Political Theatre Essay
Modernism came about due to a change in international thinking, with the likes of Darwin’s evolution theory and the publication of Karl Marx’s ‘ The Communist Manifesto’ (1848). People wanted a clean break with tradition, presented through the arts as Romanticism and realism. Consequently, Modernism – an artistic experiment and immensely complex movement – encompassed the majority of the countries in the Western World, after figures in the ‘avant-garde’ of the movement, such as Zola and Nietzsche, spread out from the bohemian cities of Paris and Vienna, where Modernism stemmed from.
Modernism is an Umbrella term, “an overwhelmingly complex phenomenon”1, including Naturalism, Symbolism and Theatre of the Absurd among others. It also began throughout the world at different times forming a number of different strands, such as Germanic and Anglo-American Modernism. It is for this reason that the movement is so difficult to pin down to one era. According to Bradbury and McFarlane, it began in 1880 and ended in the 1930’s. However, among other critics, I propose that the period stretches further, much closer to the present day, where we are currently in the period of Post-Modernism.
It is certain that Modernism began in the 1880’s, making a swift transition from Romanticism. It was concerned with a negative consciousness, alienating the audience and creating a sense of disorder. Yet, this quickly gave way to a positive attitude to social advance, seen in Henrik Ibsen’s plays, highlighting optimism and confidence. Shortly after came the main strand of Modernism, replacing this confidence with a fascination with irrational forces, reflected in Strindberg’s ‘The Ghost Sonata’.
The movement juxtaposes a number of unlikely combinations such as ‘The Enlightenment’ (18th Century) and ‘Romanticism’ (early 19th Century); rational and irrational thought; and the naturalistic and symbolic because of its complexity and the range of different styles within it. The central point for Modernism changed at the end of World War I, moving away from France in favour of Central Europe and revolutionary Russia. The change in politics, society and technology called for developments in theatre, the product being Political Theatre.
However, the term ‘Political Theatre’ was first used publicly in 1928, before which it had no official term. Political Theatre, like the rest of Modernism posed a number of experimental, and often controversial ideas. The two main forerunners of Political Theatre were Germans, Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. Piscator set the ball rolling, adapting plays to have a political edge, while Brecht developed the ideas and formed stronger concepts and theories, writing his own plays with political subject matters.
Yet, the practitioners didn’t work together in developing the style despite sharing similar beliefs in how theatre should be portrayed, because each man wanted to manage himself. Ironically, this situation is echoed in the politics of the time with the Russian and German Revolutions, where despite the parties seizing power in similar manners and setting out from the same causes, they didn’t share views in ideology. At the end of World War I Germany was in a state of economical and political ruin. The Weimar Republic took control of Germany until just before World War II after which Hitler effortlessly seized power.
The artists of The Weimar Republic, home of Political Theatre, were anti-Nazi and sought to find policies to suit them elsewhere. As a result, strong allegiances were built with Russia, and many artists of the Modern era migrated there to find jobs. Piscator was a revolutionary Marxist; he disliked the Nazis and produced many political plays attacking the regime. However, Piscator’s theatre was subject to party orders and the political issues of the time. Brecht, like Piscator was opposed to Militarism and false Nationalism.
He despised Nazism and as a result was exiled for fifteen years, where he wrote some of his most famous work including ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’ and ‘Mother Courage’. Yet, unlike Piscator, he never joined the East German Communist Party despite following the Marxist regime, which was mainly based in Russia. Two forms of theatre that had been set up in Russia, largely influenced by the works of Meyerhold, set the basis for Piscator’s Epic theatre of Politics. Agitation Propaganda (Agit-Prop) aimed to stimulate the audience to take political action, through the use of song and short sketches. The other, Mass spectacles, were “…
vast pageants of revolution involving casts of thousands” 2. It has been suggested that Piscator’s Epic theatre was a fusion of these two elements. However, his theatre is not Naturalism. He uses aspects of previous forms, fitting them into Political Theatre. He is more sympathetic towards Naturalism because it shows ‘real’ people on stage, but claims the problems is that “… cries of exasperation stand where we should hear answers” 3, this being the difference. However, where Piscator scattered the pieces, Brecht was the one to pick them up and create the jigsaw. Brecht drew his own ideas from Piscator’s, simplifying and customising them.
