How does Brecht’s ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ influence a feeling of empathy in a spectator?

A key directorial theory of Brecht’s is that the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ which is the act of making what the spectator knows as familiar become unfamiliar, by doing so a distance is created between the spectator and spectacle. This distance allows for critical detachment and observation, as Esslin explains, ‘to look at the action in a detached and critical spirit, familiar things, attitudes, and situations appear in a new and strange light, and create, through astonishment and wonder, a new understanding of the human situation’ (1980: 119). This critical distance and new understanding is important when considered that the most obvious feature of Brecht’s work is ‘its reflection of a consistent social and political point of view’ (Willet, 1977: 179). Analysing socio-political issues on stage in a detached manner can be argued to both enhance, and inhibit, a spectator’s performance experience. While this theory prevents them from being drawn into the illusionary world of plot and characters, it simultaneously means spectators have to ignore their raw emotions. These emotions may have been invoked by images, characters and issues on stage that they may relate to, and thus, feel empathetic towards.

The general definition of empathy is that it is an emotion where a person is able to understand, and share, in another person’s own emotions. In the context of performance, this would be a spectator observing the emotions an actor is demonstrating on stage and identifying them with those they have felt themselves; George Pierce Baker having defined a play as ‘the shortest distance from emotions to emotions’ (Hurley, 2010: 4-5). Brecht’s ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ aims to challenge, and reorientate, this where ‘if empathy makes something ordinary of a special event, alienation makes something special of an ordinary one’ (Brecht, 1965: 76). However, Brecht, in fact:

…does not reject […] empathy out of hand, as critics have sometimes believed he did. He is opposed rather to the conception of a spectator who identifies himself with the characters on stage in a thoughtless way, surrendering himself to the illusion and thereby promoting a fatalistic acceptance of the ways of the world both in the theatre and outside of it (Gray, 1976: 80).

Therefore, the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ by creating a detachment between the spectator and spectacle allows for ordinary events, which the spectator would find familiar and recognisable, to be made special where they can be examined critically; unfamiliar and new meaning is derived from these on stage events. By making the familiar become strange the spectator cannot empathise as they normally would when observing naturalistic theatre which aims to represent the world as it is, instead; ‘To make something look strange, to make us look at it with new eyes, implies the antecedence of a general familiarity, of a habit which prevents us from really looking at things…’ (Jameson, 2000: 39). In this way, the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ can be used as a socio-political device as the spectator will be critically analysing recognisable events on stage, ordinary in their everyday lives, thus they will come to question what they otherwise would not have questioned. In essence, ‘once the world is presented as strange, it must also arouse in the spectator the desire to alter it’ (Gray, 1969: 60).

As it has been mentioned, Brecht does not completely reject empathy and so the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ can actually be used to invoke emotions, including empathy, in the spectator. It is very much the matter of the audience being continually aware that they are observing a performance and so they are not ‘emotionally hypnotised’ (Wilson and Goldfarb, 2010: 353) by the transpiring action; ‘The study of human nature is thus replaced by that of human relations’ (Esslin, 1980: 123). The critical distance that the theory creates enables socio-political issues to be examined, issues which the spectator would have otherwise been unware and ignorant of. By observing ordinary events critically for the first time the spectator is lifted from their ignorance and in their education may now be able to observe similarities between the issues on stage, that were previously ignorant of, and their own lives. These similarities leading to emotional recognition and a critical empathy for what the actors are demonstrating. However, to have an ‘intellectual experience rather than an emotional one’ (Hischak, 2006: 227) may inhibit a spectator’s theatrical experience. The sense of detachment from true empathy, inaugurated by a spectator not conceding to the illusion that what is happening in performance is real, forces a them to ignore the raw emotions invoked by the characters and events on stage. Therefore, these raw emotions and the reasons for them being felt cannot be examined to further an understanding of certain socio-political discourses or human situations which are being presented. By disenabling the connection between the spectator and characters an element of critical exploration is lost, as Hischak states: ‘Whether we laugh at a hero, root for the heroine, or dislike the villain, the audience must somehow connect with the characters (2006: 34). Thus, being unable to feel emotions fully, and thus criticise holistically, is a possibly problematic element of Brecht’s theory, because ‘via emotional labour, theatre intervenes in how we as a society come to understand ourselves, our values, and our social world’ (Hurley, 2010: 10).

