Brechtian Clichés #2

Brechtian Clichés #2: An Obsession with Placards

There is a photograph, published in all editions of Brecht on Theatre and viewable on this website, in which a man is listening to the radio. The still, taken from The Flight of the Lindberghs (1929), has a placard above the man that reads ‘Der Hörer’ (‘The Listener’) and one in front of the on-stage orchestra that reads ‘Das Radio’ (‘The Radio’). The production preceded the publication of a much referenced essay, once translated by John Willett as ‘The Literarization of the Theatre’, in which Brecht writes:

The screens onto which the titles of the scenes are projected represent a primitive attempt at literarizing the theatre. The literarization of the theatre […] needs to be developed further, and on a large scale.

I fear that the combination of the photograph and the essay have led to a terrible misreading of what Brecht was trying to do with text in the theatre.

There is a confusion between the two attempts at literarizing the theatre. The use of placards to tell the audience that the man on stage is The Listener is very different from the use of projected text in the premiere of The Threepenny Opera (to which Brecht was referring in the quotation above) as seen here. To my knowledge, the use of placards to denote a figure on stage was never employed again in a production that Brecht either directed or with which he was directly connected. The use of projections that introduced or commented on scenes, on the other hand, persisted throughout Brecht’s work as a practitioner, including when he was artistic director at the Berliner Ensemble from 1949-56.

The reason for this type of projection is clear. The projections of text tended to either set the scene (showing, for example, the vastly different locations in Mother Courage) or to give information of the action of a given scene before that action has taken place. The function of the latter is that the audience is aware of the outcome of a scene. It can then focus on how the action unfolds, noting the political relationships that lead to the now-known conclusion. (This is like a detective film in which the audience knows the identity of the murderer from the off and can follow how s/he seeks to evade justice, rather than wondering whodunnit.)

The idea that Brecht went around hanging placards around his actors’ necks or labelling all the props he could lay his hands on is a myth. Yet, in workshops I’ve held with teachers and theatre-makers, many list ‘placards’ as typical of Brechtian theatre during initial discussions. I have addressed the perceived need to banish theatrical illusion in this blog post. It’s now time to banish placards from the stage (and the rehearsal room), while certainly appreciating the productive use of projections to pre-empt upcoming action.

Brechtian theatre is about an approach to making theatre, not a dated and clichéd set of devices.