The Fabel (not to be confused with the English word ‘fable’) is an analytical category in Brechtian theatre. It can be applied to a play as a whole, individual scenes, or the dynamics of individual scenes themselves. The Fabel is an interpretation of textual elements with a view to bringing out the social context, subtext and contradictions.
A Whole Play’s Fabel
Brecht would sometimes sum up his interpretation of a whole play as a way of defining its main contradictions and suffusing the production with them.
He said, for example, of his own Life of Galileo when preparing a production in 1956, that its Fabel was Humpty Dumpty. By this he meant that his central figure, Galileo needed to be built up initially (‘Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall’). When he recanted his scientific findings before the Catholic Inquisition he ‘had a great fall’. Yet once he had fallen, he was not to be respected by the audience (‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again’). This pithy formulation set out Galileo’s arc in the production, showing clearly that the great scientist’s reputation was not to be salvaged after his betrayal of the truth in the face of a powerful opponent.
Fabel and the Individual Scene
Brecht sometimes provided interpretations of the scenes he wrote at the beginning of each one. Mother Courage and her Children and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, for example, both include text before each scene that can offer an introduction to what is about to come and/or a commentary on the scene. In a play like Mother Courage, the titles can help the production team and actors navigate their way through the play as a whole. In a play like Fear and Misery, which is completely episodic and doesn’t feature the same figure twice, the texts, when taken together, help make connections between the disparate scenes, so that the production team might signal recurring and diverging motifs, attitudes or actions.
Documentation from Brecht’s theatre company shows that Brecht and his assistants often probed individual scenes for their twists, turns and contradictions. This kind of analysis helped to uncover what lay behind the events on stage and to bring them out in performance.
Consider the opening of the second scene of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. I have made a list of the events at the beginning of the scene, together with an interpretation that points out the scene’s contradictions.
Macheath and his gang break into a stable to celebrate his wedding to Polly
The gang bring in stolen furniture from a posh hotel
Macheath criticises the gang for their lack of manners
The gang sings a lewd song about a wedding
Macheath can’t marry in a conventional venue and reveals that to a criminal, anywhere will do
The gang shows an aspiration to middle-class respectability
Macheath tries to enforce perceived middle-class values on the gang
The gang remains earthy
The Fabel points to a number of contradictions that run through the sequence and that can be brought out in performance. They centre around the contradiction between criminality and middle-class values. Macheath, a murderer and thief, is trying to construct a veneer of respectability, but continually fails to achieve it.
The micro-Fabel can thus help directors and actors find their way through the complex texture of a scene and identify contradictions that can be shown to an audience for its response. The actors play the Fabel of the scene, not characters.