A poet first and
foremost, Bertolt Brecht's genius was for language. However,
because this language is built upon a certain bold and direct
simplicity, his plays often lose something in the translation
from his native German. Nevertheless, they contain a rare poetic
vision, a voice that has rarely been paralleled in the 20th century.
Brecht was influenced by a wide variety of sources including
Chinese, Japanese, and Indian theatre, the Elizabethans (especially
Shakespeare), Greek tragedy, Büchner,
Wedekind, fair-ground entertainments,
the Bavarian folk play, and many more. Such a wide variety of
sources might have proven overwhelming for a lesser artist, but
Brecht had the uncanny ability to take elements from seemingly
incompatible sources, combine them, and make them his own.
In his early plays, Brecht experimented with dada and expressionism,
but in his later work, he developed a style more suited his own
unique vision. He detested the "Aristotelian" drama
and its attempts to lure the spectator into a kind of trance-like
state, a total identification with the hero to the point of complete
self-oblivion, resulting in feelings of terror and pity and,
ultimately, an emotional catharsis. He didn't want his audience
to feel emotions--he wanted them to think--and towards
this end, he determined to destroy the theatrical illusion, and,
thus, that dull trance-like state he so despised.
The result of Brecht's research was a technique known as "verfremdungseffekt"
or the "alienation effect". It was designed to encourage
the audience to retain their critical detachment. His theories
resulted in a number of "epic" dramas, among them Mother
Courage and Her Children which tells the story of a travelling
merchant who earns her living by following the Swedish and Imperial
armies with her covered wagon and selling them supplies: clothing,
food, brandy, etc... As the war grows heated, Mother Courage
finds that this profession has put her and her children in danger,
but the old woman doggedly refuses to give up her wagon. Mother
Courage and Her Children was both a triumph and a failure
for Brecht. Although the play was a great success, he never managed
to achieve in his audience the unemotional, analytical response
he desired. Audiences never fail to be moved by the plight of
the stubborn old woman.
In Galileo, Brecht paints a portrait of a passionate
and tortured man. Galileo has discovered that the earth is not
the center of the universe, but even though the Pope's own astronomer
has confirmed this earth-shaking revelation, the Inquisition
has forbidden him to publish his findings. For eight years, Galileo
holds his tongue. Finally, a new pope known for his enlightenment
ascends to the Papacy, and Galileo sees his chance. But the Grand
Inquisitor is lurking in the background, plotting to destroy
the great astronomer's work.
Brecht would go on to write a number of modern masterpieces
including The Good Person of Szechwan and The Caucasian
Chalk Circle. In the end, Brecht's audience stubbornly went
on being moved to terror and pity. However, his experiments were
not a failure. His dramatic theories have spread across the globe,
and he left behind a group of dedicated disciples known today
as "Brechtians" who continue to propagate his teachings.
At the time of his death, Brecht was planning a play in response
to Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot.
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