The Brecht/Artaud Dialectic
Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud innovated totally different ways to transform the actor and spectator’s conception of reality and liberate the theater experience of the mid-twentieth century from dominant social and cultural ideological values. Brecht sought to awaken cognitive processes in the spectator by revealing contradictions characterizing relations between individuals in their political and socioeconomic context. Artaud attempted to bypass conscious, rational perception in order that the theater experience penetrate psycho-physiological aspects of the actor and spectator’s brain and nervous system not directly accessible within the dominant socio-cultural order. Artaud did not believe that in order to change the theater it was necessary to change society first. For him, as for Brecht, it was the other way around: theater as an instrument of social change.
Brecht’s insistence on lucidity and intellectual autonomy on the part of both actor and spectator in relation to the dramatic situation being portrayed is in contradistinction to Artaud’s concept for his Theater of Cruelty, a total spectacle utilizing sound, light, color, gesture, fantastic props and all other elements of staging in order to produce hypnotic effects on the spectator and draw him into an intense involvement with the action: “I propose a return through theater to the idea of a physical knowledge of images and of ways to provoke trances.” This opposition of reason and the dialectical method to activities of the unconscious and theatric-ritual practices attempting profound transformation of the self is a compelling difference between the theaters of Brecht and Artaud.
Brecht pioneered a theory and practice of historical materialist theater based on the reality of class struggle: the individual is depicted in terms of socioeconomic forces generating both his situation and his actions in response to it. The subject matter of his plays deals with social and economic realities. The objective of this focus is to reveal to the spectator the disjuncture between the economic infrastructure and the ideological superstructure – that is to say, between the actual structuring of economic relations and the virtual world of conceptual formulations about them based on socio-cultural norms through which he perceives his own participation in society. In The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, lumberjack Jimmy Mahoney, after ordering drinks all around, winds up not having money to pay the tab and, as a consequence, is placed on trial and executed, refused even a final glass of water. Brechtian theater enacts a critique of the relation between character and situation in order that the ideology which dominates relations between the individual and larger social groups may be seen from the other side.
The spectator does not identify with the role portrayed by the actor or live vicariously the situation being played but views the contradictory circumstances under which the character functions. This is accomplished through what Brecht termed the alienation effect. It is a means of shocking the spectator out of the subjectivity of the theatrical illusion and into an objective, critical way of understanding not only the contradictory situation being enacted onstage but its parallels with his own condition. Brecht wrote in “A Short Organum for Theater” that the alienation effect is “designed to free socially-conditioned phenomena from that stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today.”
Brechtian theater stresses “The idea of man as a function of the environment and the environment as a function of man” (Brecht on Theater. John Willet. NY: Hill & Wang. 1964). In The Good Woman of Szechuan, Shen Teh invents a cold alter-ego, a cousin named Shui Ta, to deal with the people who take advantage of her kind nature. At first it appears that she has found a way to fend off greedy hangers-on yet still remain a good person in the eyes of others, but it comes to pass that, in the guise of Shui Ta, her alter-ego, she is accused of having done away with the real Shen Teh. She explains to the court what she has been up to with her dual identity. Brecht sought to particularize each incident and each character’s reaction to it so that it could be seen in its historical perspective as “this particular individual at this particular moment.”
The historical distance Brecht establishes between scene and spectator is based in a way of viewing the world derived from the materialist dialectic. Brechtian theater treats social situations as processes which are unfinished and in a state of change. Disharmony is caused by the motion of contradictory forces acting upon and generated by the individuals who constitute a society at odds with itself. The historical distance necessary to perceive this view is reached through a Brechtian process of alienating the familiar in order that the spectator is far enough removed from the scene to understand the contradictions within it in a way unconditioned by habitual formulations related to the structuring of historical space.
Brecht’s viewpoint of the situation portrayed onstage involves looking back at it from a point in the future: “if we play works dealing with our own time as though they were historical, then perhaps the circumstances under which he [the spectator] himself acts will strike him as equally odd; and this is where critical thought begins.” The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, parody of a legendary western boom town long since abandoned and destroyed, where, under cover of justice, a life is taken over a bar tab, is revealed to spectators with the purpose of enabling them to look upon it through a distance of time and, in so doing, learn about the deceptive duality of their own positions in the shifting socioeconomic order.
The cultivating of a critical attitude in the spectator is essential to Brecht’s epic theater. In order to reach it, he developed a means of staging which did not encourage the spectator’s empathy but rather impaired the theatrical illusion in the form of songs, captions and other conventions which set one situation off from another, bringing attention back to the fact that the action taking place onstage was not real, permitting liberty of judgment and cognitive activity on the part of the spectator. The actor is not to become absorbed in his role or identify with the character he is playing: “in order to produce A-effects the actor has to discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put the audience in a trance, he must not go into a trance himself… Even if he plays a man possessed he must not seem to be possessed himself, for how is the spectator to discover what possessed him if he does?”
