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Art and Political Consequence: Brecht and the Problem of Affect

Art and Political Consequence: Brecht’s Critique of Affect

The truth must be spoken because of the consequences which follow from it for behavior.

—Brecht, “Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth”


One thing I’ve learned, and dying I will tell you: It makes no sense to say there’s something deep inside you that won’t come out! Can you think of anything that has no consequences?

—Brecht, Saint Joan of the Stockyards

There is a peculiar note recorded in Brecht’s journal for December 2, 1942:

a great discovery: the need to buy vitamins here in the form of pills. i was already clearly aware how bad my brain was functioning, how quickly i tired, how low one’s vitality gets, and so on. five days of taking vitamins and i was fit again. what striking proof of the social origin of the proletarian “inability to think”!1

Brecht a little more than a year in Los Angeles discovers the wonders of vitamins. How serious is the claim about the “social origin” of thinking? But it is not really about the social origin of thinking, it is more about the chemical and biological roots of it.

A similar line of thought is recorded by Walter Benjamin in his “Notes from Svendborg” where he relates his encounters with Brecht over the summer of 1934 in Denmark. At the conclusion to his notes he mentions, in Brecht’s company, that he is reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He also writes he isn’t feeling well and for Brecht these are not unrelated events. “Reading this novel was the main cause of my illness,” Benjamin recalls of their conversation. Apparently, Brecht is speaking from personal experience. “By way of proof for my illness he told me how, when he was young, a chronic illness whose germ had been latent in him for a long time broke out one afternoon when a schoolfriend played Chopin on the piano, at a time when Brecht was already too enfeebled to protest. He ascribes to Chopin and Dostoevsky particularly dire effects on health.”2

Is this a joke? Why Chopin and Dostoevsky specifically? How serious is the idea that artworks—or rather, the formal properties of music—induce physical effects on their listeners? Hanns Eisler recalls an evening with Brecht at Adorno’s home in Los Angeles where they listened to Adorno’s Stefan George settings, “Vier Lieder nach Gedichten von Stefan George,” op. 7 (1944). Brecht’s response is cutting, if not an obvious insult: “It reminds me greatly of Chopin.”3 Knowing Brecht’s feelings about Chopin (and Adorno surely did), one begins to see the point of the otherwise anomalous appearance of Chopin’s Funeral March in Brecht’s Man Equals Man.4 The final number performed at Widow Begbick’s canteen, the song played at Galy Gay’s funeral, has the soldiers “carry the crate on their shoulders and sing to the tune of Chopin’s Funeral March: ‘Now he will drink his Irish whisky no more.’”5 For Brecht, the song is a further act of violence.

And if music could kill, it could also heal. There were “times when music could be used to treat disease!” Brecht writes in “On the Use of Music in Epic Theater.” Brecht observes that composers have largely forsaken the art of healing through music: “Our composers on the whole leave any observation of the effects of their music to the café proprietors.”6 That Brecht was fundamentally concerned with the “effects” his plays had on the audience is uncontroversial, but that those effects were inevitable and unstoppable is more surprising (and potentially problematic). Nonetheless, it is clear Brecht had a traditional vision of aesthetics in mind; it was the “science” of feeling.

On occasion Brecht appealed to sociological research in the study of effects on the audience: “One of the few actual pieces of research which I have come across in the last ten years was the statement of a Paris restaurateur about the different orders his customers placed under the influence of different types of music. He claimed to have noticed that specific drinks were always consumed to the works of specific composers” (BT, 153). Brecht makes the exact same point in his notes for Eisler and Adorno on film music.

