Author logo Studying Bertolt Brecht

Sources of information
Brecht as a theatre practitioner
Brecht's plays
The early period
The propaganda plays
The plays of Brecht's maturity
Brecht's dramatic theories
The background to the theory
The epic theatre
The Verfremdungseffekt
The construction of the plays
Brecht's theory of acting
The Gestus
Non-literary elements
Set and lighting
The survival of empathy
The failed revolutionary
Brecht's success
A Brecht dictionary
Specimen exam questions


Bertolt Brecht

This study guide is intended for students in the UK taking examinations in English literature, drama or theatre arts at GCE Advanced (A2) and Advanced Supplementary (AS) level. It may also be of general interest to students of modern theatre in general and the work of Bertolt Brecht in particular. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this guide, please contact me.

This guide is written to support your study of Brecht as a theatre practitioner. You should make sure - as far as possible - that you connect the theory of drama with real plays, which you have seen in performance. The explanation of Brecht's dramatic theory summarizes broadly the ideas expressed by Martin Esslin.

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Sources of information

The best general account of Brecht's work is Martin Esslin's A Choice of Evils (Methuen; ISBN 0413547507; currently out of print). Brecht's own writings on the theatre are available in a collection edited by John Willett - Brecht on Theatre (Methuen; ISBN 041338800X). English translations of Brecht's plays are available from the same publishers. Willett's Methuen translations are closer to sense of the German originals than Eric Bentley's Penguin versions. Bentley's versions are more literary but seem dated, and far less suitable for theatre performance than the translations by Willett - perhaps because Willett has shown more respect to the original work of Brecht. Click on the links below to buy these books:

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Brecht as a theatre practitioner

Brecht was both playwright and producer/director of his own, and others', plays. He also wrote extensively on dramatic theory. You should explain his theory in terms of his practice in writing and production. You may be confused if you assume that the theory matches the reality of the plays in production. The theory, arising from a Marxist notion of drama as a vehicle for rational didacticism, describes theatre as Brecht, in a sense, wished it to become. This theory is only partly realised in his own work. Brecht would say that this is the result of the theatre's (and society's) not being ready yet for the final, perfected version of epic theatre. Modern theatre critics might say that Brecht's practical sense of what works in the theatre has (happily) overruled the more extreme applications of his theory.

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Brecht's plays

Brecht's work can be considered in three stages.

The early period

The important works are:

  • Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night; 1918),
  • Mann ist Mann (Man is Man; 1924-5)
  • Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera; 1928) and
  • Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahagonny; 1928-9).

The plays are humorous, in a rather bleak and cynical way, and present social and political questions, attacking bourgeois values.

Technically, the plays are (for their time) innovative: the bourgeois convention of the fourth wall is rejected, stories are improbable, settings exotic, songs serve as commentary on action.

The Threepenny Opera was intended to lampoon (send up or ridicule) the conventional sentimental musical. The public lapped up the mock sentiment and missed the humour. Brecht had achieved commercial success, but for reasons which could not please him.

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The propaganda plays

The Lehrstücke are short, parabolic pieces, written between 1928 and 1930:

  • Der Flug des Lindberghs [Der Ozeanflug] (The Flight of Lindbergh [the Ocean Flight])
  • Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis, (The Bavarian Parable Play of Understanding)
  • Der Jasager (The Yes-Sayer)
  • Der Neinsager (The No-Sayer)
  • Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken) and
  • Die Ausnahme und die Regel (The Exception and the Rule).

These plays, written to instruct children, are not attractive to audiences. Their simplicity and didacticism makes them austere to the point of severity. They are interesting as theatrical treatments of ideological questions but are rarely performed now.

Der Ozeanflug, broadcast as a radio play, was produced without the reading of the main part, which was to be spoken by the audience, who were supplied with scripts.

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There are also three longer propaganda plays:

Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses)

This parodies, variously, Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe. It contains many devices of what Brecht called “Epic theatre”, such as a loudspeaker announcing political events of the time, or projection of captions commenting on the drama.

Die Mutter (The Mother)

This deals explicitly and didactically with political revolution - written in a restrained puritanical style.

Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe (The Roundheads and the Peakheads)

This is a strange play which takes its plot from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure but presents also Hitler's theory of inferior and superior races via the Peakheads and the Roundheads (the latter being the “master race”).

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The plays of Brecht's maturity

Brecht's output was huge (Esslin lists forty-nine stage works - which includes operas, adaptations and interludes). But four of the later plays stand out:

  • Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children; first performed 1941;)
  • Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo; 1943)
  • Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Sezuan; 1943), and
  • Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk-Circle; performed in English, 1947; in German, not till 1954).

In the first two we see episodic narrative theatre - each scene prefaced by a caption indicating what happens (in performance, these could be displayed or read out). In the third, scenes presenting the action are followed by interludes in which actors stand back from their roles and comment on the actions of the characters. In The Caucasian Chalk-Circle, Brecht uses a play within the play: in order to resolve the conflict of two groups of peasants who wish to farm a valley, a play is presented by singer, musicians and actors. The singer and musicians stand outside the drama of Grusche, Azdak, Simon and Natella, and provide both narrative and commentary.

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Brecht's dramatic theories

The background to the theory

Brecht's special lexicon (theatrical jargon) may be confusing. He invented a complex language to describe essentially straightforward ideas - this lexicon includes such terms as epic-theatre, non-Aristotelian drama, alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) and so on. (For an explanation of these terms, see the dictionary elsewhere on this page.)

While his plays are mostly very clear and fluent, Brecht's own theorizing is not so simple.

Brecht is less novel than he is supposed to be. His drama owes much to a wide range of theatrical conventions: Elizabethan, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Greek idea of Chorus, Austrian and Bavarian folk-plays, techniques of clowns and fairground entertainers.

Brecht's theory never arrived at a fixed and final view. His ideas changed, developed, mellowed - especially because of practice in real works on stage. Much of his theory was explanation after the writing of the plays - not the bases on which these were written. And, in the writing of plays for real performance, Brecht's sense of what works is always paramount.

In part, it was the things against which he reacted that determined Brecht's theories (and his overstatements). Among these were:

  • bourgeois theatre
  • the fourth wall
  • anything which precludes thought, excites emotion or reinforces capitalist values

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Brecht disliked the twin clichés of heavily bombastic classics (Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe) and of naturalism in melodrama or drawing-room. (This is a 19th century development which had ossified into an invariable norm.) Naturalism was developed and perfected by such as Stanislavsky and Harley Granville-Barker.

Against this, reaction had already begun by the 1920s. Naturalism could go no farther, so new types of theatre arose:

  • poetic drama
  • satire
  • expressionism (types not people)
  • political theatre

Brecht had been influenced by expressionism and had collaborated with Erwin Piscator, father of political theatre and himself ready to experiment with new technique.

Convinced that theatre must be an agent of social and political change, he sought a suitable form of theatre. Having found it he described it as “Epic theatre”:

“Today when human character must be understood as the 'totality of all social conditions' the epic form is the only one that can comprehend all the processes, which could serve the drama as materials for a fully representative picture of the world.”

(Brecht's comment, 1931, in The Threepenny Opera)

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The epic theatre
“...the epic poet presents the event as totally past, while the dramatic poet presents it as totally present.”

The epic invites calm, detached contemplation and judgement; the dramatic overwhelms reason with passion and emotion, the spectator sharing the actor's experiences.

Brecht's objection to “Aristotelian” theatre was an objection to Goethe's and Schiller's interpretation of it - an objection to:

  • catharsis by terror and pity
  • identification with the actors
  • illusion - the attempt to represent the present event

Brecht's idea of epic is informed by the ideas of Goethe and Schiller regarding the mood and character of epic poetry - this is a rational, calm detachment, to which Brecht aspires as a playwright.

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Brecht criticises what he calls “Culinary theatre”. This is theatre which merely gives an experience, mental refreshment as a meal is a bodily restorative. Brecht despises theatre which provides mental foodstuffs but makes no difference to audience. He believes that the audience should be made not to feel, but to think. (Note that Brecht supposes these two to be in opposition to each other - but this need not be so: Shakespeare at his best can challenge the head and the heart.)

