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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Modern Theatre: The Rise of the DirectorBertolt Brecht

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Brecht is one of the greatest influential theorists, but also one of the most misunderstood. To think that Brecht’s theatre was fun? Well why not? It was imaginative and intelligent, educational, meaningful and different - the word fun doesn’t just relate to escapism and naturalism, but to any type of theatre which engages the audience. Bertolt Brecht first set down his ideas on Epic Theatre in the 10’s. Current events, his own upbringing and circumstance helped shape Brecht’s personal philosophy and his theory for the stage. In the earlier days, his purpose had been primarily political he had intended to “turn a means of enjoyment into a lesson to be taught, and to transform certain situations from places of entertainment into organs of publicity. Epic theatre evolved as a movement against the naturalist ideas of Stanislavski, which were seen by Brecht as very passive and easy to watch, where the real message of the play was usually ignored by the actors and the audience. Brecht’s unique theory of the stage rejected previous theatrical traditions. He created his own style of theatre, which called for an alert, questioning and critical audience. So Brecht developed a range of techniques and devices (which became his distinguishing theatrical features) to intellectually stimulate and politically motivate his audience. A common misunderstanding is that Brecht was more concerned with instruction and education than fun. This is not true. He realised early in his career that audiences still sought out the escapist theatre he had opposed of and as a result was forced to make his theatre entertaining to compete with it. He was, fortunately, a man with an innate understanding of how to entertain and this came through in his plays. He, in fact, believed that entertainment was an undeniable function of the theatre and, like emotion, could never be removed. It must, however, be seen as a requirement, rather than the main objective in an instructional theatre. He never extracted his natural showmanship from his work and indeed the balance between instruction and entertainment became more evident in his work as his career went on.


Brecht defined the word ‘epic’ as “a sequence of events narrated without artificial restrictions as to time, place, or relevance to a formal plot.” Essentially, epic theatre appeals less to the feelings than to the spectators reason, “Instead if sharing an experience the spectator must come to grips with things.” Brecht was well aware of the problems in his society (political, social, and economical) and motivated by them, Brecht invented his theatrical features to allow audiences to view real life and real issues. His features included the use of a narrator, a detached acting style, symbolic sets with minimal props and costumes, signs and slogans, songs and exposed lighting. His theatre was based on fact not fantasy. A dialectical structure with a narrative punctuated by commentary in which song, dance, and projected films, stills or photos could alternate with speech. Brecht structured his plays around the term epic which he saw as a narrative not to be tied in to time. In epic theatre human thinking is conditioned by their social situation and will change if that changes. The idea was to make the audience aware of this serious issue and persuade them to try and prevent it. During Brecht’s experimenting with theatre, two different ideas were explored, “In my view these experiments were pursued along two lines which occasionally intersected but can none the less be followed separately. They are defined by the two functions of entertainment and instruction that is to say that the theatre organised experiments to increase its ability to amuse, and others which were intended to raise its value as education.”


Brecht called his theatre presentational theatre because it aims to present ideas. The interruption of action is one of the principal concerns in epic theatre. “Let us treat the theatre as a place of entertainment, as trues aesthetics should, and let us find out what sort of entertainment appeals to us.”


Epic theatre relies on the audience constantly being aware that they are watching a performance. To achieve this, Brecht used one of his most distinguishing theatrical features, alienation. He used the Verfremdungseffect, a term used to describe the theatrical effect by which the familiar is made to appear strange. The aim is that instead of responding emotionally to a performance, the audience members will engage their minds with the subject being presented, “I’m forced here simply to state our belief that we can encourage artistic understanding on the basis of alienation.”


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The message was the most important element of the play and Brecht wanted his audience to walk away after the performance having learnt something about the world, and really thing about and analyse the performance they have just seen. Brecht intended to his show his audience the faults within society, and then persuade them to go out and change it, “Nothing is irrelevant to society and it’s affairs.” The audience was to be like a group of observers watching the events of the performance in a completely detached and logical way. His plays moved in a series of detached scenes, sometimes skipping years and time moving from place to place. This technique, along with Brecht’s acting style, disengaged the audience from the performance, thus preventing the audience to feel empathy for the characters. The dialectical sense runs through Brecht’s theatre the actor who impersonates the character, yet remains them self; the stage which represents reality, yet remains a stage; the characters who are themselves, yet can be something else.


In Brechtian theatre the actors were not to become involved with their characters. The are simply there to demonstrate the words and actions of his/her character. Brecht described this feature using a car accident, “Even the experience of the driver and the victim is only partially communicated by him (the actor), and by no means tries to turn it into an enjoyable experience for the spectator, however life like he may make his demonstration.” Brecht described the actor’s role as being like an ‘eyewitness’ at an accident. At no time should the actor, or his audiences, identify with the character. Emotionally everything must be externalised. Brecht would terminate a scene before it’s climax; at appropriate intervals slides could be projected bearing a message, which served to underline the point of the scene.


