In things, people, and events there is something that makes them the way they are, and at the same time, there is something that makes them other.” This is how Brecht formulates his principle of hope connected with the conviction that life is inseparable from becoming, and that its recognition does not amount to affirmation but to change. It is this dialectic accent that lies at the base of the epic theater, founded upon the “alienation effect” and the critical revision of the Aristotelean notion of mimesis. The goal of art is not just to depict things, people, and events themselves, but also to reveal this something that makes them other than themselves. If one understands mimesis as the imitation of what exists, then art is not mimetic. The only thing that is mimetic is the death mask, taken from the dead artist’s frozen face. Art, on the other hand, and dramatic art in particular, are historical and dialectical. It is only mimetic in the facial expressions and gestures of the actor, which amount to what Brecht called the “social gestus,” the dynamic expression of social relationships that exist within a definite historical epoch.

In other words, art needs to represent our capacity to become other, as well as those mechanisms that rob us of this capacity. The goal of the theater is “to show the world in a way that would evoke the desire to change it.” This is where the main point of the Brechtian theatrical project can be found: to dramatize Marx’ social critique, to bring the figures of his political economy onto the stage, but, most importantly, to transform the auditorium into the kind of open, scenic space in which these figure might not only be disavowed, but might begin to function in a way that differs from and presents an alternative to the existing order of things. Brechtian scenography is one of the most interesting (but certainly not the most radical) theatrical experiments of the leftist avant-garde, combining dramaturgical innovation, technical novelty, and an active social position. Moreover, its potential has not yet been exhausted, because it attempted to build a new politico-economic model. In this model, consumption would consist in participating in production, (the opposition of consumption/production would be sublated and rendered void), and labor would be inseparable from reflection, geared toward overcoming the alienating effects of labor and the appropriation of its products.

It is obvious that the conception of the “alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffect) consists in affirming the necessity for an analytical (which, to Brecht, is synonymous for a critical) distance from the artistic material as well as in relation to social reality. This conception was put forth by Brecht himself. But there is another aspect that is far more interesting. The “alienation effect” is related to the techniques of acting as much as it is related to everyday life. In fact, it is hardly a specific aesthetic notion at all. Its defamiliarizing pathos is not only transgressive with regard to the illusory (but no less enduring) fourth wall that divides the stage from the audience (thus embodying the bourgeois ideal of a private life guarded by a rule of secrecy), but also with regard to the border that separates art’s arbitrary, conventional nature from the unconventional, seeming natural quality of life as lived. The habitual nature of everyday thinking consists in perceiving the familiar and the repetitive as something natural, determined by nature itself, and not by the dominant socio-economic system. The system’s stability does not only consist in the fact that we grow accustomed to what is already known, but that we stop noticing the familiar altogether. It is as if our consciousness were sliding along wearing the kind of felt slippers one wears in a museum, leaving no traces on the ice of the familiar, not even stopping to think about things like the structure of ice-crystals or the chemical composition of water.

The alienation of familiar things is necessary as an obstacle; when we encounter it, we begin to look around in surprise. Now our consciousness experiences friction. It no longer slips across the surface of things, but simultaneously allows us to become aware of their texture and to change them. According to Brecht, the “alienation effect” consists in transforming a thing that needs to be brought to consciousness, a thing that requires attention. This thing needs to stop being something that is familiar, well-known, and right in front of us, and has to become something special, striking, and unexpected. For the familiar to be known, it needs to step beyond the bounds of the imperceptible. The alienation effect exposes rituals that interfuse the sphere of social communication, which, on the grounds of their pulsating repetition, have bled into a certain anthropological horizon of obviousness, thus forming an inexhaustible resource for the naturalness and legitimacy of the social order at hand.

