Brecht, the "Fable," and the Teaching of Directing

Craig Kinzer
"Once in a generation the world discovers a new way of telling a story: this
generation's pathfinder is Brecht." – Kenneth Tynan
In the study of stage directing the examples of great directors of the past can provide the
student with a variety of directorial techniques and a sense of the cultural and historical
context of past production practices. The value of this study, however, is not in its
capacity to teach students to replicate those practices or to recreate specific production
style. Rather, it can help students develop a personal process, adaptable to a variety of
texts and production situations. In examining past masters, the guiding question must be:
How can we adapt without merely imitating; learn a sensibility as well as technique; take
the living, breathing process of an artist and mold it to our own needs? How can a student
director best absorb the working style of a master, acquiring the strengths of a time-tested
process, and maintaining the freedom to use those skills in the development of a personal
directorial style?
Bertolt Brecht stands as perhaps the most significant director and dramatist in
twentieth century theatre, "whose plays and new techniques of staging and acting have
provided a personal instrument attuned to the peculiar temper of our time." In addition to
a body of dramatic literature clearly ranking among history's finest, Brecht's legacy
includes productions which astounded audiences in his home base of East Berlin as well
as London and Paris. Early critics lauded his productions of Mother Courage and Galileo
as signifying a breakthrough in modern dramatic technique. Carl Weber remembers the
impact of seeing the 1949 Mother Courage production:
It was the first time I had ever seen people on the stage behave like real human
beings; there was not a trace of "acting" in that performance, though the technical
brilliance and perfection of every moment was stunning. The economy of the set,
of every prop used, was absolutely overwhelming to one who had seen until then
only run-of-the-mill-and sometimes the best German Theatre. And it was
astonishing how the idea of the play was brought across, without pushing, without
hammering into the
audience.
Surely these are laudable qualities every student of directing should strive to achieve
in his/her work. But what processual elements in Brecht's work were the source of these
strengths?
Brecht's position in the academic theater is problematic, marred by the overabundance of the playwright's own critical theory which has colored our perception of his
actual working process. Like the works of Stanislavski, much of what we know and try to
teach about Brecht comes to us through his own admittedly polemical writings about the
theater, translated into English selectively, sometimes not in chronological order, and
without the context of the actual productions to illuminate them. Brecht's theories are

the fable is intended to reflect the essential action of a play as the director (or production itself) intends it to be perceived by the audience.conveying overall attitudes adopted by the speaker towards other men. but we often fail to view the body of critical writing left to us as reflective of an evolutionary process. his actors and the story he wanted to tell. capturing the director's attitude towards the text. in a clearly defined gestus. then. Even the much vaunted and equally misunderstood term Verfremdungseffekt (untranslatable and largely misleading to postAbsurdist theater students [often: the “alienation effect]) was modified and then virtually ignored by Brecht himself during this late period. and acknowledged the composition and historical position of his audience. to be thorough and historically fair. the gest indicates the central thrust or essence of the play. be approached with caution and. An example of a fable can be found in A Short Organum for the Theatre. attitude or point. He describes a possible production of Hamlet: It is an age of warriors. While the latter's son Fortinbras is arming for a fresh war the Danish King is likewise slain: by his own brother. relying as we do on the polemical writings of his early period (largely abandoned by Brecht in the Ensemble days at the end of his career). as it were. Brecht's preferred term designating a play's plot as it is retold on stage from a specific point of view.. developed as the paradigm of "theater for the scientific age." was also abandoned by Brecht in favor of the term "dialectic theater. The Fable According to Carl Weber. slew the king of Norway in a successful war of spoliation. As with many terms in Brecht's dramatic theories. the “fable” was. actors and dramaturgs. Brecht himself was the ultimate circumstantialist. It indicates not only what happens but a sense of how and why it happens.. in the context of the work itself. of course. The "fable" informed all aspects of his theatrical style. Brecht's seminal statement about the art of the theater written shortly before embarking upon his triumphant leadership of the new Berliner Ensemble. capable of adjusting his process to suit the needs of his audience.2 examined in the classroom in order to illustrate what we believe to be "Brechtian" practice. steps along the road in the artist's development. More than a simple plot summary. Hamlet's father. The notion of an epic theater. one of Brecht's assistants at the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s. studied singly. Out of the numerous possible readings or interpretations of a text one is decided upon and will guide the execution of the production. The Kinzer/Brecht .” Brecht defines the term as a distillation “of overall attitudes . Moreover. “gestus” is difficult to translate into English. This essential fact of Brecht the director has often been lost on students of his drama. In searching for a valuable processual key to Brecht's work. “one aspect of the relation between two people. the "fable" emerges as a key directorial device. It can be rendered variously as gist or gesture." Theory must. king of Denmark.” In the context of the fable. affected work with designers. The fable is an attempt to both capture and reflect that reading in a compact and distilled form. cut to essentials and physically or verbally expressed.

Moreover. But at this point the young Hamlet is summoned by his warrior father's ghost to avenge the crime committed against him. a surrounding cast of fit and brawny Danes. The Berliner Ensemble's production "style. …By giving Brecht a clear central architecture. his mother and himself. The salient features of a Brechtian fable are here. Faced with irrational practices. now themselves kings. the aftermath of World War II. and on its structure the more specific detailed choices of all aspects of the performance can be built. In a further note to this fable. as well as the director. He falls a tragic victim to the discrepancy between such reason and such action. leaving Denmark to the Norwegians. crystallized vision of the intended production reflects the central architecture of the text. making the most ineffective use of the new approach to Reason which he has picked up at the university of Wittenberg. a somewhat effete and ineffectual Hamlet. bewildered by the inefficacy of his intellectual training. and in a piece of barbaric butchery slaughters his uncle. Overcome by this warrior-like example. This short. already somewhat stout. seven-sentence paragraph highlights the essential moments of significant action from this particular director's point of view. warlike." much replicated and studied. he turns back. The fable describes a production which would address the audience's memories of their recent past and the failure of rational discourse to stop the horrors of world war. Kinzer/Brecht . his reason is utterly unpractical.3 slain kings' brothers. A clear. littered with the signs of the preparations for war and conquest. Of the countless possibilities available for Hamlet and its central dramatic line. It served as guidepost for the myriad choices made in the production process by designers. How the fable was generated is at the heart of Brecht's process as a director. actors. the production this fable reflects grows out of a particular time and place. composers. Brecht has developed a particular reading of the play and captures it in the fable. The brevity and vividness of this fable is the source of its strength and usefulness to the director. Brecht points to the central thrust and impact he wishes his Hamlet to have: These events show the young man. was in truth a result of Brecht and his designers choosing only those visual elements which were essential to communicating the fable's basic gest to the audience. and even preparing to go into exile. in this case. contrasted with Hamlet's own vacillation and reserve. In the feudal business to which he returns it simply hampers him. After at first being reluctant to answer one bloody deed by another. One can imagine the details of production which would reflect the point of view the fable implies: a harsh and gray world. he meets young Fortinbras at the coast as he is marching with his troops to Poland. avert war by arranging that the Norwegian troops shall cross Danish soil to launch a predatory war against Poland. brutal and quick to action. the fable allowed him the freedom to experiment with options for the delivery of the fable's essential gest.