Read Chapter 11

Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertolt Brecht

CITE AS: Jensen, A.P. (2016). Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertolt Brecht. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 153 - 160). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 11
Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertolt Brecht
Arts education underpins my work in media literacy: I know this is generally an unusual entrée into the field. As a theater artist and educator, I realize that many of my media literacy colleagues approach the topic from the traditions, theories, and contexts of the communications field. My own experiences have led me to value the notion that media literacy draws its foundational structures from a wide body of scholarship, including arts practice and early arts-education models. This essay focuses on one of the progenitors of arts and instruction, Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht (1898–1956) was a theater and media practitioner and theorist who envisioned new forms of art for the twentieth century. He did this first by reimagining the role of the spectator. As a playwright and director, he intentionally created politically motivated theater, in which his audiences were responsible for critically engaging with the ideas presented in his work. He altered the centuries-old positioning of the audience member, from passive spectator to active participant. Specifically, Brecht invited his audiences to be informed participants who intentionally considered social bias, cultural prejudice, and other pervasive forms of manipulation. He believed that it was not enough to solely reflect on new ideas within the theater space; he invited his audience and performers to act on the ideas they had generated in practical settings outside of the theater.

Brecht’s theories demanded a refunctioning of the traditional theatrical space, from a place of entertainment into an educational space, in order to meet the needs of the ideal spectator that he imagined. This new space, the “Epic Theatre,” as he described it, “appeal[ed] less to the feelings than the spectator’s reason” and required that “instead of sharing an experience the spectator must come to grips with things [in the world]” (Brecht 1968a, 23).

The restructuring of the theater space also required new theater techniques. To do this, Brecht rejected the melodramatic spectacle of the popular theater and instead produced a theatrical space composed of fragmented scenes, pictures, text, and music—each contrasting, contradicting, and interrupting the traditional theatrical trajectory in order to remind spectators that they were no longer participating in artifice. Brecht held that the theater should “arouse [the viewers’] capacity to action” (1968b, 37).

Brecht’s reimagining of theater audiences, spaces, and techniques demanded new and timely literacies. While he never directly addressed the concepts of media literacy as we understand them, Brecht’s practical work and writings were precursors to critical literacy and subsequent media literacy projects that developed later in the twentieth century. I first came to embrace critical theory because of Brecht’s theoretical work. Through this line of thought, I discovered the critical pedagogies that deeply influence my own work as an arts educator and media literacy scholar. I have had three specific encounters with Brecht’s writing that have shaped the questions I have asked as a student, as a media literacy scholar, and as an arts educator.
Valuing Participatory Spectatorship
I first encountered Brecht’s ideas as an undergraduate theater major at Brigham Young University in Utah. It was 1987, and I was a nineteen-year-old Mormon girl whose primary exposure to the theater had been the religious pageants and roadshows put on by my church. My limited experiences with professional theater production were the highly polished interpretations of Shakespeare performed at a regional equity house, the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Of course, I was also immersed in the 1980s films of John Hughes and others, and I had had some experience with art-house movies, but I had certainly not formulated a personal aesthetic.

When I imagined the purposes of theater, film, or any of the arts, I was most compelled by the notion of story. I welcomed the poetic artifice and theatrical means that connected me, as an audience member, to the narrative of a play or film. I had not yet considered the importance of viewing a work of art as a material production that potentially represented the multiple contexts in which it was created. In a directing class, I was assigned to read selections from Brecht’s “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” Brecht had written this work late in his life with the intent of drawing a “description of theatre in the scientific age” (Brecht 1968c, 205). The ideas therein were based on his practical work in the theater. In my reading, I fixed on a sentence in which Brecht writes, “The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium)” (189). Contemplating his words, I became aware, for the first time, of the potential dialectic between spectators and the art they observed.

I had always loved being entertained by art. In fact, Brecht describes what had been my desired interactions with theater and film at the beginning of “Short Organum”: “[Popular theater] consists of this: in making live representations of reported or invented happenings between live human beings and doing so with a view to entertainment” (Brecht 1968c, 180). I took great pleasure in consuming good art—and to be perfectly honest, even very bad art—for pleasure only. Because of this, I was a devoted consumer of art objects, but I was not a participatory spectator.

