The Alienation Effect in Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan”

Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan is a play that opens with Wang, a water boy and his search for the Gods who are visiting Szechwan. The Gods are looking for a place to stay, and in spite of Wang’s assurances that they will be able to find a lodge, no one in Szechwan believes or is willing to host the Gods. Shen Tai, a prostitute, offers to have the Gods stay with her.

The Good Person of Szechwan was written by Brecht in 1943. The play opens with Wang, a water seller who is on a search for Gods who are visiting Szechwan. The Gods are on earth, searching for someone who is ‘good’ in order to restore their faith in humanity. They are looking for a place to stay, and in spite of Wang’s assurances that they will be able to find a lodge, no one in Szechwan believes or is willing to host the Gods. Shen Teh, a prostitute, offers to have the Gods stay with her. In return, the Gods thank her by giving her 1000 silver dollars. Through the setting, characters and narrative structure Brecht employs the use of verfremdungseffekt, translated as the ‘alienation effect’ (Krasner 170).

Brecht borrows from Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky’s concept of ‘Ostranenie’, which is center or making things strange dissimilar (Krasner 170). Ostranenie is centered on defamiliarize and making things seems strange. The alienation effect was not solely focused on a style of acting, but a style of performance itself. Brecht wanted to consider “delineat[ing] the separate components of acting, directing, and set design rather than unifying them” (Krasner 171). Additionally unlike dramatic theatre, Brecht did not aim to make an audience empathize with his characters. In fact, he wanted the audience to actively be aware of the fact that they are watching a play that is staged and not something that is real. Brecht emphasizes that “if empathy makes something ordinary of a special event, alienation [estrangement] makes something special of an ordinary one” (Krasner 170). When examining Shen Teh specifically, her occupation alienates her from the rest of the townspeople. On a fundamental level, she is a singular character, trying to do good. Though her intention to stay true to the morals she believes in does not shift over the course of the play, her interactions with other characters do. After buying a tobacconist shop, several people show up at her store asking her for favours, to which she complies to. The turning point in the character of Shen Teh however is when she adopts the persona of Shui Tai. Throughout the course of the play, Shen Teh and her cousin Shui Tai are seen as distinct characters. Shen Teh is compassionate and even vulnerable as she lets people take advantage of her. Shui Tai on the other hand, comes across as rather unemotional and not easily swayed by the troubles of others.

Aside from singular characters, Brecht’s alienation effect is closely tied with the narrative structure of the play. There is poetry and song intertwined in the narrative that add a degree of complexity and non-linearity to the play. In epic theater and Brecht’s work is “by design disjunctive, deliberately lurching from one scene to another. It is meant to replicate the circus” (Krasner 171). In between every scene or two, Brecht writes an interlude. These interludes are either solely focused on Shen Teh, or on a conversation between Wang and the Gods. The interludes serve as a needed break to re-contextualize the story from the eyes of Shen Teh or the opening character, Wang. The idea though, that these characters are returned to and their characterization is affected by their relationships. In Scene 10, the Gods are seen as acknowledging that Shen Tai is a good person and should stay in Szechwan. However she must deal with the people she made promises to and let down. Though she pleads with them to take her, the Gods simply leave her behind. Ultimately the Gods seem to have caused more problems that found a solution. If not for the reward they gave Shen Teh, she would not have been approached by people wanting to take advantage of her money and shop. In fact, the last stage direction before the epilogue reads that “As Shen Teh stretches desperately towards [the Gods] they disappear upwards, waving and smiling” (Brecht). There is such a sense of disconnect between Shen Teh and the Gods who have had an influence on her life. Shen The herself is alienated in the play. Her ‘goodness’ as a person becomes both an alienatioj reason that allows her interact with other characters in the story, but it is also the reason why the Gods stay and then leave.

  

The Gods:

Now let us go: the search at last is o’er

We have to hurry on!

Then give three cheers, and one cheer more

For the good person of Szechwan!

Works Cited:
Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht: Collected Plays. Ed. John Willett. London: Methuen Drama, 1994. Print.
Krasner, David. Theatre in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Print.
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Beyond the Tutu: Examining Jerome Bel’s ‘Veronique Doisneau’ as Apollonian

Rereading Nietzsche’s work may not always bring one closer to understanding the crux of his thesis. One can easily be swept up by Nietzsche’s beautifully poetic writing, leading a reader astray in trying to understand the crux of his thesis. In his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche explores the idea of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. He claims them to be opposite “artistic energies which burst forth from nature herself, without the mediation of the human artist” (Nietzsche 38). He connects them specifically to the world of dreams and to an intoxicated reality. Apollo was the God of the Sun and Dionysus the God of the forces of intoxication – basically, wine – and God of Dreams. In examining Jerome Bel’s Veronique Doisneau, a one-woman performance, the Dionysian elements of ballet are torn apart. In Bel’s piece there is a need to deconstruct the elements in ballet associated with the Dionysian, in order to create a shift towards the Apollonian.