This politico-economic perspective of the Brechtian theater, connected to the construction of a new scene of production and social interaction, allows us to see more in the polemic with Stanislavsky that an inner-theatrical discussion with the innovations of the preceding generation, which had gained a dominant position, and not only in the country of victorious. In his criticism of the Stanislavsky method, which had been reduced for assembly-line reproduction through his followers, Brecht targets the aspect that makes it a functional and structural analogy to the political economy of developed commodity capital. Brecht sees Stanislavsky’s theater, which is based on the magic of impersonation, as a machine that produces phantasms, thus satiating the human desire to identify with social images supplied by an uncritical reading of the cultural legacy. In the process of impersonation, the actor “turns off his own consciousness and replaces it with the consciousness” of the character. Thanks to the actor’s mastery, the same operation then takes place in the spectator’s mind as well. As a result, everything bleeds together into a certain collective hallucination. This hallucination eliminates the very possibility of any reflexive position that might target both social relations – which leave their imprint on the piece that plays out on stage – as well as the relations that determine the consciousness of the spectator himself. The figure of the actor who strives to reach complete impersonation represents the abstract figure of capital, whose ideal plasticity and fluidity allows it to impersonate any commodity form. The work of a theatrical system like this one reproduces the fetishized labor of capital, which engenders the illusion of the commodity form and forces us to see things through the exigencies that it imposes.

In this sense, the theater of Stanislavsky becomes a social institution that takes over the function of religion, whose goal, in Brecht’s opinion, is to “school the believer in passivity.” Countering Stanislavsky, Brecht develops a procedure of working with the audience that is outwardly related, but that is essentially its opposite. Louis Althusser conceptualizes this as a procedure of interpellation – an introjective framing of the willingness to submit to the structure of the scene at which subjectivity is gained. Only in the case of Brecht, as described by Althusser, the policeman’s challenge “Hey, you!” becomes a gesture through which the actor (not the character) addresses the spectator directly and immediately, thus generating a certain act of positive subjectification. The spectator is intended to cease being a consumer of the product that the work of the theater generates, becoming involved in their production. The goal is to replace the consumerist identification with characters by convincing the spectator of the necessity of his own critical work in examining his own position with regard to the social conditions, to make him responsible for the character’s behavior and for his own.

Brecht calls for a rejection of the false, hypnotic identification that the technique of dramatic impersonation will engender. Impersonation is an extreme case of capitalist production. In the productive process, the worker loses his own subjectivity and is completely equated to the work he is executing, disappearing in it without leaving even the slightest imprint or mark on the resulting product. Much in the same manner, Stanislavsky’s ideal actor is meant to disappear into the character he is representing; his operative talent consists in the ability to achieve complete desubjectification.  In contrast, Brecht’s ideal actor is a worker who is not only capable of labor, but also of reflecting upon his labor, and what’s more, of demonstrating this reflection in order to spark this work of reflection in others still caught in the passive state of pure consumption. “The actor must accompany everything he has to show with the clear gestus of showing.” In this way, Brecht attempts to elude the alienating logic of commodity production. Unlike a worker who is involved in this type of production, the labor of the Brechtian actor does not negate the actor himself; the actor does not dissolve in the abstraction of labor itself, nor is he cancelled out by the product’s objectivity. The principle of alienation that Brecht developed proves to be a mechanism that allows the construction of a politico-economic alternative to the alienating logic of capital. The Verfremdungseffekt produces a space that blocks the appearance of Entfremdung. Brecht uses the energy of the negation constituent to alienation to construct a positive result. As Brecht writes: “Alienation as understanding is the negation of negation.” In other words, alienation is the negation of alienation. If “unceasing historical development alienates us from the actions of people who lived before us”, then the alienation effect, a product of work done by the actor and the director, is called upon to objectify this historical movement and its underlying socio-economic logic. Brecht’s scenography exposes the product (the scenic image that the actor’s performance embodies), labor (the performance itself), and the worker (the actor), rendering all three visible. The point of the Brechtian theater is to bring onstage this dialectic, which vibrates like steel under tension. According to its logic, the seed does not have to die first in order to bear fruit.


Ilya Kalinin (born 1975), philologist, historian of culture, critic. Lives in Moscow and Petersburg.