Realistic Details

Brecht’s concept of realism underpins his work in the theatre. If productions do not have an active relationship to reality, then they are of little use if one wants to understand how society works and how it might be changed.

Brecht believed that a good way of connecting performance to realism was through the ‘realistic detail’. In German, the word for detail is ‘Merkmal’ and this includes a particle from the verb ‘merken’, to notice. Details are thus not minor inclusions, but striking moments for the audience. Consider, for example, the gesture performed by Mother Courage when she takes payment for her goods. She always bites the coins to ensure that they are genuine. The simple gesture reveals much about the businesswoman: she doesn’t trust commerce as it is done in the play; she is focused on profit; she is not afraid of offending her customers by doubting the value of their currency. Here, the detail is indeed striking, especially as it is repeated elsewhere in the production, and helps to establish the particular approach Courage takes to trade. In contrast, however, is the detail when Courage realises that her quest for profit leads to the death of a son. Again, by pointing this out to an audience, the production as a whole can counterpoint both the benefits and the costs to Courage of doing business.

Details like this can arise from inductive rehearsal: actors can tease out ways of approaching their figures at different junctures in the production and the director can stand back in order to organize the rich mixture of details that may emerge over time. Brecht hoped that such details could punctuate a production and give a contradictory liveliness to the figures and the situations.