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from Brecht on Theater


[Early on, after having seen a Chinese actor perform after dinner]

One has to apply the only form of acting that I find natural: the epic, storytelling kind. It's the kind the Chinese have been using for thousands of years... The actor doesn't have to be the man he portrays. He has to describe his character just as it would be described in a book...

Above all, the Chinese artist never acts as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surounding him. He expresses his awareness of being watched. This immediately removes one of the European stage's characteristic illusions. The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen specator at an event which is really taking place.

A whole elaborate European stage technique, which helps to conceal the fact that the scenes are so arranged that the audience can view them in the easiest way, is thereby made uinnnecessary. The actors openly choose those positions which will best show them off to the audience, just as if they were acrobats.

A further means is that the artist observes himself. Thus, if he is representing a cloud, perhaps, showing its unexpected appearance, its soft and strong growth, its rapid yet gradual transformation, he will occasionally look at the audience as if to say: isn't it just like that? At the same time he also observes his own arms and legs, adducing them, testing them, and perhaps finally approving them. An obvious glance to the floor, so as to judge the space available to him for his act does not strike him as liable to break the illusion. In this way the artist separates mime (showing observation) from gesture (showing a cloud) but without detracting from the latter, since the body's attitude is reflected in the face and is wholly responsible for its expression. At one moment the expression is of well-managed restraint; at another, of utter triumph. The artist has been using his countenance as a blank sheet to be inscribed by the gest of the body.


Brecht and Charles Laughton translated Brecht's Gallileo from the German, as a vehicle for Laughton. [more on this]

The awkward circumstance that one translator knew no German and the other scarcely any English compelled us, as can be seen, from the outset, to use acting as our means of translation... In a most striking and occasionally brutal way Laughton showed his lack of interest in the 'book' to an extent the author could not always share. What we were making was just a text; the performance was all that counted. Impossible to lure him to translate passages which the author was willing to cut for the proposed performance but wanted to keep in the book. The theatrical occasion was what mattered, the text was only there to make it possible; it would be expended in the production, would go off like gunpowder in a firework.

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The actor appears on the stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Gallileo; the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Gallileo whom he is showing; from which this way of acting gets its name of "epic." Laughton is actually there, standing on the stage and showing us what he imagines Gallileo to have been.


[from letter to an actor, written late in life]

We have to combat certain mannerisms that have developed on our stage. For instance, that so-called temperament which is mechanically switched on, quite independent of the meaning of any scene, as soon as the curtain goes up-- representing an attempt on the actor's part, which has usually by now become unconscious, to excite the audience by means of his own excitement. It is mostly worked off in artificial or unnecessarily noisy declamation, blanketing the emotions of the personage with the emotions of the actor.

There is little chance of hearing any genuine human voice, and one gets the impression that life must be exactly like theater, instead of the theater being just like life. Such purely external temperament is needed neither to interest the audience nor to sway it.

Then there is so-called stage diction, which has ossified into a mere empty form. Far from helping intelligibility, over-articulated speech hampers it. And high German only comes to life when penetrated by popular dialect.

Actors must always watch out to keep language close to everyday life; they must never cease to "look at the people's mouth." Only so can they speak verse truly as verse or deliver heightened prose without destroying the charecter and situation.

For instance, the description of virtuosity. Art of course cannot survive without artistry, and it becomes important to describe "how it's done." Especially when the arts have undergone a decade and a half of barbarism, as they have here. [i.e. Nazi Germany] But it should not for a moment be thought that this is something to be coldbloodedly practiced and learned. Not even speech training, which is something that the bulk of actors badly need, can be done coldbloodedly, in a mechanical way.

Thus the actor must be able to speak clearly, and this is not just a matter of vowels and consonants but also (and primarily) a matter of the meaning.

Unless he learnes at the same time how to bring out the meaning of his lines he will simply be articulating like a machine, and destroying the sense with his "beautiful speaking voice."

And within clarity there are all kinds of degrees and distinctions. Different socal classes have different kinds of clarity A peasant may speak clearly in comparison with second peasant, but his clarity will not be the same as that of engineer. this means that actors learning to speak must always take care to see that their voice is pliant and flexible. they must never lose sight of the way people really talk.

There is also the problem of dialect. Here again technique needs to be linked up with more general considerations. Our theatrical language is based on High German, but over the years it has grown very mannered and stilted, and has developed into quitet a special sort of high German which is no longer so flexible as High German everyday speech. There is nothing against the use of "heightened" language on the stage, that is to say against the theater's evolving its own stage language, but it most always be lively, varied, and capable of further evolution.The people speaks dialect. Dialect is the medium of its most intimate expression. How can our actors portray the people and address it unless they go back to their own dialect and allow its inflections to permeate the High German of the stage?

Another example. The actor must learn how to economize his voice; he must not grow hoarse. But he must also be able to portray a man seized by passion speaking or shouting hoarsely. So his exercises have to contain an element of acting. We shall get empty, superficial, formalistic, mechanical acting if in our technical training we forget for a moment that it is the actor's duty to portray living people.

This brings me to your question whether acting is not turned into something purely technical and more or less inhuman by my insistance that the actor oughtn't to be completely transformed into the charecter played, but should, as it were, stand alongside it, criticizing and approving. In my view this is not the case. Such an impression must be due to my way of writing, which takes too much for granted.

To hell with my way of writing.

The stage must be peopled by live, three-dimensional self-contradictor people, with all their passions, unconsidered utterances, and actions. The actor has to be able to create such people.