Consciousness in Brechtian Acting: Defamiliarizing the Self

In: Philosophizing Brecht
Author: Peter Zazzali

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In describing Charles Laughton’s agreement to play the title role in Galileo, Brecht observed that the actor wanted to make a “contribution” to society through the “dissemination [of] ideas…about how people really lived together.” Performed in Los Angeles in 1947 during the aftermath of the Second World War and on the cusp of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s so-called “Red Scare,” Laughton’s Galileo was apt for the politics of its time, insofar as the play jointly addressed institutional dogmatism, government corruption, and the fearful ignorance of the body politic. Laughton’s performance exemplified Brecht’s gestic approach to acting by defamiliarizing himself from the role in favor of underscoring the drama’s sociopolitical messages. As such, his approach was in stark contrast to the widely practiced Stanislavskian method in which actors were expected to “find themselves” in a role towards creating a character that “truthfully” represented human behavior. What was Laughton’s self-awareness or consciousness of his performance? Whereas the Stanislavskian actor uses himself to subconsciously gel with a character, Brecht’s theory is the opposite: “the actor should refrain from living himself into the part…” These two varying approaches raise questions about the acknowledgement and function of the “self” in an actor’s work, thereby offering an intriguing point of analysis for Brechtian performance. This article will examine the Brechtian actor’s aesthetic through the lens of consciousness. Thus, it will account for the actor’s praxis relative to the sociopolitical implications of Brecht’s epic theatre.