Bertolt Brecht's Dramatic Theory

Bertolt Brecht's Dramatic Theory

John J. White


Camden House



Detailed analysis of Brecht's extensive theoretical writings on the theater, including newly available works.
As an integral part of his work as a political playwright and dramaturge, Bertolt Brecht concerned himself extensively with the theory of drama. He was convinced that the Aristotelian ideal of audience catharsis through identification with a hero and the resultant experience of terror and pity worked against his goal of bettering society. He did not want his audiences to feel, but to think, and his main theoretical thrusts -- "Verfremdungseffekte" (de-familiarization devices) and epic theater, among others -- were conceived in pursuit of this goal. This is the first detailed study in English of Brecht's writings on the theater to take account of works first made available in the recent German edition of his collected works. It offers in-depth analyses of Brecht's canonical essays on the theater from 1930 to the late 1940s and early GDR years. Close readings of the individual essays are supplemented by surveys of the changing connotations within Brecht's dramaturgical oeuvre of key theoretical terms, including epic and anti-Aristotelian theater, de-familiarization, historicization, and dialectical theater. Brecht's distinct contribution to the theorizing of acting and audience response is examined in detail, and each theoretical essay and concept is placed in the context of the aesthetic debates of the time, subjected to a critical assessment, and considered in light of subsequent scholarly thinking. In many cases, the playwright's theoretical discourse is shown to employ methods of "epic" presentation and techniques of de-familiarization that are corollaries of the dramatic techniques for which his plays are justly famous.

John J. White is Emeritus Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King's College London.


358 pages
9x6 in
Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture
Hardback, 9781571130761, December 2004
Paperback, 9781571134738, September 2010
Library eBook
Camden House
BISAC LIT004170, LIT013000
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Table of Contents

Epic Opera and Epic Theater: "Anmerkungen zur Oper Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" (1930)
Conceptualizing the Exile Work: "nicht-artistotelisches Theater," "Verfremdung," "Historisierung"
The Dramaturgical Poems and Their Contexts
Preparations for East Berlin: Kleines Organon für das Theater (1948)
"Viel Theorie in Dialogform": The Messingkauf project (1939-1956)
Works Consulted


Should become the standard reference in English for understanding Brecht's difficult and seemingly contradictory statements...A book that will now be the definitive resource on this topic. Essential. CHOICE

John J. White's thorough, many-faceted account of the sources and evolution of Brecht's ideas and how he sought to realize them provides a wealth of astute analysis useful to theatrical practitioners, to teachers and scholars of literature, and, in part at least, to social scientists. GERMAN STUDIES REVIEW, 2006

White's presentation excels in close readings of strategically chosen texts in five chronologically arranged chapters....This is a solid volume with abundant explanatory footnotes, comprehensive bibliography, and detailed index. GERMAN QUARTERLY

Thanks to White's insights ... Brecht's fierce critical intelligence and the philosophical irony that modulates and redeems it strike the reader anew. GERMAN STUDIES REVIEW

Bertolt Brecht's Dramatic Theory is the first detailed study in English of Brecht's writings on the theatre to take into account the substantial new material first made available in the recent German edition of his collected works.... (A work) suggesting new possibilities for Brecht scholars and others interested in his works. GERMANIC NOTES AND REVIEWS

This is an encyclopaedic undertaking whose philological rigour marks the study as a major work of Germanistik. MODERN LANGUAGE REVIEW

(A) nuanced, thorough, and stimulating investigation cum critical evaluation of Brecht's theorizing on theater.... MONATSHEFTE

Brecht was obliged to calibrate his statements for particular audiences and situations.... Temperamentally ... (he) was disposed to be poetically indirect rather than to strive for maximum transparency. John J. White deserves considerable credit both for taking on the challenge of analyzing Brecht's theory as a whole, and for doing so in a manner that never loses sight of those complexities. TEXT AND PRESENTATION

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