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  • Elvys Ruiz

The Distancing Effect in Brecht's Theater


The essay entitled THE SMALL ORGANON FOR THE THEATER (1948), written in the form of small articles by the German playwright and stage director Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), is where the concept of distancing is embodied. In this document, Brecht rejects identification (action and character), proposing distancing as a method for performing a theater representative of the new times, referring to the theater of the scientific era. "It will only be possible to distance a character when the illusion that the actor is the character, and the representation what happened, is avoided."[1]


The Little Organon contains 77 points in which Brecht supports his method, which responds to a general theory of the theater that he would put into practice in many of his dramatic works. Working under the postulates of the small organon, Brecht's actors had to lead the viewer to perceive the process of theatrical performance and not just the result.


Brecht sums up his theories in the little organon, noting: “Our job is to entertain the children of the scientific age, speak to their senses and amuse them. We must place great emphasis on this point because we Germans are quite prone to abstraction. Among us, sexual pleasure has become a conjugal duty and in art we do not see the beautiful but the instructive. We justify our actions not by the pleasure they give us, but by the sweat they cost us. "[2]


In this study the antithetical scheme of the two theatrical forms is also defined: Epic (narrative) and Dramatic (action) where the effect V. "Verfremdungseffekt" is established, which in its translation from German is understood as an effect of estrangement, in the which seeks to distance the viewer from the theatrical show. For example, in the epic piece The Three-cent Opera, or The Four-Quarter Opera (Brecht's updated revision of John Gay's 18th-century musical parody The Beggar's Opera), the The actors showed the character singing. Brecht did not want the audience to experience the play, but to confront it, and for this he had to be able to reason about the theatrical event.


El germen del efecto V. «Verfremdungseffekt» lo encontramos en la siguiente expresión de Brecht: “Así, los acontecimientos representados en la escena suscitan la estupefacción; lo cotidiano se desprende de la esfera de lo natural, de la evidencia.”[3]


Cuando Brecht propone este extrañamiento, lo que busca es evitar la manipulación emocional del espectador y su identificación con los personajes que intervienen en el espectáculo teatral, que era propio del naturalismo. Brecht entendía que el actor era siempre él mismo y por lo tanto debía de mantener una postura distante con el personaje para evitar el efecto de la ‘ilusión’ escénica entre los espectadores.


“Thus, the theater must adapt dialectical materialism (treat social conditions as processes, in their contradiction), putting itself not in the place of man but in front of him (distanced); thus there is no longer ecstasy, neither of the actor nor of the public ”[4]. In this way, catharsis (identification with the hero) was avoided and rather sought to achieve an ‘anagnosis’ (or awareness) among the spectators. Brecht's first didactic work Lindbergh's Flight (1928-1929) shows the elimination of any attempt to identify with the hero.


On the distancing effect, Brecht noted:

“To produce the effect of distancing, the actor has to discard anything from the media that he has learned to persuade the public to identify with the characters and their characteristics, taking care not to put themselves in catharsis, nor to their audience. His muscles must remain loose, ready to turn his head, for example, with the neck muscles stretched, where he "magically" brings the spectators' eyes and even their heads to turn with him, and in this way, diminish any speculation or reaction that gestures may bring. The way of talking about him has to be free from the 'ecclesiastical' chant and from all those qualities that calm the viewer so that the meaning of the work is lost ”.


Brecht's actors under this method stood behind the character, showing him and in the same way judging and criticizing him in front of the viewer by means of 'Gestus' (Social Gesture). “The gestural scope is determined by the social gesture. The actor dominates the character only if he can critically follow the variety of his manifestations "[5]. Brecht understood that the Aristotelian theater naturalized social relations, making them invisible and in this sense the spectators perceived them as ahistorical. With these approaches he makes clear his position of an epic theater (first used by Erwin Piscator) and of a political nature.


Debido a su fuerte influencia Marxista, Brecht entendió que el teatro debía tener como propósito ofrecer una imagen objetiva de una sociedad determinada. En ese sentido exclama: “No es posible, mostrar una cosa sin conocerla. El actor deberá apropiarse la ciencia de las relaciones humanas y esto, práctica, experimentalmente, tomado partido en la gran lucha de clases”.


In his theater, the spectators had to reflect in an objective way to the reality that was considered changing in the performed works. It was wanted to activate in them the critical conscience regarding what was staged. The actors had to through their performances project the idea that, despite being with the characters, they represented living people. This was learned by Brecht from the Chinese Opera shows. For this reason the actors addressed the character in the third person, without identifying with them and to some extent quoting them or making allusions to the stage events. In other words, they used any meta-theatrical resource in order to avoid identifying with the characters. The Chinese actor did not identify with his character and this was learned by Brecht in his 15th century study of Noh, the Taniko[6].


The V. "Verfremdungseffekt" effect is the result of many years of work observing the performance of its actors and carefully examining each montage. Brecht thus manages to systematize a series of concepts about the interpretation that will be reflected in his dramaturgy and at the same time in the way in which his actors communicate the message, away from the ‘incarnation’ of the character, rather by creating scenic signs. As Brecht wrote in a poem he directed to his actors "You don't have to show yourself, but the world."


It is pertinent to clarify that distancing was not Brecht's creation, although the term is coined to him because he was the one who developed it the most. This technique of estrangement came from the ancient medieval theater (where the characters were distanced with the use of masks), as well as from the oriental theater and from the comedy of art itself, as Brecht himself reports.


The distancing effect is complex since it involves understanding both the technical and artistic aspects of the theatrical performance. For example, Brecht uses music and song with the purpose of creating ruptures, as interruptions of the action, that is why the representation of his work Mother Courage and her children is frequently cited where this effect is shown.

In many staging of works where the distancing technique is used, it can be observed that: The viewer is challenged, songs are used to cut the dramatic action, lighting is used in an unconventional way, use of signs or banners, music is Used in an opposite way to the stage situation, songs are used, the scenography is not naturalistic, the magnification is eliminated to reveal everything that is behind the scenes, the acting movements tend to be exaggerated and more than acting, it is narrated.


Brecht is undoubtedly the most influential figure in 20th century theater, not only as a playwright and director, but also for having developed a theory (estrangement) that breaks with more than a thousand years of Aristotelian theatrical tradition (naturalism) and offering a theatrical aesthetic more committed to social struggles. Moreover, Brecht takes preponderance for being the promoter of the political theater initiated by Erwin Piscator, although surpassing it. His epic theater renewed the scene creating a new way of interpreting and appreciating drama.

[1] BERTOLD BRECHT, El Pequeño Órganon para el Teatro. Punto 51.

[2] WALTER WEIDELI, Bertolt Brecht, Breviarios Fondo de Cultura Económica, México 1969, pp. 90-91.

[3] WALTER WEIDELI, ob. cit., pág. 63.

[4] BERTOLT BRECHT, El Pequeño Órganon para el Teatro. Punto 61-63.

[5] BEROLT BRECHT, ob. Cit., punto 45-47.

[6] WALTER WEIDELI, ob. cit., pág. 63.



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