Good Essay About Radical Theater And Brecht
Bertolt Brecht was one of the most radical, innovative playwrights and theorists of his time, his work dramatically challenging the very idea of theater as an art form. Of particular note is his abandonment of verisimilitude – the idea that plays had to work hard to pretend to seamlessly imitate real life. In his “Short Organum on the Theater,” Brecht himself says that this particular goal is impossible in the theater, as the audience will always know that it is a play. To that end, the ideal thing to do is abandon all pretense of verisimilitude and embrace its status as a play. Brecht, as a playwright, presented these ideas in his own work as well, including his play Mother Courage and her Children.
Passage 46 of Brecht’s Short Organum on the Theater is particularly germane to his discussion of the alienation effect and its inevitable effect on theater audiences. Right away, he mentions the folly of bourgeois theatre at their attempts towards “smoothing over contradictions, at creating false harmony, at idealization” (17). This refers to the desire of these realism-centric theaters to present things as something they are not, refusing to assert that they could be anything else but what they want it to be (instead of a set, a real house, for example). This approach, argues Brecht, needlessly oversimplifies theatrical characters and situations that can, and should be, complex: “Characters as individuals, incapable by definition of being divided, cast in one block” (17).
Brecht goes on to describe the timing and pacing of plays like these, calling their development “steady, never by jerks,” and happening “within a definite framework which cannot be broken through” (17). This is all much too simple and cut-and-dry for Brecht, as he feels it ignores the jerky chaos of reality, and ties things up in too nice a bow for the audience to really sell as reality. As a result, Brecht dismisses these attempts out of hand: “None of this is like reality, so a realistic theatre must give it up” (17). Instead of trying to make things work for a narrative and trying to fool the audience into believing the events onstage are real, Brecht says to give up reality and just lean into the artificiality and alienation that occurs within this world.
This sense of alienation is definitely found within Mother Courage and Her Children, particularly in Scene 11, in which the peasants surrender Kattrin to the Catholic regiment. The Peasant’s Wife says to Kattrin, “Pray, poor creature, pray! Nowt we can do to stop bloodshed. You can’t talk, maybe, but at least you can pray” (Brecht 77). The alienating effect of this scene in particular comes from the play’s willingness to set up a situation and immediately subvert it; one expects the play to wring tension out of a scene where the peasants try to keep Kattrin hidden, but the peasants instead capitulate immediately. In this way, plots and characters break the kind of clean-cut ‘reality’ that bourgeois theatre tries to provide in its stories, and Brecht takes the messier, more complicated route with his particular stories. Through this and other elements of Mother Courage, Brecht demonstrates that plays do not have to pretend to be real life, as that can often seem more artificial than the theatre itself.
Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children. 1939.
Brecht, Bertolt. Short Organum on the Theater. 1948.