The Meaning of ‘Brechtian’

The adjective ‘Brechtian’ can be found in all sorts of contexts and applied to all manner of theatre and performance. It is often used to describe certain devices used in performance, such as direct address to an audience, the use of placards or signs, or showing the mechanics of a production instead of hiding them behind illusionist aesthetics. In the light of this, one could describe all manner of TV adverts as ‘Brechtian’, but it is obvious that none of them are concerned with criticizing capitalism or its excesses – on the contrary, they are designed to increase consumption and profits.

I thus propose is that ‘Brechtian’ implies the dialectical examination of dramatic material. That is, ‘Brechtian’ puts the emphasis on a method of dealing with dramatic material, not necessarily the means with which the material is performed, even though they are important. While ‘dialectics’ is a philosophical term and has its own vocabulary, the process of dialectical examination is based on the search for socially contextualized contradictions. The theatre company then looks for suitable ways to perform the contradictions in a theatre of showing.

This definition helps to avoid the misuse of ‘Brechtian’ because it roots the term in Brecht’s political ambitions for his theatre and not to the means he sometimes employed or wrote about. These means are open to development in the theatre, and companies may choose all manner of ways to present their figures, situations and contradictions to the audience, yet the method and approach remain constant. In short, a focus on Brecht’s means rather than his aims can de-politicise the theatre, and make it purely the site of entertaining devices rather than one that engages with society and its mechanisms with a view to changing both.