Thornton Wilders view of epic drama

2551 words (10 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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The aim of this essay is to analyze Bertolt Brecht’s version of epic dramatic form as well as that of Thornton Wilder taking into discussion the plays Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Schezwan by Brecht and Wilder’s Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth.

Epic theatre appeals to the emotion, it is very poignant and offers the audience a sense of who they are and how they have achieved that identity. Epic plays identify and celebrate a community and place it in a historical representative. The main goal is for the audience to be aware that they are watching a play. “Epic theatre does not combat the emotions, but it does not stop at merely producing them, it investigates them”. ( a) DM Presentation) It is a reaction against the typical “bourgeois” theatre of the 1930s as, when one thinks about epic, the word expansionist should come to mind. Epic theatre seeks to either change or galvanize, its key result being reason over feeling.

Epic form tends to be associated with what Bertolt Brecht pioneered, as he used epic to describe a new mode of drama. He introduced a number of techniques to alienate the audience. Brecht challenged escapist theatre as he wanted to deny audiences of complacency; “Epic is built to evoke man’s struggle to orient himself in time” and in which “the present may be regarded as the culmination of a course of events set in motion in the remote past.” ( b)Andrew Fitcher – DM Presentation)

Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children written in 1939 and set during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 – 1648. It came as a response to the German invasion of Poland. Anna Fierling is presented as a simple woman who tries to make a living after the war. Although some might consider her intolerant, her spirituality was minimized by the war which condemns her to an absurd irony where she cares for her children, hence the trading, but because of the trading, she cannot attend her children’s needs. The audience is exposed to yet another intense irony as in her desire to preserve her family, Mother Courage has participated in destroying it.

One mark of the epic genre that Brecht presents us with in his play is the presence of the songs. Although it disrupts and fragments the action, Anna Fierling uses them in an attempt to bond with her children, which she also considers she does by making them all stick to the cart, as well as trying to teach them about life. The cart is a recurring prop that represents both a means of earning a living and a way of keeping the family together, which is perhaps the reason why the play ends with Mother Courage alone next to the cart, as it is probably the closest and only object that brings back memories of her children. At the end of the play she is left relentlessly pursuing the war – the image of the wagon, “on she marches with her wagon after all that has happened, a symbol of the humanity itself goes on” (Eric Bentley, page 157)

Another epic feature we encounter in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children is the Verfremdungseffekt or “estrangement effect” that the playwright creates with the use of captions at the beginning of each scene to summarize the following events. Thus, he draws the attention of the reader on what the important events are in each scene and juxtaposes the episodes into a montage, giving each of them a central action the reader or the audience should focus on. Instead of structuring the play so that one scene makes another, the spectators are presented with scenes that stand for themselves, mounting to a total of 12 scenes over 12 years. This is a case of episodic drama, instead of continuous action. But, as Eric Bentley says, “there is no concrete locality in Brecht’s drama. Place, like time is abstract”. (Eric Bentley, page 97)

Also in Eric Bentley’s book it is suggested that “Critics who confront Mother Courage may need to speak not only of the abstract and symbolic but of the tragic.” (Eric Bentley, p. 100) This is a play in which death appears from the very beginning of scene one, which begins with the song “Let your men drink before they die!”. As the play goes on, we find Mother Courage loses all her children, one aspect that brings us round to the idea that death is the leitmotiv of Brecht’s play. The reader is informed of such a happening in the caption before scene three where it is stated that “three years later Mother Courage is taken prisoner along with elements of a Finnish regiment. She manages to save her daughter, likewise her covered cart, but her honest son is killed. ” (Worthen, p.718) “To some extent Grimmelhausen [Simplicissimus] was the inspirer of Mother Courage. His work certainly brought to Brecht a sense of death, decay, and disaster, corresponding to his own” (Eric Bentley, p. 101)

