This word, perhaps more than any other in Brechtian theatre, has raised the greatest number of questions as to its meaning, both in theory and in practice.

The Difficulty of Translating the Term

Translating the term has caused all manner of problems in English, primarily because it was once almost universally known as ‘alienation’. This is not a useful translation because of the negative connotations the word has in English (if you alienate an audience, for example, spectators tend to leave the theatre). I prefer to consider Verfremdung as a single word that describes a process: making the familiar strange. The editors of the latest edition of Brecht on Theatre have decided to keep the word in its original German to acknowledge the lack of an easy translation into English.

‘Making the familiar strange’ is an example of a dialectical process: the audience encounters something it recognizes; that thing is then presented as strange (that is, the ‘thing’ is now in contradiction with itself); and the audience then has to reach a new understanding in order to move beyond the contradiction.

The Difficulty of Implementing the Term

The central question for Verfremdung in practice is how theatre-makers are to implement it. The central problem is that Verfremdung is a process and not a device, and so there are no simple ways in which to make the familiar strange.

Consider the following examples.

Here, the play’s text itself has made the familiar strange. The actor simply has to say the lines, and the audience, hopefully, starts to ask itself questions in order to address the contradiction.

The two examples show that Verfremdung can be engineered in very different ways and are not formulaic. You can find out how we made the familiar strange in Patrick Marber’s Closer by clicking here.

For the difference between Verfremdung and Verfremdungseffekt, click here.