Figures, Not Characters

When thinking about people on stage, we often consider them to be ‘characters’. While this denotation is not terribly problematic, it does carry some implications that do not sit comfortably with the tenets of a Brechtian theatre.

In short, characters may be said to have characteristics, and these may appear fixed, however diverse or rounded they may be. The ‘figure’ is less bound to characteristics and has more potential for fluidity. This idea chimes with Brecht’s interest in people as changeable and that change is dependent on the situations people find themselves in. Consider the following example: a manager has to account for poor performance in front of a boss. The manager is shouted at and accepts the tirade with head down. The manager then goes to the team s/he runs and gives its members a roasting. Is the manager a weak person or a strong person? In the first situation s/he appears to be submissive and contrite, in the second aggressive. The manager adapts to the situation and behaves in a way that s/he sees fit. The manager displays different qualities as a figure. In Brechtian theatre, these qualities are known as Haltungen, changes in attitude toward different situations, people or ideas. A figure can thus be defined as being the sum of his or her Haltungen, something that omits any sense of recurring characteristics or psychology.

The virtue of a figure over a character is that the figure acknowledges changeability as a fundamental human quality. And that changeability is founded on the way we behave differently in different situations. We may all have certain opinions about ourselves and what we’re like, but it is only our different experiences that actually show what we’re like, and this may be very discontinuous. Anyone who keeps a diary may look back at old entries with astonishment and not recognize themselves with the benefit of hindsight. The idea of the figure is that it is open to contradictory behaviour, and these contradictions may make an audience curious as to why the same person has done such peculiar, contradictory things. The audience may then respond that the changed situation has brought about changed behaviours and that by changing the situation, one might change one’s behaviour.

By liberating a character from its characteristics, actors can engage with a more open approach to Brecht’s inductive rehearsals. By showing how figures can behave in contradictory ways, a production can engage with Verfremdung, making the familiar strange.