Acting to Change the World, Bertolt Brecht

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Acting to Change the World

Theatre as a tool for social change? Certainly, according to Brecht.

A realisation that “The world is out of joint, certainly and it will take powerful movements to manipulate it all back again”, convinced Bertolt Brecht that his role in fixing the world’s wrongs was to use theatre as a tool for social change.

Rather than accepting conventional notions of theatre that, to his view, merely pretended to be reality and sought empathy from the audience, he chose to use it as a political forum, where the audience became critically detached and able to see beyond the stereotypes that prevailed. From these ideas the Epic Theatre movement was born, and with it came a new type of written drama and a new approach to the production of plays.

Growing up in the shadow of World War One as a young Bavarian, Brecht not only realised the futility of war1, but actively avoided it by registering for medical training at Munich University. But medicine was not his calling, and after the war he quickly gained a reputation as an unconventional poet and playwright in Munich and Berlin2. Biblical influences, derived from his Protestant mother, the writings of Karl Marx, and the work of radical Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, were amongst the catalysts for an extraordinary shift in the way theatre was to be experienced. Employing concepts of didactisism, historification and alienation, all of which forced the viewer to be aware that what they were watching was a piece of theatre, rather than a slice of reality, he sought a critical appraisal of the characters, not just empathy3. Of the plays written by Brecht, ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ stands out as a milestone in the history of modern theatre. Written after the rise of Nazi Germany and in the latter days of the Second World War in 1944, the play is a story within a story. Set in the Caucasus Mountains it tells of a struggle over land rights between rival groups, and of a struggle between...
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