Brecht’s theory of Verfremdung
The German playwright and drama theorist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is mostly known for his theory of alienation as a technique of acting. Drawing on Marx’s theory of social and economic alienation, or Entfremdung in German, he devised a radically different concept, which he termed as Verfremdung. This is a totally Brechtian neologism, expressing a kind of “positive” alienation, as opposed to Marx’s “negative” prototype. In short, by Verfremdung Brecht meant a double alienation and a means of overcoming the sense of self-annihilation experienced by the audience vis-à-vis the bourgeois-style plays. The alienation that Brecht intended to combat coincides with the process of emotional identification of the spectator with the character (Einfühlung or empathy), which would lead to what Aristotle’s calls Katharsis (or purification). As a means of fighting the cathartic effect, Brecht created a new mode of dramatic presentation that would lead to the opposite result, namely the so-called Verfremdungseffekt or V-effekt. That is why it is advisable to translate Verfremdung as “estrangement”, in order to distinguish it from Entfremdung, which actually means “alienation”.
This new mode of acting was based on four main elements, namely historification, literarization, musical interludes and the usage of social gestures (Grundgestus). They formed the basis for Brecht’s early theory of epic drama, which nurtured his ambition to create a new drama for the scientific age.
Most notably, the technique of historification meant that the actors would act using the third-person narration, hence distancing themselves from the role, and present the dramatic events as belonging to the past. The first factor would prevent the audience from identifying with the characters, and would help them remain lucid and think critically about the stories and behaviours being acted out on stage. The second factor would enable both the audience and the actors to imagine alternative possibilities along the ones presented on stage and would give them the impression that the course of history can indeed be changed. Furthermore, Brecht’s new theory of drama presupposes the smashing of the fourth wall , with the purpose of restoring the theatricality of the dramatic performance and destroying the illusion of reality that contributes to mesmerize the audience.
Smashing the fourth wall means also to eliminate the boundary between the actors and the audience, which is enabled to take part in the theatrical event and interact with the performers. With these ideas, Brecht wanted the spectator to gain awareness of his/her role in the changing dynamics of society (socio-economic structures ), which can be improved. Therefore, for Brecht there is no longer much difference between those who sit in the audience and those who act on the stage. At a socio-economic level, all can act and modify the course of history .
But what is actually understood by V-effekt? How it is activated and how does it work? According to Brecht, the spectator of the new scientific age should watch drama in the same way as the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei used to watch the movements of the swinging chandelier. That is, with a kind of “estranged look”. Like Galileo did, one should approach a performance as if it were a scientific experiment. That is, as if it were the first time and with a consciousness that we are watching an unfamiliar, non-natural phenomenon. But above all, with great lucidity and willingness to remain emotionally detached from it. This would apply to both actors and audience, with the actors observing themselves and maintaining a critical attitude toward the role. Moreover, the object of attention would be less the characters and their behaviours than the social and historical conditions underlying those behaviours.
Brecht elucidates quite clearly how the V-effekt should work. He asserts that the V-effekt is that thing that makes us cry about those who laugh, and laugh about those who cry. Which is quite the opposite of the Aristotelian idea of Katharsis.
Therefore, Brecht’s epic theatre, or dialectic theatre, as he would rename it later, is essentially anti-Aristotelian and anti-illusionistic (i.e. anti-naturalistic).
What is particularly interesting about the Brechtian theory of estrangement (aka Verfremdung), is the fact that it is closely connected to classical Chinese theatre. In fact, it is commonly believed that Brecht was noticeably inspired by this kind of drama and its techniques of acting, because this is documented in his dramaturgical writings. Nevertheless, this is quite a controversial point, still being debated by scholars worldwide, who approached it from different perspectives and reaching different conclusions.
Brecht meets Chinese drama
The first encounter between Bertolt Brecht and Chinese Theatre occurred in March 1935 in Moscow, where the German dramatist travelled from his temporary residence in Denmark, where he lived in exile after escaping Nazi Germany. Whilst there, he had the opportunity to watch a series of theatre shows performed by one of the most important Beijing opera actors ever, the Beijing-born actor of female roles Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳 (1894-1961), and his troupe. Most notably, Brecht became strongly fascinated with Chinese theatre whilst witnessing a public, but improvised demonstration of specific Chinese theatre techniques of acting given by Mei Lanfang himself before an audience made up exclusively of theatre critics and theatre directors, who wanted to learn the secrets of his art.
During the show, Mei was wearing a Western-style suit in lieu of the colourful scenic costumes that are typical of Beijing opera performances, and his face was not made-up. These apparently insignificant details greatly informed the way in which Brecht perceived what the role of the actor in traditional Chinese drama might be. He correctly understood that one of the main features of the Chinese performer is how (s)he uses the body to communicate with the audience. In fact, costumes and stage props (which are actually minimal in Chinese theatre) perform only a decorative function and are not essential to the construction of the scenic space and the dramatic situation.
Brecht then recorded his experience in Moscow in an essay which was first published in 1936 in English and entitled “Alienation effects in Chinese Acting”. In this now legendary famous article, Brecht claimed to have derived his own theory of Verfremdung directly from traditional Chinese theatre, where, in his opinion, such dramatic technique had been already in use for centuries.
Note: Click here to read the second part of this study. In a separate article, I shall talk about the relationship between Brecht’s theory of Verfremdung and Chinese drama and briefly present and discuss some of the most influential theories about the nature of this – indeed intriguing – encounter.
 In the language of drama, the so-called “fourth wall” designates the imaginary wall that separates the stage from the audience, hence marking the boundary between the performance space (fictional) and the area in which the audience is seated (real). In naturalist and realist drama, the fourth wall is said to be “transparent” for the audience and real for the actors, who perform as if they were completely unaware of being watched.
 Brecht’s approach to drama is inherently political and greatly influenced by the Marxian theory of historical materialism. Like Marx, who argues that human society is based on socio-economic structures, which determine the cultural and ideological superstructures, Brecht maintains that the goal of drama is to unravel those structures and present them as subject to change. Brecht’s subsequent theory of dialectic drama (the evolutionary stage of epic theatre) was ispired by the Marxian concept of dialectics.
 “The spectators obtains a new attitude in the theatre […] He will be received as the great ‘transformer’, who can intervene in the natural and the social processes, and who no longer accepts the world but masters it ” (Brecht, qtd. in Ewen, 222)
 The original title of the essay is “Verfremdungseffekte in der chinesischen Schauspielkunst”.
NB: In writing this article, I have mostly relied on my BA dissertation (in Italian), which is entitled Estrangement Effect and Chinese Drama. Rethinking Brechtian Theory about Mei Lanfang’s Performing Art. As this is an introductory article, I have decided to mention only a couple of books by and on Brecht (see below). For a more complete bibliography, please wait to be redirected to my next posts.
- Brecht, Bertolt. Schriften zum Theater. Ueber eine nicht-aristotelische Dramatik, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1957. (I was unable to find the English translation of Brecht’s essays on drama)
- Ewen, Frederic. Bertolt Brecht, his Life, his Art and his Times, London: Calder and Boyards, 1970.