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Mother Courage is an example of Brecht’s concepts of Epic Theatre and Verfremdungseffekt or “estrangement effect”. Verfremdungseffekt is achieved through the use of placards which reveal the events of each scene, juxtaposition, actors changing characters and costume on stage, the use of narration, simple props and scenery. For instance, a single tree would be used to convey a whole forest, and the stage is usually flooded with bright white light whether its a winters night or a summers day. Several songs, interspersed throughout the play, are used to underscore the themes of the play, while making the audience think about what the playwright is saying.
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Another epic feature that we find in Brecht’s play is the presence of the songs. Mother Courage tries to teach her children the facts of life through songs, this representing a way of bonding with them, apart from the cart. This latter keeps the family together, and probably that is why in the end we see a lonely Mother Courage pulling the cart: it reminds her of her three children as well as still being a means to make a living.
We do not despise Mother Courage as, in some ways, she is admirable – however, the audience is exposed to intense irony: in her desire to preserve her family, she has participated in destroying it.
Brecht is very famous for his modern conception of epic theatre and is tremendously important for modern theatre as he helps the audience understand that the unchangeable can change.
This is Brecht’s term for that which expresses basic human attitudes – not merely “gesture” but all signs of social relations: department, intonation, facial expression. The Stanislavskian actor is to work at identifying with the character he or she portrays. The Brechtian actor is to work at expressing social attitudes in clear and stylized ways. So, when Shen-Te becomes Shui-Ta, she moves in a different manner. Brecht wished to embody the “Gestus” in the dialogue – as if to compel the right stance, movement and intonation. By subtle use of rhythm pause, parallelism and counterpointing, Brecht creates a “gestic” language.
“Epic theatre is gestrual. […] The gesture is its raw material and its task is the rational utilization of this material.” (Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, 1966, pg. 3) The songs are yet more clearly “gestic”. As street singers make clear their attitudes with overt, grand but simple gestures, so, in delivering songs, the Brechtian actor aims to produce clarity in expressing a basic attitude, such as despair, defiance or submission.
Instead of the seamless continuity of the naturalistic theatre, the illusion of natural disorder, Brecht wishes to break up the story into distinct episodes, each of which presents, in a clear and ordered manner, a central basic action. All that appears in the scene is designed to show the significance of the basic “Gestus”. We see how this works in Mother Courage. Each scene is prefaced by a caption telling the audience what is to be the important event, in such a way as to suggest the proper attitude for the audience to adopt to it – for instance (Scene 3):
“She manages to save her daughter, likewise her covered cart, but her honest son is killed.”
The words in red express the playwright’s view of how we should interpret the scene; Courage’s saving her business at the expense of her son is meant to prove how contemptible our actions are made by war.
Anger, outrage, panic, revenge, violence => vital elements of his work, stand condemned
Brecht is probably trying to master these emotions in himself, for his work exposes his desire for absolute submission, a state of being in which he can conquer his unbridled feelings, and, instead of engaging himself with the external world, merge with it. (Berstein, The Theatre of Revolt, p. 239)
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Throughout the twentieth century, Brechtian influence was fully present in the works of various playwrights such as John Arden, Thornton Wilder, Robert Bolt, Peter Weiss, Arthur Adamov, Roger Planchon, and even the famous director Giorgio Strehler.
Compatibility between the methods promoted by Bertolt Brecht and the playwrights’ desire to initiate open debates on history and contemporaneity contributed to creating a strongly opinionated political theatrical genre, formed by the coalition of “fringe” theatre groups (who would perform on the outskirts) which the young playwrights such as David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Brenton joined.
As the main proponent of political drama, Howard Brenton believed in theatre’s mission to shape consciences and transform society. Despite his desire to distance epic theatre, which he considered rather artificial and simplistic to suit his artistic criteria, the episodic structure and the principle of minimal scenic parts remain Brechtian in origin. In addition, just as Brecht, the playwright starts a crusade against humanist tradition of social drama, seeking for a theatrical form that would incite the lazy audience with disapproval, persuasion and argument.
The English playwright is distinguished by his virulent analysis of socio-political structures and putting forward a personal dramatic style, being a master of the temporal dislocations technique and of stage embodied visual images. For him, the theatre had to be the expression of the perfect collaboration between the show and the straight-forward message of the. His first creations Christie in Love (1969), Revenge (1969) and Fruit (1970) successfully materialize this artistic goal.
In Christie in Love, Howard Brenton has directed his entire attention to the effects of social injustice, which inevitably metamorphose into violence and crime (this, in fact, being a prominent feature of English political theatre of the period, where many playwrights would tell the story of society dehumanization through violence and indifference). Brenton was said to have aimed at giving the audience a feeling of moral vertigo with his short piece “Christie in Love”. Looking at it from this perspective, the play succeeds in fulfilling Brenton’s wish because it did indeed outrage the collective morality.
The grounds on which Christie, the serial killer, commits the crimes can be analysed from different perspectives, with little chance of running out of options. He may be the incarnation of evil, an outburst of the brutality inherent in human nature or a psychoanalytic ritual of decompression of repressed love, a deviated revenge of the man who is vulnerable to women. The numerous possibilities of understanding this stage event proves that Brenton is closer to the Brechtian view about the open theatre, the one that does not have to give answers, but to make the audience reflect on either explanation and option they consider suitable and convincing, that he had previously stated. However, it is quite obvious that if the meanings the reader and the audience can infer from this play would stop to the psychological level of killer instinct, the brentonian theme would be much too simplified. But The real purpose of the play concerns society as a whole. What the author wants to suggest is that the protagonist’s atypical behaviour, presented in an almost naturalistic way, is actually society’s behaviour, however much the latter one is trying to hide it under the guise of respectability. The equality sign the author puts between a miserable bastard and the world justifies the inversion o the characters portrayals, bringing us to one of the features of the epic form of the theatre, that of presenting an image of the world, instead of one’s experience. Christie, the famous mass murderer, appears as a normal human being while the police, the defenders of the people, become abnormal, achieving the bold features of some surreal characters.
Roland Barthes has pointed out that “the verisimilitude of [epic] acting has its meaning in the objective meaning of the play, and not, as in “naturalist” dramaturgy, in the truth inherent in the actor”. (Styan, Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3, 1981, p. 142) Brenton keeps the character of Christie in the objectivity sphere, thus provoking the spectators to live with the suspense throughout the play.
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