There is no catharsis in this play as each scene in Mother Courage and Her Children denies the audience of it through an incessant stream of repeated themes and situations in which characters fail to recognize a fatal flaw. Brecht considers the cathartic effect to be similar to that of drug-taking. However one that does not have consequences or make one wiser, as we find from the book called “Aspects of Drama and Theatre” written by Kathleen Robinson. The playwright believed that there should be an emotional distance maintained between the audience and the action throughout the play. The spectator is distanced from the action as well as from the emotion as it analyses the play in an intellectual and objective way rather than emotional. “For Brecht, the theatre should provide more than an aesthetically induced sensation of the pain and pleasure derivable from sacrificial subjection to a supra-human order: the theatre must change the world.” (Kathleen Robinson, p. 84)

Although it is stated in Eric Bentley’s book that Brecht did not agree with the word abstract, and that he believed that he reinstated the concrete, starting with the play Man is Man and continuing with The Good Woman of Schezwan as well as with Mother Courage he created completely abstract plays. This can be seen in the multi faceted characters in the plays and the way he structured them, as is the case with Shen Te, the main character of Brecht’s play The Good Woman of Schezwan : “The Good Woman is a schematic and abstract study of the three parts of Shen Te’s goodness: love of her neighbor, love of her man, and love of her offspring. Mother Courage is equally schematic, and is also tripartite. The action divides into three sections at the end of each of which a child is killed.” (Eric Bentley, p. 97)

Through his plays, Brecht challenges and exploits the Aristotelian techniques. One thing we learn about Brecht from Kathleen Robinson’s lectures is that he makes a connection between Aristotle’s theory and the Greek perspective. He states that according to them, “human suffering is grounded in Fate, which in turn reflects the rule of the gods, whom one might almost regard as the guarantors of universal order: for the gods “cannot be criticized”, they represent an absolute order that is not changeable by human effort”. (Kathleen Robinson, p. 83) A protagonist must come to recognition of their fate, which does not happen in Mother Courage as even after losing all three of her children in scene 12 she states that she has “got to get back to business again”. (Worthen, 737)

In The Good Woman of Schezwan, however, the author presents his main character, Shen Te, as being an ardent follower of the gods, the ending scene being written in turn to them. However, as Dickson states in his book, “The essential thing about Epic Theatre is perhaps that it appeals more to the spectator’s reason than to his feeling. The spectator is not supposed to share the experience, but to come to terms with it. It would, however, be completely wrong to deny the role played by feeling in this form of theatre.” (Keith A. Dickson, p. 236)

There is clear implication of the author in The Good Woman of Schezwan as unlike in many of his other plays Brecht does not aim at alienating the reader or the audience. The playwright creates parables with political implications as well as hinting at some religious aspects, where religion might be accused of refusing to deal with the complexity of everyday life. Eric Bentley says that Shui Ta represents the “necessary ‘realistic’ correction of the earlier idealism” in the picture that Brecht presented of the tendencies in the Soviet society during the Stalinist era, with Yang Sun being considered the aspirant to the role of a high Party functionary. Brecht’s ‘divided nature’ creates a two sided Shen Te, expressing the division within all of us. (Eric Bentley, p. 96)

Michael Morely states that “Brecht had more difficulties with this play than with any other dramas.” (Michael Morely, p.61) Also, it might be that because the scenes are crowded with so many ‘contrasting levels of style and emotion’ this play seems to be fresher to the audience than Mother Courage, although it does not have either the depth or the impact of the latter. However, its ‘poetic language, its colourful minor characters and its structure’ counterbalance these deficiencies. (Michael Morely)

