Theatres of Revolution – Brecht & Artaud

Continuing our articles exploring Postmodern Theatre and Performance, and how it opposes the aesthetic, I begin with a quote from Bertolt Brecht: “I don’t think the traditional form of theatre means anything any longer…

Two of the most predominant figures in opposing traditional theatre norms are Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, who called for a revolution against the conventional theatre.  The ‘illusions’ of naturalism and realism frustrated them and in retaliation they formed manifestos of change, Artaud, feeling the idea of theatre had been lost[ii], towards a Theatre of Cruelty and Brecht, refuting the drama of his time as “still follow[ing] Aristotle’s recipe for achieving what he calls catharsis[iii], towards a non-Aristotelian Epic Theatre.

But What Did Aristotle Contribute?

Traditionally the Western theatre has been influenced by the theories discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle outlines a concept of drama that is based entirely on the imitation of an action that is altogether ‘admirable, complete and possesses magnitude[iv]. He presupposes a dramatic structure that should be coherent through a recognisable sequence that has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Fundamentally, in this concept of drama, the imitated action should evoke a cathartic experience where the spectator is moved, by fear and pity, to a conclusion where they can be spiritually purged.

For Aristotle, “Tragedy in its essence is an imitation, not of men as such, but of action and life, of happiness and misery … In a play … the agents do not perform for the sake of representing their individual dispositions; rather the display of moral character is included as incidents of the plot.” [v]

It was this conventional imitatitive theatre, a ‘theatre of illusion’ aimed at the ‘elite masses’[vi] and bourgeoisie that Brecht and Artaud were frustrated with and attempted to change. Artaud strived for a theatre with no written dialogue that stimulated the five senses, Brecht moved for a theatre that was didactic and would have immediate social and political effect.  Both practitioners placed an emphasis on creating a theatre that would be accessible to the masses and that would alter the conventional spectator/stage relationship.  Brecht, inspired by the Chinese theatre, aimed for alienation/defamiliarisation (verfremdungseffekt), a theatre based on detachment.  The actor would not act in the ‘fourth wall’ convention but would express an awareness of being watched:

The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place … The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience … The Chinese artist’s performance often strikes the Western actor as cold … The coldness comes from the actor’s holding himself remote from the character portrayed…” [vii]

In Brecht’s theatre the audience would constantly be reminded that they were observing a play, that the theatre is just a theatre and not the world itself.  The clearest of his ‘alienation’ techniques was the projection of captions preceding the scene so that the audience knew in advance what would happen. Artaud stated that the stage and auditorium should be abolished so that a “direct contact [would] be established between the audience and the show, between actors and audience.”[viii]

Ultimately both wanted a complete rejection of imitation in the theatre.  For Brecht, “The stage and auditorium must be purged of everything ‘magical’…[ix] for Artaud we could not “continue to prostitute the idea of theatre whose only value lies in its agonising magic relationship to reality and danger.[x]

Brecht’s Epic Theatre

In developing his Epic Theatre, Brecht actively sought to oppose the common elements of conventional dramatic theatre and formulated a table showing the change of emphasis between the dramatic theatre and the Epic Theatre:

plot narrative
implicates the spectator in a stage situation turns the spectator into an observer
wears down his capacity for action arouses his capacity for action
provides him with sensations forces him to take decisions
experience picture of the world
the spectator is involved in something he is made to face something
suggestion  argument
instinctive feelings are preserved brought to the point of recognition
the spectator is in the thick of it, shares the
the spectator stands outside, studies
the human being is taken for granted the human being is the object of the enquiry
he is unalterable he is alterable and able to alter
eyes on the finish eyes on the course
one scene makes another each scene for itself
growth montage
linear development in curves
evolutionary determinism jumps
man as a fixed point man as a process
thought determines being social being determines thought
feeling reason

Brecht intended to replace the traditional conventions with a new style of theatre, which would be didactic.  In the Epic Theatre the Aristotelian emphasis on plot would be replaced with narrative of a person, the spectator would become an observer studying the onstage experiences as opposed to being cathartically involved, the growth of a linear story would become a montage of individual scenes and stage suggestion would be replaced with argument.

Brecht aimed for a theatre of learning, where the spectator would be capable of thinking, of reasoning and making judgements with a ‘mental and emotional maturity’[xi], this theatre would oppose the conventional Aristotelian theatre which he found to be ‘essentially static; its only task is to show the world as it is’.  Brecht wanted to develop a theatre that would show ‘the world as it changes’ or how to make that change possible.  Since his theories were grounded in Marxist aesthetic Brecht’s Epic Theatre would be political and “designed to reveal contradictions in bourgeoisie society[xii].  His Epic Theatre would not “satisfy the old aesthetics” used in Shakespearean and contemporary theatre, rather any works created in the Epic style would “destroy them.”[xiii]


Artaud – On The Other Hand…

While Brecht opposed certain conventions of the traditional theatre, Artaud called for a complete transformation of common theatrical practice in a more radical opposition to convention.


