|Model of Design for Brecht's Mother Courage, Bert-Brecht-Haus,Augsburg, Germany (Photo Adam Jones)|
Bertolt Brecht adapted for the theatre the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's 1920s' concept of how literature works by making the familiar strange, defined as ostranenie or estrangement, so that we question what we have once perceived as unchanging, eternal truths. In his 1949 A Short Organum for the Theatre Brecht laid out the techniques needed to create this effect in the theatre, calling it Verfremdungseffekt, the alienation effect. Key was to break the illusion of reality provided by naturalist theatre, so the audience is aware that they are watching actors playing a part. No longer absorbed in emotional empathy for the characters and the need to learn their fate, the audience is then able to engage critically with what they watch.
Brecht called this form of theatre epic, referencing classical epics, where the action is told, rather than shown, and the various episodes are to some degree self-contained, forming a montage (e.g., the various discrete island adventures of Odysseus, told in non-chronological order in Homer's Odyssey), so the audience is not too distracted by a burning desire to know how it will all end.
While naturalism, spearheaded by Konstantin Stanislavski, attempted to create a sense of events unfolding in a linear present, and Antonin Artaud sought an intense, visceral, timeless hyper-present, Brecht wanted to create a sense of calm perspective, of watching events from a detached point of view. For example, by having scene titles on banners on stage, sometimes even descriptions of what is about to happen, these events seem already past, thus puncturing suspense. Therefore, we can think of it as Artaud wanting to reach the audience at a gut level, Stanislavski wanted to engage with our hearts, and Brecht with our heads, or our reason.
Brecht and his wife Helene Wiegel found sanctuary from Nazi Germany in the USA, but then left following Brecht's interrogation by the HUAC over his communist sympathies. Returning to Berlin in 1949, as the Soviet puppet state of the German Democratic Republic came into being, Wiegel and Brecht set up the state-run Berliner Ensemble, which still exists today, although since 1993 it has been privatised. This theatre company has been enormously influential around the world, particularly as it toured extensively during the communist era.