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  • Brechtian AlienAsian:Socialist ex Machina from Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan and David Hare's Fanshen
  • Sheng-mei Ma (bio)

Anchored in working-class culture and socialist belief, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht theorizes Alienation-effect to advocate performers' and spectators' emotional dissociation from the stage in favor of thinking through, to borrow the title of Timothy J. Wiles's 1980 book, "the theater event."1 The A-effect intends to overhaul the modern stage for a non-Aristotelian, non-Stanislavsky alternative, partly inspired by a Peking Opera female impersonator Mei Lanfang, whose performances, for lack of a better word, "wowed" him in Moscow in 1935. Considering the political implications of the visit, John Fuegi asserts that Brecht was invited to Moscow with the express order "to be extremely explicit in opposing the Nazis in his own writings."2 But party affiliation aside, the theory of A-effect served to legitimize the dramatist's own sense of dis-orientation by "Oriental" theatrical stylization. That which is taken for granted within traditional Chinese dramaturgy so shocks Brecht that he finds the model for his vision of epic theater.3 The white love for the inexplicable, mystical Orient means to love it to death, to read into the riddle of a "Chinese box" the West's own wish fulfillment. The West's enlightenment comes at the expense of occluding the East. Not to mince words, Brecht births epic theater over the dead body of Chinese theater, a collage of fragmentary impressions rather than an evolving, organic heritage. And Brecht's self-centered, left-leaning Orientalism is inherited by the socialist David Hare in his early agitprop and populist plays. Critiquing Brecht's theory and practice of Alienation-effect, this exploration focuses on his seminal [End Page 443] essay "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting" (1936), his play The Good Woman of Setzuan (1947, henceforth Setzuan), and Hare's copycat or "copychinese" Fanshen (1976).

Alienation, by definition, involves a split, and for Brecht, alienation in drama entailed a departure from Aristotelian-Stanislavskian conventions. Such division is constitutive of Marxism, which posits dialectical forces vying for dominance throughout human history. Contestation of opposites within oneself and one's world recurs in Brecht's dramas. But even the word "alienation" casts its own shadow. Effecting Brecht's Alienation required an alien nation—a phantom one at that—to prop up the white state of being. The operative word may well be spelled with its uncanny sound-alikes: AlieNation, even AlienAsian. These two neologisms—an "alien nation" comprised of "alien Asians"—dwell holographically within "alienation." The long shadow cast all the way to the other side of the earth bespeaks Brecht and Hare's quixotic quest beyond the capitalist West, chancing upon a solution in socialist ex machina. The Oriental Other provides an "out" from their Western selfhood, an escape clause from the contractual bond(age) to the West by virtue of birth and cultural upbringing. The socialist China peoples their stage, as though crowding off the Western tradition.

This replacement hearkens back, ironically, to Greek tragedies' deus ex machina, yet another Western legacy against which the playwrights presumably rebel. In Aeschylus' or Euripides' tragedies, deus ex machina or God from the machine, i.e., lowered with ropes or on a crane, or emerged on a riser through a trapdoor, rounds off the play with a divine, even cathartic, closure. In Brecht and Hare, the socialist China does not descend only when the curtain drops—it constitutes the whole play. Yet these early plays featuring socialist ex machina and Brechtian AlienAsian are but a mere "yellow" touch ("stain," some critics argue) on their largely white corpus. Whether a people's awakening to self-sufficiency in Brecht's Setzuan or Hare's communist apologia in the West's counterculture movement, this socialist ex machina is fully enacted in these early plays to intimate an Oriental utopia in the making vis-a-vis the capitalist West. Nevertheless, such dabbling in the East occupies but a miniscule portion of their corpuses, exposing the whim of young idealistic artists coming of age, a momentary flirt with the unknown beyond the West, before they [End Page 444] settle in for...