As Holthusen states, ‘Certain events of the play – by means of inscriptions, interpolations or music and noise, and the technique of the actor – should be elevated (alienated) out of the realm of the ordinary, natural, or expected…’ (1962: 108). Of these elements, the technique of the actor could be considered particularly important in achieving Brecht’s ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ as a socio-political device. In this area of the theory, ‘…Brecht sought a radical separation of actors from characters enabling each to operate independently. Actors should not “live” characters but demonstrate them to spectators. The demystification of the acting technique was a key part of Brecht’s goal’ (Martin and Bial, 1999: 5). By demystifying and only demonstrating a character’s traits ‘without trying to ‘become’ the role’ (Jameson, 2000: 39) the spectator would be aware they are observing an actor on stage. Therefore, they would come to question why an actor is presenting certain traits and what social and/or political commentary this has. For example, in Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play text Cloud Nine the female character of Betty is played by a male actor, Churchill explains this as because ‘she wants to be what men want her to be’ and that she ‘does not value herself as a woman’(1985: 245). If a spectator were to be watching this performance in the context of the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ then they may come to question how this is demonstrating societal norms of sexual politics, by demonstrating femininity, or what is considered femininity, a spectator may come to question what defines gender norms in society. From this a spectator may come to feel a sense of empathy, while they are prevented from identifying with a character, in the example of Cloud Nine, they may recognise the gender stereotypes being exemplified. By recognising these stereotypes demonstrated by an actor they would relate them to what they have seen, or experienced, in their own lives; leading to a feeling of critical empathy for the characters.

A final point on how the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ can be utilised as a socio-political device is that ‘To alienate the audience, Brecht also used a technique he referred to as historification’, where ‘many of his plays are […] are set in the past, but it is apparent he is really concerned with contemporary events paralleling the historic occurrences’ (Wilson and Goldfarb, 2010: 353). By setting plays in the past but with issues that are quite contemporary a spectator is immediately distanced from the action, the contemporary issues create proxemics to the current time period. However, this is undercut by the notion that ‘they are sitting in a theatre, listening to an account (however vividly presented) of things which have happened in the past at a certain time in a certain place’ (Esslin, 1980: 115). Therefore, if the spectator is aware they are watching events from the past being detached from the action enables them to parallel the events and issues on stage to what is happening in their current time period. This could inaugurate a critical empathy in the spectator for what is happening to this character ‘in the past’ as it may be similar to what experiences they personally have had in real life; they can examine why these issues are still relevant which can, as aforementioned, ‘arouse in the spectator the desire to alter it’ (Gray, 1969: 60).

In conclusion, it is undeniable that feelings are extremely important, and central, to theatrical experience. As Aristotle stated, ‘Fear and pity may be roused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet’ (2011: 37). When applied to the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ it is clear that emotions roused from a critical understanding of ‘ordinary’ events in performance, their socio-political relevance and progression in the piece, leads to a superior mode of feeling. Brecht’s theory aiming to orientate otherwise careless and uncritical emotions in a different direction, one whereby new and critical meaning can be understood. In essence, the critical emotions felt by a spectator are no longer careless but are inaugurated from an ‘intellectual climate for social change’ (Wilson and Goldfarb, 2010: 353).



Aristole. (2011) Poetics. United States of America: Witch Books. (Originally published 350BC)

Brecht, B. (1965) The Messingkauf Dialogues. Kent: Methuen.

Churchill, C. (1985) Plays: 1. London: Methuen Drama.

Esslin, M. (1980) Brecht A Choice of Evils: A Critical Study of The Man, His Work and His Opinions. 3rd edn. London: Heinemann Educational Books. 

Gray, R. (1969). Brecht. Glasgow: Oliver and Boyd.

Gray, R. (1976) Brecht The Dramatist. London: Cambridge University Press.

Hischak, T S. (2006) Theatre as Human Action: An Introduction to Theatre Arts. Maryland: Scarecrow Press.

Holthusen, H E. (1962) Brecht’s Dramatic Theory in Brecht A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Peter Demetz. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Hurley, E. (2010) Theatre & Feeling. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillian.

Jameson, F. (2000) Brecht and Method. London: Verso.

Martin, C. Bial, H. (1999) Brecht Sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Willet, J. (1977) The Theatre Of Bertolt Brecht. London: Methuen Drama.

Wilson, E. Goldfarb, A. (2010) Theatre The Lively Art. 3rd edn. New York: McGraw-Hill


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