a note on bertold brecht’s ‘alienation effect’

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

a note on bertold brecht’s ‘alienation effect’

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