Dramatic theatre presents events:

  • from the hero's viewpoint (distorting judgement,) and
  • as happening now (preventing calm detachment.)

To counter this the illusion must be broken. Theatre must do this continually.

And, therefore, the audience must be made aware that events are not present events (happening now), but past events being represented as narrative, with commentary provided to encourage our own reflection. This is not unlike the experience of reading a book with critical notes in the margin, or as if a novelist supplied his own comment on a page facing that bearing the narrative. Some modern anti-novelists have done this.

The audience is intended to sit back, relax (hence Brecht's wish for smoking!) and reflect, as did hearers of bards in classical Greece or Anglo-Saxon England. The theatre of illusion creates a spurious present, pretending things are happening now. But the epic theatre is historical: the audience is continually reminded that epic theatre gives a report of events.

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The Verfremdungseffekt (V-effekt)

To discourage audience from identifying with character and so losing detachment, the action must continually be made strange, alien, remote, separate. To do this, the director must use any devices that preserve or establish this distancing.

While the general use of these is called the V-effekt, when any such device is employed successfully Brecht calls the result a V-effekt. This is Brecht's explanation of how the device works:

A child whose mother remarries, seeing her as wife not just mother, or whose teacher is prosecuted, seeing him in relation to criminal law, experiences a V-effekt.

These are examples from Brecht's own plays:

  • In Life of Galileo a long and profound speech by the unheroic protagonist is followed by the bathetic observation: “Now I must eat”. This shows the weakness of the man against the strength of the inventor.
  • In The Caucasian Chalk Circle when Grusche ponders whether or not to take the abandoned baby her dilemma is voiced by the Chorus while she enacts a dumb show.
  • In The Good Person of Sezuan the frequent asides to the audience also achieve a V-effekt.

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The construction of the plays

In order to achieve unity of action, to build suspense, and sustain its naturalistic illusion the dramatic play must be taut, well made and leading to a climax of catharsis. The epic play is more free. Suspense is not needed, and the whole can be loosely knit and episodic - each part making sense on its own.

The later, mature plays do lead to some definite end: Mother Courage's loss of all her children, Azdak's judgement in favour of Grusche or the non-solution of the gods to Shen-Te's problem. But we can isolate episodes that stand alone - Mother Courage being the most simply episodic of the later plays.

In an earlier piece, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches, 1934-37), this episodic structure is much more marked. The “play” is, in fact, a series of related sketches on the theme suggested by the play's title. The work started off as five playlets, became eight, then nineteen, grew to twenty-seven and was, at last, cut to twenty-four. In performance one could (and, perhaps, should) present a selection from the total without harm to the work's integrity.

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Brecht's theory of acting

Brecht's view is that actor should not impersonate, but narrate actions of another person, as if quoting facial gesture and movement.

“The Brechtian style of acting is acting in quotation marks.”

Brecht uses the example of an accident-eyewitness. To show bystanders what happened, he may imitate, say, the victim's gait but will only quote what is relevant and necessary to his explanation. Moreover, the actor remains free to comment on what he shows.

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One of the visitors to this site, a student teacher, tested this idea with other students:

I wanted to let you know that I used the demonstrating of an accident as a rehearsal technique during my peer teaching episode and it worked very well. I started off with an overview of Brecht and his theories and then moved on to the rehearsal technique. I had prepared an example of an accident for people to demonstrate if not enough people had witnessed one. However, lots of people had witnessed accidents and they split into groups to demonstrate them. The discussion at the end showed that they understood its relevance...Afterwards I had many people say that they had never understood Brecht before and now felt much clearer about his theories...

Georgie Sugg, University of Exeter

As the audience is not to be allowed to identify with character, so, too, the actor is not to identify with him or her. Brecht agrees with Stanislavsky that, if the actor believes he is Lear, the audience will also believe it, and share his emotions. But, unlike Stanislavsky, he does not wish this to happen.

As he does not wish to put the audience into a trance, just so the actor must keep himself free from this state: he must be relaxed, not letting muscles be tense. Even if playing someone who is possessed, the actor must not appear possessed. Brecht is opposed to frenetic and convulsive intensity on the stage. The Brechtian actor must always be in control of his emotions. Brecht sees the actor's task as greater than Stanislavsky's merging of character and actor.

