Bertolt Brecht on Playwriting II

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Brecht6I who am writing this write it on a machine which at the time of my birth was unknown. I travel in the new vehicles with a rapidity that my grandfather could not imagine . . . and I rise in the air, a thing that my father was unable to do. With my father I already spoke across the width of a continent, but it was together with my son that I first saw the motion pictures of the explosion at Hiroshima . . . . The new sciences may have made possible this vast alteration . . . of our surroundings, yet it cannot be said that their spirit determines everything that we do. The reason why the new way of thinking and feeling has not yet penetrated the great mass of men is that the sciences, for all their success in exploiting and dominating nature, have been sopped by the class which they brought to power . . . from operating in another field where darkness still reigns, namely that of the relations which people have to one another during the exploiting and dominating process.

(A) technique of creating detachment, known as the Alienation Effect . . . allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar. The classical and medieval theatre defamiliarized its characters by making them wear human or animal masks; the Asiatic theatre even today uses musical and pantomimic A Effects. Such devices were certainly a barrier to empathy (Einfühlung), and yet this technique owed more, not less, to hypnotic suggestion than do those by which empathy is achieved. The social aims of these old devices were entirely different from our own.

The old A Effects quite remove the object represented from the spectator’s grasp, turning it into something that cannot be altered. The new are not odd in themselves, though the unscientific eye stamps anything strange as odd. The new detachment is only designed to free socially conditioned phenomena from the stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today.

To transform (ourselves) from general passive acceptance to a corresponding  state of suspicious inquiry (we) need to develop that detached eye with which the great Galileo observed a swinging chandelier. He was amazed by this pendulum motion, as if he had not espected it and could not understand its occurring, and this enabled him to come on the rules by which it was governed. Here is the outlook, disconcerting but fruitful, which the theater must provoke with its representations of human social life. It must amaze its public, and it achieves this by a technique of making the familiar seem strange.

This technique allows the theatre to make use in its representations of the new social scientific method know as dialectical materialism. In order to unearth society’s laws of motion this method treats social situations as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies. It regards nothing as existing except in so far as it changes; in other words, is in disharmony with itself. This also goes for those human feelings, opinions, and attitudes throught which at any time the form of human social life finds its expression.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the Search button.

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