Brecht’s Ideas for a Post-War European Theatre

Interview with Tom Kuhn: Part 3

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

  • Innovations
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Influence
  • Use of theatrical conventions

PC: Can we talk about Brecht’s Short Organon, which is the most distilled collection of his ideas for the theatre?

TK: Yes. So, when the war ends he starts to think much more seriously about returning to Europe. That’s when he formulates his ideas in this most complete way. I think that is because he has the sense that culture has been derailed in Europe. There is a need to rebuild the theatre houses physically but also to rebuild the content of the theatres. He wants to put his mark on that process, and so the Short Organon is his calling card: “Look. I’ve got some ideas, these are my ideas, lets do it this way.” That’s why he formulated it all so clearly. That is all it is, if it hadn’t been for those circumstances he might not have written his ideas in such a way. We do him a disservice by taking the Short Organon out of that context and treating it as though it was somehow a Brecht bible. It’s much more a template in response to the conditions of post-war European theatre.

PC: Does the importance of his context and circumstances pose difficulties for replicating his ideas?

TK: Yes. It is very hard to think in terms of replication, simply because we can’t go back to that historical moment. Some of the basic outward features of Brechtian theatre – the visible theatre apparatus, changing the scene in such a way that we can see, and actors stepping in and out of role, they are pretty commonplace. Anyone who goes to anything serious in the theatre would probably see an example of that, maybe even in a production of Ibsen and certainly in lots of other theatre productions. That is partly because Brecht just won that argument and nobody really tries to create a complete illusion of reality any longer. They do in film, although film goes in both directions in a quite confusing way and is difficult to generalise about, but some film tries to just create the world as perfectly as possible. No theatre really does that any longer. This is partly because films supplanted that function of the theatre and partly because Brecht showed us a different way of making theatre. So then, if students already have that sense that if you go to the theatre of course you know you’re in the theatre and you don’t have an illusion of reality, then Brecht doesn’t seem anything special or particular, you can’t replicate the historical impact of Brechtian theatre, simply because it has become the new normal, it is just what you see all the time anyway.

PC: I think a lot of young people don’t have that experience of the theatre. What they do have is the experience of the cinema that you talk about. So Brecht still has that feeling of something quite revolutionary. That’s why his ideas are so attractive to teachers: they don’t need a lot in the way of resources and they challenge young people be more analytical and reflective about the process and content of their work.

You mentioned the basic outward features being quite commonplace would you also agree that lots of his ideas were in existence in Ancient Greek theatre, Büchner’s Woyzeck and Shakespeare?

TK: Yes. It is indeed all there in Shakespeare. But everything is all there in Shakespeare! Shakespeare has plays within plays, he has prologues, he has singers, as it were at the front with their fingers pointing, that say “Oh for a muse of fire …”: all of these sorts of things point out the particular constraints and potentials of theatre:

Can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The beginning of Henry V has the same sort of self-conscious reflection that Brecht is saying: “Let’s make it all clear that we’re in a theatre and this is pretence.”

Brecht is eclectic, he draws on the idea of chorus in particular from the Greeks and he draws on the early-modern, Shakespearean theatre. What he doesn’t want is the 19th century. Woyzeck is a bit of an exception in that it doesn’t look like other 19th century plays, and of course Woyzeck is an unfinished play and there is an extent to which you can project on to it whatever you want. So that when the play was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century, first of all the Naturalists thought that they were following Büchner, then the Expressionists thought that they were following Büchner, then Brecht thought that he was following Büchner. They all took what they wanted from Büchner.

PC: And it was the only external text referred to by Antonin Artaud.

TK: Yes. I think a lot of Germans and especially Brecht thought that it was a way of saying, we’re not being Schiller, and putting down a marker: we’re not trying to do Schillerian theatre here. I think Büchner is wonderful, and Woyzeck a great play. We’ll never know how much of the sort of fragmentary and broken nature of the text (which obviously appealed to Brecht, with his idea of the scenes not being fluidly arranged in a compelling plot) how much of that is down to the fact that he didn’t finish it, and how much of it is down to a really rather revolutionary dramatic imagination?

PC: It is almost the opposite of the theatre maker who has the inclination to write their thoughts and ideas down. Do you think that Brecht wished he could have been that enigmatic?

TK: No. I think, for Brecht, the alternation between rationalising reflection and much more unfettered creativity, that back and forth, is an essential part. You can’t imagine the one without the other. But Büchner was also a young man, he wasn’t really practiced in his art, he didn’t know what worked so he produced things that didn’t work. That didn’t work then. Which later generations discovered as a revelation for the modern theatre, it is a bit of a historical accident. A wonderful historical accident.