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This is one important element but it must be complemented by implied comment on the character's actions. The actor must show how these are wise or foolish and express, say, pity or disdain. The actor must show that he foresees where a character's actions will lead, and that his course of action is only one among many possibilities.

Since the actor should show the audience that he has chosen one action, as opposed to another, he must be aware of the presence of the audience, not, as in Stanislavsky's ideal, wrapped up in himself and oblivious of audience.

Finally, there is to be nothing improvised in his delivery: the actor's performance should be the “delivery of a finished product”.

This theory is not as complicated as it appears: in the Victorian melodrama, the actor plays the villain in just such a critical way - the audience sees that the actor disapproves of the character; there is no identification of one with the other; there is awareness and enjoyment of the skill in showing villainy; the actor shows that the villain could choose an alternative course of action, and that he will come to a bad end.

In the theatre of illusion the actor explores the character, trying to merge with him. Only then does he react to other characters. In the Brechtian theatre the character's inner life is of no importance, save in its effect on outward action. Brecht does not portray human nature in the individual, but human relations. The story is the point of interest, not the characters. The story is the sequence of events that is the social experiment, allowing the interplay of social forces, from which the play's lesson emerges.

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The Gestus

This is Brecht's term for that which expresses basic human attitudes - not merely “gesture” but all signs of social relations: department, intonation, facial expression. The Stanislavskian actor is to work at identifying with the character he or she portrays. The Brechtian actor is to work at expressing social attitudes in clear and stylized ways. So, when Shen-Te becomes Shui-Ta, she moves in a different manner. Brecht wished to embody the “Gestus” in the dialogue - as if to compel the right stance, movement and intonation. By subtle use of rhythm pause, parallelism and counterpointing, Brecht creates a “gestic” language.

The songs are yet more clearly “gestic”. As street singers make clear their attitudes with overt, grand but simple gestures, so, in delivering songs, the Brechtian actor aims to produce clarity in expressing a basic attitude, such as despair, defiance or submission.

Instead of the seamless continuity of the naturalistic theatre, the illusion of natural disorder, Brecht wishes to break up the story into distinct episodes, each of which presents, in a clear and ordered manner, a central basic action. All that appears in the scene is designed to show the significance of the basic “Gestus”. We see how this works in Mother Courage. Each scene is prefaced by a caption telling the audience what is to be the important event, in such a way as to suggest the proper attitude for the audience to adopt to it - for instance (Scene 3):

“She manages to save her daughter, likewise her covered cart, but her honest son is killed.”

The words in red express the playwright's view of how we should interpret the scene; Courage's saving her business at the expense of her son is meant to prove how contemptible our actions are made by war.

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Non-literary elements: décor, music and choreography

These are no longer auxiliaries to text, reinforcing it - they stand alone or in opposition. Songs are not used to heighten emotion at moments of climax; they serve as commentaries, generally leading to a V-effekt - thus lyrics may be wry and humorous, melodies may be jazz-influenced, jerky and unromantic, or songs may satirize popular sentiment. (There is great irony in the way the public at large missed the satire in The Threepenny Opera, and the songs - such as Mackie Messer/Mack the Knife - became popular classics, though Brecht had intended them as send-ups.)

Stage designers, no longer tied to illusion, can supply non-realistic extra decor to provide background material:

  • in Galileo projections of maps, documents and Renaissance art works
  • in Mother Courage and Her Children captions of celebrated events of the Thirty Years War and a statement of what is to happen next, on stage, to Mother Courage

In the first production of Mahagonny a scene in which a glutton eats himself to death was enacted before a backdrop showing a portrait of him in the act of eating - so the episode is shown twice!

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The visual and musical V-effekt has an anti-hypnotic quality - music is not, as in Wagner, a narcotic, reinforcing the stage illusion. For Brecht the music and the action should each make the other appear strange. (It may be that Brecht's dislike of Wagnerian opera is not wholly rational, but made on political grounds - Wagner being associated with German nationalism and the myths of Germany's heroic origin and of Germanic racial purity.)

