Brecht on Alienation (the A-effect, or, from the German Verfremdung, V-effect),

an Essential Element of Modern Drama[1]



Commentary by

Eva Thury


Brecht's Words

Contrast between epic (modern) and dramatic (old fashioned) drama

[T]he epic and dramatic ways of narrating a story are held, following Aristotle, to be basically distinct. [T]he difference between the dramatic and epic forms was attributed to their different methods of construction. The method of construction depended on the different way of presenting the work to the public, sometimes via the stage, sometimes through a book.

Technical advances pave the way for modern drama

This is no place to explain how the opposition of epic and dramatic lost its rigidity after having long been held to be irreconcilable. Let us just point out that the technical advances alone were enough to permit the stage to incorporate an element of narrative in its dramatic productions. The possibility of projections, the greater adaptability of the stage due to mechanization, the film, all completed the theatre's equipment, and did so at a point where the most important transactions between people could no longer be shown simply by personifying the motive forces or subjecting the characters to invisible metaphysical powers.

In modern (epic) drama, the environment becomes almost like a character

To make these transactions intelligible the environment in which the people lived had to be brought to bear in a big and 'significant' way.

This environment had of course been shown in the existing drama, but only as seen from the central figure's point of view, and not as an independent element. It was defined by the hero's reactions to it. It was seen as a storm can be seen when one sees the ships on a sheet of water unfolding their sails, and the sails filling out. In the epic theatre it was to appear standing on its own.

Multiple, contradictory perspectives are present in modern drama: the stage itself, the narrator, the fourth wall, the background

The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall. Not only did the background adopt an attitude to the events on the stage - by big screens recalling other simultaneous events elsewhere, by projecting documents which confirmed or contradicted what the characters said, by concrete and intelligible figures to accompany abstract conversations, by figures and sentences to support mimed transactions whose sense was unclear - but the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him.

Role of the spectator becomes more active


Alienation worked against what people took for granted: in Brecht's words, what is "obvious," or "natural."

The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically (and without practical consequences) by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems 'the most obvious thing in the world' it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.

What is 'natural' must have the force of what is startling. This is the only way to expose the laws of cause and effect. People's activity must simultaneously be so and be capable of being different.

It was all a great change.


The dramatic theatre's spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too just like me - It's only natural - It'll never change - The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable - That's great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world - I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.


The epic theatre's spectator says: I'd never have thought it - That's not the way - That's extraordinary, hardly believable - It's got to stop The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary That's great art: nothing obvious in it - I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.



Brecht on So-Called "Realistic Theatre"[2]



Commentary by

Eva Thury


Brecht's Words

Here Brecht argues that what people think of as "realistic" theatre isn't really very realistic after all. The contrast he implies is with the multiple perspectives of epic theatre, as described above.

The bourgeois theatre's performances always aim at smoothing over contradictions, at creating false harmony, at idealization. Conditions are reported as if they could not be otherwise; characters as individuals, incapable by definition of being divided, cast in one block, manifesting themselves in the most various situations, likewise for that matter existing without any situation at all. If there is any development it is always steady, never by jerks; the developments always take place within a definite framework which cannot be broken through.

None of this is like reality, so a realistic theatre must give it up.


[1] Bertold Brecht, interview with Luth Otto, in Brecht on Theatre: the Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and tr. by John Willett, Hill and Wang, New York, 1964, p. 70-71.

[2] Bertold Brecht, "Appendices to the Short Organum," in Brecht on Theatre: the Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and tr. by John Willett, Hill and Wang, New York, 1964, p. 271, para. 46.