Alienation Effects in Bertolt Brecht’s
The Good Woman of Setzuan
Bertolt Brecht uses a variety of techniques in his narrative style which is called epic theatre. Notable among these techniques is alienation effect. To achieve alienation effect, he uses many devices in writing his plays (internal devices) and also in performing them (performing devices). This paper will investigate some of the internal and performing devices in Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan which is one of his most important epic plays. In this paper, quotations from the play are according to the English translation by Eric Bentley.
When he was a student at Munich, Brecht wrote essays criticizing German classical theatre which was the basis of the theatre at his time. He believed the twentieth century needs another kind of drama that could serve as “an instrument of social change” (qtd. in Esslin 107). Therefore, he tried to adapt the earlier drama to the twentieth century in his epic theatre. He claimed that only epic theatre could depict “the complexity of the human condition” in a society in which people’s lives are under the influence of “social, economical, or historical forces” (111).
Brecht’s comment on his play The Threepenny Opera in 1931 describes his motive behind choosing the epic form for his works:
Today when human character must be understood
as the totality of all social conditions the epic form is
the only one that can comprehend all the processes,
which could serve the drama as materials for a fully
representative picture of the world. (146)
His ideas about creating a new non-Aristotelian theatre are best understood in terms of the German tradition against which he revolted. Traditional theatre created an illusion of witnessing a slice of life for the audience, while Brecht intended to “banish trance, illusion, magical effects, and orgies of emotion from the theatre” and replace them by “lucidity, rationality, and elegance” (Esslin 120-121). He borrowed the phrase epic drama from his collaborator Erwin Piscator, the exponent of political theatre. Ustinov states, both Brecht and Piscator “were avowed communists who sought an ideal theatre with social and political relevance that would stimulate playgoers into both thought and action” (159). When stimulated into thought and action, thus alienated emotionally from the characters and events of the play, the audience will be able to analyze the play and try to change the status quo of the society or even the world in which they live. Brecht wanted his audience to believe that human beings are able to change their fate and society. Audience’s effort to change the world is Brecht’s ultimate goal behind his theory of epic theatre.
Brecht wanted to create his own style that allowed him to talk directly to the audience, as in epic poems such as Homer’s Odyssey so he called his style epic theatre. Epic theatre was also known as Theatre of Commitment, Theatre of Social Action, and Theatre of Social Conviction. Willet states that the basic meaning of epic in Brecht’s use of the term is “a sequence of incidents or events, narrated without artificial restrictions as to time, place or relevance to a formal plot” (169).
His idea of epic is informed by the ideas of Goethe and Schiller regarding the mood and character of epic poetry which is a rational, calm detachment. As Abrams puts it “by the word epic, Brecht signifies primarily his attempt to emulate on the stage the objectivity of the narration in Homeric epic” (100). Epic drama is probably so called because it resembles the epic in its abundance of loosely connected scenes and its tendency to deal with a society rather than merely with a few individuals.
It should be noted that the word epic was in use in German literary circles before Brecht adapted it, however, and that “for Brecht it had several sources: the political theatre of Erwin...