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Theatre and Social Justice (January 2020): Twentieth Century Theatrical Influences: Brecht and Artaud

by Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Twentieth Century Theatrical Influences: Brecht and Artaud

Social justice theatre is indebted tothe work of German playwright, director, and theorist Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), known equally through his Marxist-inspired plays and his theoretical writings. Drawing on ideas current in German political theatre of the 1920s, Brecht developed “epic theatre,” a movement that would address the deficiencies of conventional dramatic theatre. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by John Willett, a compendium of Brecht’s chief writings, is the classic reference. This collection includes Brecht’s three key essays on epic theatre: “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre,” “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” and “Appendices to the ‘Short Organum.’” Brecht’s essential epic plays include Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Setzuan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle and his Lehrstücke (“teaching plays”) of the 1920s and 1930s, which were designed to sharpen the class consciousness of actors and audiences.

Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), a French actor, director, and theoretician, is best known for The Theatre and Its Double, a collection that presents Artaud’s radical theories for a total upheaval of Western theatre, which, he argues, had lost touch with the essence of life. Particularly influential was the chapter “Theatre of Cruelty,” which exhorted theatre makers to create visceral theatre that would incorporate violence, sexuality, and the breaking of social taboos, that would exceed the confines of the physical stage, to wake audiences out of their lethargy and actively make change in the world. Artaud had a huge influence on The Living Theatre and other alternative, radical theatres.

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