“Those Savages — That’s Us”

For about twenty years, into the mid-1970s, Brecht’s theatre achieved something like iconic status, partly due to the impact of two Berliner Ensemble productions at the International Theatre Festival in Paris: Mother Courage in 1954; in 1955, and markedly different, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. One more sombre and realist in performance, the other more parabolic and comic, both told emotionally compelling stories of “ordinary” lives endangered, or crushed, in large events. A dispassionate eye focused contemporary crises by means of historical and cultural distancing. The audiences admired the innovative dramaturgy’s moral focus and its aesthetic pleasure, normally thought to preclude each other.

Bertolt Brecht
German Federal Archive, 1954
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0409-300 /
Kolbe, Jörg / CC-BY-SA

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Though not really abstracting from the events of each plot, this dramaturgy was seen as intending dispassionate judgment rather than compassionate identification, in the hope that political insight would encourage desirable social consequences. Yet, as a prism separates the spectrum that constitutes a beam of seemingly pure white light, clarity, on reflection, is composed of impurities. Under scrutiny, perceptual gradations become apparent, initial black and white distinctions lose their contours, and what constitutes illumination changes.

Critics saw the performances in terms of Brecht’s distinction between “epic” demonstrative acting and “dramatic” empathetic psychologizing.[1] Because it affected their aesthetic or philosophical interests, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes each offered a more differentiated analysis of this new theatrical practice than advocacy, or dismissal, which characterized conventional criticism. Their responses were themselves productively conflicted.

Where others underlined the dramaturgy’s political message, Barthes singled out the aesthetic quality of performance, stressing what he called “l’acte théâtrale lui-même.” He described the overall effect: less semiology, or discursive coherence, than seismology, due to its power to disrupt.[2] He connected Brecht’s social gestus — “one of the clearest and most intelligent [concepts] that dramatic theory has ever produced” — with what Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) called the “pregnant moment,” which draws together the strands of an episode into a memorable embodiment of significant meaning.[3] In Brecht’s case, what mattered was less the particular topic than the attitude towards it revealed through the actor’s performance which is, to a degree, separated from a thereby distanced character and situation.

Barthes related this meaningful moment to Diderot’s tableau, constructed by an act of découpage, a cutting out (and, we may say, off), which simultaneously creates a (we may also say dubious) unity in what he calls a “geometric” discourse that offers, in a double sense, an arresting perspective on its subject. Such a tableau “has something to say (something moral, social) but it also says that it knows how this must be done.”[4] When firmly cut out, we encounter “the coincidence of the visual and the ideal découpages,” and then an ideal meaning or whole is, in Diderot’s words, “contained under a single point of view.”[5]

This can result in the creation of a “fetish-object,” though fetishization may come “to a halt,” depending on the tableau’s “composition.” Fetishization and composition together produce a “dialectic of desire.”[5] Though this aesthetic both fetishizes an ideal meaning and awakens a desire to elude it, the critique, conducted within the performance, needs “a sovereignty of the actor, master of meaning, which is evident in Brecht, since he theorized it under the term ‘distanciation.’” As agent of the dramaturgy, distancing gives the actor sovereignty over the character. In spite of his admiration, this assumption pinpoints a dilemma for Barthes’s in Brecht’s “system,” since the movement of this dialectic of desire is predetermined by the strategy of its primary instrument, the alienation effect. We could say that the dramaturgic dice are loaded.[6]

Perhaps this is why Barthes favoured fragmented or independent scenes in a loose structure, and disliked Mother Courage’s “maxims” like: “Whenever you find great virtues, you can be sure that something is going wrong.”[7] Prompted by the actor’s distancing, the audience, in Barthes’s view, is expected to withhold support from such opinions. This dramaturgy therefore suggests, if with novel sophistication, a positive negation of the negation, rather than allowing an open-ended exploration of the dramatic material. The presumed découpage appears too confident, the “subject,” both topic and figure, too fetishized, too unified and objectified, too lacking the “textual” and musical, anti-determinist post structural qualities Barthes was beginning to favour, which undermine a more prescriptive structuralist representation.

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  1. Brecht schematized this model in Notes to Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, published in 1930.
    Brecht, Bertolt. Werke. Große Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991. 24, 74-84.
    The section in tabular form contrasted feeling in the dramatic with reason in the epic theatre. Often taken as a binary opposition, this juxtaposition was later removed.
  1. Barthes, Roland. “Théâtre Capital.” Œuvres complètes, tome I 1942-1965. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1993. 419. Brecht’s theatre is “à la fois moral et bouleversant : il anime le spectateur à une conscience plus grande de l’histoire, sans que cette modification provienne d’une persuasion prédicante : le bénéfice vient de l’acte théâtrale lui-même.” Brecht achieves “la quadrature du cercle : un théâtre qui soit à la fois totalement moral et totalement dramatique.” (420) (My translation: “Brecht’s theatre is ‘both ethical and bewildering: he prompts the spectator to a greater sense of history, without this modification deriving from preaching convictions: the benefit comes from the theatrical act itself.’ Brecht achieves ‘a squaring of the circle: a theatre which should be at the same time completely ethical and completely dramatic.’”) This critique appeared in France Observateur on July 8, 1954. In respect of seismology, see “Brecht and Discourse: A Contribution to the Study of Discursivity” in Roland Barthes’ The Rustle of Language. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 214.
  1. See the essay “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein” in Roland Barthes’ Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana, 1977. 73.
  1. Ibid, 70.
  1. Ibid, 71.
  1. Ibid, 75.
  1. Wenn es wo so große Tugenden gibt, das beweist, daß da etwas faul ist” (GBA 6, 23); see The Rustle of Language, 217. Notes to Mahagonny may imply that scenes are independent, but notional “fragmentation” is rendered nugatory by the importance of the plot in Brecht’s plays.

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