Bertolt Brecht and Constantin Stanislavski are regarded as two of the most influential practitioners of the twentieth century, both with strong opinions and ideas about the function of the theatre and the actors within it. Both theories are considered useful and are used throughout the world as a means to achieve a good piece of theatre. The fact that both are so well respected is probably the only obvious similarity as their work is almost of complete opposites.
Stanislavski was born in 1863 to a wealthy family who loved amateur theatricals. In 1898 he met Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and they founded the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavski’s work is centred on the notion that acting should be a total lifelike expression of what is being imitated.
With regards to the role of the theatre, and of it audience, Stanislavski viewed theatre as a means of artistically expressing things, and that the audience’s role was to ‘look in’ on the action on the stage. He favoured the idea of the ‘fourth wall’ which separated the audience and the actors, to re-create total realism on the stage. He wanted the audience to feel the pain or joy of the actor, and that watching a performance would have brought out a feeling of empathy.
Stanislavski believed in ensemble acting and wanted to take theatre away from the idea of having a star, to create as near to naturalism as possible. (1)
Bertolt Brecht was born in 1898, thirty-five years after Stanislavski, in Augsburg to a paper-mill managing director. His life was spent moving from country to country, fleeing from Nazi forces and other political pressures. In 1949 Brecht and Helene Weigel founded the Berliner Ensemble, which in 1990 (thirty-four years after Brechts death) was transformed into a public corporation with an enormous city subsidy and a collective management team of well-known directors.
Brechts work is based on the concept that theatre is a means of political persuasion for the masses. He sees the theatre as a tool to manipulate the audience, and to influence their day-to-day living once that have thought about issues raised during the performance.
Stanislavski was very sure of the role of his actors within the theatre. The actors are there to create a real, emotional and truthful imitation of the character they are playing, and to be so life-like that they seem to become their character. He said that the “Purpose of our art is to create the life of a human soul and render it in an artistic form”. (2)
Which is quite a clear illustration of the purpose or ‘role’ of stanislavskian actors. Stanislavski set out a way of preparing for a role so that the actor could fulfil his role of pure imitation. He started off by asking the actor to explore the character. He wanted to know what their objective was in each unit of action and what their super objective was. The super objective was the sum of all the units and their objectives.
“In a play the whole stream of individual minor objectives, all the imaginative thoughts, feelings and actions of an actor, should converge to carry out the super objective of the plot”
Once actors can find some direction or purpose (objective or super objective) then it is easier, according to Stanislavski, to immerse themselves in the character. He noted
“You mustn’t act ‘in general’, for the sake of action; always act with a purpose”
To develop on this idea, Stanislavski used the notion of the ‘Magic if’ where an actor would ask, “what would I do if that were me? How would I react if that had happened to me?” and by doing this the actor would believe in what takes place on stage through the power of imagination. Stanislavski called it ‘unconscious creativeness through creative technique’. He hoped that if an actor could really believe in their purpose, to the extent where they could feel it, they would have served their purpose of absolute reality and truth. All of these techniques amount to a pre-performance preparation, which Stanislavski believes help the actor carry out his role in the theatre. This is best summed up in An Actor Prepares when he states,
“The actor creates his model in his imagination, and then, just as does the painter, he takes every feature of it and transfers it, not on to canvas but on to himself”. (3)
Brecht’s idea of the actor’s role is very much different from Stanislavski’s. Brecht saw the actor as tool to simply represent an archetype. Brecht didn’t want the audience taken in by the actor’s performance, he wanted to alienate them from the action so that they could judge the plays meanings rather than feel empathy with the characters. He called this the Verfremdungseffekt, which translated from German means the effect of a worldview. Up until Brechts revolutionary work, method acting was very common.
Brecht quoted “Nowadays the plays’ meaning is usually blurred by the fact that the actor plays to the audiences hearts. The figures portrayed are foisted on the audience and are falsified in the process. Contrary to present custom they ought to be presented quite coldly, classically and objectively. For they are not matter for empathy; they are there to be understood and politely added “I’m not writing for the scum who want to have the cockles of their hearts warmed” Brecht was not the sort of writer or director that wanted an exact portrayal from his actors of how he saw his characters. Nor did he expect the audience to take an exact interpretation from he actors. He wanted the audience to draw some sort of moral from the story that would arouse their sense of reason to affect their own lives. He noted “I leave the maximum freedom of interpretation. The sense of my play is immanent. You have to fish it out for yourself” (4)
Although this sounds as if he wanted maximum concentration from his audience, Brecht encouraged his audience to discuss things during a performance and to enter and leave during a performance at their will.
Brechts Epic Theatre used varied means of conveying the verfremdungseffekt. He often had characters speaking in the third person or reading out stage directions. Sometimes he even used masks or makeup on the actors to draw the audience’s attention away from the actor’s faces. Anything that could be used to take away imitation of actual reality was used. Placards were used before scenes to introduce ideas or new characters. Non-naturalistic lighting was used to create effects, and usually the rig was in full view of the audience. The National Theatre’s 2002 interpretation of The Good Person of Setzuan saw an old fashioned bicycle at the front of the stage. At regular intervals the light would go down and the actors would abandon their scene and come into the audience to find someone to cycle on the bike to re-generate the lights (which were, you guessed it, on a low hanging visible rig). This is a typical example of how Brecht saw the role of the actor – as a tool. (5)
At first glance, Brecht and Stanislavski seem to be at opposite ends on the acting theories scale. For example, Stanislavski believed in the actor portraying total truth and reality, whereas Brecht believed the actor should simply represent a social archetype. Stanislavski didn’t see the need for props or other means of presenting information, that the actor only needs his body to express things. Brecht on the other hand thought that the actor should be concerned with presenting issues through props, lighting, placards etc, to detract from the actor’s expression.
However, there are some similarities between these two practitioners. For example, neither Stanislavski nor Brecht see life or art as peachy or perfect, they both respect the different sides of human nature that drive through actors, plots, plays, and real life. Stanislavski says,
“Nothing in life is more beautiful than nature, and it should be the object of constant observation… And do not shun the darker side of nature… What
is truly beautiful has nothing to fear from disfigurement. Indeed disfigurement often emphasizes and sets off beauty in higher relief” (6)
Similarly, Brecht was not afraid to show blatant poverty, evil or selfishness in his plays, he didn’t want to put on ‘fluffy-pink’ shows to please the masses. In fact, Brecht wanted realism just as much as Stanislavski did, the key difference being that Stanislavski wanted it from his actors, and Brecht wanted it from his gritty, resolute plays.
Another difference, which is small enough to be overlooked, is the fact that both Stanislavski and Brecht believed in ensemble acting and did not favour the ‘star’ system. Even so, it would seem that all of the actors were the ‘stars’ in Stanislavski’s work, whereas the actors in Brecht’s theatre were just a means of carrying across the verfremdungseffekt, which could be seen as Brechts ‘star’ in a strange in-direct way.
To conclude, Brecht and Stanislavski, both highly known and respected in the world of drama, are renowned for their obvious and clear differences. One thing that they are not so renowned for being similar for is that they both take drama very seriously and see plays and performances not only as art but as a vital part of the human existence.