The result of the V-effekt is a contrast: in dramatic theatre the spectator is moved but has a crushing sense of inevitability and of his own helplessness; in the epic theatre one sees things as if different and so one may try to make things different in the real world .

If things can be seen to be changed, then one can attempt to bring about change. Brecht's belief is that theatre can show how the suffering of those on stage could be avoided. His illogically consistent Marxism leads him to believe all (not some) human evil to result from unjust social institutions. The plays show how society could be different, if attitudes regarded as sound and unalterable could be changed. This is usually done obliquely by parallels which are:

  • historical as in Mother Courage and Galileo,
  • allegorical as in Mahagonny, or
  • pseudo-foreign, as in The Good Person of Sezuan.

So, the clear inadequacy of the final words of the gods in The Good Person of Sezuan makes it clear that to be good and poor (all the time) is impossible. The real solution is not for Shen Te to become Shui Ta, but for wealth to be shared so that the poor are not forced to destroy each other to survive.

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Set and lighting

Brecht believed the stage should be brightly lit at all times; special effects to create mood were not allowed. (Logically, he could have allowed it, if accompanied by some device to draw attention to it - such as a statement from a character.) The sources of light should be plainly visible - just as those over a boxing-ring (Brecht's comparison).

The curtain is to be used for the display of titles, captions or comments. Placards may be placed in the auditorium, bearing instructions, such as “Don't stare so romantically” ( from Drums in the Night). The set behind the curtain is suggestive, not realistic; that is to say, while very authentic props may be used, (as, say, Mother Courage's handcart) there will be no elaborate arrangement of these in a naturalistic stage set.

The music, too, must have a visible source - musicians may even be on the stage. Interruptions for songs are announced or indicated by projection of a title, or flags and trumpets will descend from the flies.

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Brecht made actors turn their lines into third person narrative. Actions given in stage directions are narrated:

“Then X entered. After a few silent compliments he sat down on the sofa.”

Dialogue, spoken (in performance) in the present tense, becomes reported speech. For example,

“Has your excellency seen the new dancing master?”


“He asked whether Madame had seen the new dancing-master. ”

Brecht would include, in the text spoken in rehearsal, all stage directions. He went so far as to write what he called “practice scenes”. These were meant to cast new light on well-known scenes by use of ironic parallels. He wrote, too, what he called “bridge scenes” to be interpolated in the text in rehearsal but omitted in performance. But as these were written for classics that he never produced, their value is questionable.

Oddly, for one who wrote copious theoretical explanations, Brecht rarely referred to his theory during rehearsal, though some of his resulting practice was obviously familiar to the actors (say, the translation into narrative). Brecht claimed that full application of his theory was impossible in the present state of the theatre. As a result, many of the actors of the Berliner Ensemble, when questioned, seemed uncertain what was Brecht's preferred style of acting.

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The survival of empathy

Brecht wrongly equated empathy, without which no audience will be interested in the stage action, with illusion, which is not at all necessary and comparatively novel, being a feature of naturalistic drama. For feelings that overwhelm the audience Brecht wished to substitute reason. Because naturalistic theatre aroused excessive emotion and ignored reason Brecht supposed these two, reason and empathy, to be mutally exclusive. Yet in Greek tragedy or the plays of Shakespeare both are active. The problem is not empathy as such, but the degree and kind of empathy aroused.

As a playwright Brecht's sense of what works led to the writing of scenes where the audience's empathy for the characters on stage is considerable: the heroic self-sacrifice of the dumb Kattrin in Mother Courage is a notorious instance. Martin Esslin (A Choice of Evils, p. 131) points out the psychological flaw in Brecht's reasoning:

“Without identification and empathy, each person would be irrevocably imprisoned within himself.”

Esslin duly points out that his use of the V-effekt shows how conscious Brecht was of the audience's tendency to identification. He did not eliminate it, but modified and weakened it.

Esslin suggests that this is the particular genius of Brecht's theatre, the partial failure of Verfremdung: this creates a tension between the author's intention and our tendency to identification. We are at the same time able to feel sympathy for a character, while our reason leads us to condemn him or her roundly. In his theoretical attack upon romanticism and emotion Brecht claims to be the advocate of reason. Yet in his writing of plays, Brecht time and again creates scenes that move the audience, in spite of the distancing devices.