In the grand Opera National de Paris, Veronique Doisneau, a corps de ballet dancer of the Paris Opera, enters an empty stage. She carries with her a long white skirt and a small bottle of water. Looking out to the audience she says:

“Good evening. My name is Veronique Doisneau. I am married and I have two children, six and twelve years old. I am forty-two and I will retire in eight days. Tonight is my last performance at the Paris Opera.”

Expecting to witness a ballet performance, I remember thinking that it was nice that given this is her last show, she was given the opportunity to talk to the audience and inform them that this would be her last show. When Doisneau placed her water bottle and skirt down onto the floor of the stage to perform a piece she loves, she took her position on stage and began to hum as she moved. This is when it struck me that her presence on stage, her monologue or conversation with the audience, is what the performance is all about. I had imagined a group of ballet dancers dressed immaculately in white tutus, polished shoes and their hair neatly tied in a bun. Ballet resonates of the Dionysian, and yet here was Doisneau speaking to the audience, breathing heavily after dancing and sitting down to drink water. Bel’s piece was trying to break the wall that is often built around ballet. There is this sense of being prim and proper, and a sense of disconnect between the audience and the performer when it comes to ballet. Nietzsche writes that in the Dionysian world it is “in song and in dance [where] man expresses himself as a member of a higher community” (Nietzsche 37). Doisneau even makes reference to the fact that, “in the hierarchy of the Paris Opera Ballet, I am a ‘Subject’”. Within a Greek tragedy, the performer is seen as a demi-god. However this power dynamic is played with in Bel’s piece as Doisneau speaks to the audience, breaking the sense of disparity between the audience and herself as a performer. Spatially, she is seen as separate given that she is on stage, however she finds ways to reach out to the audience verbally as visually. She not only shares the amount of money she makes and the fact that she is a mother with two young children, but she has also stepped onto the stage with no make-up, hair messily tied back, and clothes that would be more befitting for practice sessions instead of a formal performance.

The Apollonian is centered on individuating oneself; being able to step back and engage in self-reflection. Tragedy occurs though when there is a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Nietszche discusses how “Greek tragedy in its earliest form had for its sole theme the sufferings of Dionysus and that for a long time the only stage hero was Dionysus himself” (Nietzsche 73). In Bel’s piece, suffering as a theme is explored with a high level of intricacy. Doisneau speaks of the labour involved in dancing ballet. The audience is provided a sense of this when she performs and her panting is heard. There is a monotonous tone to the way Doisneau speaks and phrases her words. Her monotony by no means indicates she does not love what she does, but it may be seen as a testament to the poise one must maintain in ballet. Doisneau is able to convey through speech and dance the incredible labour of the performer and her pleasure in this masochism of ballet. Even when she is still one can see years of experience running through her body. Doisneau’s performance leans towards the Apollonian as she presents the labourious reality behind ballet. Rather than through storytelling, the breaking of the Dionysian in order to revolve around the Apollonian is seen through the ways she breaks ‘the fourth wall’. At one point for example, poised to begin dancing, she turns her head to request that the volume of the music be raised. This acknowledges the presence of other individuals in the performance, such as the technicians and the audience themselves, rather than resting on the illusion that the performer is sole and everything happens almost magically.

Bel and Doisneau do not intend on criticizing ballet.  They are presenting an Apollonian performance that allows for the ballet as an art form to be explored; to allow performer to talk about themselves and their work, and engage in some way with the audience. The dancer verbally and physically is given their voice. At the end of her performance, Doisneau appears as though she is about to demonstrate another short piece. However, she relaxes her muscles after a while, and appears pensive. She chooses not to dance and instead to stay still. She does not allow the music to dictate when she must dance, but allows individual choice to be a part of what she does on a stage.

Works Cited
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy, and The Case of Wagner. Trans. Walter Kauffman. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.
“Veronique Doisneau 1.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 Apr. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIuWY5PInFs&gt;.

Cardboard boxes + People = Play = Theatre

Towers, tunnels, hidden passages…. all constructed out of cardboard!

