Readings For March 18th

Posted: March 13, 2019 in Readings

Here are the readings for after the break. You only need 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 week!

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.

  3. Sevin Park says:

    Aristotle talks about the essential parts of Tragedy and what makes a good Tragedy. Throughout his writing, he uses numbers to list his reasons in an organized fashion, which helped me follow along. His explanation of Plot was interesting. He says in a Plot, a bad man shouldn’t go from misery to happiness because it’s untragic and doesn’t appeal to the human feeling or pity or fears. An extremely bad man shouldn’t fall from happiness into misery because although it arouses human feeling, it doesn’t provoke pity or fear from us; pity is aroused from undeserved misfortune.

  4. Sevin Park says:

    In “The Epic Theater,” Brecht talks about opera. Opera is an approach toward a pursuit of pleasure. Opera’s content is pleasure. Only in the opera, a human being has a chance to be human. One of opera’s functions is to change society. Based on these claims from Brecht, it sounds like he reveres opera. I’m having trouble understanding why though. Personally, opera is my least favorite type of music to listen to.

    • Sorry not to respond sooner. I didn’t want to discuss Brecht’s attack on Aristotle until after we first gained some familiarity with Aristotle himself. I hope today’s session shed some light on both thinkers. It’s true that Aristotle did believe tragedy’s final goal of providing catharsis served an important social function, to keep the citizenry under control. Brecht would have said yes, but in an unequal and oppressive society such as our own, is pacifying or tranquilizing the citizenry a good thing?

      Theater, including opera (one of the most highly artificial, unrealistic, and self-contradictory of art forms), ought to be used rather to wake and activate the citizenry. This cannot be achieved not by making more unified; that would only make it more hypnotic and lead audience into deeper reverie. Inducing that somnolent was the goal of the 19th-century composer/director Richard Wagner, whose operas stand as the highwater mark of stage illusion. Instead, Brecht contended, the contradictions of opera (for instance, singing in loud voice for twenty minutes after having been stabbed in the lung) should be pushed even further, so that audiences see operatic productions not as some higher-order reality, but rather as the manufactured product of a complex network of labor and technologies. This ‘fragmented’ form of opera should not lull its audience into a warm bath of narcissistic emotions. Rather, it should rouse and encourage its audience to reject the status quo and strive consciously and collectively to construct a more equitable and sustainable society. Art object, in a word, should no longer be the isolated objects of disinterested contemplation; they should be instruments used to intervene in the real world. While aesthetic contemplation may well feel good, Brecht argues, seeing how art can alter society for the better feels ever better.

  5. Tasia says:

    Questions/Observation about Poetics by Aristotle:

    1. I think most individuals who have read a book has connected with a certain character. When I read the section about how a character’s actions, not their qualities, draws a reader’s attention and forms a connection, I was quite stunned. I also thought that a character’s qualities drive their actions, thus I ultimately thought I admired the character for their morals, ya know? Granted that plays are quite different than novels since they involved physical movement, I was quite conflicted when Aristotle stated, “…they (plays?) include Characters for the sake of action.” Characters are developed for the forgoing of the plot. Although I mostly agree that the plot is more ‘important’ than the characters, some deep, deep, deep part of me disagrees with this sentiment. I don’t know why.

    2. “The distinction between historian and poet… [is] that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.” Although I agree with this statement, I think poets can capture the emotional side of history, while historians write the facts.

    3. “A good poet often stretches out a Plot beyond its capabilities, and is thus obliged to twist the squence of incident.” Hopefully, there is an intent to elongating a poem rather than just to show that one has an ability to.

    • I’m glad you read this carefully and with interest. For the record, Aristotle is one of the smartest humans ever to have lived. But that does not mean he is always right. Galileo’s arguments about the Moon and the structure of the cosmos were largely rejected because the did not conform to Aristotle’s beliefs. And Galileo was right and Aristotle was wrong. So, if you find aspects of his theory of tragedy to seem inaccurate to you, it may be because they are inaccurate. If you were strongly to disagree with Aristotle on tragedy, you would be in good company – that of Brecht and Artaud, modern theorists who adamantly rejected his ideas. We’ll read both of them soon.

  6. Palmer Lee-Mesa says:

    Would it be possible to connect the ideas of the other authors we’ve read in class to Aristotle tomorrow? I can’t lock down how any one persons ideas are inspired by Aristotle’s but I feel a slight sense of deja vu reading this. In other words, I feel a lot of the readings up to this point have built off of Aristotle in some way, but I can’t crack precisely how.

