Bertolt Brecht: Using Comedy As Political Device

2943 words (12 pages) Essay

3rd May 2017 Film Studies Reference this

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Bertolt Brecht, born in Augsberg Germany 1898, was a highly influential playwright, director and innovative performance theorist, making a major contribution to dramaturgy and theatrical production that continues to be portrayed within theatres and on stage to this date. His ideas and theories regarding political theatre reject the naturalistic ‘system’ put forward many years before by Konstantin Stanislavski and attempted to persuade an audience to want to make a difference in society. In his early twenties, Brecht began to have an aversion to the capitalist society he was brought up in and sought after a more equal approach to the world and people around him. This was when he began his exploration into Marxism: a political philosophy, often referred to as a form of socialism, which emphasises the importance of the class struggle in society and maintains the belief that everyone is equal. This is a viewpoint that Brecht remained loyal to throughout the rest of his life and career with a certain level of Marxist influence being noticeably present in each of his plays and productions.

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Marxists believe in a socialist society that does not distinguish between classes of people. Marxists tend to be working class people or the proletariat and these fellow Marxists, i.e. the proletariat, were the people Brecht intended his plays for. He wanted to use his talent within the theatre to connect with the working class people in order to change the capitalist oppression under which he lived. His plays rejected the naturalistic stage style and portrayed the world at the time in a way that would enable each spectator to adopt a critical awareness of the action they saw on stage. Brecht laid down a system of performance and production techniques in order to create an atmosphere within the theatre that would prevent the audience from ‘hanging their brains up with their hats in the cloakroom’ (Anon; www.delamere-arts.com.) The use of these techniques within theatre production is now formally known as Epic Theatre.

Brecht intended his theatre to be both didactical (though not dull or boring) and dialectical, and believed that in order to make an audience pay attention to what they are seeing and hearing from the stage they must be distanced from the action (i.e. the audience see the stage as a stage and the actors as actors.) Epic theatre aims to create this production of thought in the spectators, creating a distance between them and the action through the use of a technique known as verfremdungseffekt or V-effekt. Roughly translated as the ‘making strange’ effect, the V-effekt is a technique which solely intends to make the audience aware they are in a theatre at all times, enabling them to adopt an attitude of inquiry and criticism in their approach to the action. The audience must at no time during an epic play be seen to be ‘in a trance’ or take what they see on stage for granted. Richard Schechner (2006) claims that the best way to think of the V-effekt is ‘as a way to drive a wedge between the actor, the character, the staging (including blocking, design, music and any other production element) so that each is able to bounce off, and comment upon, the others’. In this an actor may pay a complete disregard for the fourth wall (a naturalistic staging and acting technique) directly addressing the audience in speeches, there may also be the use of a narrator (such as the Street Singer in The Threepenny Opera), songs and explanatory placards to interrupt the action and thus distance the audience from what they are watching.

Other techniques Brecht introduced to the stage included the use of Gestus, or ‘Gesture… with attitude’ (Mumford, 2008, p.54) which sees the actors conveying the intentions of a performance through tableaux, a single gesture or voice inflection. An example of this was portrayed in the National Theatre’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Holmes; 2007) which saw the governor’s wife, Natella smoking over the baby’s pram. This showed her complete lack of love and care for her child. This, in itself, maintains a distance between audience and action in that a spectator is able to see the difference between actor and character, with an actor offering personal opinion through their actions and their use of such gestures. This distancing effect can also be created, as stated by Richard Schechner (2006) previously, by other production elements including the use of harsh, bright lighting, multi-role acting, visible set changes completed by the actors themselves, the use of half-curtains and also music and songs that clash with the action, providing further comment on the action about the themes and ideas.

Brecht wanted his spectators to enjoy themselves and feel comfortable within the theatre, comparing his audiences to those at a boxing match or in a public house (smoking, chatting leisurely.) Brecht insisted that, maintaining these techniques and ideas, plays should be fun and ‘playful’ (Lyon & Breuer, 1992, p. 95.) He believed that the use of ‘Spass’, the German word for fun, adds to the effectiveness and overall power of the political and social messages each and every one of his play emits. Research into Brecht’s beliefs (Eddershaw, 1996) show that ‘criticism through fun (spass) is a vital element in Brecht’s notion of effective theatre… to encourage a working class audience’. Brecht believed that ‘a theatre that cannot be laughed in is a theatre to be laughed at. Humourless people are ridiculous’ (Brecht as cited by Bradby & McCormick, 1978, p.112). He found influential examples of spass in arts such as cabaret and silent films (Brecht is said to be a big fan of silent actor Charlie Chaplin.)