Both Brecht and Artaud founded their revolt against standard theater aesthetics on a critique of language. For Brecht, this took the form of a dialectical relation between the language used by the characters and the socioeconomic reality to which this language refers. Brechtian theater reveals a contradiction between what a character says he is about and his actual position in relation to the world and others. According to Brecht, when a spectator perceives and understands these contradictions as demonstrated on stage, he will be equipped to penetrate the arbitrary conventions of language which he employs to deal with his own reality, thereby demystifying the socially agreed-upon symbols which constitute the formulations limiting his understanding of the nature of his own role in the socioeconomic order. Artaud viewed European culture as falsely civilized, paralyzed in a bourgeois conformism which held the written text sacred and granted eternal value to the masterpiece with its fixed, literary form no longer responding to the needs of the times.
Refusing the primacy of the written text in favor of physical elements of staging and spectacle, Artaud wanted to completely leave the written text behind and take the theater experience to another level. “If the sign of this epoch is confusion, I see at the base of this confusion a rupture between things and the words, ideas and signs which represent them” (Artaud). He sought to tear down the foundations of culture and ideology through immersing performer and audience in a spectacle of total theater. In a letter to a critic who had written that the presentation of the spectacular aspect of dramatic work must not determine itself in total independence from the written text, Artaud replied, “…it appears that on the stage which is above all a space to fill and a place where something happens, the language of words must give up its place to language through signs.” According to Artaud, theater had to become an experimental demonstration of the profound identity of the concrete and the abstract through the use of a language of gesture communicating directly to the senses rather than through the precise localized determinations of words mediated through conscious mental processes.
Artaud draws parallels between the activity of the theater and anomalies of the plague in “The Theater and the Plague.” Maintaining that the plague does not enter the human body from outside but lies dormant within the body until such time as particular circumstances set it into an active state, ravaging the victim as it runs its course, Artaud states that theater takes images and gestures dormant in the unconscious and pushes them to their extremes: “like the plague it remakes the link between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and that which exists in materialized nature.” This is where the truly subversive nature of Artaud’s theater becomes evident. It is not only an upsetting of the psycholinguistic patterns which hold the images and impulses of the unconscious in a latent state that he is proposing with his theater as plague but a violently anarchistic overthrow of the social order in the theatrical experience. “The son, up to this point obedient and virtuous, kills his father: the celibate sodomizes his kin. The lecher becomes pure. The miser throws fistfuls of gold out the windows. The war Hero sets fire to the city which he had formerly risked his life to save. The fashion plate dresses up and goes for a promenade among the funeral pyres.” Artaud defined his approach as anti-Aristotelian on the basis of his rejection of Aristotle’s proscription against showing violence onstage. Aristotle intended that elements of spectacle not overwhelm audience perception and experience of the tragic formula of reversal, discovery, pathos and catharsis. Artaud’s play, The Cenci, deals with violations of basic societal taboos such as incest and murder, not unlike Greek tragic drama, but the Aristotelian dictum on the spectacle of violence taking place offstage is violated.
Brecht specifies that he does not want catharsis to take place in the spectator at the end of the play because he does not want the critical attitude developed during its unfolding to be consumed by emotional release. Brecht’s theater eliminates Aristotelian catharsis by making the purging of emotions through empathy with the fate of the hero impossible. Brecht has written about his “anti-metaphysical, materialistic, non Aristotelian drama,” that it “makes nothing like free use as does the Aristotelian of the passive empathy of the spectator; it also relates differently to certain psychological effects, such as catharsis.” Brecht was determined to bring spectators to a point of taking a critical attitude where they would cease suspension of disbelief and think about rather than identify with characters and situations. In Brecht’s didactic theater, the critical process initiated in the spectator, brought about through the use of aesthetic devices which create the distance needed to reveal contradictions in the characters in relation to their socioeconomic context, does not end with the final curtain. Brecht specified that it remain unresolved in order that the spectator carry his newly-formed critical vantage point into his life and perceive the contradictory nature of his own situation.
A primary purpose of Brecht’s epic theater was to enable spectators to think clearly about and learn from situations enacted on stage. Brecht’s Mother Courage loses her soldier-sons one by one to the Hundred Years War while making her living peddling goods to soldiers on both sides. Artaud envisioned a total theater with a disordering of all the senses which rejected the fixed form of a written text in favor of spectacle. He cuts to a disturbingly lucid critique of the bio-mechanics of the military industrial state in To Be Done with the Judgment of God, his radio-play from 1948. Then, through a series of primordial incantations, he attempts to release a politics of experience in the moment.
To generate a revolutionary theater guided by Artaudian self-liberation balanced by Brechtian social justice, it is necessary to transform the individual and simultaneously transform the structure of the collectivity. Brecht and Artaud’s theaters of the rational and of the irrational form a continually modulating dialectic at the focal point of a revolutionary theater which seeks to teach about and change society while overwhelming the spectator’s senses to reveal other modalities of experience and perception. Both Artaud and Brecht wanted to tear off the social mask in the theater experience to reveal its contradictory relation to a primary reality represented through action developed onstage. For Artaud this primary reality was the subconscious. For Brecht it was class struggle.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. NY: Grove Press. 1960.
Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theater. John Willet. NY: Hill & Wang. 1964.