Theatre will never be itself again, that is to say it will never be able to form truly illusive means, unless it provides the audience with truthful distillations of dreams where its taste for crime … erotic obsessions … savageness … fantasies … utopian sense of life … even its cannibalism, do not gush out on an illusory, make-believe, but on an inner level.[xiv]


For Artaud the conventional theatre was too engrossed in imitation, dialogue was relied on too much and this needed to change for the theatre to continue.

The first manifesto for the Theatre of Cruelty, motioned for all previous conventions of the theatre, being lighting, costume, stage, auditorium etc, to be revised as to their need and, where possible, be removed.  By abolishing these ‘norms’ Artaud could rebuild the theatre as a Theatre of Cruelty.  The term cruelty refers to ‘a hunger after life, a cosmic strictness, the relentless necessity of pain in life’.  For Artaud, “everything that acts is cruelty.  Theatre must rebuild itself on a concept of this drastic action pushed to its limit.[xv]

Artaud was inspired by Oriental theatre, particularly the Balinese theatre.  The design of the sets (masks hung on walls) and the way the actors would use the physical resources on the stage around them left no theatrical possibility unturned – utilising music, props, movement and gesture to full capacities.  Artaud felt that the Western theatre needed to adopt these abilities.

Philosopher and structuralist Friedrich Nietzsche considered language to be a key player in a ‘continual process of human self-deception’[xvi] and Artaud shared this same scepticism towards language.  What Artaud detested most about Western theatre was the use of dialogue and asked why the West could not conceive a theatre that did not rely on dialogue alone.  Dialogue, for Artaud, was “something written and spoken – [that] does not specifically belong to the stage but to books.[xvii] Nietzsche believed that words are only useful in so much as that they simplify or ‘freeze’ the chaotic and complex surroundings of human society, but that that was all they could do.  The use of dialogue in theatre was, to Artaud, simply a method of expressing ‘psychological conflicts’ on stage and therefore a tool in creating the ‘theatre of illusion’ in the Aristotelian concept.

It was the Eastern influences and his personal opinions that led Artaud to develop a style of performance that would depend more on atmosphere, gesture and space over dialogue.  He wanted to remove the need of a playwright[xviii] and create a language based on signs not words, a ‘physical language’ that stimulated and appealed to the senses thus liberating the cruelty aspect of his theatre.

Above all else Artaud felt that “the role of the theatre must be to shake us out of complacency and our delusion of security.[xix] To achieve this Artaud believed in inverting the conventional semiotics of theatre – this opposed both language and ‘illusionary’ meaning.  By inverting a recognised convention the meaning is either removed or altered, he exemplifies:

We all agree a beautiful woman has a pleasing voice.  Yet if when the world began we heard all women call us by snorting … and greet us by trumpeting, we would ever have associated the idea of trumpeting with the idea of a beautiful woman…[xx]

This manner of inverting sign systems and meanings is often referred to as ‘deconstruction’, a term derived from the work of poststructuralist Jacques Derrida. Derrida primarily does not work within the theatrical field, but he has written a number of essays regarding the theatre, most notably Artaud’s theories, so ultimately what we are interested in is his terminology and deconstructive effect on language and semiotics particularly in the postmodern theatre. And it is here that we will pick up on in our next article.


[i] Brecht B Brecht on Theatre (trans John Willett)  Ch.19 p.66

[ii] Artaud A “Theatre and Cruelty” in The Theatre and its Double p.64

[iii] Brecht B Brecht on Theatre (trans. John Willett) Ch.23 p.87

[iv] Aristotle Poetics Intro (by Malcolm Heath) p.xxii

[v] ibid p.24

[vi] Artaud A “No More Masterpieces” in The Theatre and its Double p.55

[vii] Brecht B Brecht on Theatre (trans. John Willett) Ch.24 p.92-93

[viii] Artaud A “The Theatre of Cruelty – First Manifesto” in The Theatre and its Double p.74

[ix] Brecht B Brecht on Theatre (trans. John Willett) Ch.31 p.136

[x] Artaud A “The Theatre of Cruelty – First Manifesto” in The Theatre and its Double p.68

[xi] Brecht B Brecht on Theatre (trans. John Willett) Ch.21 p.79

[xii] Wright E Postmodern Brecht Ch.2 p.24

[xiii] Brecht B Brecht on Theatre (trans. John Willett) Ch.7 p.20

[xiv] Artaud A “The Theatre of Cruelty – First Manifesto” in The Theatre and its Double p.70

[xv] ibid “Theatre and Cruelty” p.65

[xvii] Artaud A “Production and Metaphysics” in The Theatre and its Double p.27

[xviii] ibid “Production and Metaphysics” p.42

[xix] ibid “Postface (by John Calder)” p.104

[xx] ibid “Production and Metaphysics” p.31

Also published on Medium.

Leave A Comment