Composers know little about the effects of music. Generally they leave their study to barkeepers. One of the few research results I have seen in the past decade was the notice of a restaurant proprietor in Paris about the different drinks his guests ordered under the influence of different music. He claimed to have found that certain beverages were always consumed with music of certain composers. Undoubtedly the cinema would benefit much if composers were in a position to deliver music that had more or less precisely determined effects on the audience [Der Film würde unzweifelhaft viel gewinnen, wenn die Musiker imstande wären, Musik zu lieferns welche einigermaßen exakt bestimmbare Wirkungen auf die Zuschauer ausüben würde].7

How exactly could this research be utilized in the theater? Could it be marshaled to produce a new subject, as it were behind the viewers’ back?8 Brecht implied that theater and film directors could learn from the science of advertising and “produce music which would have a more or less exactly foreseeable effect on the spectator.” Did Brecht imagine he could produce correct political subjects through the right kind of music? Did he seriously envision an art with “exactly foreseeable effects” on the viewer? More importantly, what kind of effects did Brecht hope to borrow from the lessons of advertising?

Brecht was guided at this point by contemporary developments in philosophy and social psychology.9 “Behaviorism,” he writes in the “Threepenny Lawsuit,” “is a psychology that, based on the needs of commodity production, seeks to develop methods to influence the customer, an active psychology” and therefore “quintessentially progressive and revolutionary” (FR, 172). Progressive and revolutionary, that is, in the way that capitalist techniques of control are: when they are refunctioned from their invented purpose they become weapons in the war against their inventors. This is the point of the opening epigram to the lawsuit: “Contradictions are our hope!” (FR, 148). Brecht elaborates this idea throughout the text, noting how capitalist techniques contain their own contradiction if they are pushed to their limits. So it is that “Behaviorism’s limits are those that correspond to its function in capitalism. … Here again the road leads only over capitalism’s dead body, but here again this is a good road” (FR, 172). Put to alternate purposes, the commercial effects of advertising could assume a revolutionary role. Verfremdungseffekt is simply behaviorism with a Marxist bent. As the Philosopher observes in the Messingkauf Dialogues, he aims to identify “certain laws that might enable me to make predictions” and in the “possibility of influencing” people according to these laws.10

And if Brecht sought to influence the audience in exactly foreseeable ways, he nonetheless fundamentally distinguished this task from what he understood as the “suggestive” use of effects. In Brecht’s finely tuned hypnotic terminology, the estrangement effect is a mode of influence but not of suggestion. In a passage entitled “Influence the audience (by the inductive method)” from the 1936 performance notes to Round Heads and Pointed Heads, he writes of the necessity for controlling effects in order to draw out the right responses from the audience:

A considerable sacrifice of the spectator’s empathy does not mean sacrificing all right to influence him. The representation of human behavior from a social point of view is meant indeed to have a decisive influence on the spectator’s own social behavior. This sort of intervention necessarily is bound to release emotional effects; they are deliberate and have to be controlled.11

One might wonder what distinguishes Brecht’s vision of a work that produces a “decisive influence” on behavior from the kinds of suggestive control of the audience he ceaselessly critiqued.12

One of Brecht’s guiding assumptions, his theatrical ontology, is the belief in the consequential nature of all actions. Effects, of some kind, were an inevitable fact of all art (and of life itself). The task is to control them, putting them to specific ends to influence the right kinds of behavior. Suggestive effects are ones that wash over the audience, putting them in a state of mind undifferentiated from life outside the theater. Alternately, the artist’s task is to control effects; to attempt to foresee the result—to intend one’s effects on an audience, even if that prediction might fail—is the aim of leftist aesthetics.

Taken at face value, Brecht’s pursuit of “decisive influence” and “exactly foreseeable effects” on audience behavior seems to undermine his basic political aims and his affirmation of human reason to reach the right kind of politics. As Adorno famously argued, Brecht was authoritarian precisely because of his prioritizing of political effect over artistic autonomy. “As a virtuoso of manipulative technique, he wanted to coerce the desired effect,” Adorno wrote.13 From Brecht’s perspective, there is an essential difference between the “‘direct,’ flattening, impact” of traditional theater and the “indirect impact” of epic techniques.14 The epic stage is indirect insofar as it set out to “block” the spectator and “prevent his complete empathy”15 with the events onstage, thereby “leaving the audience to decide the matter for itself.”16 This was a distinction Adorno found uncompelling.

