The philosophy and theater group’s April reading was the essay “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction” by Bertolt Brecht, which Phillip C., Carlos Franke and I recently discussed over Skype. As usual, we recorded the call, which you can listen to in the PEL Citizens section of the site as soon as you join up.
In this essay, Brecht details many aspects of his innovative “epic theater,” the purpose of which, among others, is to get rid of what he sees as the false dichotomy between an amusing theater experience and an instructive one. To unpack this a bit, we explored how he aims to achieve his goals through the use of new technology on the stage. This is just one component of his famous distancing effect, along with actors who don’t quite fall into their roles completely, and a set which isn’t quite natural but instead draws attention to itself as a set. According to Brecht,
The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically (and without practical consequences) by means of a simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject-matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.
It’s impressive to note how many of Brecht’s techniques still show up in films and drama these days, such as in Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” when a character pauses to briefly interrogate the spectator about his/her attitude toward the film. Having also just taken a look at work by Richard Schechner in March, we noticed a strong influence from Brecht in the way that Schechner adapted this alienation to his own work. Another thinker who came up a few times was Walter Benjamin, whose essay “Understanding Brecht” provides a very accessible interpretation of “epic theater.” Phillip gave us a little insight into how Benjamin’s philosophy looks next to Brecht’s, and a little more into the Marxism of each.
Up next for the theater group will be selected readings by Antonin Artaud, and there’s also a Not School group reading Sophocles’ Antigone in June. Anyone interested still has plenty of time to join up for either one.