Brecht’s theories of epic theatre and alienation effect
To start off the discussion about epic theatre and alienation effect it is perhaps prudent to define these terms before we can move forward. The epic theatre is defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica as “A form of didactic drama presenting a series of loosely connected scenes that avoid illusion and often interrupt the story line to address the audience directly with analysis, argument, or documentation”
Alienation effect or Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt is defined as “Anidea central to the dramatic theory of the German dramatist-director Bertolt Brecht. It involves the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance”
Now that we understand the meaning of these terms we can discuss their use in Brecht’s seminal play Mother Courage and her children. This play is a classic example of these techniques in action.
For example we see the first usage of alienation effect in the very name of the play Mother Courage. Throughout the play both parts of the name are challenged and we as the audience are forced to question the verity of her name. Yes she is a mother by virtue of her children but she does not exhibit the feelings of a mother for example when Kattrin dies she plays the same lullaby to her on her funeral as she did when she was alive that and what is more strange is that she does not display any emotions during this scene. This is incredibly strange and distant from reality. We realize as an audience that a real mother would not be so calm on the funeral of their own child. This forced us to question the reality of the just as Brecht had intended. Also the name courage can also be questioned as the character rarely displays what we may consider as courage throughout the play. Once again as we question this we are forced to consider the artificiality of the play
Didactism as we have seen in the earlier definition of is an integral part of epic theatre. The plays of Brecht always have a didactic quality as they wish to educate the audience. Usually the didactism arises from Brecht’s own socialists beliefs. In the case of Mother Courage and her children we see that the playwright once again brings into question the nature of capitalism by presenting the behaviour of Mother Courage before the audience. We see that Mother Courage is the ultimate capitalist as she seeks to benefit from war in spite of the miseries it may bring. She ignores her children even in the hour of their need. Thus by presenting the example of Mother Courage as the ultimate symbol of capitalism, Brecht is forces the audience to reconsider their stance of capitalism. He forces them to question its very nature as a system based on greed
Another way to create Verfremdungseffekt or alienation effect is Gestus. Gestus is a theatrical technique that defines the emotional conflict that is going on within a character and the state they are in. It is both a gesture and at the same time it has a social component. It’spurpose is to be alienating to the audience so that they can be stirred away from the illusions of reality that the play produces and they are forced to consider the message behind it. It is an action that allows the people to understand something unique about the play and the social circumstances that are shown on the stage It is an action that has a greater social meaning for example if we saw a beggar on the street being teased by children then this would not be an example of getus however if we see this in a social context in the sense that if the children belonged to the upper class and their callousness towards the beggar is symbolic of the callousness of the upper classes towards the poor and downtrodden that is an example of gestus because the audience now sees this man as a representative of the lower classes
We see this example of gestus in Mother Courage and Her Children. Mother Courage displays her inner turmoil through physical actions and not through words. When she looks towards the audience and screams silently. Once again it is not the actions itself that makes this gestus but rather the combination of action and social implication that make this into gestus. In this situation we see that Mother Courage has just lost her son, but she realizes that if she makes asound she will be endangering her life and the life of her daughters. In this situation she represents a person who cannot express their feelings because of fear and they are forced to suppress their feelings of hurt and anger in order to save themselves or their loved ones and thus this silent scream now becomes a gestus.
Most of Brecht’s plays were musicals, but unlike most standard musicals the use of song and dance numbers in his plays was not to heighten the emotional impact of the play but quite the opposite. In his plays by employing musical numbers Brecht wanted to show the unreal nature of the play. Characters suddenly breaking into song are the perfect example of breaking the illusion of reality because real characters would never do such a thing. It is a means of jolting the audience and alienating them from the action of the play. For example, in Mother Courage and Her Children, the songsas far as their lyrics are concerned tend to be quite sober while the music is quite cheerful and light hearted. This dichotomy creates doubt in the minds of the audience as to the verity of the whole situation and it ultimately alienates the audience and forces them to question the social realities that are being presented.