Dialectical method in the work of Brecht and its role in the postmodernizing of the theatre

This article was published in Communications from the International Brecht Society (Volume 31, June 2002)
By Dan Friedman


   Bertolt Brecht, as a politically engaged theatre artist, has most often been approached as an orthodox Marxist, an ideologue, and a modernist -- and he is, indeed, all of these.  However, 46 years after his death and 13 years after the collapse of the communist movement of which he was a part, it is becoming clear that it is neither his Marxist ideology nor, what is essentially the same thing, his modernism, that is Brecht’s lasting legacy to the theatre. At the turn of the 21st century, Brecht’s influence on world theatre  -- especially political, experimental and avant-garde theatre – is greater than ever.  This influence, however, is not to found primarily in the content of his scripts or even in the impact of his dramaturgical or directorial techniques per se.  What has generally been overlooked (or denied) by theatre historians and critics is that Brecht’s most lasting influence in the theatre has proven to be not his Marxist ideology, but his Marxist methodology – dialectics.

   Dialectics, the practice of method and transformative logic first consciously introduced to the theatre by Brecht, has increasingly come to characterize the contemporary avant-garde, what has come to be referred to as the postmodern theatre. Although Brecht’s understanding of dialectics, like that of the orthodox Marxism of which he was a part, was, I would argue, overly mechanical and formulaic, it is, nonetheless what links his work to contemporary postmodern developments in theatre and performance. Much of the emerging postmodernist theatre -- with its “death of character,” non-linear, fragmented plot, and relational approaches to the activity of theatre creation – is fundamentally dialectical. It is not that contemporary theatre and performance artists such as Anne Bogart, Caryl Churchill, Richard Foreman, Heiner Müller and Fred Newman are simply imitating or applying Brecht; they are, rather, expanding and deepening, that is, developing, his methodology. In so doing, the emerging postmodern and “political” theatre is best understood, I hope to demonstrate, not in terms of content, but as a methodology of performance and a performance of method.

   Dialectics is one of those words that has come to mean many things to many people.  I therefore want to start by making clear what I mean by dialectics, so that we share, at least for this dialogue, a common foundation for what is, after all, an unusual investigation of a methodological practice in the creation of theatre.

   Dialectics has ancient roots in the dialogic method, the method of philosophical exploration in the form of dialogue and discussion utilized by Socrates and other early Greek philosophers. Early on in Western intellectual tradition it became associated with the notion that the search for truth is a social activity involving the clash (and interdependence) of varying viewpoints.  As opposed to the metaphysical tradition which identifies truth (and the nature of the universe) with a stable, unchanging essence, dialectics identifies truth, to the extent that it recognizes the concept of truth at all (and the nature of the universe) with unceasing change and transformation.

   In modern times, Hegel developed dialectics, using it to build a general theory of history in which human moral and spiritual development is seen as emerging from the struggle between opposites.  Marx applied Hegel’s method, while abandoning his mentor’s separation of spirit from human activity, to his study of economics and human social development. For Marx, particularly in his early writings, The 1848 Manuscripts and The German Ideology  (Marx, 1967;  Marx and Engels, 1974), dialectics is process.   It is a human activity and, at the same time, a means of studying human activity. Marx’s frequent collaborator, Fredrick Engels, in an attempt to make dialectics compatible with 19th century science, abstracted the study of process and formularized it.  For Engels, in influential books such as Anti-Dühring and The Dialectics of Nature, dialectics was reduced to a struggle between opposites which eventually synthesized into a new unity. Dialectics as an methodology for understanding human life in which human beings are approached as a unity of being and becoming was de-emphasized, and the open endedness of the dialectic method in which every change transforms the totality was lost to orthodox Marxism. (Engels, 1939, 1972)

   It was the stunted, formularized version of dialectics that Brecht was introduced to when he became a Marxist in the late 1920s. Nonetheless, there were elements of dialectics preserved in Marxism that survived modernist deformations and the bloody and corrupting political battles of the 20th century and which Brecht can be credited with first introducing into theatre practice and theory.   

