Brecht Bytes #4

Since my feedback has been centered on paying attention to the specificity of expression within your characters’ testimony — switches amongst verb tenses, the distinction of different kinds of punctuation marks, the colloquial turns of phrase that marks region and culture, and the vagaries of individual word choice — I found a Brecht poem that speaks to why honoring the everyday language is a matter of ethics and politics as well as a means of developing characterization in documentary theater.

I offer this poem with full awareness that the Laramie interviewees aren’t offered to us without alteration; Tectonic has put their stamp on their informants. Brecht is also idealizing (a bit) the “theater of daily life whose setting is the street” as a way to draw a distinction between the kind of wholly immersive acting where the audience interprets actor and character as one person and the kind of demonstration/performance that is essential to the political purpose of distantiation. The actor who stands alongside his character is someone the audience can address, interrogate just as they would a man on the street. Such freedom to question both the actor and the role gives way to questioning the entire scenario presented. Why are things they way they are? Not because of fate but because of action and choice, entirely human and alterable things.

I hope this little reminder of Brecht might help as you work on treating those props and costumes as tools for transformation that allows you to give full presence to your characters’ words but just as easily allows you to drop that piece and move on to the next demonstration.

The entire poem is over 3 pages long, so I’ve done a few edits here and there.

“On Everyday Theatre”
Written during the “Crisis Years” (1929-1933)
Translator Edith Anderson

You artists who perform plays
In great houses under electric suns
Before the hushed crowd, pay a visit some time
To that theatre whose setting is the street.
The everyday, thousandfold, fameless
But vivid, earthy theatre fed by the daily human contact
Which takes place in the street.
Here the woman from next door imitates the landlord:
Demonstrating his flood of talk she makes it clear
How he tried to turn the conversation
From the burst water pipe. […]
A drunk
Gives us the preacher at his sermon, referring the poor
To the rich pastures of paradise. How useful
Such theatre is though, serious and funny
And how dignified! They do not, like parrot or ape
Imitate just for the sake of imitation, unconcerned
What they imitate, just to show that they
can imitiate; no they
Have a point to put across.

Take that man on the corner: he is showing how
An accident took place. This very moment
He is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd. The
way he
Sat behind the steering wheel, and now
He imitates the man who was run over, apparently
An old man. Of both he gives
Only so much as to make the accident intelligible, and yet
Enough to make you see them.
But he shows neither
As if the accident had been unavoidable. […]
There is no superstition
About this eyewitness, he
Shows mortals as victims not of the stars, but
Only of their errors.

Note also
His earnestness and the accuracy of his imitation. He
Knows that much depends on his exactness: whether the
innocent man
Escapes ruin, whether the injured man
Is compensated. Watch him
Repeat now what he did just before. Hesitantly
Calling on his memory for help, uncertain
Whether his demonstration is good, interrupting himself
And asking someone else to
Correct him on a detail. This
Observe with reverence!
And with surprise
Observe, if you will, one thing: that this imitator
Never loses himself in his imitation. He never entirely
Transforms himself into the man he is imitation. He always
Remains the demonstrator, the one not involved.

Our demonstrator at the street corner
Is no sleepwalker who much not be addressed. He is
No high priest holding divine service. At any moment
You can interrupt him; he will answer you
Quite calmly and when you have spoken with him
Go on with his performance.

But you, do not say: that man
Is not an artist. By setting up such a barrier
Between yourselves and the world, you simply
Expel yourselves from the world. If you thought him
No artist he might think you
Not human, and that
Would be a worse reproach. Say rather:
He is an artist because he his human. We
May do what he does more perfectly and
Be honoured for it, but what we do
Is something universal, human, something hourly
Practiced in the busy street, almost
as much a part of life as eating and breathing.

Thus your playacting
Harks back to practical matters. Our masks, you should say
Are nothing special insofar as they are only masks:
[…] In short
Mask, verse and quotation are common, but uncommon
The grandly conceived mask, the beautifully spoken verse
And apt quotation.

But to make matters clear: even if you improved upon
What the man at the corner did, you would be doing less
Than him if you
Made your theatre less meaningful — with lesser provocation
Less intense in its effect on the audience — and
Less useful.

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