before introducing the new concept of deconstructive détournement, i should introduce brecht’s term, alienation effect, sometimes written this way – A-Effect.
In Brecht’s on words:
In the Chinese theatre the “alienation effect” is achieved in the following way. The Chinese performer does not act as if, in addition to the three walls around him there were also a fourth wall. He makes it clear that he knows he is being looked at. Thus, one of the illusions of the European stage is set aside. The audience forfeits the illusion of being unseen spectators at an event which is really taking place. The European stage has worked out an elaborate technique by which the fact that scenes are so arranged as to be easily seen by the audience is concealed. The Chinese approach renders this technique superfluous. As openly as acrobats the actors can choose those positions which show them off to best advantage.
Another expedient is this: the actor looks at himself. Presenting, let us say, a cloud, its unsuspected appearance, its gentle yet strong development, its speedy yet gradual transformation; from time to time he looks at the spectator as if to say: Isn’t it just like that? But he also looks at his own arms and legs, guiding them, examining them, in the end, perhaps praising them. If he glances at the floor or measures the space available for his act, he sees nothing in this procedure that could disturb the illusion. In this way the performer separates mimicry (presenting the act of observation) from gesture (presenting the cloud) but the latter loses nothing thereby, for the attitude of the body reacts back upon the face, gives to the face, as it were, its own expression. An expression now of complete reservation, now of utter triumph. The performer has used his face as an empty sheet of paper that can be written on by bodily movement.
The performer wishes to appear alien to the spectator. Alien to the point of arousing surprise. This he manages by seeing himself and his performance as alien. In this way the things he does on the stage become astonishing. By this craft everyday things are removed from the realm of the self-evident. A young woman, a fisherman’s daughter, is shown on the stage, rowing a boat. She stands up and steers the (non-existent) boat with a little oar that hardly comes down to her knees. The current runs faster. Now it is harder for her to keep her balance. Now she is in a bay and rows more quietly. Well, that’s the way to row a boat. But this voyage has an historic quality, as if it had been sung in many songs, a most unusual voyage, known to everyone. Each of this famous girl’s movements has been preserved in pictures. Every bend in the river was an adventure that one knows about. The bend she is now approaching is well-known. This feeling in the spectator is called forth by the performer’s attitude. It is she who confers fame on the voyage…
To look at himself is for the performer an artful and artistic act of self-estrangement. Any empathy on the spectator’s part is thereby prevented from becoming total, that is, from being a complete self-surrender. An admirable distance from the events portrayed is achieved. This is not to say that the spectator experiences no empathy whatsoever. He feels his way into the actor as into an observer. In this manner an observing, watching attitude is cultivated.
Berthold Brecht, On Chinese Acting, 1957, translated by Eric Bentley