   Through the work of Hegel and Marx, dialectics emerged in the 19th century as an alternative and challenge to traditional Aristotelian logic, that is, an alternative methodology for human navigation.  Key to this alternative logic is the concept of contradiction.  According to traditional logic, contradiction is impossible.  A thing can not be itself and something else at the same time. Dialectics, however, holds that everything is itself and not itself at the same time, that is, everything is and is becoming.  Nothing is static or self-contained.  Everything is connected and nothing is finished, closed, concluded.  Nothing, to use a theatrical term, is resolved.

   Opposition to resolution is one of the key aesthetic concepts that Brecht introduced to the theatre.  As he wrote in his Appendices to the Short Organum, “The bourgeois theatre’s performances always aim at smoothing over contradictions, at creating false harmony…Conditions are reported as if they could not be otherwise; characters as individuals, incapable by definition of being divided…If there is any development it is always steady, never by jerks; the developments always take place within a definite  framework which cannot be broken through.”  His theatre, on the other hand, should, Brecht wrote, “make dialectics into a source of enjoyment.  The unexpectedness of logically progressive or zigzag development, the instability of every circumstance, the joke of contradiction…all these are ways of enjoying the liveliness of men, things and processes, and they heighten both our capacity for life and our pleasure in it.” (Brecht 1977, 277)

   As Brecht implies in his negative reference to “characters as individuals,” dialectics rejects the notion of distinct, individualized things. If everything is and at the same time is becoming, then there are no self-sustaining, static, unchanging “things”; there is only motion.  Thingness is an illusion or, perhaps more to the point, a convenience for grasping a process at a particular point in its ongoing development.    

   Traditional Aristotelian logic approaches particulars as distinct units that together make up the totality.  In theatre, this has meant characters as a collection of particular characteristics, plays as a collection of particular characters, plots as a collection of particular events. Dialectical logic, on the other hand, understands the particular as simply a means of mapping a constantly transforming temporal/spatial continuum.

   This rejection of thingness, i.e., of distinct, unchanging particulars, has begun to have a profound impact on the approach to character in the contemporary postmodern theatre.

   Brecht, in plays such as Man Is Man, The Good Person of Szechwan, and a number of his lehrstücke, began to challenge the sanctity of the self-contained, individuated character, a challenge that has been taken up with far more radical effect in the plays of Churchill, Foreman, Müller and Newman.   In some of Churchill’s plays and in many of Newman’s, characters regularly change age, race, sex and historical location in ways that challenge long held assumptions about what a character and an individual are.  (Friedman 1998, xxxv).  In Heiner Muller’s later work, the theatrical pieces that he referred to as synthetic fragments, the abandonment of individuated character is so radical that he often doesn’t even indicate which character speaks what lines.  As Robert Wilson put it in a 1987 discussion with Newman and myself, “What interests me about Heiner’s plays is that there is so much freedom…He doesn’t dictate so much how the work is to be done.  Sometimes you don’t even know who is to speak the lines–a man, a woman, an old person, a young person–whether it’s a setting on the moon or in New York or wherever.” (Wilson 1987, 114)

   Speaking of the characters in Foreman’s plays, Marc Robinson, has said, “Nothing ever coalesces in their world.  Just as they settle, grow familiar with one another, and understand what is at stake, the action stops short – only to start over in a different place.  The chronic disruptions make it difficult even to recognize Foreman’s characters as characters.  They reinvent themselves with every sentence, acquiring new virtues and vices, discarding their original beliefs before they (or we) have examined them adequately.  They sever relationships with one another and welcome distraction.  Sometimes, they even change their names.  The entire play seems to shed a skin–and then another skin, and still one more.” (Robinson 1995, i)

