Brecht and Emotion: His ideas on acting

Interview with Tom Kuhn: Part 6

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
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding of Brecht to say that there is no emotion in his theatre.

TK: Yes, that’s something that really annoys me.

PC: Could you tell me a little about how emotion was created by Brecht’s actors through the observation of the social condition? How does that differ from Stanislavski’s work on acting?

TK: The distinction that the director Di Trevis made when I worked with her, and the distinction that her actors understood from the work that they were doing, was the distinction between working from the outside in, and working from the inside out. What they understood as Stanislavski’s method was to imagine a psychology of a character, providing a back story in psychological terms for an individual, so that you have an individual psychology in your head and you try to act out of that. Whereas what Di was trying to persuade them to do was to observe the way in which people behave and hold themselves and physically interact. So very much the outside. To observe people as examples of a particular social situation and to act out of that instead. Now of course the two meet in the middle, but I think that is the distinction. So that if you start from the outside you don’t end up with a character that has no psychology, and you don’t necessarily end up with a caricature either or a stereotype, although I think types and caricatures are much closer to the Brechtian understanding and they’re not out of place in Brecht’s theatre at all. Whereas they are completely out of place in a Naturalist theatre. And if you start from a psychology then you may also start to discover the social conditions which create that psychology. So the two can meet, but it is those very different starting points which seem to be the key to the work that she was doing. Does that make sense?

PC: Absolutely, it makes sense. I think that the distinction is clearest with earlier Stanislavski theory, the ones that had such an influence on Lee Strasberg’s Method acting. However, it is fascinating to see the similarities with Stanislavski’s later ideas for physical actions being the starting point for character. His idea was that the actors started with the observable, outside actions, even before reading the text. But like you say the distinction is clearest in the outcomes: Stanislavski used observable, outside actions so that the actor could inhabit the role. Brecht used observable, outside actions so that the actor could capture an accurate social condition, even a stereotype, as long as it served the social/political purpose of the play.

TK: Yeah, but I think there is a definite a distinction. I don’t think the difference is that huge and obviously both men shifted their ground. The idea that there is such a big conflict between them is strategic for Brecht. He wants to be different from Stanislavski. What is more, by the time of Brecht’s work with his newly founded Berliner Ensemble at the beginning of the 1950s, Brecht was a suspect thinker for the authorities of the German Democratic Republic. They needed to think of themselves as followers of the Russian model, and they even staged a big Stanislavski conference in Berlin with part of the motivation being to knock Brecht into shape and get him to toe the line. Therefore, in the context, insisting on the difference became very important, whereas in another context that might not have seemed so important.

PC: And this desire to be different influenced Brecht’s ideas on acting.

TK: Yes. Brecht is always warding off the psychological. His plays are full of spilt characters and slightly caricatured characters. Quite the reverse of psychologically realistic characters. He quite liked comic actors as well, because they don’t get caught up in the psychology of their characters so much. They are much more likely to act slightly over the heads of their characters, to insist on a distinction between actor and character. He loved Charlie Chaplin because he demonstrated the little man rather than being the little man. And that idea that there is a divorce between the actor and the part he’s playing is quite important for Brecht’s ideas. Ernst Busch is one of his favourites, and Helene Weigel of course. Both gave us archetypal demonstrations of the sorts of people they are playing, rather than becoming those people. It’s much more about showing than being. I think part of that comes again from this attention to external movement, behaviour, posture and things like that as an expression of something social rather than just of something psychological.

PC: Did he achieve this by getting his actors to observe people?

TK: Yes. Getting back to the pictures, Brecht’s files for his plays are full of pictures, mostly cut out of newspapers, and press photographs of the sorts of people he has in mind when he is writing. So amongst the materials for The Caucasian Chalk Circle he has a whole page stuck in an album of pictures of women refugees with babies or children slung over their shoulders. There is an archetype: of the woman with a bundle on the run; and the actress playing Grusha has to become that, rather than being a completely singular individual. You see them again crossing the Mediterranean. Brecht would have been writing about refugees again. Grusha is a refugee.

PC: That idea of collecting pictures is exactly the kind of task that students are encouraged to do in preparation for their portfolios. How did these photographs have a direct impact on actors like Helene Weigel?

TK: Well, for example: Brecht assumes that Helene Weigel had the image of a woman after the bombing of Singapore (Singapore Lament, Life Magazine, 23.03.42, photo license pending) in her mind when creating Mother Courage’s ‘silent scream’. It is a picture that he kept in several contexts, in his published collection of war time photographs – War Primer ( and in his work journal in a different version.


  • Brecht wanted his actors to observe the way in which people behave and hold themselves and physically interact.
  • Actors should use people as examples of a particular social situation.
  • Characters can still have a psychology if you start from the outside.
  • Stereotypes and caricatures are not out of place in Brecht’s theatre.
  • Brecht wanted to position his ideas as different from Stanislavski.
  • Brecht liked comic actors and admired Charlie Chaplin because they don’t get caught up in the psychology of a character.
  • Brecht kept files and notebooks filled with photographs that influenced his productions.

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