Polyglot Theatre brought their piece “We Built This City” to NYUAD and performed it for a couple of weeks in October. They had sessions open to people of all ages to come in and build. During these sessions, the company’s performers would be around, guised as playful construction workers. It was – rather surprisingly – a ton of fun to be a part of these sessions. Along with some friends, we got together to build on to the tunnels that were already up around us. It was extremely adorable to see peers, who are undergraduates, help faculty’s little kids construct their towers. It was such an interesting relationship to witness develop, one that is ultimately based on this very interesting power dynamic of the ‘big kids’ being ordered by the ‘little kids’, all in good fun. To finish up the session, Polyglot Theatre invited everyone to destroy their towers and tunnels, and especially invited us – the big kids – to be targets. I stood in a tunnel beside a friend as the boxes came crashing down, the little kids clearly ecstatic over the prospect of overpowering us.

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Photo by Frederik Jensen

One of the comments Polyglot Theatre made was that they were surprised that no one was playing with the cardboard boxes outside of the sessions. Intrigued by this idea of the performance extending outside of these session times, a friend and I decided to venture into the play area later that night.

By 8pm, my friend had created her own study space as a sort of igloo with the boxes. I soon joined her, and we first created a central tower. Since we really wanted to make a tunnel, we decided to create one that wrapped around the tower. This soon became an elaborate tunnel in the form of a spiral around the tower with four possible entrances allowing people of different heights to come in. The catch though, was that if you stepped in through the bigger entrance, the tunnel would become smaller as you progressed. Crouch in through a tighter, smaller entrance and you’ll eventually find yourself in an open air space. Afterwards we grabbed the longer boxes and placed them around the maze to act as dominoes. Since we were close to the Arts Center, we created our set of dominoes so that when you opened one of the doors of the Arts Center, it would hit against one of the pieces, triggering the whole chain.

Photo by author

It was such a different experience to feel like you owned the entire space for a night versus sharing it with a group of people you didn’t know. My friend and I, whilst building our cardboard jungle, reminisced about our childhood, contemplated ideas for films, and went through an emotional rollercoaster ride of emotion as we talked about life. In this sense, we were engaged in deep play. With fewer participants in the play space, it allowed for a much more intimate engagement not only with the space but also with each other.

Oddly enough, this wasn’t my first experience with using cardboard boxes and engaging in creative play. As part of the Global Cardboard Challenge initiated by the Imagination Foundation, in 2012 I organized a session in Sri Lanka (you can watch a video of the day here). This was all a result of Caine’s Arcade, a short documentary film on a boy – Caine – who created a little arcade in his dad’s auto-parts shop using cardboard. We not only had a tunnel of our own, but we also had kids totally transforming the cardboard boxes. They were making games, robots, and all sorts of things that redefined the average cardboard box.

Whereas the Global Cardboard Challenge lasts for a day, Polyglot Theatre’s piece last for several days. Anyone would be able to come into the space and play. I talk to one friend in his junior year studying Engineering who admitted he snuck in one night to build a tower. Each session would culminate in the destruction of all the towers and tunnels built, but even more exicting was the last day of ‘the performance’ where one could destroy the boxes themselves. This is actually much harder than you’d think! With forcerful stomps though, the boxes are pretty much done for.

Mimesis in Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play”

In Poetics, Aristotle discusses the elements of tragedy. He introduces the concepts of mimesis, harmatia and katharsis, which respectfully mean imitation, error and purification. Mimesis is a central concept in Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play. Her play is not only a representation of the process behind constructing the Passion Play, but she focuses on the dangers of mimesis when theatre bleeds into daily life.

Focusing on the opening act of Ruhl’s play, the act creates the sense that the townsfolk are distinguished by the characters they embody. The identities of the actors and the ones they play on stage are written as being synonymous. In fact, some of the townsfolk may presume an exact likeness to their role within the Passion Play. In Scene 2: Pontius and a Traveling Friar, mimesis is presented in various ways. To break it down, the scene presents imitation as existing between:

  1. Characters
  2. Characters and their roles
  3. The author and performers
  4. The author and the play

Note that Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play follows the narrative structure of a play within a play. For the purposes of this post where I focus on Act I, ‘performers’ will be a reference to the individuals as townsfolk in Ruhl’s play, and ‘characters’ will concern the roles played out by the performers.

Between the performers, there is an acknowledgement of the characters they imitate on stage. Ruhl uses mimesis as a technique to blur the distinction between reality and pretend. Pontius for instance, says he always wanted to play Christ, which is in fact the role given to his cousin. He proclaims to the audience that he wants to kill his cousin. This aside to the audience Pontius seeks to make a connection between the performer and the audience. However imitation is also seen through the character Pontius plays: Satan. Rather than Satan being a character that exists solely in a religious txt, Pontius has the duty of imitating him for the Passion Play.

Mimesis does not solely exist within the play, but also around its framework. Looking at who authored the text, ultimately the performers are being imitated – played out – by actors who are translating Ruhl’s script into a physical, visual representation. There also then exists a mimetic relationship between the author and the Passion Play itself as Ruhl is writing her own representation of the play. Aristotle asserts that imitation does not have to be about the exact whole. Instead of presenting the Passion Play directly in the three different contexts, she is turning the historical narrative into one that unifies time and place.