What Brecht describes is a different theory of the theater, one where artifice is replaced with educational structures. In his essay “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction,” he describes an “instructive theatre” in which “oil, inflation, war, social struggles, the family, religion, wheat, the meat market, all became subjects for theatrical representation. . . . As the ‘background’ came to the front of the stage so people’s activity was subject to criticism . . . [t]he theater became an affair for philosophers, but only for such philosophers as wished not just to explain the world but also to change it” (Brecht 1968d, 71–72).

Brecht’s notions of the active and influential audience in “A Short Organum” and in “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction” compelled me to consider my responsibility to form a different, more active engagement with art and the world at large. I didn’t fully realize this at the time, but my engagement with Brecht’s theories had set me on a course of study in which I would vigorously begin to consider the social, cultural, and political implications of audience engagement with a work of art.
Reshaping Conversations about Art
I was reintroduced to Brecht in 1998 while studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. I was enrolled in a theater history Ph.D. program and had designed a course of study that would allow me to take media coursework available in the English Department to compliment my theater studies. My intent was to think deeply about how the perception of contemporary live performance was informed by mass media. I wanted to explore how live performance and media intersected and informed each other in popular culture. The core of my project, as I eventually described it, was “to document the strong influence of media’s form and content on the production and reception of contemporary theatre” (Jensen 2007, 6). This time, I encountered Brecht in the context of the cultural-studies movement. Brecht’s ideas resurfaced as I studied the theories put forth by the Frankfurt School. Reading his work through the lens of the critical thought associated with Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, I became interested in the ways that both Brecht and Benjamin theorized about defamiliarization. Both men believed that for individuals to become aware of significant cultural and political shifts, and then act on those shifts{AU: OK? Or should this be “their awareness”?}, there must be a space where they could be shocked from {AU: Please clarify meaning here: shocked into?}complete self-oblivion and absorption (Ezcurra 2012).

Neither Brecht nor Benjamin believed that the dramatic art forms popular in the early part of the twentieth century prepared the consumer for the political and social realities of their day. Both men envisioned art spaces in which art making and viewing was instructive and powerful enough to wrest complacency from the modern man. Each wanted a radical revision of art to reflect this transition. For example, in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin reasons that the pervasiveness of art forms like photographs, film, and radio—forms created and represented through mechanical reproduction—signaled a shift in culture that no longer allowed for traditional authenticities associated with ritual and bound by religious viewpoints. He argues that “the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics” (Benjamin 1999, 220). In this way, he called for new means of viewing that would aid individuals in preparing for the politically charged environs of the day.
While Benjamin was theorizing about the need for a change in art making to meet the needs of the moment, Brecht was actually constructing the politicized arts space—the Epic Theatre—that Benjamin called for in his writing. By the time Brecht and Benjamin left Germany as expatriates in the mid-1930s, Brecht had written and directed twenty works for the theater. Each play was a testing ground for his ideas about art as a mechanism for change. Each of these fully produced plays demonstrated an innovative reconstruction of the stage space and its components.

The repurposing of the stage was intentionally political. Brecht’s most prominent dramaturgical work from that time period, “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre,” outlines the tenets for this type of theater, in which everything traditional is altered for the purpose of helping audiences see the world through a new lens. The Epic Theatre produced a performing body that was no more important to the play than the other components of the work. The actor’s body in these plays was no longer a representation of the unalterable hero, as presented in the dramatic theater styles popular at the time; rather, it was one part of a mechanism—a technological body. Plays consisted of a series of unattached sequences. This theater was made up of a montage that included choruses and songs, placards and film—all formed and fabricated into a fractured work of art intended to disrupt and awaken the audience. Brecht described this Epic Theatre as “a construction that must be viewed rationally and in which things must be recognized” (Benjamin 1998, 11). He worked to accomplish this through a term he coined as Verfremdungseffeckte, which he defined as a stripping away of the familiar qualities of an art object to make something strange (Brooker 2006, 216). This was done in order for the spectator to recognize their previous lack of awareness.

