Bertolt Brecht has been hailed as one of the pioneers of 20th century theatre. Through his didactic styles and revolutionary theories on teaching the audience instead of just entertaining them, Brecht managed to alter the general face of modern theatre and style of playwriting through many of his works such as his 1939 epic “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Using such techniques as alienation and historification, he presented his plays without any sense of dramatic lighting or effects, as well as trying to remove any sense of suspense from the audience. Brecht also promoted the use of Epic Structure, a way of narrating a play in which song, dance, and projected photos and music would assist regular speech.
Epic Structure is noted particularly in “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Each scene opens with a projected message on the stage, which is a synopsis of the coming scene. Some scenes are quite distant in terms of time setting; many years in some cases, furthering the “Epic” feel of the play by spanning it across large amounts of time in which many different things can change the life of characters. For instance, scene 3, in which Mother Courage’s son Swiss Cheese is killed, is set 3 years after scene 2, while scene 2 itself does not span those 3 years. Likewise, by the time the play reaches scene 9, the time setting is ten years after the beginning of scene 1.
Of all the techniques used by Brecht, the most famous was alienation. Brecht uses his alienation technique well in “Mother Courage”. It is essentially a collection of theatrical devices that were created to remove the audience?s attention from the emotions of the play and direct it towards consideration and analysis of the message and themes that were being presented. In the case of “Mother Courage”, the idea was of war being a form of business that only the powerful will benefit from. Some of the devices employed by Brecht were commonplace on other completely unrelated genres of performance, but he brought them together to create an effective means of alienating the audience.
Most prominent was the use of a narrator. The narrator would take an active part in the play, but would not be a part of the action in the same way as the other players. He or she would speak to the audience directly, which inhibited the chances of the audience becoming consumed in the pseudo-reality of the story. While no actual narrator character is featured in “Mother Courage” the beginning of each scene begins with the aforementioned synopsis, which told the audience about time and place setting, as well as the details of what happened in the scene. This removes all doubt or wonder in the audience’s mind of what will happen, in effect “ruining” the story for them. Because they know what is going to happen, they are forced to observe how the already known story is presented, rather than becoming involved in watching the story unfold. Even at the very beginning of the play, the first scene opens with Spring 1624. The Swedish Commander-in-Chief Count Oxenstierna is raising troops in Dalecarlia for the Polish campaign. The canteen woman Anna Fierling, known under the name of Mother Courage, loses one son.
This statement alone sets the time and place, introduces the main character and reveals what happens in the climax of the scene, yet the actual play does this as well. Because it was all revealed at the beginning, the audience focuses more on the structure and presentation of the scene rather than the story.
Songs feature sporadically in “Mother Courage” and where they do, they are used to convey a simple point that could have otherwise been presented through normal speech. This effectively takes the audience’s focus off the story and directs it to consideration of the techniques and messages being conveyed, as they are left wondering why Mother Courage has started singing suddenly. This is illustrated in Scene 7, the entirety of which is just one song sung by Mother Courage. She sings a song that basically means “war is a horrible thing to exist, but it’s great business for me so I’m happy with there being a war on”. It would be quite strange for a person to make up a song filled with clever rhymes integrating the message they are trying to convey just to get the point across in real life, so when it happens in Scene 7, the audience in bewildered and perhaps even confused. It seems this is exactly what Brecht was trying to achieve. Perhaps he believed that the audience would have started being consumed by the story and needed to be pulled away, so he made a character burst into song unnaturally to make the audience stop and consider what was going on.
Brecht also made good use of Historification in many of his plays. This involved drawing parallels between the subject matter on hand in the play and historical events of the past. Brecht stated that the idea behind “Mother Courage” is primarily
“That in wartime the big profits are not made by the little people. That war, which is a continuation of business by other means, makes the human virtues fatal to even their possessors. That no sacrifice is too great for the struggle against war.” As a medium to show this, Brecht has set the play in the 30 years war, one in which his homeland of Germany was heavily involved with, thus creating something a German audience could easily relate to. However, “Mother Courage and Her Children” was written in 1939, just recently after the First World War and at the beginning of the second, both of which Germany were involved in. This presents the question of what was Brecht’s message to the German audiences? They would have experienced these recent wars, so did Brecht choose to set his war focused play in a war that took place 300 years earlier?
The 30 years war was important to the German people as it had previously been the most destructive war ever fought on German soil. It is also plausible that Brecht used a war that was not as recent to further the historical and epic aspects of his piece. He may have considered that the first world war was too recent to have gained status as an important piece of German history yet. Along with this, Brecht used it because he was trying to move away from his own didactic communist writings such as “The Measures Taken” into a looser presentation of new Marxist political theories. These provided the basis for his new “Epic Theatre”, which he was trying to promote in “Mother Courage”.
By inventing and using all of these techniques, Bertolt Brecht has directly altered modern playwriting and influenced many writers and directors who have followed him. His techniques, such as Alienation and Historification both lent themselves to making Epic Structure a very popular form of writing stories which are presented in plays and even films today. They have been adopted the world over as standard, instead of the radical changes they were when they were first introduced, making him a true pioneer and innovator of the world of dramatic arts of the 20th century.
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