Brecht is the key figure of our time, and all theatre work today at some point starts from or returns to his statements and achievement. – Peter Brook
Bertolt Brecht, along with composer Kurt Weill, created Madison Opera’s next production, The Threepenny Opera. This is our first venture in to Brecht’s works and we’re excited to have our return to musical theatre be with a piece of this caliber. Here’s an introduction to one of the most influential figures in theatre of all time: Bertolt Brecht.
When Brecht entered the theatre world in the 1920’s, he started a revolution. Brecht was devoted to the concept that theatre should serve a social purpose. To encourage his audience to think critically about the political themes in his plays, he developed a style that he named ‘Epic Theater.’ This style is now commonly referred to as ‘Brechtian.’
Brechtian theatre techniques are designed to alienate or distance the audience. However, the goal is not that the audience does not feel any emotions, but instead that they feel different emotions than the characters on the stage. So it is perfectly acceptable to feel sympathy for the characters, but not empathy. Brecht believed that when the audience identified emotionally with the characters, they lost the ability to think critically about what was happening on stage and apply it to the world around them. In Brecht’s words:
As we cannot invite the audience to fling itself into the story as if it were a river and let itself be carried vaguely hither and thither, the individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed. The episodes must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgment.
Brecht had specific techniques designed to create that critical distance. These included using unusual vocabulary and language, harsh lighting and the removal of the ‘fourth wall.’ The fourth wall refers to the imaginary line between the play and the audience. To break the fourth wall, characters in Brecht’s work would often speak directly to the audience, which reminds the audience that the play is a representation of reality, not actual reality.
Another distancing technique Brecht employed was inserting songs in to his works to break up the action. This, as well as Brecht’s strong belief in collaboration, led to a partnership with Kurt Weill that lasted for years. In addition to Threepenny, Brecht and Weill collaborated together on a number of musicals, including Happy End and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. However, The Threepenny Opera is by far their most successful and widely produced musical.
Today in Germany, Brecht’s works are produced more often than Shakespeare. While Brecht was socially motivated, his works are still dazzling, entertaining and powerful.
Art ought to be a means of education, but its purpose is to give pleasure. –Bertolt Brecht
Eddershaw, Margaret. Performing Brecht: Forty Years of British Performances.
Reinelt, Janelle. After Brecht: British Epic Theatre.
–Laura, Development/Marketing Associate
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