International Research Journal of Humanities, Language and Literature Vol. 3, Issue 7, July 2016 IF- 3.558 ISSN: (2394-1642)
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‘ALIENATION TECHNIQUES’ IN BERTOLT BRECHT’S
WOMAN OF SETZUAN
: A CRITICAL OBSERVATION
Md. Jahidul Azad
Senior Lecturer Department of English Prime University, Bangladesh.
The paper aspires to exploring the use of ‘Alienation Techniques’ in the classic play ‘The
Good Woman of Setzuan’ by Bertolt Brecht, German Marxist and dramatist who is considered as
one of the influential figures of Twentieth Century theatre. Brecht used a variety of techniques in
his narrative style called Epic theatre. Among these Brecht is notably known for his creation of
what is called the ‘Alienation Techniques’, which forces the audience to view a play objectively
rather than experiencing its content emotionally. This technique of addressing the audience
directly is a paradigm of alienation, which compels the spectators to see the play for what it is
rather than think of it as an analogy for real life. He intention was to use theatre as a vehicle not
just interpreting the world merely rather to bring the social change. In this paper attempt has
been taken to comprehend how Brecht was able to succeed in reaching the audience by the
means of alienation techniques and making them ponder about what they had seen and what
actions they may need to make to ascertain the necessary social changes Brecht wanted them to
Key Words: Alienation techniques, Epic theatre, Social change, Definition of good, Class struggle.
made him as one of the most renowned as well as one of the most influential poets, dramatists, and essayists of twentieth century. Born into a bourgeois family, Brecht received the social advantages, including a good education. Still, he abandoned his medical studies, especially after his service as a medical orderly in a military hospital in 1918, an experience which turned him into a radical opponent of war and the nationalistic attitudes associated with it. It was then he started to lean towards Socialism and Marxism. He decided to become a poet and dramatist who saw the theatre as the cultural forum for most people and thus most well-suited to effecting changes within society. Although Brecht’s early plays such as ‘Baal’ (1918), ‘Drums in the Night’ (1920), and ‘In the Jungle of Cities’ (1923) show traces of earlier and contemporary literary influences-most notably those of the Expressionist movement and the philosophy of the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and using the ideas of celebrating the individual and society, they already foreshadow his later obsession with the political manifestations of his age which he witnessed during second world war and the subject material of many of his plays and literary works which inextricably linked political dogma with social aspects.
Brecht’s own life bears witness to this reality. When Hitler’s National-Socialist party came into power in 1933, Brecht was on their black list. Despite his successes in the theatre, most notably with the ‘Three-Penny Opera’, a work written and produced in collaboration with German composer Kurt Weill, Brecht went into exile in Switzerland. Having studied the works of Karl Marx, the German philosopher and revolutionary socialist during the twenties, Brecht’s Lehrstücke, short didactic plays written between 1929 and 1930 and today rarely performed, are radical in their socialist aims. However, Brecht’s drama Saint Joan of the Stock yards, was a direct attack of capitalism as practiced in the Chicago stockyards of the time, which served as a hint of plays to come.
From Switzerland Brecht and his family fled to Denmark, Sweden, then to Finland, and in 1941 to the United States via Moscow to settle in San Pedro, California where they stayed until 1947. During these troubled years of exile and wandering, Brecht wrote some of his most enduring and best known plays, including ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’ (1938-40) and ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ (1941). (Carney 129-130)
Paris and Zürich, and eventually for Berlin in 1948. In 1954, in what was to become East Berlin, Brecht and his ensemble of actors and directors were given their own theatre where he continued to create the theatrical work that has been so enormously influential the world over. The Berliner Ensemble, still in existence today in the reunited Berlin, continues to keep Brecht's theatrical legacy alive, albeit in his spirit of adapting to aesthetic and societal changes.
