Often I have wondered how it can be that professors of theater can be so enamoured of Bertolt Brecht. Their admiration seems to me to depend from Brecht's brash assertion that the classic playwrights had been right all along, an assertion he offered in a more hubristic manner.
This afternoon I watched a Brecht play at St. Norbert College. I do enjoy seeing actual, living players in the theater but more on that in a moment.
After the play a professor of German and philosophiae doctor of Brecht came out to explain what Brecht brought to the theater. I confess that I did not stay for all of it; my departure is no comment on the presentation but on my cramped legs and my worry for my dog left at home. This professor opened with a distinction between "dramatic" theater and Brechtian or "epic" theater. We are most accustomed to dramatic theater, she explained, where we participate by identifying with the characters and employ the willing suspension of disbelief. In contrast the epic theater expects the audience to participate intellectually, to think about the story and its presentation.
I invariably watch plays that way. I am constantly examining the movements of the actors, their timing, flow, and technique. I am evaluating the plausibility of the plot, the motivation of the character, the machina ex qua deus descendens.
Perhaps the difficulty I have with Brecht is that I do not watch other plays the way Brecht assumed I must. But I do not think so.
I think Brecht is wrong to think everybody is watching other plays in this manner of being drawn in emotionally and uncritically. Surely a reading of Shakespeare supports the understanding that his company was jesting with the audience throughout the performance. Did Lysistrata play to a serious and distanced audience or to a bawdy group who shouted jokes back at the company? Surely I am right.
Or perhaps Brecht was right and all his university interpreters are wrong. In actual reality Brecht may have been as smart as I am, as much a smartalek as I am, and played some deep and enduring jokes on the all too serious intellectuals who run the academic theater.