Piscator wanted to create a new form of theatre, one that engulfed the social struggle, where the Proletariat take power from the ruling class, another link with Marxist Russia during World War I (1917). He wanted his audience, preferably the working class, to take a stand as a result of his theatre. Piscator once said ” … More than ever the theatre must nail its flag fanatically to the mast of politics: the politics of the proletariat… Theatre is action, the action of the proletariat”4 His theatre aimed to depict reality as truthfully and authentically as possible, providing a documentary style reality to the drama.
This had repercussions on future Art, because this idea formed the basis for Documentary Theatre. In order to portray this new theatre, there came a need for a new style of acting, and not only this but a totally different approach to performance. A critic described one of Piscator’s early productions, ‘Fahnen’, as ‘epic’, and consequently he built on this idea. Thus the beginnings of ‘Epic Theatre’ were first outlined in his published book, ‘Das Politische Theater’ in 1929. It is now appreciated that Political and Epic Theatre go hand in hand. However, the real theorist of Epic Theatre was Brecht.
Naturally, he was influenced by Piscator, but used his methods on a much smaller scale. As Willett said ” The real novelty [of Brecht’s theatre] and force of his plays lay in the words which simply could not stand such top-heavy staging”5 and therefore focussed his work on ‘die Verfremdungseffekt’, a technique he created that made the acting strange to the audience. In doing this, Brecht took the emotion out of the production, distanced the audience from the characters, and most importantly made the actors dissociate themselves from their roles.
The staging of Political Theatre aimed to enhance the technique and theories of the movement as a whole. It depended on a minimum of scenery and props, following the ideals that the spectacle of the theatre is in the acting and what the actors can portray. Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’ is a good demonstration of how small greedy entrepreneurs make wars possible. Brecht states this in no uncertain terms in the play – “What they could do with round here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. “6 – portraying his views on the senselessness of war.
The play tells the story of a woman who runs a sustenance wagon during wartime. Set during the Thirty Year’s War, it acts as a metaphor to any war throughout time. The play shows that people lose sense of their morals during war, through greed of the army sergeants, but also how Courage remains set on providing for the war despite losing her two sons, and get her materialistic cut, knowing that ‘big profits are not made by little people’7. There are certain attributes in ‘Mother Courage’ that exemplify Epic Theatre, the most dominant of these being the character names in the play – for example ‘the Cook’ and ‘the Chaplain’.
Brecht avoided giving characters actual names as this added to his concept of the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, stopping the audience from becoming emotionally attached to the character. By naming Mother Courage the audience is subconsciously forced to empathise with her, sharing a ‘powerless social position’ 8. Brecht also created the idea of gestus. Here, the actor adopts a socially critical attitude towards his character, communicating with the audience as himself rather than as the play character. A good example in ‘Mother Courage’ is a performance by Brecht’s wife, Helen Weigel.
When asked to identify her son at the end of scene three, the stage directions instruct Courage to shake her head, to show she doesn’t recognise her son. However, after doing this, Weigel turned to the audience, opening her mouth in a ‘silent scream’. This reminded the audience they were spectators at the theatre, another of Brecht’s aims, but also had more affect on the audience than any real scream could have. It is for this reason that ‘Mother Courage’ was both a success and ineffectual for Brecht.
Audiences always felt some emotion towards Courage, yet the play was well received. Brecht included a number of songs in his play, and the actors would ‘step out’ of character to perform these, adding to the Verfremdungseffekt. He wanted the music and text to juxtapose one another, such as when Yvette teaches Kattrin about love in the ‘Fraternization Song’. Political Theatre played a key role in the development of Modernism as a whole, Brecht being the most influential character, but was also fundamental in the development of theatre.
Remains of Political Theatre can be seen across the Arts today, and the sub-movement has been continued by such political writers as Edward Bond who said that theatre helps us to understand political views, complimenting the work of Brecht and Piscator. Despite being experimental and controversial, Political Theatre is now regarded with great respect and well received. Therefore, Brecht’s ingenious but contentious ideology came true for him, and the development of Modern Theatre: Don’t start from the good old things, but the bad new ones.
1. Bradbury, M. and McFarlane, J. Modernism A Guide to European Literature Penguin Books 1991 2. http://www. citycol. com/perfdesn/Piscator. htm Erwin Piscator (1895-1966) 3. Piscator, E. The Political Theatre In: http://www. citycol. com/perfdesn/Piscator. htm 4. Piscator, E. In: Willett, J. The Theatre of Erwin Piscator Methuen 1978, p. 121 5. Willett, J. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht Methuen 1959 6. Brecht, B. Bertolt Brecht Plays Vol. 2 (Mother Courage) Methuen 1962
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 11 July 2017