The theoretical impact Brecht had on the theatre of the twentieth century cannot be overestimated. His concept of ‘Epic theatre’ constitutes a major departure from the principles of traditional Aristotelian theatre. Epic theatre, which combines narration with enactment, breaks the illusion which is at the core of traditional theatre. Even though Brecht understood that theatre had to be the fun and pleasurable for the audience, he was not interested in passive consumption and simple enjoyment. He compared illusionistic theatre to opium consumption: it induces a stupor in the audience. Instead, he wanted to challenge the viewers to think, analyze, and act in the interests of social change. Thus the key term defining Brechtian theatre is the ‘Alienation Techniques’ which basically can be described as the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance. Brecht borrowed Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky’s concept of ‘Ostranenie’, which is center or making things strange dissimilar (Krasner 170). Ostranenie is centered on defamiliarize and making things seems strange. The ‘Alienation Effect’ was not
solely focused on a style of acting, but a style of performance itself. Brecht wanted to consider ‘delineate[ing] the separate components of acting, directing, and set design rather than unifying them’ (Krasner 171). Additionally unlike dramatic theatre, Brecht did not aim to make an
audience empathize with his characters. In fact, he wanted the audience to actively be aware of the fact that they are watching a play that is staged and not something that is real. Brecht emphasizes that ‘if empathy makes something ordinary of a special event, alienation [estrangement] makes something special of an ordinary one’ (Krasner 170).
perspective. The evocation of empathy followed by unexpected spell of detachment awakens sensitivity, added understanding and cognition in both the audience and the actors. The theatre public should be made to look at relationships ‘with a critical estranged eye of the discoverer’ (Esslin 129). Brecht actually sought to replace illusion, magical effects, trance and sentiments with rationality, vivacity, grace and transparency. The spectators find the illusion of ‘spontaneous, transitory, authentic, unrehearsed events’ (Willet 79) missing in the epic
The ‘Alienation Technique’ in fact awakens the audience from stupor and breaks the illusion of the fourth wall by making them aware of the performed illusion. For this, Brecht proposed several strategies to change radically the audience’s involvement in the theatrical experience. ‘We no longer need to identify with characters in a drama, nor must we vicariously live their story’, Brecht insisted. ‘On the contrary, we must keep a cool and critical distance in order to be
able to judge the actions of fictional women and men by the highest ethical standards. We, the audience, are encouraged to decide whether we approve or disapprove of characters’ actions and decisions, and we are encouraged to contemplate alternative plots and decisions. To make these intellectual judgments, we are no longer kept in suspense, nor should we empathize or sympathize with the characters. Thus actors might abandon their assigned roles and tell us what they are about to do or some signs and titles might come up on stage as useful pointers and directions. Aware at all times that we are in a theatre, watching a play that is presented by actors who are clearly not identical to the characters, the audience is provoked to confront the problems presented, and to participate in finding solutions’. Another simple way of looking at ‘Alienation Techniques’ is it involves the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from
emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance.
good people left in the world. After a lot of wandering they find only greed, evil, dishonesty, and selfishness. The same turns out to be true in Setzuan as well. Finally, they find some goodness in Shen Teh, a young prostitute, who provided them shelter and comfort. Shen Teh is rewarded for her hospitality, as the gods take it as a sure sign of goodness. They are extremely happy because they have found a ‘good person’ and all is not lost. The gods rewarded her but simultaneously
intended to know whether Shen Teh can maintain to be good with the newfound means in the long run. If she succeeds, the Gods’ confidence in humanity would be restored. At the beginning Shen Teh started her business generously but soon she realized that people are taking advantage of her kindness and she gives everything away. At one point, she created an alter ego in the name of Shui Ta, a male cousin. In the effort of bringing the business profitable, Shui Ta made a lot of enemies because of his hard, unpopular business decisions. This is Brecht’s nod to the capitalist who has to make cold, calculated decisions that may not be popular but necessary for business purposes. Incidentally, Shen Teh falls in love and becomes pregnant. She is betrayed and caught crying in her room by one of the employees. As she is in disguise of Shui Ta, she is taken to the court to prove the existence of Shen Teh. During the process of her trial, the gods appear in the robes of the judges. Shui Ta reveals herself to the gods that Shui Ta is actually Shen Teh. She explains being good has got her into trouble and therefore she had to create this alter ego to survive. The gods then realize that they are confronted by the dilemma that their divine intervention has caused: they have created impossible circumstances for those who wish to live ‘good’ lives; however, when it comes time to make a verdict, the gods refuse to intervene
directly to protect their followers from the vulnerability that results from this ‘being good’. The gods leave without providing further guidance. This was Brecht's way of saying that God, or gods or even religion was not the answer to society's problems. At the end, the narrator throws the responsibility of finding a solution to the play's problem onto the shoulders of the audience. It is for the spectator to figure out how a good person can possibly come to a good end in a world that, in essence, is not good. The play relies on the assumption that the spectator will be moved to see that the current structure of society must be changed in order to resolve the problem. That is what Brecht hoped to achieve when writing this play.
