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.
In Brecht’s play Mother Courage and her Children, Mother Courage curses the war that is killing her children at the end of one scene, and then at the very beginning of the next one, she praises the war. One might assume that we sympathize with Courage initially and then wonder what has made her say something that contradicts herself so profoundly.
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.
On the other hand, consider the play Macbeth by Shakespeare. Here, Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to murder the legitimate king of Scotland in order to take the crown for himself. We can understand this action as one born of ambition and greed, and that these are natural characteristics of Lady Macbeth – ‘she’s just like that’. But a Brechtian production of the play does not accept this action as ‘familiar’. Brecht would want to place the action in its social context. This is a woman at the top of her feudal society, an aristocrat. There is thus little possibility that a peasant would commit the murder because the peasant would have no chance of winning the crown (the peasant may instigate the crime to change the way Scotland was governed, though). So, by putting the Lady into her social context, a Brechtian production of Macbeth might call her ambition and her greed into question, so that the audience started to think about the social order of the play and not only the characters.
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.