The Complete Brecht Toolkit

The Complete Brecht Toolkit

Throughout my studying for my course ‘Context and Narrative’ and on occasion with my current course of ‘Setting the Scene’ I have kept reading references to Bertolt Brecht and therefore I have wanted to read about this man in order to understand how he has influenced the art world and how he links to my photography theory.  As it happens I purchased a copy of ‘The Complete Brecht Toolkit’ by Stephen Unwin published by Nick Hurn Books ISBN: 978-1-85459-550-8, for my wife who is a keen amateur actor.

This book has been written for the student actor or stage director; but I still found it a very interesting read and I now have a much better idea how Brecht fits in to the Jigsaw of art theory that I am studying for my photography art degree.

As a photographer I have identified that all the main Brechtian theories can be added to my own toolkit which are: Gestus, Contradiction and complex seeing, Alienation and Epic-theatre.

Gestus – Definition:

Gestus or Gest is like the English word Gesture: the pointed finger, the shrugged shoulder, turning one’s back to someone; but it is not like gesticulation, the mad waving of hands, etc.  Gestus is a visual sign for the audience to be able to grasp a key relationship by looking at a single moment of action.  Examples that Brecht tells us would be a Gest is: the look / expression a German POW would give when seeing allied film of the liberated concentration camps for the first time.  This is the walk of a man carrying his dead baby son.  This is the attitude of the soldier who watches a colleague rape the daughter of their enemy.   So, I suggest, that a Gestus / Gest is another angle on the theory of symbiotics that I studied in Context and Narrative but in a human form.

Alienation – Definition:

To make strange – meaning:  To present an ordinary subject in a different way so that the audience would see the familiar in a new light.  This can be achieved in composition with camera angles and selective-framing.  This again was covered in my ‘Context and Narrative’ course.

Contradictions and complex seeing.

To present characters and subjects in contradictions for example to present a sense of realism by presenting  the characters on stage as not all good and not all bad but are made up of a little of both.  In photography to create methods of juxtaposition for interesting images that can possibly spark debate.

I guess the alienation theory is probably why his name has cropped up so often as this was discussed in length in my last course ‘Context and Narrative’ with the idea of making the familiar appear strange with camera angles and composition.

As an artist I take an interest in other people’s sciences and I am always looking for ideas that can inspire my work in new ways and help to give me that ‘j’ne sais que’ that makes my work just a little different and original from everyone else’s.  I don’t expect to find a eureka idea but by reading and understanding the ideas of different artists and philosopher’s then in time I hope that it will add a little colour and texture to my own artistic voice.  Plus being married to a keen actress I am inevitably involved with helping her develop her characters.  I have successfully coached her through a part that won her a best supporting actress award and I have read several books on the art of stage directing and the works of Stanislavsky who’s theories on method acting is now universally adopted.  I have also attended two professional stage directing courses; so on reflection given my background my choice of ‘Setting the Scene’ was almost inevitable.


At first I didn’t think his theory on epic-theatre was relevant to photography however, it struck me that my first assignment for my ‘Context and Narrative’ course would have been considered a Brechtian exercise of epic-street-corner-theatre.  I had produced a number of photographs that had captured a fictional event of an elderly woman crossing the road which appeared to tell two different stories.  The first selection of images suggested that she had been assaulted whilst the second that she had been saved from being run over.

Epic-Theatre – Definition:

Brecht’s other main theory for art was what he termed as epic-theatre; this did not refer to large or grand productions, I quote: ‘The epic-theatre is chiefly interested in the attitudes which people adopt towards one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant’.  It works out scenes where people adapt attitudes of such a sort that the social laws under which they are acting springs into sight …The concern of the epic-theatre is thus eminently practical.  Human behaviour is shown as alterable; man himself as dependant on certain political and economic factors and at the same time as capable of altering them.’ (Bertolt Brecht.)  Brecht’s epic-theatre is theatre that makes the audience question the choices that the characters make and encouraging the audience to consider alternative actions and endings to break the idea that people are tied to fate and destiny, that people have choices.  Photographers can use this idea to produce imagery that provokes thought and debate just as epic-theatre is intended to provoke thought and debate amongst theatre audiences.  In his use of epic-theatre, Brecht was not afraid to break the forth-wall and allow the actors to talk straight at the audience, he also used captions that may be addressed directly to the audience or sometimes included into the set-design.  Much of these techniques remind me of documentary style photography and in film-making all these ideas can be used, if not all, all of the time most, most of the time.

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