ideas in modern theatre (De Gay 86). The ‘Alienation Techniques’ not only have been successful in Europe but also in the Far East as well, particularly, China. The idea to shock the audience into a fresh perception of reality has become familiar with the main stream Chinese theatre.Tom Le Clair stated, ‘Brecht referred to art as the medium that would further the great social task of mastering life’ and added, ‘theatre was the most human of art because it represented human
activity with human activity and Epic theatre is the broadest and most far reaching attempt at large scale modern theatre’ (Le Clair 51). Le Clair further added that Epic Theatre and Alienation Techniques were its primary technique and both had a double function: extend representation of life and through abstract situation, make the play strange and unfamiliar. This allows the audience to distance itself from the play. Le Clair also noted that Brecht wanted the audience to respond ‘both intellectually and emotionally with a free and highly mobile mind’ (Le
Clair 52). Epskamp also stated that many theatre directors including Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre director used Brecht’s progressive theatre techniques, including Alienation Techniques.
Boas was also successful from keeping the public from identifying themselves too much with the characters. Epskamp also discovered that Brecht wanted a form of drama and theatre that would stimulate an increased sense of political awareness in the mind of the spectator and his own situation in society amidst recession, unemployment and rising fascism. (Epskamp13). Besides, SyRen Quah, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, wrote that he was deeply influenced by Brecht. He stated: ‘the discovery of Brecht had a forceful impact on Gao’ (Quah 27). He added in the spirit of Brecht, other Chinese dramatists were able to explore different modes of representation.
‘Brecht’s ‘Epic Theatre’ revolutionized the theatre by creating radical breaks from traditional
literary critic, Jean-Paul Sartre seem to indicate that Brecht’s particular techniques were doing what his theory says they should have been doing. However, Sartre never analyzed or discussed with real audience members their reactions after particular performances. Instead he spoke about Brecht and his work abstractly. Nevertheless, Sartre saw performances of the Berliner Ensemble and therefore it is probably a fair assumption that their conclusions about Brecht were at least somewhat rooted in the empirics of their own experiences. (Squires 128).
The main view of the present study is to determine the main ‘Alienation Techniques’ Brecht utilized that made The Good Woman of Setzuan succeed in sending out a social message to the audience. That is, by what means was Brecht successful in making the audience question the merits of the play and allowing their reasoning rather than their emotions, reach a conclusion about what is the definition and perception of Good. To understand Epic theatre and its techniques of ‘Alienation Effects’, it is necessary to see how it differs from Traditional or Dramatic Theatre.
DRAMATIC THEATRE vs. EPIC THEATRE
Dramatic Theatre is plotted Epic Theatre is narrated
Implicates the spectator in a stage situation Turns the spectator into an observer
Audience is involved Audience only observes
Unalterable human being He is being altered
Thinking determines being Social being determines thinking One scene after another Each scene for itself
(Le Clair 51)
Whereas Traditional theatre was more interested in entertaining the audience, Brecht viewed theatre as part of an enlightenment project, not just mere entertainment. He wanted theatre to force judgment and lead to social action. The present study will visualize the three main types of ‘Alienation Techniques’ employed by Brecht in The Good Woman of Setzuan.
glamorous sets and props. Though he valued the importance of entertainment, his primary objective was to send a social message and to destroy the theatrical illusion; in theory, Brecht’s plays are ‘anti-illusionistic.’ This can be seen as a reaction to theatre of the late nineteenth
century, with its emphasis on entertainment and spectacle, realism or escapist entertainment which Brecht referred to as farce and melodrama (Carney 128).
He also initiated direct involvement with the audience through characters who step out of their roles to function as commentators. This is illustrated by the character Wang, who is a water seller in The Good Woman of Setzuan. He opens the play by describing the first scene as well as later scenes when explanations are required. Another example of a character talking directly to the audience is when ShenTe talks to the audience explaining her feelings for her lover Yang Sun, an unemployed man. (Brecht 35).