Because he seems genuinely to believe that his work is free of strong emotion, Brecht makes no effort to suppress or conceal this element. And because our sympathy is continually rebuffed, when emotion manages to take hold of the audience, it may be all the stronger for that.

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The failed revolutionary

Brecht hoped in his plays to show the utter rottenness of bourgeois, capitalist society. His belief was that the audience would see that a new society must replace the old and that only Marxist society could deliver justice (and that this social change was inevitable, but that his task was to help usher it in). Brecht, for all his insistence on reason, was here quite irrational in his theory. His plays could lead audiences to many other kinds of conclusion. And, to Brecht's great dismay, they did.

The masses were not roused to revolutionary fervour; indeed, the masses did not flock to any of Brecht's plays, save the Threepenny Opera, the irony of which was wholly missed and which was accepted as a happy, sentimental musical of the kind Brecht was hoping to parody. The political allegory was undetected by the audience.

While Germany descended into Nazism, Brecht fled to the west. The would-be man of the people became the favourite of western liberal intellectuals. After the war Brecht was able to work freely in East Germany, to which he returned. But he was never wholly accepted by the communist establishment which saw, better than he did, that his work might provoke thoughts dangerous to Marxism. Moreover as the Russian establishment had fostered the Stanislavskian tradition after Lenin came to power, it had become the dominant form of theatre in the Eastern bloc. Non-naturalistic theatre might, therefore, be seen as the work of a dissident, and subversive of the new revolutionary establishment.

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Brecht's success

Brecht's break with naturalism was not so much a novelty as a return to earlier conventions. Bamber Gascoigne (Twentieth-Century Drama, p.124) notes the use of “alienation” in Greek Tragedy, Mediaeval Mystery plays, Japanese Noh plays and Jacobean drama. Characters address the audience and introduce themselves in Shakespeare, as do Trinculo in The Tempest or the porter in Macbeth. Brecht's perhaps exaggerated denunciation of empathy was an understandable reaction to bourgeois naturalism. The classic tragedy where empathy is evoked but reason can be exercised, or the neo-classical drama of Corneille and Racine in which decorum is always preserved are not so far from Brecht's drama. Racine, in his preface to Bajazet also stresses the importance of distancing.

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Brecht's success was in freeing theatre from the limitations of naturalist drama. What Brecht has called “fourth-wall” theatre was confined to a narrow range of subjects and any one play, to remain naturalistic, could not range widely in the scenes depicted.

While some playwrights have accepted particular Brechtian techniques, his general effect, to cause writers to seek new conventions of representing human experience, is more important.

Some writers (such as Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons) are openly Brechtian while others may use some of Brecht's techniques without being aware of their provenance. We find the use of narrator or commentator as go-between for audience and characters, and creator of distancing effects in work by many playwrights, such as:

  • Peter Shaffer (Martin Cruz in The Royal Hunt of the Sun),
  • Arthur Miller (Alfieri in A View from the Bridge) and
  • Robert Bolt (the Common Man in A Man for All Seasons).

A less successful Brechtian device in the latter play appears when Thomas Cromwell sings an ironical song about the ship of state, but this jars with the otherwise un-ironic manner of the play and the main characters' archaic-naturalistic speech.

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Presumably writer/directors like those of the National Theatre of Brent, (whose two actors change rôles to enact or “show” the Zulu War and use their audience to help with crowd scenes), could also claim Brecht as their theatrical father. Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun is close to Brecht's own Epic Theatre:

  • like Galileo it is set in a historical period in which the church exercised great power;
  • it is a series of episodes;
  • it is narrated, and so shown to be in the past, by a character who stands beside his younger self,
  • it uses music and song, though the singer remains in character.

The play also shows the injustice of the social system and the need for change: imperialism, love of money and the evils of institutional theocracy are all laid bare.

Curiously enough, towards the end of his life, Brecht accepted that his theory of Epic theatre was too formal, and inadequate to show society's productivity and capacity for change - but Brecht felt unable to replace the theory with a better one.

