Alienation-effect (verfremdungseffekt)

Verfremdungseffekt (typically translated as alienation-effect, but better translated as distancing-effect) is the term coined by Bertold Brecht to describe the process of distancing the audience from the emotional ‘pull’ of a theatrical experience, in order that they should have the mental space to consider and reflect on the issues which that theatrical experience raised. He proposed a range of techniques through which verfremdungseffekt could be achieved. These include:

  • Signs, placards or projections which tell us what’s going to happen before each scene, to disrupt the illusion and to give the audience a context or message on which to base their observations.
  • Masks and puppetry
  • Visible stage machinery (exposing the technology of theatre)
  • Use of music to interrupt and comment on the action
  • Acting in the third person
  • Having actors describe and comment on their moves and gestures, outside the dialogue of the play (Shakespeare and his contemporaries used this technique, see also Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’).
  • Encouraging actors to explore “characteristic gestures” which sum up a character or a situation or an emotion (rather than using ‘realistic’ clichés of behaviour to induce empathy or illusion)

Brecht was a committed Marxist and wished to replace the illusions and empathy of ‘realist’ theatre with a dialectical ‘epic’ theatre which made people think and encouraged them to social and political action. He rejected the Aristotelian aim of eliciting pity leading to catharsis, replacing it with one of supporting the impulse to act through a process of curiosity and reflection. He aimed to replace the conflict between a protagonist and his antagonist with contradictions between theses and antitheses. This all does not mean that his theatre is dry or heavy, done well it is entertaining and exciting, and made very rich by the contradictions – for example, a song might have a touching melody and ironic words (cf several songs in The Threepenny Opera).

Alienation-effect has relevance to you if you want your audience to consider and reflect on issues you raise in your Narrative Environment. You need to think about what techniques you use to ‘break the illusion’, which might be quite different from those Brecht proposes. Also, structurally, you might, for example, want to create an immersive environment but break the spell at various points in order to get your audience to reflect on the experience they are having.


edited 1 March, 2017 by Stuart Jones

Associated Practices

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