Bertolt Brecht: German Theatre Practitioner

Categories: Biography

Bertolt Brecht is a giant in twentieth-century theatre. Not only did he develop the most fundamental dramaturgical form of theatre: Das episches Theatre, but he also defied ‘illusionism’ and theatre that aimed to give the audience ‘a slice of life’ (naturalistic theatre) and the conventional norm of expressionistic theatre. This essay will look at epic techniques Brecht used for portraying his ideas, in Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.

One of the playlets that illustrate Brecht’s ideas about the theatre is The Jewish Wife .

The audience is introduced to the issue of ‘mixed’ marriages, in light of the antisemitic Nuremberg Race laws. The premise is that the husband’s profession is potentially at risk due to the wife’s ethnicity as a Jew. Therefore, the wife resolves to flee to Amsterdam, to prevent the possibility of hindering his career. Visibly, the majority of this scene takes the form of the wife’s monologue, as she hurriedly makes telephone calls to friends, for her husband to be looked after during her absence.

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She then proceeds to rehearse telling her husband of the news; ironically, both the wife and the husband pretend she will return in weeks, despite the fact, that she takes her fur coat with her: “Nazis announced new laws that revoke Reich citizenship for Jews and prohibit Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of 'German or related blood.' The Nuremberg Laws define a 'Jew' as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents.”

The Verfremdungseffekt or the V-Effect is one of the key notions used in defining Brechtian epic theatre.

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Verfremdung translates to ‘to make strange’ or, more fittingly, ‘alienation’, ‘distancing’. Notably, as the wife switches between the telephone-calls and practicing breaking the news to her husband. This phenomenon of ‘theatre-within-theatre’ arguably serves two purposes of the Verfremdungseffekt. The first being, Brecht wanted his audience to be able to reflect critically on the situation which confronts them, and not to blindly accept the characters’ fate . Therefore, the use of the “theatre-within-a-theatre” in this scene effectively distances the audience from the characters, and remind them that what they see is not an imitation of a real action, in which they should be emotionally involved; it is rather a story they are told on which they are encouraged to think critically . In contrast to this interpretation, the second interpretation points out that, Brecht’s epic theatre is not completely opposed to emotion and empathy. Rather, he tried to engage the audience’s emotions from a different angle. Some argue that, by distancing the audience from the stage, emotional sympathy is aroused in the audience, which is exactly what Brecht wants to manipulate, as it motivates progressive political involvement, and elicits the urge in people to express their own opinions .

Another epic theatre technique used by Brecht in this scene is Gestus (gesture). Gestus, in this context, “…is not the expression of a psychological event, but rather the manifestation of an external, social reality.” In other words, Gestus is a visible social relations between people, which enables the audience to interpret the movements of the characters on stage. An example of this technique is when the husband passes the wife her ‘Pelzmantel’, with the ironic words: ‘Schlieβlich sind es nur ein paar Wochen.’, marking the end of the scene. Distinctively, the husband’s words and the wife’s silence, despite her previously rehearsed speech, show both physical Gestus and gestic language. What is perhaps the essence of Gestus in the scene is not what is said or shown, but more of what remains unsaid and unshown. From the missing dialogue, the audience can assume that Judith doesn’t have any children, her parents are dead, she doesn’t have any siblings, and most of her social network is through her husband . Furthermore, the passiveness of her husband also suggests that she is often neglected by him. This neglection could be due to the political conditions which have changed him. Such an opening window on the character’s psyche might be considered going against Brecht’s epic theatre, since this may lead the audience to emotionally identify with the character. However, it is precisely this contemplation of the ‘unsaid and unseen’ that proves the effectiveness of the use of Gestus in Brecht’s epic theatre .

Another scene that depicts Brecht’s ideas about the theatre is Scene 19: Die Alte Kämpfer. In this scene, we learn about a Butcher, who has been a member of the NSDP since before the 1930s. Through the proletariat characters: ‘Ein Kleinbürger’, ’Die Frau’, ‘Ein junger Bursche’, ‘Eine zweite Frau‘, ‚Die Milchhändlerin‘, the audience learn that the Butcher (die alte Kämpfer) has no meat, and refuses to hang a fake ham in his window. Whilst he goes away for a weekend to get new stock, his son is arrested. The scene ends as the audience sees that, he has hung himself in the shop window, with a sign around his neck: ‘I voted for Hitler.’.

In the play, Brecht uses the technique of separation of the elements, in which all elements (music, text, stage etc) remain detached . This is apparent through the use of placards for the opening verse of each scene , as well as the nature of the play as a montage: ‘…organizing disparate elements side-by-side in an experimental way, as opposed to building a careful picture of organically linked pieces, as found in the dramatic theatre.’ .

Furthermore, Brecht used this scene to explore the contradictory nature of humans. Despite having ‘voted for Hitler’, the Butcher still chose to take his own life. His suicide, which is seen as an act of cowardice in the eyes of NSDP, juxtaposes his title as the ‘Old Militant’, which suggests resilience and bravery. Brecht’s intention here is not to arouse the audience’s empathy, rather, he wants us to gain a deeper understanding of the characters. Furthermore, the contradiction between his actions and his title shows the underlying theme of resistance. As a dissident Marxist, Brecht was more concerned with individuals contributions, rather than collective resistance. The Old Militant’s suicide enacts a form of individual resistance, yet by making this public affair, he turns it into a constructive act of overt resistance.

In conclusion, Brecht wanted his audience to be independent thinkers and hoped to transform how the audience respond to a staged narrative to influence interpretations of the world, and so, - ultimately – change the world itself .

Updated: Feb 13, 2024
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Bertolt Brecht: German Theatre Practitioner. (2024, Feb 13). Retrieved from

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