Readings For March 26th

Posted: March 22, 2018 in Readings

Here are the next readings. I only expect you to read Aristotle for our next session, but feel free to read Brecht and Artaud if you like. For your reassurance, the Aristotle is quite easy and the Brecht, while potentially confusing, is mercifully brief. We’ll worry about Artaud later. Have an astounding weekend!

The Philosopher
(384-322 BCE)
“The Poetics”

Bertholt Brecht
(1898 – 1956)
The Epic Theater
“Radio as a Means of Communication” (1932)


Antonin Artaud
(1896 – 1948)
The Theater and Its Double – 1938

(video shows a scene of Artaud in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is framed within Jean-Luc Godard’s Live Your Life, Susan Sontag’s favorite film)

  1. Jiahui Chen says:

    The link to the first Brecht article (The Epic Theater) doesn’t seem to be working for me.

  2. Natalie Van Orden says:

    A few weeks ago I was able to see a performance of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis). After talking about Brecht’s epic theater in our class today, I can draw out examples from what I saw that illustrate Brecht’s hopes for theater. It was first of all very obvious that the play has a political message. The play tells the story of a peasant girl who takes in a baby of royal birth (a baby who was abandoned by its real mother), and in the end is deemed by a judge to be the baby’s rightful mother, because “what there is shall belong to those who are good for it.” The parable of the peasant girl and her baby is used to illustrate that land should go to those who know how to make it most fruitful, rather than people who have had ownership over land in the past. This falls in line with Brecht’s argument that theater be didactic—used to awaken the people and compel them to act.

    Brecht also uses several techniques I noticed to alienate the audience and let them know that what they are viewing is not reality. The play is a story within a story, and the stage crew in the rendition I saw continuously changed the stage setting while the play was going on. Some actors played multiple main characters, and all the props used were chairs and everyday plastic items. The whole plot was briefly told at the beginning of the play so that as the play went on, the audience already knew what would happen and did not get caught up in the emotions of the plot.

    • I’m so glad you were able to see that performance. While a lot of what we discuss in IT8 can seem very abstruse and unrelated to our world today, only for a select few individuals, Brecht continues to be performed for popular audiences. Recall that he said epic theater, though didactic, can still be ‘culinary’. By this, he simply means simply that education doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it can be more fun and full of surprised than conventional entertainment. Consequently, while many of his plays are quite serious, others are deliberately fun – funny, raunchy, outrageous.

      It’s not only that the theater needs to become educational, but also that education can become theatrical – again; fun, funny, raunchy, outrageous. If nothing else, education should involve a great deal of live interaction, in which the teacher is made not simply to recite but to actively struggle and improvise, and the students function as a live chorus, questioning, provoking, cheering the teacher to action. The classroom, in a word, should be a location of genuine political involvement.

      Further, the primary topic, or object, or inquiry in the classroom should be the classroom itself. How is it designed, consciously or otherwise, to capture, sustain, or creatively interrupt attention and absorption. These are other factors, along with their possible functions, should be identified precisely through the experimental manipulation of the classroom as “apparatus”, as machine. Such manipulations break the ‘fourth wall’, and interrupt the feeling of naturalness and inevitability of the classroom, as well as other modern institutions. The forces breaks in the seeming seamlessness of experience, and show that what we had though to be reality is in fact artifice and illusion generated by technology. It is this very deliberate rupturing of the unified Aristotelian plot which gives the epic theater its name.

      The play you mention is an excellent example of this. While it question who is the rightful parent of a child, the biological source or the receptive custodian, it’s actually using the child as a metaphor for technology. As with the specific case of radio, Brecht asks, Who is the rightful ‘owner’ and inventor of radio, the person who invented it, or the persons who put it to the highest, best, and most revolutionary use. While it could, from Sontag’s perspective, appear lame to have such an unabashed metaphor at the heart of a play, I believe this is meant to underscore the idea the even what appear to be the most natural realities (life, human nature) are in fact technological products. This falls directly in line with one of Brecht’s most popular plays, The Life of Galileo. Here, the telescope itself takes on a quasi-dramatic role. It figures as a technology of dubious lineage. It’s never clear whether Galileo literally invents the telescope or instead ‘discovers’ it by putting it to the most creative and revolutionary use. Whatever the audience my decide during any given performance, it is clear the telescope, a fairly simply technology, nevertheless becomes an extremely powerful means of rupturing the commonly held illusion that the Sun rotates around the Earth, and replacing with a new and disorienting new view of the cosmos, the Sun is at the center of the cosmos and the Earth is in fact its satellite.

      I’d love to show students scenes from the film adaption of that play. Unfortunately, there are two obstacles to that. First is that our AV machinery can’t be controlled (I wonder what Brecht might say about that). Second is that the film adaptation I’ve seen isn’t very good. It redacts all the eccentricities of the original play and turns it back into a merely culinary and conservative play. It’s a pity. For what it worth though, this is hardly the first time film has even been used to sanitize and popularize experimental theater. I might we should try to get used to it and lower our expectations, but I’m not that kind of teacher.

      Interesting to see this recent production of Brecht’s play, where Galileo is shown speculating on the nature of the cosmos while, behind him, the playwright testifies before the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities.

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