   As this discussion of character implies, the dialectical notion of change is qualitatively different from the notion of change in traditional logic, and traditional theatre. As Brecht points out in the excerpt from the Short Organum quoted earlier, in traditional theatre, development, if it takes place at all, “takes place within a definite framework which can not be broken through.”  Traditional logic can not account for the kind of character transformations and transmutations noted in the plays of the postmodern playwrights.  In fact, traditional logic can not account for qualitative change at all.  The relationship between particulars can be changed; A leads to B leads to C.  A discovered love letter leads to fit of jealousy which leads to a crime of passion, and so on.  But A remains A.  B remains B.  C remains C. And the totality of which they are a part remains intact.   Othello may start off innocent and wind up a murderer, but he is still Othello.  It is a mechanical model in which situations change but the “things” themselves, and the totality they constitute, remain what they are.   Whatever has shaken up the world on stage is resolved, that is, brought back to what it is.

   In contrast, the dialectical method approaches change as transformative.  Change is inherent in the process of life, in the contradictorness of what we, in everyday speech, call “things.”  Each thing is and is becoming, is what it is and is what it is not, and that contradiction, that tension, that energy, according to the dialectic method, is what drives the process forward.  Change is not a realignment of what is, it is the transformation of what is into something qualitatively different. Since particulars don’t exist, it is not particulars that are changed. What can, and does, change are totalities.  Since everything is connected and interrelated, changing anything involves changing everything.

   We can see these different notions of change reflected in the two different approaches to dramatic structure that now dominate in contemporary theatre.  While the traditional plays in the Western tradition–from Aeschylus to August Wilson--are structured causally, Brecht and those who have built on the method he introduced to the theatre have experimented with an array of non-causal dramatic structures.

   With his “epic” narrative form, Brecht attempted to find a structure more coherent with the dialectic method.  His approach to structuring conflict, he argued, showed development as uneven and irregular; change as zig-zag and qualitative as opposed to linear and quantitative. Brecht, in his well-known chart contrasting what he called “dramatic” theatre with his “epic” theatre, put it this way.  In dramatic theatre, “the human being is taken for granted/he is unalterable/eyes on the finish/one scene makes another/growth/linear development/evolutionary determinism/man as a fixed point.”  In epic theatre, on the other hand, “the human being is the object of inquiry/he is alterable and able to alter/eyes on the course/each scene for itself/montage/in curves/jumps/man as process.” (Brecht 1977, 37)

   Many of the postmodern playwrights have gone further.  Churchill in Cloud 9 (1979), for example, using roughly the same set of characters (while changing the age, sex and race of some of them) sets up her two acts as two distinct narratives separated by 100 years.  The two acts, in essence, have a conversation with each other, in the process of which they comment upon and transform each other.  Newman in Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday (1986) tells the same story three times with three different takes on the play’s action, characters and issues, approximating for the stage what cubism did for the plastic arts – the viewing of the action from various angles simultaneously.  Many other of Newman’s, and virtually all of Foreman’s, plays do away with narrative altogether.  Newman has argued that narrative itself is a conservative imposition on the dialectical unfolding of human activity, and prefers to call his plays “performed conversations.”  (Newman and Holzman 1999) Foreman put it this way, “I’m continually concerned with taking whatever statement is there, ‘Rhonda, you look beautiful tonight’ and adding a ‘Yes, But’…staging possible alternative to whatever’s said.” (Foreman 1997, 28)

   Paula Vogel, many of whose plays, including her Pulitzer Prize winner, How I Learned to Drive,  (1998) build on Brecht’s pioneering work in dramatic structure, writes in this regard: “The postmodern playwright follows Bertolt Brecht’s dictim literally: we as playwrights are separating the elements [within the text]…We expose the contradictions that we are aware of in the play as we write it (and rely on the process of production to further find and critique the contradictions we are blind to), we layer the work with multiple meanings, we defamiliarize closure.” (Vogel 1995, 95)