PC: It is interesting to think about that in the secondary school classroom: drama teachers aim to cultivate the environment for creativity and reflection, the back and forth. But they also believe that young people can challenge ideas of theatre by creating things that seem, at first, not to work.


  • Brecht’s Short Organon a template in response to the conditions of post-war European theatre.
  • Nobody really tries to create a complete illusion of reality in the theatre any longer.
  • The lack of illusion in modern theatre is because Brecht won his argument but also because film and television serve that purpose now.
  • Brecht’s ideas for theatre can still seem revolutionary for young people who are more exposed to film and TV than theatre.
  • Brecht’s ideas were heavily influenced by Ancient Greek theatre, Shakespearean theatre and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck.
  • Brecht was eclectic and drew from almost everything, apart from 19th century Naturalism.

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.

Introducing Brecht’s Ideas

Interview with Tom Kuhn: Part 1

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.


Brecht on Theatre and Brecht on Performance, both coedited with Marc Silberman and Steve Giles (London: Bloomsbury/Methuen Drama 2014)

Connections to the GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Artistic intentions
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Theatrical style
  • Theatrical purpose


PC: How would you introduce Brecht’s ideas?

TK: Brecht is, of all writers, somebody who wouldn’t have said there was a right answer to a question. So it is sad to reduce it to just the famous ideas and terminology about the theatre. I think it is much more useful to think about where he was historically. There were very pressing contemporary political concerns, above all to do with resisting Nazism. In addition, Brecht was reacting against the then dominant tradition of the theatre, Naturalism. In a production of an Ibsen play, for example, a living room needs to look as much like a living room really might look and the actors play their roles as ‘real people’, as if the audience were not there. If you just start with two things like that: the desire to engage with contemporary politics and the boredom with that sort of theatre, that’s almost enough to develop a whole set of new ideas about the theatre. You don’t need words like Epic and Verfremdung and things like that, although yes, maybe you could introduce those as well.

PC: Do you think rooting Brecht in that context means that students can begin to think like him?

TK: Yes. If you set out with the idea of a theatre which doesn’t depend on pretence. On the pretence to be something enclosed, which it isn’t, but seeks to engage the audience, then you can quite quickly get through to an understanding of an ‘Epic Theatre’, which is mediated: where the stories are told by somebody for a purpose. It’s not just that you go to see a world created for you, but you go to see a world created for you by somebody who has a reason for doing it. So there is always that sense that you are being shown something by somebody, for a purpose, which is really what the Epic means.



This is one of my favourite ways of understanding the Epic. So this is a famous late medieval altar piece known as the Isenheim Altar, it’s by Matthias Grünewald. And we know that it made a huge impression on Brecht when it came to Munich in the First World War, because he mentions it in his diary. Not only he, but also his school friend Caspar Neher writes about it.

PC: Who went on to be his designer?

TK: Who went on to be his designer. And here you’ve got the crucifixion, and we have the historical participants in that scene: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Christ being comforted by John the Evangelist. On the other side we have John the Baptist, but he was supposed to be long dead by the time of the actual historical event. So what is he doing in the scene?

Grunewald_Isenheim1 John the Baptist

There he is, holding the book of the prophecy of what is going to happen and pointing backwards. And he has his own speech bubble which is a Latin quotation from John the Baptist saying that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” With his symbol, the lamb and cross, at his feet. This part of the picture belongs on a different time scale, a different sort of level altogether from the crucifixion itself. And he’s also, well, he is not exactly looking out at the audience, but he is looking away from the scene, out into the world. He is mediating the scene behind him and explaining the importance of it and by his presence saying: this isn’t just a man on a cross, this is part of a bigger story.

Grunewald_Isenheim1 point

One of his later designers, I think it was Karl von Appen, said that all of Brecht’s theatre was basically designed to bring this pointing finger into the theatre. It’s a slightly elongated and exaggerated finger. That’s what he wanted to bring into the theatre. That sense of mediation, of the peculiarity of the events he shows, of the potential greater significances, that, for example, Mother Courage is not just Mother Courage but is part of a bigger story (in this case the story of capitalism and war).

PC: So you think you could start with this image when teaching about Brecht, rather than the terminology?

TK: Yes, absolutely. And Brecht encountered this picture long before he formulated any of his famous ideas.


  • Start with Brecht’s social, political, cultural and historical context when looking at his work for the first time.
  • Brecht lived in exile when Nazism took over Germany so he wanted his work to engage with contemporary politics.
  • Brecht was bored with the Naturalism that dominated theatre in Europe during the later 19th Century and early 20th Century.
  • Brecht’s response to his historical context was to develop theatre that engaged the audience directly.
  • Brecht’s theatre is mediated: someone is telling a story for a purpose – Stories are narrated or the audience knows the actor is acting.