In a critique of this principle, Benjamin perfectly describes the consciousness-raising potential of Brecht’s theater. He says:

The point at issue in the theater today can be more accurately defined in relation to the stage than to the play. It concerns the filling-in of the orchestra pit. The abyss which separates the actors from the audience like the dead from the living, the abyss whose silence heightens the sublime in drama, whose resonance heightens the intoxication of opera, this abyss which, of all the elements of the stage, most indelibly bears the traces of its sacral origins, has lost its function. The stage is still elevated, but it no longer rises from an immeasurable depth; it has become a public platform. (Benjamin 1998, 1)

As a young scholar grappling with how societal change is represented in the production and perception of art within a particular time and space, I valued Brecht’s intense effort to prepare a learning space in which art was shared for the purpose of engaging the audience in purposeful and active reflection. This conspicuous invitation to access art through my own lens, analyze art in my own context, evaluate art through my own experience, and create my own meanings is something that I have stubbornly held onto in my intellectual life. It is the philosophy that would eventually point me to media literacy as a field of study.
A Critical Media Literacy for Arts Educators
As a young student and later as budding scholar, I spent a lot of time wrapping my head around what Brecht and his contemporaries had to say about the work of art and its relationship to the advent of media technologies. I loved thinking and studying in this way. You would probably agree with me that it is rewarding to wrestle with another’s theories and to discover how they might be appropriately leveraged to further develop our own ideas.

Today I am not only a student and a scholar; I am also a teacher. In my everyday existence I am responsible for the preparation of preservice theater and media-arts teachers who will eventually work in secondary schools across the United States. In those schools, teachers will need practical tools to engage in questions about artistic processes and their accompanying literacies. I want them to be exposed to arts and media literacy theories, but, more importantly, I want them to feel confident that their pedagogical approaches provide space for young people to ask important questions about the world. I want these teachers to be brave enough to leave room for young people to form tentative (and sometimes sure) answers for themselves based on their own perceptions and their understanding of the perceptions of others. I do not imagine that I am alone in this wish. I believe that this is at the core of media literacy.

Each year I teach an advanced-level course in media literacy to arts and English educators. In this context, I link Brecht’s theories of the theater to the educational paradigms of Paulo Freire. I invite students to consider how the revolutionary theories of an artist (Brecht) and a pedagogue (Freire) might work together to help them form their own practical understandings of critical theory, media literacy, and their potential pedagogies.

In the course, we begin our discussion with the closing section from the book Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter (McLaren and Leonard 1993). The authors contextualize Freire’s critical literacy project within a simple statement attributed to Brecht. It reads, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it” (quoted in McLaren and Leonard 1993).  In dramatic fashion, McLaren and Leonard follow this statement by reminding the reader that for Freire, educational revolutions do not occur “without love.” They go on to remark that Freire’s work invites us to take Brecht’s hammer and “forge on liberation’s anvil new reciprocal discourses of knowing and freer, more equitable spaces for living” (McLaren and Leonard 1993, 82).

Sometimes when I am presenting McLaren and Leonard’s ideas, I almost laugh out loud, mostly because I know that the “love” described here does not meet the measurability standards these teachers will be held to. I know that the love described is not always sustainable in a classroom of forty-five middle-schoolers. I don’t laugh, though, because I want to engage in the complex problems that a critical pedagogy, which begins with love, might present in the real world. I don’t laugh, because I believe in the possibility of new discourses. I don’t laugh, because I want to be brave enough to secure equitable spaces for learning and living for young people. I don’t laugh, mostly because I believe in Brecht’s persistent hammer.

Brecht reshaped the field of theater because he believed that “the radical transformation of the theatre [couldn’t] be the result of some artistic whim.” He says, instead, “it simply had to correspond to the whole radical transformation of the mentality of our time” (Brecht 1968a, 23). It is this kind of transformational critical thinking that, for me, heralded the discourses we now refer to as media literacy.
Benjamin, W. 1998. Understanding Brecht. Translated by Anna Bostock. London: Verso.
———. 1999. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by H. Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.
Brecht, B. 1968a. “The Epic Theatre and Its Difficulties.” In Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by J. Willet, 22–24. New York: Hill and Wang.
———. 1968b. “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre.” In Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by J. Willet, 33–42. New York: Hill and Wang.
———. 1968c. “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” In Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by J. Willet, 179–206. New York: Hill and Wang.
———. 1968d. “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction.” In Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by J. Willet, 69–76. New York: Hill and Wang.
Brooker, P. 2006. “Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre.” In The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, edited by P. Thomson and G. Sacks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ezcurra, M. P. 2012. “On ‘Shock’: The Artistic Imagination of Benjamin and Brecht.” Contemporary Aesthetics 10 (1). Available at
Jensen, A. P. 2007. Theatre in a Media Culture: Production, Performance, and Perception since 1970. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
McLaren, P., and P. Leonard. 1993. Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter. London: Routledge.


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