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Brecht’s Concept of Character Walter H. Sokel From the beginning, Brecht was unable to accept the con­ cept of dramatic character as the ultimate, absolute, and fate­ determining quality which it had been for the traditional European drama, “the drama of Renaissance and classicism,” as Peter Szondi called it. He had to reject it because that con­ cept is rooted in the religious and metaphysical idea of an indivisible and eternal soul. As early as the middle ’20’s man, for Brecht, does not exist as an individual, i.e. as an indivisible and essentially unchangeable person, a point that A Man is a Man tries to make. Yet even earlier, “the student of the natural sciences,” as Brecht called himself, had been willing to see the world not as a sum of eternal substances, but as a web of pro­ cesses. Man could be comprehended not by his soul but by the sum total of his modes of behavior. For the 22-year-old Brecht, character is the sum of the gestures and acts of the figure. For him to know a character meant to view his successive gestures at one and the same time. “When he is to drink beer in your play,” the young Augsburg playwright and drama critic advises himself, “then you also have to know how he would eat eggs, read the papers, sleep with his wife and kick the bucket.” Here already, character is not a unity but an ensemble. Conspicuous by its absence is that element from which classical and even naturalistic dramaturgy proceeds, namely, motivation. Motivation, being something invisible, is problematical for Brecht. He proceeds from the visible, the viewable gesture, the observable act of the figure. But gesture is ambiguous. We can observe it only by its effects, not by its causes. Since Brecht was not concerned with “the good” and “the evil” or with “the beautiful” and “the ugly,” but only with “the correct,” he pre­ ferred the absence of motivation to erroneously imputed moti177 178 Comparative Drama vation (197). In traditional dramaturgy, motivation is the carrier of the plot and motivation, in turn, is deduced from character and its qualities, which figure as absolutes. Qualities, then, represent the starting point and the essence of the action of the play. Brecht opposes this religious and metaphysical view with a behavioristic and pragmatic one. Not quality, but activity, characterizes the dramatic figure for him. Doing takes the place of being such and such as the determining factor for character. Since deeds may be contradictory, we find permanent changeability in place of unity and consistency of characters. Brecht’s characters are “without qualities,” or rather, are equip­ ped with changeable, exchangeable and mutually contradictory traits. Brecht and Musil start out from the same insight but continue in opposite directions. Musil is concerned with seizing an inwardness which has become ineffable and indefinable, whereas Brecht resolutely draws the consequences from the evaporation of the concept of quality and person, eschews the indefinable, and restricts himself to the observable.1 In sharp contrast to classical dramaturgy, the action of the play is not to be deduced from and based on character, but on the contrary, as Brecht says in the fundamental model of his theater, “Street Scene,” “The characters are to be [derived] utterly and completely from their actions” (551).2 The consequence of this Anew can be traced back to the very beginnings of Brecht. The most powerful and important influence upon him came from the tradition of vaudeville, circus, and burlesque which, for him, was marked by the names of Wedekind (effective for Brecht more as a performer than as a playwright), Karl Valentin and Charlie Chaplin.3 From those influences, which cannot be overestimated, stems the central role of gesture in the work and the dramaturgical thinking of Brecht. The strongest “dramatic” influence upon the young Brecht was the art of Charlie Chaplin.4 Brecht places Chaplin’s art even higher than the acclaimed expertise of the Munich comedian Valentin. Chaplin is for him “the most deeply moving artist in existence”; Chaplin’s is “utterly pure art” (61). It is interesting that, in describing Chaplin’s art, Brecht presents the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 177-192
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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