The Academy: session abstract and readings

Literature, Lecture 4: Brecht and the need to alienate the people

Martin Robinson

“I’m teaching all the time. When am I to learn?”
“He who laughs last has not yet heard the bad news.”

Brecht was a great playwright, a controversial and difficult man, and a highly influential theorist. From anarchic bohemian folk plays and Marxist didactic learning plays to complex works of dialectical theatre, he was both a product of his time and yet left an important legacy to theatre and other arts to this day.

This talk is meant to serve as an introduction to the ideas and practice of Brecht, why his theatre was necessary and why his thinking is still important for artists. I want to look at what he meant by the ‘alienation (Verfremdung) effect’ and the importance of what Walter Benjamin referred to as ‘shock’: ‘namely the ability to connect “dissimilars” in such a way as to “shock” people into new recognitions and understandings’. Benjamin thought of Brecht as a ‘Socratic’.

Brecht brings to theatre the idea that the contradictions of society are played out in our lives, and that we have the wherewithal within us to critique the world and change our circumstances, even to a small degree, and this is important. Brecht’s theatre is extremely humane; his roguish, flawed anti-heroes are stuck in circumstances not of their making, but how they realise this and make the best of their circumstances is the core lesson of his plays. Even if, in the case of Mother Courage, she learns no lessons at all and just carries on…

Because the real focus for Brecht is the public looking on – the spectators, proletarian smokers: “The relaxed interest of the audience for which the productions of epic theatre are intended is due, precisely, to the fact that practically no appeal is made to the spectator’s capacity for empathy. The art of epic theatre consists in arousing astonishment rather than em­pathy… instead of identifying itself with the hero, the audience is called upon to learn to be astonished at the circumstances within which he has his being.” W. Benjamin

This talk will be a relaxed look at shock and astonishment.

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Battle of Ideas Festival 2019

Saturday 2 & Sunday 3 November 2019, Barbican, Silk Street, London