Brechtian Clichés #1

Brechtian Clichés #1: ‘He wants you to know you’re in a theatre’

In an essay of 2009, Dan Rebellato notes ‘representational theatre is not illusionistic. In illusions we have mistaken beliefs about what we are seeing. No sane person watching a play believes that what is being represented before them is actually happening’. It is difficult, if not impossible, to take issue with his sentiments. One needs only move one’s head away from the stage or playing area to reveal the artifice of theatrical performance. However naturalistic the acting style, the spectator is never in any doubt that he or she is watching pretence.

So why does Brecht write, and write on many occasions, about his as an anti-illusionist theatre? A possible answer involves historicizing Brecht’s ideas. When Brecht was articulating his understanding of what a modern, politicized theatre might look like, theatre was still the major entertainment medium. Film had not yet developed its technical abilities to imitate reality without showing the join, and television, at an even less sophisticated stage of its history, was only first regularly broadcast (by the BBC) in 1936. Theatre, on the other hand, had benefited from Stanislavsky’s experiments with realistic acting and offered something akin to a slice of life when it wanted to. Yes, Rebellato’s observation still applied, of course, but in terms of an audience’s perception and the realistic quality of alternative sources of representational performance (film and TV), the theatre was the place where the illusion of reality was strongest. Brecht’s exhortations to create an anti-illusionist theatre can be understood as a child of its time.

Today, however, theatre’s claims to imitating reality on a purely superficial level are much reduced by competition from the media of film and TV. The cinema has the facility to darken everything but an all-encompassing screen that often presents life as we experience it every day. This enhances the potential for identification between spectator and actor, a condition Brecht sought to frustrate. Today, there is no need to fall into the clichés of Brechtian theatre – addressing the audience directly, hanging placards on anything that moves (or, indeed, doesn’t), or acting like a piece of wood to destroy empathy – in order to create Brechtian theatre.

It’s not that Brechtian productions need to avoid acknowledging the audience, hide on-stage set changes or banish the actors when they’re not on stage. It’s more that these shouldn’t become a focus of a Brechtian production. As is clear from the quotation at the top of this post, an audience can’t not be aware that it’s in a theatre. A Brechtian production can assume this from the off and doesn’t have to devise elaborate, or indeed facile, ways of underlining its un-illusionistic status. Instead, it should engage with its fundamental task: offering the audience a dialectical interrogation of the dramatic material.