   The conscious separation of the elements within the theatrical production that Vogel references is a key Brechtian attempt to introduce dialectics into the aesthetics of the theatre.  Here we go beyond the strictly literary embodiment of dialectics within the script to the arena of theatrical production.  According to the dialectical method, any process develops through its internal contradictions. Brecht, therefore, did not want to create, as traditional aesthetics dictates, the illusion of a harmonious unity.  On the contrary, he wanted to draw attention to the tensions between the elements of production.  For example, a love song was to be sung to a harsh melody; lighting changes were to be made obvious so that their reality as technology could challenge the sentimental illusions that lighting technology can create, and so on. (Brecht 1997, 84-90, 104-106, 230-232)

   The artistic goal of the traditional theatre is the creation of a unified artistic statement in which the various elements–acting, setting, costumes, lights, etc.–are flawlessly interwoven with each other and with the content of the script.  It is based on the assumptions of traditional logic, which rejects contradiction and sees the world as essentially static – a thing (including a theatrical production) is what it is and nothing else.  The contemporary postmodern theatre, building on Brecht, seeks, in Vogel’s words, to “expose contradiction,” not only in the script but in the production itself.  Virtually all of the directors of the contemporary avant-garde, despite considerable stylistic variation, work to separate the particular elements of the production from each other and from the script in such a way that each element is commenting on, even conflicting with, the other elements. As Robert Wilson put it in a recent public dialogue with Fred Newman at John Jay College of the City University of New York: “Language is just one of the layers that are put together to create theatre…You (the director) makes choices about how you put them together.” (Wilson, 2002)

   The aesthetics of this dialectical separation of the elements of production have been most developed, at least in terms of theory, by Anne Bogart and her followers.  Rejecting the unifying assumptions of Stanislavsky and his progeny, Bogart, instead of seeking a closed system, has developed a method for dialogue among the various elements of the theatre. Rejecting the centrality of either script or character, Bogart has identified a number of what she calls “viewpoints” that are active in any theatrical production and has approached the activity of directing as the coordination of an interplay, or dialectic, between these viewpoints.  Initially she identified six viewpoints, now there are nine.  No doubt there will be more, since deconstruction is a potentially endless process.  Bogart’s nine viewpoints are: spatial relationship, shape, kinesthetic response of one actor to another; repetition, gesture, architecture, tempo, duration and topography. We have neither the time nor need to discuss the specifics of these viewpoints here. What is important for our discussion, I believe, is that Bogart has developed a dialectical directing method that has added considerable sophistication to Brecht’s initial move to separate the elements of production.

   Tina Landau, a Bogart protegee and collaborator, discusses the viewpoints this way: “The movement has been separated from the text so that each is informed by and related to the other without it being the same as the other.  There is a tension between what is seen and what is heard, and now the spoken text allows us to see the physical text more clearly and the physical text allows us to hear the spoken text more clearly.  The various ‘tracks’ of a theatre piece can be separated, played in counterpoint, or synced up to create different expressions of harmony and discord, balance and disorientation.”  (Landau 1995)

   The work of establishing a dialogue between the various elements of production has, not surprisingly, created conditions conducive to dialogue between the various theatre artists. Virtually all contemporary avant-garde theatre (with the notable exception of Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theatre) work in such a way as to encourage dialogue between the creators, a fact that is rooted, I would argue, in their understanding of the dialectic method introduced to the theatre by Brecht. Fred Newman often uses the word “conversation” to describe not only the relationship between production elements, but also to characterize the very process of creating the show.  Newman maintains that the primary work of the director is to foster an environment in which the performers and designers can have a conversation, through theatrical means, with each other and the script.  Exposing that conversation to the audience is far more interesting to him than presenting them with a unified artistic product.  Along similar lines, Bogart has said, “Americans are plagued with the disease of agreement.  In the theatre, we often presume that collaboration means agreement.  I believe too much agreement creates productions with no vitality, no dialectic, no truth…without resistance there is no fire.” (Vogel 1995, 11) Thus dialectics is beginning to impact not only on the nature of the product, but also on the process by which the product is created.

