To a Marxist, things have meaning only when they are seen in their social context. We may, for example, find racism abhorrent, but this moral rejection does little to ask how racism arises and how it can be combated. ‘Racism’ is a term that covers many different types of racism that have taken place at different points of history. Is the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 the same as Apartheid in twentieth-century South Africa or racial segregation in the USA before the interventions of the civil rights movement?
Brecht proposed that the theatre ‘historicises’ its performed material. That is, that directors, actors and set-designers are aware that different points in history produce different values, behaviours and opinions. These circumstances can then be shown to an audience, so that they see the material in its context and ask questions about the relationship between the two. A production’s creative team thus have to carry out historical research in order to understand how the present day differs from earlier periods in order to highlight the differences and show them to the audience.
The aim is to contrast different forms of behaviour between different times. When performance is historicised, the audience is invited to consider why people behaved differently at different times. In addition, the differences show that change in human behaviour is possible because we behave differently in the present that the figures do in the past. Yet, to the figures on stage, they are doing nothing extraordinary – their behaviour is ‘normal’ for their time, just as ours is today. There is thus an implied criticism of our own possible view that what we do is self-evident or natural.
As can be seen, historicisation is a form of Verfremdung in that it makes the familiar strange. The aim is the same as Verfremdung: to arouse the spectators’ curiosity and to invite them to think carefully about the interaction between the figures on stage and their social and historical contexts. Once spectators embark on this activity, they can consider what might need to change in order for a situation to be improved.