I believe one of the root causes of tragedy in Ruhl’s play lies in the inability for the performers to separate themselves from the character roles they play in their respective Passion Plays. Mary 1 for instance really was a virgin, till Pontius impregnated her. However she tries to convince those around her that it is a miracle of God and she is now “God’s bride” as she is concerned about being deemed a “whore”. Overcome with the idea of failing to be a true imitation of the Virgin Mary, she commits suicide. There is a Romeo-and-Juliet-like tragic ending as Pontius kills himself as well.

Ultimately however, it should be remembered that “tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life” (Aristotle 11). Ruhl embeds mimesis into her play through the relationship the performers have with their own characters. However it is not about who the characters are but rather who and what they represent. For instance Pontius, and Satan, embody the idea that everyone has their own dark side. The characterization of Mary 1 conveys the idea that everyone makes mistakes. Mimesis goes beyond simple imitation, and becomes a concept that centers on the representation of the real.

Works Cited:
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Ruhl, Sarah. Passion Play. First ed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2010. Print.

Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play” blurs the line between the real and the staged

The Passion Play has existed for centuries, and is “a dramatic reenactment of the suffering of Christ…. The focus is on Jesus’s last week of his life” (Chancetheater). Sarah Ruhl is an American playwright who is particularly interested in the Passion Play in Oberammergau, a small town in Germany that have been performing the Passion Play since 1633. She found accounts from the early 1900s that described how there were close similarities between the figures represented in the plays and the individuals who would perform these roles. For instance, “the woman who played Mary was, in real life, just as pure as the Virgin” (Ruhl ix). Ruhl’s epic play, Passion Play, deals with how the play spills into daily life off stage. She investigated specific times, places and communities that practice the Passion Play, and her play is written in a way that unifies these different times and spaces. Ruhl breaks down her play into three distinct acts. The opening act is set in England in 1575 when “Queen Elizabeth was about to shut down the Passion Plays in order to control religious representation”; the second act is centered on Oberammergau and their Passion Play in 1934; and the final act happens in 1969 in South Dakota, where a German actor started putting on the Passion Pay in the 1940s (Ruhl ix). By unifying time and space in her play, Ruhl attempts to explore the importance of the Passion Play beyond the stage by blurring the lines between reality and pretend.

I had to read Ruhl’s play twice. The first time, I was utterly confused as I could not understand the brevity of each scene and how this would be acted out. I found it difficult to keep track of the characters and make the connection between the different times and places as I journeyed from the Elizabethan era, to the time of Hitler’s Germany, to (rather randomly, I thought) South Dakota. In fact I saw read each act as being a sort of afterlife of the previous one. However after watching snippets of representations of Passion Plays and news coverage of the play in Oberammergau, I came to understand the importance of the Passion Play and exactly what it was about.

I believe Ruhl wrote Passion Play not only to highlight how the Passion Play dominates life as a sort of ritual, but how it is ever changing. When writing about ta’ziyeh, Chelkowski discusses how the Iranian play is not meant to be static like a museum piece. He explains that ta’ziyeh “needs to grow and develop its own style while remaining true to its origins and traditions” (Chelkowski 90). Similarly, Ruhl’s play informs audiences that the Passion Play is shaped by the temporal and spatial contexts it is performed in. This is seen through Ruhl’s choice to write Passion Play as an exploration not only of the final performance, but of the process of directing the play. By doing so, Passion Play examines what goes on beyond the stage. It then becomes an interesting commentary on how the lives of the actors revolve around the play; how they are transformed by it, and how they become distinguished by the roles they play. In Scene 3, the visiting friar is excited to meet John who plays Christ in the Passion Play, and even treats him as holy. Ruhl’s text also becomes a commentary on the relationship between the church and the state. Hitler and Reagan exist within Ruhl’s play but of course not within the original framework of the Passion Play as being a historical retelling of a religious story. In fact, Ruhl acknowledges that some of the dialogues spoken by these characters are direct quotes. The state is then seen as having a stake on the representation of the Passion Play. Ruhl’s Passion Play examines the importance of the Passion Play not as a representation of a religious story, but as a transformative performance that is tied to the social and political conditions of a state.

Works Cited:
Chancetheater. “Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play – Dramaturg Carla Neuss.” YouTube. YouTube, 16 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5tXwVkXZXw&gt;.
Chelkowski, Peter J. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. London: Seagull, 2010. Print.
Ruhl, Sarah. Passion Play. First ed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2010. Print.