   Performance itself is one the processes (and products) being impacted on by dialectics.  Perhaps the most significant dialogue introduced by Brecht and developed by the contemporary postmodern theatre artists is the dialogue between the actor and the character, the recognition of what Heiner Muller calls “the space between I and I.” (Müller 1990, 48)   When Brecht instructed the actor to never hide the fact that she or he was acting, he made explicit something that is obvious to anyone who has acted, namely that the actor and the character on stage are not the same--and are.  The actor in a play is performing who she or he is not and, at the same time, remains her or himself.  For Stanislavsky, successful acting is the minimizing of this gap.  For Brecht and the postmodernists, perhaps the most interesting thing about theatre is its ability to play with and develop off of this gap, this dialectical tension.

   The awareness of the conflict/unity between actor and character, is an expression of Brecht’s “making strange (alienation) effect” in the area of performance.  For what is the making strange effect but a means of drawing the audience’s (and artists’) attention to the fact that what they are experiencing is both what it appears to be and what it is not?  The familiar, given the biases of our culture, is static and disconnected; it must be made strange (alienated), Brecht maintained, in order to be seen as process.  All of Brecht’s dramaturgy, and much of the working assumptions of the contemporary avant-garde, I would argue, stems from this dialectical premise.

   To this point I have worked to find the connections between the dialectic method that Brecht brought to the theatre and the practice of the contemporary avant-garde.  However, it would be misleading to leave it at that.  In recent years dialectics has begun to emerge from the stifling embrace of orthodox communism.  What we have begun to see is the transformation of dialectics from an alternative logic universalized into an explanation of the world into an open-ended activity engaging and changing the world.

   This development has grown out of ending the unhappy marriage between dialectics and science, and it is to postmodern thinkers in a number of fields that we owe this historic break-up. It has taken the philosophical work of the postmodernists to challenge the hitherto unquestioned modernist assumptions about the relationship of science and human life. The adaptation of dialectics to the modern scientific method was perhaps unavoidable given the hold that science and technology had on Western culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The scientific method stamped all modernist thought and culture, including Marxism. The collapse of communism and the postmodernist challenges to modernist thought have allowed for the reemergence of dialectics and its dynamic application to a wide range of human cultural activities – including the theatre. (Newman 1999)

   What this has looked like in the theatre is an understanding of performance as not only an art, but also a developmental activity.  The anthropologist and performance studies pioneer Victor Turner and those influenced by him, including Brian Sutton-Smith, Colin Trunbull and Richard Schechner, have identified performance as an activity which can initiate individual and social change.  Turner called this characteristic of performance “liminal” (from limen, meaning threshold in Latin). Liminal activity is activity which passes through (or beyond) the threshold of traditional or conventional behavior.  This embrace of the dialectic/transformative power of performance among the postmodernists in the theatre is growing. (Turner 1982; Sutton-Smith 1972; Turnbull 1990; Schechner 1985)

   Fred Newman, who was a community organizer long before he was a theatre artist, is probably the most radical of the postmodern dialecticians.  He approaches dialectics as a method of studying activity, and performance as the means of human development. He has led the development of performance activity in a wide range of everyday life activities–including therapy, politics, and youth organizing--and, in turn has brought what has been learned from those everyday performances back into the theatre.

   While Newman is probably the most explicitly political of the postmodern theatre practitioners, virtually all approach performance as a potentially transformative activity.  As Bogart writes, “It was immediately clear to me that the experience of theatre was not about understanding the meaning of the play or the significance of the staging.  We were invited into a unique world, an arena that changed everything previously defined.” (Bogart 1995) In this way the postmodern avant-garde has gone beyond Brecht’s modernist, rationalist version of the dialectic.  They make no distinction between cause and effect in the theatre; for the postmodern theatre artist the activity of performance and the impact it has on those who participate in and experience it are part of the same process. To borrow a phrase from the writings of Newman and his collaborator Lois Holzman, theatre is both a tool and a result at the same time. (Newman and Holzman 1993) Brecht’s understanding of the theatre as a tool for a result – in the case of the Epic Theatre, as a tool for rational reflection, has no place in the contemporary avant-garde. Performance is not an instrumentalized tool for any result.  It is a transformative activity in its own right.

