Brecht and the Spring Theater Season
Neher, Erick, The Hudson Review
Brecht and the Spring Theater Season
When you study Modern Drama in school, a handful of names automatically populate the reading list: Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, O'Neill, Beckett. And of course Bertolt Brecht. Few playwrights can claim as influential a legacy, let alone a name whose adjectival form is common theatrical parlance. Nevertheless, Brecht's plays have not held the stage the way his colleagues' have. New Yorkers enjoy a surfeit of revivals of modern classics, but Brecht returns only fitfully and usually unsuccessfully. It is difficult to think of a completely satisfying Brecht production in the last two decades, despite the fact that his reputation remains as strong as ever. His masterpiece, Mother Courage and Her Children, seems titanic on the page, certainly one of the four or five greatest plays of the twentieth century. It never quite plays that way on the stage, however. Even Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep failed to crack this nut in their New York Shakespeare Festival production in 2006.
Yet Brecht's work lives on, his influence too important and his art too compelling to evaporate. Coincidentally, two Brecht productions reached the New York stage last spring: The Good Person of Szechwan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Both are important plays from Brecht's fertile years of exile from his German homeland. After years of successful, groundbreaking work in Weimar Berlin, culminating in the epochal smash The Threepenny Opera, Brecht fled in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Two fitful decades in Europe and the United States followed, but most of the plays that still hold the stage stem from this exile period. These works still display a deeply mysterious artistry, an almost naive poeticism that lifts them above the blunt force of Brecht's earlier work and the didactic polemics of his later plays, written after his return to East Germany in the 1950s.
Despite these important works, however, the lasting importance of Brecht probably lies more in his influential theories than in the individual play texts. Like any good Marxist, Brecht wanted to expose the means of production; he wanted the audience to be aware that they were watching a play and to take note of who put that play together and how. To achieve this goal, he continually broke the so-called "fourth wall" between the audience and the stage, using a variety of theatrical techniques. These include direct address from the actor to the audi- ence, visible lighting and other stage equipment, interpolated songs that step outside of the action, spoken stage directions, and exaggerated, non-realistic costumes and makeup. The point was to avoid the usual theatrical illusion of a unified, realistic world and instead to acknowledge the artificial, constructed nature of all theatrical work-and by extension the artificial, constructed (and therefore malleable) nature of all social and political enterprise. Brecht dubbed his practice "Epic Theater," denoting a theatrical site for political and dialectical analysis and advocacy, rather than a place for pure entertainment or reinforcement of bourgeois values. At the end of the play, he wanted his spectator to say not, "Wasn't that nice," but rather, "How do we change things for the better?" The platonically ideal Brecht audience marches out of the theater into the streets, demanding revolution and justice.
Brecht's anti-illusory theatrical techniques aimed to create the famous Verfremdungseffekt which is often translated as "Alienation Effect"-and here we encounter a central misunderstanding of Brechtian dramaturgy. What did Brecht mean by Verfremdungseffekt and what was he ultimately after? Theater practitioners often interpret the notion of "Alienation" in its most pejorative sense. They assume that Brecht wanted literally to alienate the audience: to anger and annoy them and to shove the audience's face in its own hypocrisy and mendacity. This approach has led over the decades to coundess productions of Brecht's plays in which the actors spend the entire evening metaphorically sticking their tongue out at the audience, acting as decadent and debauched and unlikeable as possible (for example, the Roundabout Theatre's 2006 production of Threepenny Opera). …