    • We can discuss Aristotle in any way that seems helpful and interesting to you. For the record, Aristotle is meant to serve us as a mere foil for modern authors. But that hardly means he is not worth reading for genuine understanding.

  7. Nick Fontaine says:

    Aristotle mentions that Discovery at its best arrises from the incidents themselves. He also believes that these situations are best portrayed when they involve people who are close with one another. These preferences suggest that the most shocking and horrifying series of events constitutes the best Tragedy. Aristotle in a sense seems to be trying to depict the antihero that capitalizes upon an average persons flaws. I think that Tragedies that befall normal people intimately connect with the audience because they are normal people themselves. This combination of emotion with personal connection makes it possible to ironically enjoy objects that are horrifying. Aristotle’s qualifications of a good Tragedy made me think about the Netflix original called Black Mirror. Although dark, the horrifying instances incite emotion that ironically make for very entertaining art.

    • What do you think Aristotle would have to say about ‘grey areas’? Often times he seems to categorize things as either one thing or another, and doesn’t seem to consider things that don’t fit into those boxes. From what I’ve gathered, he dichotomizes tragedy and comedy, simple and complex, etc.

      Would he argue that everything falls into a category and there are no ‘grey areas’? Or would he perhaps argue that anything that doesn’t fit into those categories are inappropriate? I’m referring to his example of clever or manly women as being inappropriate.

      • As the first analytic philosopher, Aristotle was committed to describing and classifying the world as accurately and completely as possible. Nevertheless, he would never have claimed that there are no ambiguities or undecidables in life. Such perplexities are, in fact, the very stuff of drama, or so Aristotle claims. However, these perplexities tend to exist not in things so much as in our experience of them. The arise because we lack knowledge about how the world, which at least tends toward order and regularity, actually functions. Consequently, though Aristotle strives to reach rational conclusions to the questions he asks in his writings, in key instances he has to leave his argument unresolved. As for manly women, or effeminate men, Aristotle would hardly deny that such persons exist. He would simply say there are not appropriate protagonists for tragedy. I recommend not getting too hung up on the specifics of the example you offer though. These are more the result of Aristotle’s particular cultural assumptions and prejudices. I don’t think that go to the heart of his general argument.

  8. Nick Fontaine says:

    Brecht portrays the invention of the radio as innovation before a full understanding of how to harness its potential. He seems admire the radios ability to allow a discussion rather than an individual dramatically representing the self. In Brecht’s piece on theater he seems to be discussing the tension between new and old opera. Old opera seems to rely on pleasure through irrationality. Brecht claims that this pleasure directly hinders its ability to transform. As a result, old opera can not change with respect to innovation. Brecht also seems to talk about the new opera and how it favors audience communication. He also mentions that those who attend the new opera develop large egos. Does he mean that opera has become less about the opera and more about the social status associated with attending an opera? My understanding could be a bit off, this was difficult to comprehend.

  9. Jaina Lee says:

    Brecht seems to play a bit off of Greenberg’s idea of kitsch and avant-garde. When he talks about radio he talks about the two ways radio can be viewed. The first way he explains is the way that makes your “home feel cozy”. This would be equivalent to the idea of kitsch. The people who use radio this way do not have to think about it and it’s just cheap. The second way Brecht views radio reminds me of how Greenberg believes the manipulation of the medium or medium specificity is what is important in regards to art. Brecht also says something similar by saying radio should be viewed as a means of mass communication. He focuses more on the function of the medium (the radio) rather than what the medium displays.

    Along with Nick, I also became a bit confused towards the end when Brecht begins to mention social systems and theater/opera.

    • Yes. While these writers come very different backgrounds and work in different countries, the do share some common ideas. This is because both of them had spent a great deal of time reading the work of Karl Marx. I’ll try to point out some of the major similarities and differences in class. One of the principle things to notice is that Greenberg feels he must look at social factors in order to explain the development of art. Art is his principle interest, yet he invokes social transformations as a cause of artistic change. Brecht, on the other hand, seems to reverse this cause-and-effect equation. While he is no doubt deeply committed to art, he nevertheless views it primarily as a means of shaping society. This is quite different from Greenberg’s formalism, which sees the value of an artwork as contained exclusively within the piece itself. For Brecht, the value of an artwork lies rather in what it is able to do to the real work outside itself.

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