   Obviously, this is the beginning of a much larger discussion.  I have made mention of the work of only a handful of postmodern theatre artists and barely scratched the surface of Brecht’s contributions to the theatre. No doubt I have also oversimplified the complexities of both dialectics and theatre. My intention is simply to begin a dialogue on the relationship of the two.

   Is the postmodern theatre evolving into the rational/ideological/political theatre that Brecht envisioned in the early part of the 20th century?  Hardly. Is it moving in a direction that involves productive engagement with the dominant culture and ideology?  Definitely. Would Brecht, the rascally revolutionary, be pleased?  I would like to think so.



Anne Bogart, “Terror, Disorientation and Difficulty,” in Anne Bogart: Viewpoints (Lyme, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, Inc., 1995) pp. 5-12.

Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).

Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring (Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science) (New York: International Publishers, 1939).

Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972).

Richard Foreman, “Beyond Sense and Nonsense: Perspectives on the Ontological at 30,” (Conversation with Charles Bernstein, Arthur Danto, Sylvère Lotringer and Annette Michelson), Theater, (Vol. 28, No. 1), pp. 23-34.

Dan Friedman, “Introduction,” in Still on the Corner and Other Postmodern Political Plays by Fred Newman (New York: Castillo, 1998), pp. xxv-xl.

Tina Landau, “Source-Work, the Viewpoints and Composition: What Are They?” in Anne Bogart: Viewpoints, ed. Michael Bigelow Dixon and Joel  Smith.  (Lyme, N. H.: Smith and Kraus, Inc. 1995)  pp.25-26.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, trans. T. B. Bottomore, in Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Co., 1967).

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, ed. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1974).  

Heiner Müller, “Walls,” interview of Heiner Muller by Sylvère Lotringer in Germania, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, (New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agent Series, 1990), pp. 13-61.

Fred Newman, “One dogma of dialectical materialism,” Annual Review of Critical Psychology (Vol. 1), 2000, pp. 83-99.

Fred Newman and Lois Holzman, Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist (London and New York: Routledge, 1993). 

Fred Newman and Lois Holzman, “Beyond narrative to performed conversation (‘In the beginning’ comes much later),” Journal of Constructivist Psychology (Vol. 12, No. 1), January-March 1999, pp. 23-40. 

Marc Robinson, “Introduction,” My Head Was a Sledgehammer (Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 1995), pp. i-vii.

Richard Schechner, Between Theatre and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985)

Brian Sutton-Smith, “Games of Order and Disorder,” paper presented to the symposium, “Forms of Symbolic Inversion” at the American Anthropological Association, Toronto, December 1, 1972, quoted in Turner From Ritual to Theatre, p.28. 

Colin Turnbull, “Liminality: A Synthesis of Subjective and Objective Experience,” in By Means of Performance, Vol. 5, eds. Richard Schechner and Willa Appel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: PAJ Publications, 1982)

Paula Vogel, “Anne Bogart and the New Play,” in Anne Bogart: Viewpoints, ed. Michael Bigelow and Joel Smith (Lyme, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, Inc., 1995)

Robert Wilson, “What We Think To Be Free Is Just the Opposite: A Conversation with Robert Wilson,” Practice, Vol. 5, No. 2, (Fall, 1987), p. 111-132.

Robert Wilson, “Two Directors,” a public dialogue between Robert Wilson and Fred Newman held at the theatre of John Jay College for Criminal Justice, City University of New York, February 11, 2002.