In epic theatre scenes are detached from each other. Brecht stated that ‘words, music and setting must become more independent of one another’ (Brecht 38) and that epic theatre required ‘the separation of the different elements’ (Brecht 85). So for Brecht, epic theatre consisted of many independent parts or pieces. These pieces include, for example, musical elements, lighting effects, written texts, projections, scenes, words, sounds, etc. Other methods involved using stage props, charts, slides and messages which flashed across screens. One of the unique characteristics of epic theatre is that unlike traditional or Natural theatres, the lights in the auditorium would never be turned off even after the play has commenced. The audience was made to purposely watch the entire play with the auditorium lights turned on. Again, the reasoning is they are constantly being reminded that they were watching a play. In addition, Brecht would leave visible stage machinery (expose the technology of theatre) in the setting of the plays. This was seen in The Good Woman of Setzuan where the orchestra that plays the music is exposed to the audience. In traditional theatres the musicians are in the background or hidden from the view of the audience. Here their presence is highlighted and fully exposed. And, simply to constantly remind the audience they were watching a play. Brecht also used characters that performed double roles. This unique aspect of dual characters was seen in The Good Woman of Setzuan through the characters of Shen Teh and Shui Ta. They are actually both the same person and come at different points of the play wearing their individual masks. Masks and costumes are very important in all of Brecht’s plays, giving the play its unique, pantomimic visual effect.
interrupt the dramatic action and therefore enhance the identification of the audience with the characters played by musicians visible to the audience. This is a true example of Epic Theatre. Being a Marxist with Socialist leanings, Brecht was not a fan of the Bourgeois (middle class) society. He viewed the Bourgeois as corrupt which fed upon the weaknesses of the labor class, the Proletariat (working class). One of the songs that discuss his views about the class struggle is the Song of Defenselessness. As the protagonist Shen Teh enters the stage carrying the mask representing Shui Ta, her alter ego, she sings:
‘In our country
A useful man needs luck Only if he finds strong backers Can he prove himself useful.
The good can’t defend themselves and
Even the gods are defenseless.
Oh, why don't the gods have their own ammunition Give bread to each city and joy to each dwelling?
Oh, why don't the gods do the buying and selling?’ (Brecht 50)
In these stanzas, Brecht laments through Shen Teh, the current, despicable status of today’s society and the hardship the lower classes live through. Religion is not the answer because ‘even the Gods are defenseless’ (Brecht 50). It is seen that through this song, Brecht reiterates the line ‘why don’t the gods do the buying and selling?’ (Brecht 50). In other words, Capitalism has
corrupted all the good institutions leaving the poor destitute and Godless. Also, Brecht’s repetition of this line is used to emphasize its importance. Brecht associates ‘injustice’ and ‘starvation’ with ‘buying and selling’. By ‘buying and selling’, Brecht seems to be alluding to
the market capitalism his audience is familiar with. In this song then, Shen Teh makes an appeal against the injustice of market capitalism as a vehicle of economic distribution. He remarked Market capitalism hurt people because of its competitive nature. This is evidenced in the line ‘The good can’t defend themselves.’ (Brecht 50). Even the gods cannot defend themselves
against the Capitalists who control everything. Shen Teh then puts the mask on and sings: ‘You can only help one of your luckless brothers, by trampling down a dozen others...’ (Brecht 51).
This is as explained before one of the unique aspects of alienation effects where Brecht uses dual characters to promote two opposite philosophies. Whereas Brecht uses Shen Teh to say capitalism is bad, he uses Shui Ta to say capitalism may be good and necessary. Importantly, he wants the audience to decide what is considered good and what is considered bad. So, in this play, it is seen Shui Ta accepts and embraces the idea of competition. Shui Ta is accepting of the idea that dozens can be trampled for the advent of industry and free market (Bartram 31). This was a hot debate in Brecht’s time and it is still continues to be so today, particularly in
developing as well as less developing countries where labor may be exploited for specific industries such as garments industry. But like Shui Ta, many industrialists today may counter that it is because of capitalism that employment has been generated for the mass, who otherwise would have remained unemployed and secondly, these countries have received unprecedented foreign exchange for the export of these garments which help turn the wheels of economy.