In effect, he was conceding that the theory is often less adequate than the practice (the plays as interpreted by Brecht's company). In such cases, the practice must stand until a better theory emerges. In a sense, Brecht's critics have so refined the theory.

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A Brecht dictionary

Acting | alienation effect | Aristotelian | Berliner Ensemble | captions | Cas |culinary | didactic | distantation | dramatic | epic theatre | expressionism | fourth wall | Gestus | Kleines Organon für das Theater | Laughton | Lehrstücke | lighting | Messingkauf | model books | music | Neher | Piscator | rehearsal | Schiffbauerdamm | Verfremdungseffekt | Weigel | Zoff

This is a glossary of terms which are peculiar to Brecht or which, in his writing on theatre, he interprets in non-standard ways.


Brecht describes his theory fully (Brecht on Theatre, section 31): the actor is to show not to be; Esslin calls this “acting in quotation marks”.

Alienation effect

An unfortunate mis-translation of “Verfremdungseffekt” which has even more unfortunately stuck.


Brecht's term for the kind of theatre written by Schiller (1759-1805) and Goethe (1749-1832) following the description of dramatic theatre in Aristotle's Poetics. Brecht called his epic theatre “nicht Aristotelisches” (non-Aristotelian). Aristotle, of course, was not a dramatist, and wrote some time after the golden age of classical theatre.

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Berliner ensemble

A theatre company formed by Brecht in East Berlin in 1949. This enabled Brecht to produce plays precisely as he wished. State subsidies allowed very thorough rehearsal. There were no “stars”, save perhaps, Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel.


A device used by Erwin Piscator and subsequently by Brecht. Events about to be shown are described in large letters on placards for the audience to see.


Nickname of Caspar Neher

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Brecht's term for plays (usually of the Aristotelian kind) which provide sating of the emotions. Culinary theatre makes the audience satisfied and inert; Brecht wishes the theatre to provoke social change.


See Lehrstücke


A fairly accurate, if not very idiomatic, translation of “Verfremdung” .

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The kind of plays written by Goethe and Schiller but disliked by Brecht.

Epic theatre

Brecht's term for what theatre should be - an ideal to which his own plays were aspiring. The Epic theatre is a kind of drama which will require wholly new styles of acting and methods of production. The Epic theatre can be reduced to a number of distinctive features or techniques: acting technique; the v-effekt; the Gestus and so on .


A kind of theatre developed by August Strindberg as a way of expressing states of mind. It uses symbolism, unrealistic speech and non-naturalistic sequences of time, place and action. Brecht's early plays have some of these qualities. Its freedom from naturalistic conventions is retained in the Epic theatre.

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Fourth wall

Naturalistic plays purport to depict life precisely as it appears. Thus a typical stage set will look exactly like an ordinary room with one wall (that nearest the viewer) removed - the fourth wall is the missing one; the first three are those we see.


Everything an actor does (in terms of gesture, stance, what we now call “body-language”, intonation) in order to show the significance of a scene. Brecht believed that it might be possible eventually to develop a form of dialogue that compelled the actor to display the correct “Gestus”. In the meantime, this was to be achieved by the director, and by keeping detailed records (Model Books) of exemplary performances.

Kleines Organon für das Theater (Little Organon for the Theatre)

One of Brecht's two extended theoretical works on the theatre. (1948; the original Organon was a work by Aristotle on dialects and logic).

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Laughton, Charles

A distinguished English actor, admired by Brecht. Laughton collaborated with Brecht in producting an English version of Galileo, in which he was to play the lead. Laughton, directed by Joseph Losey, played the part in Beverly Hills in 1947, but the play was too unconventional to be well-received by the American audience .


Teaching (or didactic) plays. As the name implies these are not plays to entertain an audience, but to educate actors and audience alike. To involve the audience, it may be required that they participate: in the radio-play Der Ozeanflug the lead rôle is to be read (from a script) by each listener at home! What the plays teach is (negatively) the wrongness of bourgeois social morality and (positively) the rightness and inevitability of Marxist morality.


