Brechtian Clichés #4

Brechtian Clichés #4: The Function of Brecht’s ‘Spoilers’

Martin Swales makes a point about Brecht’s provision of ‘spoilers’ in his plays, in an essay in the 2008 collection ‘Verwisch die Spuren!’: Bertolt Brecht’s Work and Legacy : A Reassessment. He writes ‘the notion […] that once the audience is informed of the outcome of a scene, it will thereby feel little tension, expectation or involvement is misguided’ (p. 50). He interprets Brecht’s desire to pre-empt a scene’s outcome in terms of the spectator’s relationship to the action on stage in terms of empathy and finds Brecht’s theory lacking. He argues that seeing different productions of King Lear still has the potential to produce fearsome effects, regardless of how many times one has seen the play before.

Swales is certainly right on one matter: knowing the end of a scene or how things will turn out may not lead to a reduction of tension, expectation or involvement, but he seems to be missing an important element of Brecht’s approach. Indeed, it is one that is revealed in his own responses to King Lear.

In, for example, the TV show, Columbo, the murderer is revealed in the opening scenes, and we, the audience, observe the ways in which the detective comes finally to discover the identity of the killer. As viewers, we are not looking to the grand finale, but are following the twists and turns of the process. Columbo is not a ‘whodunnit’, but a ‘howdunnit’. Brecht, similarly, emphasizes the process over the product. This is an important distinction because it allows the spectator to follow the ‘how’ of the plot, with the possibility of speculating about the ‘why’. Brecht’s is a theatre that wants the audience to account for what’s taking place on stage, usually suggesting social causes for the problems that have been dramatized. Once the spectators have understood these causes, they might seek to change them in their everyday lives. A focus on ‘what will happen’ undermines these aims. So, Swales is actually talking about the same thing as Brecht when discussing King Lear: you know what’s going to happen, but you’re captivated by how.