Brecht: Verfremdung is a Funny Word

Interview with Tom Kuhn: Part 5

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 purpose
  • Influence
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: Brecht took many ideas from historical theatre conventions and experimented with them in his own work. Many of the conventions have a connection with this elusive and somewhat confusing term: Verfremdung. My definition is: the process of moving an audience from identification to detachment. What do you think of this definition?

TK: Yeah, using identification is perhaps a little over-stating it. But I don’t think it is completely wrong. It is rather more from sympathy than from empathy. I would say that Brecht is quite wary of identifying with a character. But yes it is taking you from something recognisable to moving outside. Or the other way round as well: showing you something which seems completely strange and then suddenly you recognise things and think, “hang on, this isn’t different to the world I know.”

But Verfremdung is a funny word. People make the mistake of thinking Brecht is a systematic thinker, a philosopher, but Verfremdung is a word that he starts using before he has actually entirely decided what it means, and then he gradually tries it out. It is experimental again. How am I going to make this word do some work for me? And then eventually, and this is terribly important, it starts to crystallise absolutely around social phenomena. People also sometimes forget, when they’re talking about Brecht, with all this talk about epic theatre and songs interrupting the action and being able to see the lighting in the theatre and all of those sorts of things, they forget that the whole purpose of this is to analyse social phenomena. Brecht is interested in politics and society, so to call a modern production of something ‘Brechtian’ simply because it uses some of those outward characteristics is really missing the point, unless it has that social/political edge. That was what it was all about as far as he was concerned. So Verfremdung came to mean not just that alternating experience of sympathy and distance, of the strange and the familiar, but was absolutely a path to understanding the social condition that we are in, the social circumstances of his characters and actions.


  • Brecht wasn’t a systematic thinker or a philosopher.
  • Brecht started using the word Verfremdung before he had decided what it meant for the theatre.
  • It came to mean understanding the social condition by moving an audience from something they recognise to a state of detachment. Or the other way around.
  • The whole purpose of Verfremdung is to analyse society.
  • Theatre that is described as ‘Brechtian’ must have a social/political edge.

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