The Performance of Racialized Bodies and Brecht’s Operatic Anthropology

In: Philosophizing Brecht
Author: Kevin S. Amidon

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Taxonomic tropes and themes, particularly gender and class, but also race, function together in Brecht’s plays to create overdetermined characterizations. Parallel to these characterizations, he developed a multilayered theory of performance that emphasizes how those who enact text should approach the representation of diverse human types and groups. His encounter with Chinese acting established foundational elements in this theory. In parallel to his theoretical thinking about performance and race in the mid-1930s, Brecht was developing his stance toward operatic representation. While these two conceptual spheres, race and opera, might appear far apart in their content, they parallel each other closely in their theoretical stakes. The work of Joy Calico reveals that the way the voice becomes fungible through operatic performance both repelled and fascinated Brecht, such that this voice-object of opera accompanied his work as a kind of dialectical foil throughout his career. When read through the lens of race, this insight can be extended to reveal how the acting body itself becomes a fungible object, one that Brecht’s theories of estrangement and gestus strive, however inadequately, to make aesthetically and politically productive.