Brecht: The Practical Man of the Theatre

Interview with Tom Kuhn: Part 2

Tom Kuhn is Professor of Twentieth-Century German Literature and Fellow of St Hugh’s College. His main research interests are in political literature in the 20th century. He has worked particularly on Bertolt Brecht, and is the series editor of the main English-language edition of Brecht’s works.

Connections to the GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: The idea of mediating: guiding the audience to a message, often leads people to think of Brecht’s theatre as quite straight-laced and dull.

TK: No playwright can afford to be a dull teacher. No one is going to listen to your messages unless you can get them into the theatre in the first place. Lots of people tend to treat Verfremdung as ‘alienation’ in the sense of putting people off. Avoiding emotional engagement and entertainment. Just dull rationalism. But there is nothing in Brecht that is about that. I mean most Brecht is colourful, funny, lively stuff; but people overlook that because they come so blinkered by all these ideas.

PC: So you think an emphasis on facts and terminology can hinder a student’s understanding of Brecht?

TK: Obviously there are facts. There are things that you can get right and things that you can get wrong. I wouldn’t want to banish that from teaching, quite the contrary. But the facts are much more to do with historical circumstances. Knowing a little bit about the life and context in which he worked. It is, for example, a fact that Brecht never used the word Verfremdung when directing his own plays. That’s a useful fact. That perhaps suggests that we shouldn’t start reading Brecht by starting with that word or starting with those theoretical ideas. He was much more a practical man of the theatre and the relationship between the theory and the practice was always one of:

  • Let’s do it like this and see if it works.
  • Let’s reflect on how we’ve done it and see if we can explain how we’ve done it.
  • Let’s use that explanation and try it again.

So there is a back and forth between the ideas – I might prefer not to say theory at all – the ideas about the theatre and the practice of the theatre are a continual back and forth. Whereas so often it is taught or presented in books as if there was “A Theory” and that the plays are a realisation of the theory, and that is simply nonsense.

PC: Could the reasons behind the misunderstanding lie in his context as well? Is it tied in with his exile? Because he wasn’t able to gain popularity in the USA, so he had to communicate his ideas in written words, through the Organon and the Modelbooks.

TK: I don’t want to go to far the other way. He was a man who had a theoretical bent. He liked to reflect upon how he did things. But it’s not completely systematic: he doesn’t create a theoretical grid which you can then place over his work to explain it. It’s much more a back and forth approach between the his ideas and his practice.

PC: Would you agree that Brecht has quite a scientific approach to theatre then?

TK: The word ‘scientific’ is always a bit difficult. The German word can mean ‘to do with knowledge and understanding’. But ‘scientific’ is the only word we really have. For Brecht it is above all a sort of experimental method. I think that is also something that people overlook or underestimate. That nearly every one of Brecht’s works is a different sort of experiment. They’re not all the same, and he is not always trying to do the same thing. It depends on his own circumstances, but it’s also just that he is always testing things. It is a creative inclination: let’s try and see what happens if we do it this way.


  • Brecht is colourful, funny and lively. No one is going to listen to your messages unless they come to the theatre in the first place.
  • Brecht never used the word Verfremdung when directing his own plays.
  • Brecht thought of the practice of the theatre as a continual back and forth between experiment and theory. He did not have one set theory.
  • Nearly every one of Brecht’s works is a different sort of experiment.

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