Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brecht's Usage of Alienation Effects in The Good Person of Szechwan

Brecht is known for his use of an alienation effect, devices which break the illusion of realistic theater. Two of these in this play are direct address to the audience and the frequent songs or verse. Write about either or both of these as devices which break the sort-of-realistic frame: what do you make of this device?

SDSU's program.*

In Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan, he employs two specific devices in order to alienate the audience. The first one is having the characters directly address the audience. Almost every character in the play stops to share insight. In one of the later acts, he uses it to have Sun's mother illustrate past events. He uses this technique to make the audience forget that they are seeing a play.

Strawdog Theatre's portrayal when Sun and Shen Teh first meet.*
Reading the play makes it easy to forget that the characters are actually addressing the audience. The effect is that the speaker is providing the reader with privileged information for them alone. I have seen a couple plays that make use of this technique and find that it creates a similar feeling when performed. 

Strawdog Theatre's version of the wedding.*
The device provides a way for the author to share information without bogging down the play. Yes, it breaks the fourth wall, but it also gives insight into the plot. For example, it would be very time consuming to include scenes from the past that only explain quick bits of information, like Sun getting a job in the tobacco factory. I think when the device is used correctly, as in Brecht's play, it can be very insightful without bothering the audience.

Stanford University's version of The Good Person of Szechwan.*
The other form of alienation that Brecht employs is having the characters break into verse or song. I imagine it would be a little like a musical or Moulin Rouge (a much picked on example of characters randomly bursting into song and dance). Unlike the aforementioned technique, I did not enjoy this one. Even while reading, it is hard not to pay attention to the verse. However, when reading, I felt that it kind of cluttered the play.

Wang in Washington University's version of the play.*
The verses do not add much to the play and every time I saw them, I wanted to skip over it. Part of me thought it was a terrible way to try to include the Chinese setting. The Chinese are known for their verse, especially haiku. Instead of sliding it into the play, the inclusion of verse seems far too forced and unnatural. I think if Brecht had tried to stick to a form or tried to include it better, the effect would have worked. 

Junior Deepti Ramakrishnan as Shen Teh
Shen Teh in Washington University's version of The Good Person of Szechwan.*
But, Brecht consciously tried to alienate the audience, so making the verse seem force may have just been a way to emphasize the fact that he wanted the audience to remember they were seeing a play. The unnatural feeling would probably jerk the audience out of the magic of seeing a performance as they try to think over what they heard and its importance to the play. Overall, I didn't mind the characters speaking to the audience as an alienation technique, but found the latter to sufficiently alienate the audience.

* denotes that all pictures were obtained from Google Image Search.

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