Monday, January 2, 2012

A threepenny twist of Brecht

I remember when the revelation hit. It was way back in the early 80s in some Theatre History class. To be honest, I was never really all that comfortable with theatrical theory or all that high-falutin' intellectual discussion-making about art. I could partake of it when I chose, but I much preferred to opt out and simply enjoy or not enjoy as I saw fit.

I saw my own appreciation of the arts sort of like that famous Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown and Linus are laying on their backs perusing cloud formations above them. Linus sees all kinds of intricately detailed imagery from mythology and the Bible - St. Paul's conversion on the way to Rome or something lofty like that - but then when it is Charlie Brown's turn to share, he sees merely a horsey and a ducky...

Sometimes I'm with you, Chuck.

Regarding theater, I certainly refused out of hand any of that youthful exuberance toward the avante garde movements. I didn't get it. In spite of my own deeply ingrained James Dean-cum Cesar Chavez rebel with or without cause inclinations - I thought as far as plays were concerned I only wanted to be entertained without having to really think about it all that much. My peers went on and on in lofty discourse about all these exciting new theories, but I would have nothing of it.

I remember often arguing about, er I mean, discussing this dude named Bertolt Brecht and what he had meant to theater. My friends explained that whole Brechtian aesthetic estrangement thingy - that act of distancing characters in a play from the audience so we didn't identify too closely with them. I sort of understood it, but I didn't buy it. It felt like intellectual elitism to me and I recoiled.

Up to that point I had believed that it was the job of the artist (author) to stimulate emotion above all else. Who wants to freaking THINK? Especially during a play! No give me a good old slapstick comedy - something like the Marx Brothers used to do. Stimulate laughter boys and girls!

It was then that my words twisted back upon me. With patience (and not a little I-told-you-so posturing) my friends explained that Groucho Marx consciously employed Brechtian elements in the early Marx Bros. films.

What? Groucho? NO! Really?

Yup. Groucho, the king of the aside. Talking to the audience - breaking the fourth wall. That was Brechtian. And danged funny.

As I have continued to read and live, I have come to a deeper appreciation of Brechtian techniques, yet I still recoil at trying to overlaying a philosophy of art upon my art - nah, that implies instituting RULES. Yikes! The great animation director Chuck Jones once told me that by instituting a set of strictly enforced rules on the RoadRunner cartoons he was actually freeing the animators to be MORE creative. I have to squint a bit, but I sort of understand. I'd probably understand more if I actually enjoyed the Roadrunner cartoons more.

Grudgingly I admit nonetheless to using Brechtian elements in my work - playing with time frames between chapters, using non-linear elements, employing multiple voices and POVs. Creating characters that are emotionally distant from ourselves so that we don't identify too closely. All of those are tools that I use unabashedly.

Emotional distancing is essential for a book such as "The Missionary and the Brute".  With transgressive characterization - non-sympathetic characters, don't you know - there is truly not too much identifying that would be healthy for a reader. Because they do and have done to them sooo much, it would hurt the novel to have them be close. Nope. Better to hold them at a respectable distance.

It's much safer for all of us!

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