Brecht’s Dramatic Structure and Design

Interview with Tom Kuhn: Part 4

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

  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Theatrical style
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: What were Brecht’s ideas for structure and flow?

TK: If you were to ask another, more conservative early 20th century theorist for an account of drama I suppose they would give you a vision of classical drama with an exposition, a development, a crisis and a dénouement. And that sweeps you through as an emotional experience to probably some sort of catharsis at the end. Brecht wants to interrupt all of that and make that impossible and he does it in big ways and in little ways. The Caucasian Chalk Circle gives that wonderful example of a big way saying, “we’re going to interrupt the story here and give you the back story of this other character, Azdak, whose relevance at this point is completely obscure.” That’s a big interruption in that flow. But there are also little ones simply when characters step out of character, step forward and address the audience directly. That is also a sort of break in the flow, giving us a different perspective on events.

PC: So there were multiple perspectives in his plays?

TK: Yes. Brecht liked Chinese art, as well as late-medieval/early Renaissance art, and one of the things he liked about Chinese art was that it doesn’t give you a single perspective; Chinese art tends not to give a single focal point or a point of view. Instead you get these landscapes with multiple perspectives. Brecht quite liked that, and perhaps you can understand some of the interruptions in his plays, for songs and other character’s points of view, as a sort of perspectival interruption in the action. He wanted us to suddenly see something from a different point of view. A good example in Mother Courage is when her son is executed and she has to deny that she recognises him. It is a completely heart-rending moment, a very emotional moment. People sometimes think there is not much emotion in Brecht. They are wrong. There’s loads. This is a very emotional moment, but then immediately afterwards we get a scene that changes the point of view entirely. Mother Courage is trying to get back into business, so rather than carrying that emotional charge forwards, the emotional charge is broken off and we suddenly see her life from a different point of view. Brecht enables us perhaps to reflect on what has happened in a more intelligent way than we would do if we were emotionally caught up with it. So those emotional moments aren’t carried forward, they are not intensified by the action, they are rather interrupted and broken off by it.

PC: How about medieval tapestries with their collection of stories on one fabric?

TK: Absolutely. Late medieval religious art was very important for Brecht. He was brought up in Augsburg which is a predominantly Catholic but also a Protestant town. He was of mixed parentage himself so he had access to both but was brought up as a Protestant. So he saw the Catholic church from outside which is interesting.

PC: How did Brecht use visual art to trigger ideas for productions?

TK: Caspar Neher is the childhood friend and collaborator who developed the whole look of the Brechtian theatre. What we think of as the Brecht Curtain – the light half curtain – Brecht himself called it the ‘Neher Curtain’. You really need the two of them together when you think about the visual image of what Brecht’s theatre looks like. Neher worked on nearly all, maybe 90% of Brecht productions until 1933. Then Neher stayed in Nazi Germany and continued to work as a director, and Brecht of course left. When he returned to Switzerland, the first person he got in touch with was Caspar Neher. Neher is absolutely central.


  • Brecht doesn’t want his audience to be carried through a story on an overall emotional journey. He wants to make catharsis impossible.
  • Brecht wants to present emotion but then interrupt it.
  • Brecht was influenced by multiple perspectives in Chinese art and late medieval art.
  • Brecht’s childhood friend and designer, Caspar Neher is absolutely central to his idea of theatre