One of the most important features was Brecht’s use of a narrator. He used the narrator to comment on the action, emphasise the main ideas of a scene so that spectators cannot fail to miss them, and to reveal the plot so an audience could spend it’s time concentrating on meaning rather than what was to happen next. The epic-device of a narrator who is involved in the action, but who stands apart from the rest by addressing the audience directly, destroys the cosy illusion of naturalistic realism. Brecht also achieved this through historification. He set the current subject matter in the past, removing an illusion from the stage. Film and slides were used in conjunction with or without the narrator to again re-emphasise ideas or plots.


Brecht incorporated other important features to blend in with the disjointed acting style and presentation. One of these features was the use of song, which enabled actors to remind the audience that they are demonstrating not acting. Brecht removed all curiosity by using titles to inform the spectator of the events to come. Brecht decided to make an episode dramatically complete in itself. So the suspense of ‘what’s going to happen next?’ is gone, “In the Threepenny Opera the educative elements were so to speak built in they were not an organic consequence of the whole, but stood in contradiction to it; they broke up the flow of the play and it’s incidents, they prevented empathy, they acted as a cold douche for those whose sympathies were becoming involved. I hope that the moralising parts of The Threepenny Opera and the educative songs are reasonably entertaining, but it is certain that the entertainment in question is different from what one gets from the more orthodox scenes. The play has a double nature. Instruction and entertainment conflict openly.” The use of titles allows the details and implications of the scene to be seen hand to be more carefully perceived. The simplistic, stylised sets were also used to alienate the audience. Scenery is changed in full view of the audience, reminding the public that it is being staged. Brecht wanted the audience to be constantly aware that they were sitting in a theatre, so he used exposed lighting. The use of harsh white light made the actors on stage look unreal and unnatural. Brecht wanted his spectators to realise that they were in a theatre and at times it was an uncomfortable place to be. The audience could not relate to this, thus creating another form of alienation.


Brecht’s main concerns were classism and power, injustice and inequality. Classism and power is used to show the different groups of people within a society, which cause a minority higher group who control and effect the lives of the majority lower group. He based his theatrical productions by his personal feelings. Brecht’s productions satirised, questioned and criticised the prejudiced political/social structure of the day and the decay of human and social values. Brecht intensely felt the inequalities of society where those of a higher class were able to use their power to pursue injustice of the lower class. “Enjoyment of learning depends of the class situation. Artistic appreciation depends on ones political attitude, which can accordingly be stimulated and adopted. But even if we restrict ourselves to the section of the audience which agreed politically we see the sharpening of the conflict between ability to entertain and educative value. The more we induced the audience to identify its own experience and feelings with the production, the less it learned; and the more there was to learn, the less the artistic enjoyment.” Brecht wanted to bring about social change through the medium of theatre, to challenge people’s thinking; arouse their anger so they might improve their world. Each character in The Caucasian Chalk Circle only had one costume, but her the emphasis is always from the minimalistic and is even over the top for the rich/wealthy characters in the play. Thus Brecht has created his own distinguishing theatrical features to emphasise his points. As Brecht once said, “You feel great, but how’s the world?”


Brecht Ronald Gray


The Threepenny Opera, with it’s mixture of wit, facetious clowning, brash popular numbers, occasional sharp prickings of the audience’s conscience, and ultimate vagueness and irresponsibility, to this downright propagation of an ideal. Pg 11


Brecht’s view of the function of theatre had changed. It was no longer to be directly political, but rather, as he wrote in the Little Organon of 148, a place which the worker might “enjoy his terrible and never-ending labours as entertainment together with the terrors of his ceaseless transformation.” Pg 15


The difficulties have arisen, as will be seen, from the contradictory theories expressed by Brecht at different periods of his life like his plays, his theory changed considerably in exile.


In the earlier days, his purpose had been primarily political he had intended to “turn a means of enjoyment into a lesson to be taught, and to transform certain situations from places of entertainment into organs of publicity. Pg 70


The theatre was to be neither moralising or didactic; it was merely to detach itself from the classical models that had suited former ages, and produce entertainment adapted to our own age. In other words, it was to be a theatre scientific in mood. At this point, Brecht ran into a certain amount of self contradiction. Pg 71


Picasso has explained his own policy in art in terms closely similar to Brecht’s. “My Landscapes,” he writes, “are exactly like my nudes and my still lifes; but with faces people see the nose is crooked, whereas nothing shocks them about a bridge. But I drew this ‘crooked nose’ on purpose. I did what was necessary to force people to see a nose. Later on they saw - or they will see - that the nose isn’t crooked at all. What I had to do was to stop them from going on seeing only ‘beautiful harmonies’ or ‘exquisite colour’.


To Brecht and Beyond


By the end of the 10’s, Brecht had in his lyrics and dramas, as well as in his theoretical writing, recognised that his own work was also pleasurable - if pleasure were no longer opposed to learning.


The time has come to give art, by a pitiless method, the precision of the natural sciences. But the principal difficulty for me is still the style, the indefinable Beauty resulting from the conception itself.


(Flaubert, Correspondence) pg 11


Brecht called the greatest art - the art of living.





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