A second important song in the play is The Song of the Water Seller in the Rain. This is sung by one of the characters, Wang, who is a water seller by profession. He was also the characters that open the play by addressing the audience:
‘Buy my water I am yelling,
And my fury restraining, For no water I'm selling
‘Cause it’s raining, cause it’s raining’ (Brecht 37)
Through this song, Brecht personified the futility of the human spirit. It is ironic to be selling water when it is raining, and therefore it represents the futility of being in a profession that supplies something for which there is no demand. He used this also to pinpoint the status of Wang, the water seller similar to that of the lower class as both have nothing to offer that is in demand to the Bourgeois society. The greater message is society does not have time or cares about something that cannot give them economic value. There must be a financial benefit to have the attention of the masses. The fact we live in a highly materialistic world, where currency dictates emotion was the message Brecht was attempting to share through this song (Demetz 42).
A third song The Song of the Eighth Elephant also had an important message which Brecht wanted to share with is audience and readers:
the one that had the tusks was Little Brother
Seven are no match for one, if one has a gun’ (Brecht 84).
The message that Brecht wanted to send out here was even if one had the backing of a large group, if that person did not have power than it did not matter. It was power or in this case, the gun which dictated what was to be done. In other words, he was referring to concept of ‘might is right’. Despite hard work, the end game is determined by those in power. Again, this is going
back to his previous message that the Capitalist who were few in number ruled the mass because they had the power. They had the gun or the whip. Power allowed them to control the labor classes who despite their huge numbers were defenseless against the ones holding the gun. These topics and messages were primarily more significant during the times of Brecht’s life as he witnessed the atrocities and devastation of WW II through the actions of Adolf Hitler through his Third Reich, Italy's Benito Mussolini, Russia’s Josef Stalin, Great Britain's Winston Churchill coupled with other European powers and later, the Americans. It was the common people who were devastatingly affected and left crippled mentally and physically. No one was spared. Brecht’s message here was clear and concise - he wanted to shine the light on what
power in the hands of a few can do if not checked by the mass. Hence he is leaning towards Socialism.
The third and final ‘Alienation Technique’ is the use of epilogue in The Good Woman of Setzuan. An epilogue is simply a small chapter or page, after the main parts of the book or play has been completed which carries very pertinent information. For Brecht, it is one of the most integral parts of this play. It is here that he cleverly asks the audience how they would to end the play. In other words, Brecht does not write an ending but instead asks the audience to make their own. This is one of the most interested aspects of ‘Alienation Techniques’ used by Brecht. This is no easy task because there are difficult points to consider, ponder and everyone has their own views and opinions. This is where the genius of Bertolt Brecht rises to the occasion. All his efforts through the play of leading, suggesting, tormenting the audience finally ends up here when he teases the audience to come up with the way this story should end. He knew there was no right or wrong answer and even illustrates this dilemma through his protagonist, Shen Teh who admits when asked by the gods to stay good:
‘But to be good to others
Your world is not an easy one, illustrious ones!
When we extend our hand to a beggar, he tears it off for us When we help the lost, we are lost ourselves
And so Since not to eat is to die Who can long refuse to be bad?
As I lay prostrate beneath the weight of good intentions Ruin stared me in the face…’ (Brecht 107- 108).
Here Brecht illustrated the difficulty of being good and staying good in any society. Shen Teh continues with the line ‘It has torn me in two’ (Brecht 107). This line is perhaps the most
poignant line in the entire play. It is symbolic in many aspects. It represents the class struggle between the bourgeois and the working class, the struggles between good and evil, the conflict between man and woman, the mistrust between neighbors, and the list is endless.
Alluding to the devastation and social disorder as a result of Second World War, Brecht believed that fragile and conditions of human beings were by no means a permanent reality and that under the right conditions things could be changed for the better. This was truly his Marxist belief. He used Epic theatre as an attempt to create the necessary conditions for such change to happen. As Brecht states, ‘the purpose of our investigation was not merely to arouse moral misgivings about
on. We are still nowhere near an answer and Bertolt Brecht is enjoying every minute of this, watching us from where ever he is.
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