Aims of the theory

The list of points below is not exhaustive, but does draw attention to some of the more important aspects of Brecht’s theatre.

To stage accurate representations of human beings

‘Accurate’ may suggest that Brecht wanted to reproduce what we find in our everyday lives, but he preferred to see human beings as Karl Marx saw them, as ‘the ensemble of social relations’. This means that the theatre should try representing people that are connected to their society and its place in history. The reasons for this are clear. If we consider the relationship between, say, men and women, it is different in other countries and at other times. This is not because the relationship is ‘naturally’ different, but because there are various social causes. These may concern the law (e.g. legislation that prohibits discrimination), culture (e.g. the way gender is represented in the media or on TV), or politics (e.g. whether women are allowed to vote or their ability to serve as politicians, ministers or presidents).

Brecht thus sought to represent humans as constantly in dialogue with their social and historical contexts. As a result, there should be a sense that people aren’t free to do whatever they want and that they choose actions from a wide, but limited range of options. People are not represented as autonomous.

To reveal the social factors the influence human action, behaviour and thought

Society needs to be visible in Brecht’s theatre – otherwise it would be difficult to suggest a relationship between human beings and their social contexts. Brecht offers various ways of doing this, based in the Fabel and Gestus.

To show the (stage) world as changeable

A political theatre aims both to reveal the ways society works and to suggest that they can be changed if society disappoints us. The stage world thus has to be portrayed as unstable and subject to change. In a way, this is done by connecting the figures on stage to their social context. That is, if someone behaves in a certain way because they live in a certain society, then changing that society might change that person. History shows this to be true: some centuries ago, for example, some Western societies had no problem with slave ownership, yet today they have outlawed it and most of their citizens would agree that slavery was wrong. If such shifts in thought and behaviour are possible, then societies must be capable of fundamental change, and the theatre can be made to represent this historical fact.

And derived from these ideas, a Brechtian theatre seeks to:

  1. Criticise human behaviour, actor and thought as ‘natural’

Clearly, we aren’t capable of change if our ways of negotiating the world are ‘natural’ or ‘innate’. By showing the connections between people and society, Brechtian theatre proposes that people’s ideas and actions are responses to their particular society and thus capable of change.

  1. Articulate contradictions clearly

Change occurs because we encounter contradictions in our lives that we try to alter. These can take many forms: we might ask why we work hard, but receive little reward, or why some people get fired when they do a job badly while others are paid off handsomely. A problem arises, however, when we overlook contradictions or accept them as a normal part of life (as in the famous paraphrase from the Bible, Matthew 26:11: ‘the poor are always with us’). Brecht’s theatre thus points to contradictions and asks the audience not only to recognize them, but to ask questions of them, such as what they are as they are and how they can be overcome.