Comedy, as Brecht believed, is ‘a historically bound phenomenon’ (Wright, 1989, p.49) that is intended for political purpose. With this in mind, Brecht used comedy as a political device within most, if not all of his plays. His dialectical theatre focuses on what would have been categorised as comedy at the time at which a play was written but ‘has since become an anachronism’ (Willett & Manheim, 1985, p.2). Brecht believed that:

‘Comedy ‘quotes’ what has never been ‘natural’. It is laughter at the ‘not natural’ which provides the leverage to escape the ideological determinations of society. Brecht finds the source of comedy in the nature of society rather than in the ‘nature’ of an individual.’

(Wright, 1989, p.49/50)

Many believe that because of this approach to the theatre, Brecht’s plays (especially the use of comedy as a political device) no longer have the same affect on contemporary culture as they would have done on an audience of Brecht’s time. Characters he created to mock society, highlighting the class struggle and the capitalist oppression of his time appear satirical and stereotypical within modern day culture. Although, many critics maintain the belief that this use of satirical humour within the characters in his plays enhances the dialecticism of his work many others believe that without background knowledge of Brecht’s intentions within his theatre and instead of distancing the audience, such comedy brings them together in laughter.

However, in saying this and at the time of writing his plays, Brecht was ingenious in his implementation of comedy within his plays. He did not force comedy at or onto an audience but instead used two contrasting acting styles at the side of one another, cleverly placing a down-to-earth, ‘normal’ character alongside an embellished character. Both characters make political statements while one is also able to show the other character up. A good example of this can be found in The Caucasian Chalk Circle with the characters of the governor’s wife, Natella, drunken judge, Azdak and the peasant maid, Grusha within the scene of The Chalk Circle. Grusha maintains a sophisticated characterisation while the characters of both Natella and Azdak appear to mock the upper classes within society. This scene suggests that although Natella might have more money and be better dressed, Grusha still proves to be the better mother after all. This emphasises a strong socio-political message that materialism i.e. how much money a person has or how they look does not mean everything or even anything, it is what is inside a person that counts. As well as this, the scene also adds to the dialecticism of this particular play in that it appears to create a debate within the audience as a whole and also in the mind of the individual spectator as to who should, could and/or would be the better mother.

It became well-known as Brecht delivered more and more plays and productions that he brought in comedy with a constant element of surprise, both because all was not always as it seemed on stage but also several different styles of acting were able to sit alongside each other and exist together (as shown above.) This technique acts as both a political device in showing the hierarchy within a capitalist society but also distances the audience with comedy.

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By using comedy, or ‘spass’, as a distancing technique whilst also highlighting the political and social messages of the play, Brecht was able to successfully achieve his aim of enabling an audience to adopt a critical awareness of what they saw on stage. This meant that the audience were more likely to leave the theatre wanting to make a change to the capitalist society that they were part of. Brechtian techniques, including his specific techniques involving comedy, are widely and very commonly used in contemporary cultural practice. However many claim that, nowadays, this is more than likely for an aesthetic value rather than to provide a political message and/or to add dialecticism to a performance or production.

For example, TV crime drama programme, ‘Hustle’ follows a small group of ‘long-con’ artists during their everyday lives and through their work e.g. as they con other members of society out of money or possession. There is a constant hint of Brechtian influence throughout each episode with the use of Gestus (gestures such as hand movements and voice inflections that remind the viewer that they are watching con artists whilst they are at work), v-effekt (including direct address to camera and the con artists stepping out of character (i.e. the character adopted for the con) from time to time to explain their tricks to the audience) and also the use of spass within the characterisation of the victims of the cons (For example, a rich but clumsy, married businessman easily falling for and being seduced by the female of the con artists who is playing the part of another female within society). This use of spass within the piece is essential to enable the socio-political messages of each episode to be conveyed to the audience. The con artists prove themselves to be different to what a stereotypical con artist is perceived to be in that they only con people of a higher class than themselves who are greedy, cheats and/or liars. They are portrayed as normal, down-to-earth human beings of a range of race, age, sex and colour. The characterisations of the victims of the cons they trick are generally stereotypical with each and every one of them being of a higher class (e.g. using queens English or Received Pronunciation, wearing business suits etc.) This conveys a sort of ‘Robin Hood’ effect in that they are stealing from the rich but in order to teach them the lesson that they shouldn’t cheat, lie etc. As described above, it is easy to see how this programme may be perceived as a contemporary example of the Brechtian use of comedy as a political device. This programme uses the general idea of ‘spass’ by sending up the ‘bad guys’ i.e. the members of a higher class, inviting the audience to laugh at these characters and also condemning what they stand for. However, as the programme is not strictly Brechtian in that the con artists are actually actors playing con artists (spectators are only made aware of this during the titles of the programme) it is questionable as to whether such Brechtian techniques were used in order to present a specific socio-political message or whether it was just for aesthetic purposes. It is also hard to tell whether the director intended to assist (Brechtian technique) or just plainly create the ‘gaze’ of his/her audience

