtBubble: A bunch of gods drop in on Setzuan, looking

  • for a really good person.

  • They have trouble finding one until they come to the door of the prostitute Shen Teh, who

  • takes them in even though she's penniless.

  • The gods reward Shen Teh with money and tell her to continue to be good.

  • She takes the money, buys a tobacco shop, and tries to be good, but her generosity just

  • makes her a target.

  • She falls for a pilot, Yang Sun, but he steals her money and leaves her pregnant.

  • Then Shen Teh has a bright idea.

  • She invents a cousin named Shui Ta, dresses up as him, and orders all of the freeloaders

  • to leave the shop.

  • Turns out, Shui Ta is really good at business, so good that he turns Shen Teh's tobacco

  • shop into a full-on tobacco factory.

  • But this subterfuge is hard on Shen Teh.

  • People hear her crying behind a door when only Shiu Ta is supposed to be around, and

  • they find some of her clothing.

  • So they try Shui Ta for murder.

  • Shui Ta convinces the judge to close the courtroom and reveals all.

  • The gods are present, but they leave Shen Teh, who cries out that it's impossible

  • to be good AND survive in the real world.

  • In an epilogue, the responsibility is foisted onto the audience:

  • You should now consider as you go What sort of measures you would recommend

  • To help good people to a happy end.

  • Ladies and gentlemen, in you we trust: There must be happy endings, must, must, must!”