In the Epic theatre the sources of light should be visible at all times, as they are, say, in a boxing ring (Brecht's comparison). Lighting should be uniformly bright; effects of colour and dimming are not to be allowed. This is partly explicable in terms of Brecht's taste for simplicity and austerity, partly in terms of his desire to avoid creating emotional effects.

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Messingkauf, der (The Buying of Brass)

Brecht's first, unfinished, theoretical work on the theatre: a series of Platonic dialogues, poems and short scenes as examples (1937-51)

Model books

Exemplary productions of “Epic” plays were to be recorded, in minute detail, in every phase. Model books would contain photographs of each stage of production, and copious notes. Five books were published. The plays treated (not only Brecht's) include Galileo, Mother Courage (twice) and The Mother.


Brecht's plays make extensive use of music in a tremendous variety of styles. He secured the services of distinguished composers, such as Weill, Hindemith, Eisler and Dessau. Music, at first, was used to break the illusion of reality merely by bringing variety. Later Brecht evolved the theory that whereas conventionally (as in Wagner) music was a narcotic, reinforcing emotion, in the Epic theatre it should provoke thought, dispel illusion and drive out emotion. This led to the idea of “gestic” music - music which would inform the audience about the right intellectual response to events depicted in the drama.

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Neher, Caspar

School-friend of Brecht who later became an eminent painter and stage designer. Neher designed sets for Brecht's productions.


See Aristotelian.

Piscator, Erwin

Marxist playwright and director, originator of political theatre. Piscator and Brecht collaborated on productions, but never of Brecht's own plays. Many of the familiar devices of the epic theatre (captions, statistics, projection of images, musical numbers, narrators) were employed by Piscator and adopted by Brecht. The term “epic drama” was first (in modern times) used of Piscator's production of Fahnen (Flags) by Alfons Paquet. Piscator also gave Brecht the idea of using theatre as an instrument of social change, but in Brecht more artistic and poetic elements appear.


In the epic theatre, rehearsal might require presenting a scene from a play other than that to be produced, in order to understand a relationship. Speeches were also, in rehearsal, delivered in the third person with narrative links, or transformed into reported speech, with stage directions also converted into description or narrative. This was supposed to help the actor relax, be aware of the audience - not lost in his character, have muscular control and, eventually, deliver a perfect product.

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Schiffbauerdamm, Theater am (Theatre on the Schiffbauerdamm)

In 1928 The Threepenny Opera opened here. Years later (1954) the renovated theatre (in a now divided city) was given by the East German state to the Berliner Ensemble.


Abbreviation of Verfremdungseffekt

Verfremdungseffekt (the)

Translated (badly) as “Alienation-effect” and (awkwardly) as “Distantation-effect”. More accurately it is “the effect that makes things seem strange or different”. The term refers to the use of various devices to make things appear in a new light, so we consider them with intellectual objectivity, robbed of their conventional outward appearance.

Verfremdungseffekt (a)

When something is presented in a strange or surprising manner and we see it afresh, a Verfremdungseffekt has been achieved. Brecht gives the example of a child whose widowed mother remarries, seeing her, for the first time, as a wife. In the plays a V-effekt may be produced by the comment of a chorus figure (the Singer or Wang) or in ordinary dialogue (as in Galileo's “now I must eat”: suddenly he is seen not as the great scientific innovator but an ordinary, hungry man).

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Weigel, Helene

Brecht's (Austrian) second wife, the leading German-speaking stage actress of her time. In 1927 she played the female lead in Mann ist Mann. In 1949 she played the lead in Mother Courage in Berlin and in 1951 did the same for The Mother. In 1949 she also became director of the Berliner ensemble.

Zoff, Marianne

Brecht's first wife (1922-27).

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Specimen exam questions

Brecht advised his actors to “demonstrate the character” to an audience. Discuss what Brecht meant by this and how he expected it to be achieved.

What did Brecht mean by “reality” in the theatre and how did he seek to achieve it through his production methods?

All theatre practitioners seek to affect the audience in some way. Compare the means by which Brecht and any one other practitioner hoped to achieve this aim.

“Theatre should involve both the emotions and the intellect.” Discuss this idea with reference to the work of Brecht and any other theatre practitioners.

Show how the working methods of Brecht and any other theatre practitioner might be useful to a director.

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