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Dances with Mei Lanfang: Brecht and the Alienation Effect Ronnie Bai Brecht's formal employment of the terminology Verfremdungseffekt did not appear until he witnessed Mei Lanfang's demonstration of traditional Chinese theater arts in Moscow in the spring of 1935, after which he wrote two essays, "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting" (1936) and "On the Theater of the Chinese" (1940). It was repeated and expounded in several further essays such as "The Street Scene" (1938), "On Experimental Theater" (1939), "Short Description of a New Technique of Acting Which Produces an Alienation Effect" (1940), and "A Short Organum for the Theater" (1948). Chinese theater is repeatedly referred to for corroboration in these essays, which are interspersed with statements such as "[fjraditional Chinese acting also knows the alienation effect, and applies it most subtly"; "the theatre ofpast periods also, technically speaking, achieved results with alienation effects—for instance the Chinese theatre"; "[a] masterly use of gesture can be seen in Chinese acting. The Chinese actor achieves the ?-effect by being seen to observe his own movements"; and "the Asiatic theatre even today uses musical and pantomimic ?-effects."1 Judging by the tone and the content of these essays, particularly "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting" which is resonant with his admiration for Mei Lanfang, Brecht's response resembles that of a man happy to have found a new friend who shares with him the same outlook about the world as well as similar views about art. However, Brecht also could upon occasion flatly deny Chinese influence, as in his insistence that the alienation effect in his theater was developed quite independently of the Asiatic art of acting.2 This may have provided a cue for those critics who have been led to believe that Brecht had developed his theory fully before his sojourn in Moscow in 1935.3 So too with respect to Brecht's idea of"originality" which enabled him to borrow and adapt from a great variety of sources, many critics have also tried 389 390Comparative Drama to suggest other sources of influence which Brecht may have received in formulating his theory of the alienation effect. Frederic Ewen even speculates upon the likelihood of the influence which Denis Diderot's Paradox of Acting, written in the 1770s, had upon Brecht.4 Antony Tatlow attempts in an analogous fashion to associate the alienation effect with Japanese theater, the nö and the kabuki.s John Willett's belief that Brecht derived the theory from the Russian formalists appears to have been followed by others such as Katherine Bliss Eaton and Josette Ferai,6 and attempts have also been made to examine Brecht's indebtedness to Hegel and Marxism.7 I am not trying to argue here that Brecht's development of the alienation effect was totally a result of Chinese influence, as there is hardly any evidence showing that Brecht borrowed any particular acting techniques or patterns of gesture from Chinese operas. "Influence" from foreign cultural traditions upon Brecht's theater does not show itself as something absolutely tangible. In his case we need to view "influence" in terms of his creative and meaningful response towards a particular tradition. Such a response may then be seen to have led to a modification of his aesthetic-theatrical principles in relation to the particular social and political situation of his time. I Brecht began his theatrical career in the aftermath of the First World War and hence experienced the drastic economic, political, and social changes in his country at that time. The sudden collapse of the Prussian régime, brought by the November Revolution in 1918, ushered in the democratic Weimar Republic, which lasted precariously until Hitler's Nazi movement gained enough support—chiefly from the bureaucratic, judiciary, industrial, and military foundations of the defeated Empire of Wilhelm II that were not removed after the Revolution—to seize the power in 1933 for a militaristic revival. The Weimar period represented an age that not only saw Germany emerge as a fully industrialized country, but also sought to address issues of liberalization and democratization, previously unquestioned during the rapid process of industrial modernization which characterized the pre-war Empire . The historical predicament in which Germany...


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