Brechtian Clichés #3

Brechtian Clichés #3: Breaking the Fourth Wall

It’s time to address another cliché relating to Brechtian practice.

People often associate breaking the fourth wall (more on this below) with Brecht’s theatre, puncturing the fictional world by acknowledging the real world of the audience who are watching the theatrical production. In a way, this relates to the first Brechtian cliché I wrote about here. But there is another dimension to this device, too.

Brecht’s theatre sometimes uses narrators who directly address the audience, collapsing the so-called fourth wall. The point of this is not to remind spectators that they’re in a theatre, but to contrast different kinds of discourse: the dramatic and the narrative (or ‘epic’ as Brecht called it). Back in Brecht’s day, such switches were novel and potentially radical. Indeed, he took a lot of flak from hard-line Communist theatre critics when Mother Courage opened in Berlin in 1949 for mixing the two media. Today, however, this is almost standard fare in a number of theatrical productions, TV programmes and films, and it has a very different function.

Consider the hit BBC comedy Fleabag, for example. It has been called ‘Brechtian‘ here and there, but such associations really miss the point. Fleabag continually breaks frame and acknowledges the viewer, yet this device doesn’t drive a wedge between us and the action or Fleabag herself, it draws us in. This is an invitation to relate to the central figure more closely, not to view her with critical distance. Brecht, on the other hand, was seeking to frame dramatic action with epic narration, to contrast the two and encourage the audience to step back from the action.

While I think that Fleabag is hilarious, daring and funny, I’d be pushed to call it ‘Brechtian’. Brecht offers the spectator new perspectives on the action in order to reveal aspects of it that go unspoken in more conventional performance (often about the power relationships between people). Fleabag, for all its inventiveness and wit, is about collapsing the two types of discourse and promoting ever closer contact between the figure, her antics and the viewer. Indeed, you will find an excellent critique of the collapsed levels here, together with some thoughts on the social material that goes unmentioned in the course of the show. (And it was this article that inspired me to write this post.)

Once again, the problem with the application of the adjective ‘Brechtian’ to a cultural work like Fleabag is that it mistakes a device used in performance for the rationale that’s driving that device. For Brecht, the way material is performed is the consequence of a dialectical analysis of the dramatic text. If this isn’t the starting point, then the adjective isn’t being used correctly.

(And while I’m here, a quick note on what Brecht thought about the ‘fourth wall’. In Buying Brass, p. 63 in the Methuen edition, the (conventional) Actor explains (and in the process, destroys) the concept to the Philosopher. He says that what happens on stage is deliberately arranged ‘so that you get a good view of everything. We just hide the fact that it’s been arranged’. So, it’s not the case that we’re peeking into a situation as if a fourth wall has been removed; it was never there in the first place.)