- Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob
Addressing the misapprehensions that still surround this looming figure of theatre history, David Zoob joins a number of recent scholar-artists promising to translate Bertolt Brecht’s daunting theory into actionable, and accessible, language. Brecht: A Practical Handbook is distinct in its remarkably digested presentation of Brechtian principles; this exercise-focused volume is the outcome of Brecht’s corpus filtered through Zoob’s thirty-plus years of experience as a professional performer, director, deviser, and educator. In comparison to other practice-based books, such as Stephen Unwin’s The Complete Brecht Toolkit (2014) and David Barnett’s Brecht in Practice (2016), Zoob’s scope is also more narrowly defined, focused on acting and directing and leaving the various “devices” associated with Brecht virtually uncommented on. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of this book, as its subtitle suggests, is its unwavering practicality—a trait that will certainly appeal to actors, directors, and theatre educators.
Zoob’s jaunts into Brechtian theory are brief and precise, with straightforward definitions that are immediately translated into practical activities and clear language. Although this often means skipping over the fruitful ambiguity of Brecht’s terminology, it seems that such ambiguity is what Zoob finds not only off-putting for actors, but worse, an unnecessary source of intimidation that has resulted in Brecht being conceded to what he calls the “Theatre Studies Industry” (xiii). Despite that touch of hostility toward theorists, the boiled-down clarity of Zoob’s take on Brecht will be of interest to even those educators and scholars who never set foot in the rehearsal hall.
The Handbook’s entire approach is premised on the conviction that Brecht’s theories are not actually about drawing attention to the theatre as artifice. In fact, Zoob avoids the term Verfremdung almost entirely due to its association with Brechtian “devices” that, for him, amount to little more than “clutter” and “cliché” (xiv–xv). Rather than finding ways to remind the audience that they are in a theatre, the techniques that Zoob outlines are all geared toward highlighting the socially contingent (as opposed to universal) nature of character behavior. He also takes this to be the crux of Brecht’s political theory. Without dwelling on details of historical materialism, Zoob crystalizes Brechtian social critique into a practice of identifying and emphasizing both the sociopolitical pressures that shape character behavior and the consequences of that behavior for others: “The task for us is to make this behavior seem strange, to show it needn’t be like this” (10). In other words, the target of Zoob’s Verfremdung is less theatrical convention than dramatic personae, which results in an approach to Brecht more character-driven than most, and more compatible with techniques likely already familiar to today’s actors.
The Handbook is divided into six jargon-free chapters, each organized around a Brechtian principle. “Reading a Text” (chapter 1) uses King Lear to demonstrate how a Brechtian lens can be applied to any play by focusing on events “of social significance” (3), their interrelationships, and social causes. For example, rather than concentrating on the interpersonal dimension of Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters, Zoob’s Brechtian reading would emphasize the political ramifications of this decision—new borders, new rulers, widespread uncertainty—by having onstage characters react with trepidation. The second chapter, “Contradiction,” riffs on Brecht’s “Not . . . But . . .” exercise to help actors play inconsistencies and highlight character choices. “Storytelling” and “Gestus” (chapters 3 and 4 respectively) explore the productive tension between narration and action and offer guidance on how to realize it physically. “Emotion” and “Fun” (chapters 5 and 6) challenge perhaps the most ubiquitous objection to Brecht’s theatre—that it is cold and dry—through exercises to “choreograph emotion” and introduce a sense of play into the topics already covered. Each of the forty-three exercises begins with a clearly stated purpose, followed by step-by-step prompts, most of which work with excerpts from well-known plays. The prompts themselves are terse, but they are followed by examples...