Within Brecht’s plays and productions it is plain to see his attempt to assist the thought production or gaze within an audience i.e. how and what they interpret from the action they see on stage. Using a dialectical approach, Brechtian plays provide options and provoke debate, encouraging an audience member to create their own judgement and opinion regarding the action that they see on stage and so also critiquing how they see society around them and gaining their own understanding of it. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, for example, a director may choose to provide the audience with other options e.g. the option for Grusha to leave baby Michael behind rather than to flee with him. This ‘gaze’ between the spectator and the stage is essential and very important to Brechtian epic theatre, in order to get across any social or political message, a play is trying to convey, to the target audience i.e. a working class audience. A good contemporary stage example of this idea would be the work of Mark Ravenhill. A very controversial playwright of the current time, Ravenhill is well-known for being highly influenced by Brecht. In his first play, Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill set out to shock this audience to make them step back and question what they saw on stage, comparing this to the society they live in making them question that also. The play opens with a young man and woman, Robbie and Lulu, attempting to feed another young man, Mark, who is suffering or going ‘cold turkey’ after attempting to quite heroin. This protagonist within the narrative also vomits on the stage. In most productions of this play the spectators are able to see the possibility of different outcomes for different characters. Using the names of a very well-known boy band called Take That as the character names within the place, this creates comedy within the piece to convey political messages as the audience will be very aware of any comparisons or contrasts that may be made between the characters on stage and the members of the boy band. The play explores the breakdown of self value within people in society and the effect on the people since the announcement by Margaret Thatcher (1987) that “there is no such thing as society”. Although there is only a glimpse of Brechtian influence within the play, there is a clear socio-political message being portrayed and conveyed to the audience throughout the play.

But, in saying this, we must always bear in mind that Brechtian signs and language was and is always intended to be read more than once e.g. the play (and so the socio-political message) is first read and interpreted by the actor before it is conveyed to the spectator, on stage, by the actor:

‘what Brecht gives us to read is, by a kind of disengagement, the reader’s gaze, not directly the object of his reading; for this object reaches us only by the act of intellection (an alienated act) of a first reader who is already on the stage.’

(Barthes, 1986, p.219).

However, with this being said, any interpretation of a Brechtian play made within contemporary cultural practice may prove unsuccessful in achieving Brecht’s official intentions due to the advance and change in society and societal values.

In every play he wrote and directed, Brecht’s main aim was to make a change. He wanted his idea of theatre and the plays he wrote to encourage an audience to commit to social change, making them leave the theatre wanting to change the way they, and other around them, live their lives. Comedy within the theatre, to Brecht, was essential in order for him to connect with this target audience of the proletariat or working-class members of society. He found that criticism through spass was the easiest way to convey his socio-political messages in that it enabled a v-effekt, or distancing effect, between the action on stage and the audience. This gaze between the action and spectator is highly important in that, although Brecht would assist this gaze by providing the action and different options etc, he essentially wanted his spectators to make their own minds up and make their own decisions regarding what they saw on stage. However, due to the advance and change within society and societal values since Brecht wrote his plays, theories and techniques, the comedy Brecht used within his plays, has since been translated in contemporary cultural practice into a highly satirical manner, in which members of a higher class of society are mocked and stereotyped. In a modern theatre and within contemporary cultural practice, this would be more likely to bring an audience together in comedy rather than assisting the individual to adopt a critical awareness of the world that they live in.

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