In The Good Woman of Schezwan Brecht attempts to reveal a part of his work that tends to contradict what he has been pioneering so far, that is the lyric theatre. Bentley reveals the fact that the ‘lyricism’ in this play are ’emanations of the spirit in which the whole play is composed’ rather than, as with Mother Courage, in the songs. (Eric Bentley, p. 91) So we find out from Michael Morely’s book in which it is stated that, unlike in the previously mentioned plat, where the songs have a rather different representation and allow the performer to change his body position to the side, with The Good Woman of Schezwan the playwright ‘uses a narrator’ and plays with the levels of the language, altering colloquial, straightforward prose with both songs and irregular rhythmic verse. Such is the case in Scene 4 when Shen Te is angry at the bystanders and reproaches them, addressing the audience at the same time, for what Wang has suffered: “Oh you unhappy wretches!/Your brother is treated brutally and you screw your eyes shut!/ The sufferer cries aloud and you are silent? […] (GW 4, p. 1536)”. Brecht uses one of the classical rhetoric devices in lines 2-4, namely ‘the tricolon abundans’. Thus he creates a balance between the “the description of the situation with a registration of the lack of emotions and interest displayed by the onlookers.” (Marcel Morely, p.65)

The end of the play is considered to be memorable both for the ‘obviousness of the rhyme’ and for the fact that it stands as a declaration of the author’s wishes for a solution to the impasse that divides the society. (Marcel Morely, p.66)

Thornton Wilder, an American playwright who presented great interest in Brecht’s view of drama, despite being very different in ideas and base from the German playwright. His plays reflect the conservative American view, of which there are influences in both of the plays under discussion. What the audience might gather after reading Our Town is that one should value each and every moment of his life, regardless of how mundane it might seem. Wilder intended to transmit a message with his writings, although, just as Brecht, he does not let the audience or the reader empathize with the character. Instead, he aims at making them reflect on their lives.

As Thorton Wilder himself states, Our Town does not describe life in a village in New Hampshire nor does it contemplate life after death. (Wilder, 686) Although not as obvious as with Brecht’s Mother Courage, death is present in Wilder’s play as the playwright wants to emphasize the sense of change, directly contradicting the Brechtian view towards it.

Although the author prefers linear aspects that are the very basic of life such as motherhood and family, in The Skin of Our Teeth he combines what seems to be permanent with what does change over the long period of time the play was set in. The Antrobus family represents this family who escapes from different eras “by the skin of their teeth”. We are presented with a completely different kind of epic theatre, as it is an immediate replica of the nuclear family who acts as a character in this play. What is more, the nation is reflected as a community through very few characters. It also has biblical implication, which is one theme this play has in common with Brecht’s The Good Woman of Schezwan, as the Antrobuses have survived through all the plagues that have been sent on Earth by God. Also, the family’s struggle through the acts may represent the struggle of the American citizens and human history which is one point where the reader or the audience might be tempted to empathize with the characters, although ever since the third act the connection with realism has been broken. Also, through character changing, namely that of Sabina into the actress, Wilder uses the same technique as the German playwright, of the forth wall.

The presence of the stage manager on stage throughout the play Our Town is meant to alienate the reader, one technique that Brecht used in his plays as well. After introducing the audience with the set, a rather simplistic set design, the stage manager turns into an actor, his third role in the play. He can be regarded as a Greek tragedy chorus, directly addressing the audience and interacting with it as through the use of levels of response, the playwright distances the audience.

Thornton Wilder’s work acquires an everlasting quality through the themes it deals with. One has to recognize how things are and this can only be achieved by recognizing that there are fundamental states of being that will always be there.

After having completed the analysis it can be stated that the epic genre is very poignant and emotional, not as identifiable as comedy or tragedy, but where the audience is expected to respond. One question did come up while analyzing Brecht’s two plays and that is if it would be possible for epic to evoke, as one might think it would be the case of The Good Person of Schezwan. One expects to see a Brecht play performed in a Brechtian way, thus being alienated from the very beginning. Both authors have come back to motherhood as women are represented as a community not only in Wilder’s Our Town but also in Brecht’s Good Person of Schezwan. One might gather from this that the patriarchal society is coming round to motherhood as we read about stereotypical mothers in Wilder’s plays.

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