For Adorno, putting the matter the other way around, autonomy was politically driven from the start and hardly autonomous. “The resoluteness of [the work’s] distance [from the world] … concretizes the critique of what has been repulsed,” he writes in Aesthetic Theory. So it is hard to see exactly where Brecht and Adorno differ in their accounts of political efficacy (both assume it is indirect), except to say that Brecht is forthright in his claims about effects (whether they worked or not is beside the point). Adorno’s putative “defense” of Brecht is that Brecht’s didactic “theses took on an entirely different function from the one their content intended. They became constitutive … and contributed to the collapse of the unitary nexus of meaning.”17 From the other direction, Adorno facetiously notes how in Brecht’s “best work” it is “hard to determine just what the author … meant.”18 An argument that was entirely different from the one that asserted that the meaning of every work of art was inherently “ambiguous.”

In one sense, Adorno was correct; Brecht sought, through research, to produce “desired effects” in his audience. Adorno’s defense, on the other hand, is untenable. Adorno’s assertion that works of art necessarily, by virtue of their objecthood, mean otherwise than what the author meant makes it impossible to disagree with his (or any) interpretation of the work. On what grounds could one disagree, if not by virtue of asserting what an author meant (even if that information is constitutively unavailable)? And if the claim to having a “decisive influence” on audience behavior was controversial, consider too that Brecht claimed that a work of art was “necessarily … bound to release emotional effects.” The latter, it seems, was a formula for naturalizing empathy in art. In a way, it was.


Brecht’s deepest engagement with the problem of artistic effects (and an associated range of loosely behaviorist ideas) appears in a 1939 fragment entitled “Is it worth speaking about the amateur theater?” “In the arts, if nowhere else,” Brecht writes, “the principle that ‘if it doesn’t do much good, at least it can’t do any harm’ is quite mistaken” (BT, 239).

Most people have no clear idea of art’s consequences, whether for good or for bad. They suppose that a spectator who is not inwardly gripped by art, because it is not good enough, is not affected at all. Quite apart from the fact that you can be “gripped” by bad art as easily as by good, even if you are not gripped, something happens to you. Good or bad, a play always includes an image of the world. Good or bad, the actors show how people behave under given circumstances. (BT, 239)

All art produces consequences, he insists. “There is no play and no theatrical performance that does not in some way or other affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never without consequences”; bourgeois and socialist critics alike assume that “our morals are affected by it” (BT, 240). Brecht thus concludes that “political, moral and aesthetic influences all radiate from the theater: good when it is good, bad when it is bad” (BT, 241).

Brecht cites an idea derived from William James’s and Carl Lange’s theory of emotion that says physiological affects generate specific emotional states, rather than the traditional account of emotions which assumes the reverse. Brecht offers a thumbnail version of the theory: “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping” (BT, 241). Characteristically, Brecht gives the seemingly biological and timeless theory of weeping a specific human setting: a funeral. He observes how “education proceeds along highly theatrical lines … [as] can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gestures, miming, tones of voice.” In a sense, Brecht is projecting an affective picture of human education, but even here affect is situated, contextualized, in a particular setting. So even if it is the case that behavior comes first and “logical arguments only come later,” those mimetic habits occur within a space of reason (BT, 241). The situation is no different than the one where the customer hypnotically orders his drink as though to accompany café music.

Recent commentary has focused on Brecht’s investment in the priority of bodily response over “logical arguments.” Brigid Doherty, in “Test and Gestus in Brecht and Benjamin,” addresses the problem of influence in the “era of psychotechnics.” Doherty considers how, according to Brecht and Benjamin (with special emphasis on Benjamin’s “Karussell der Berufe” of 1930), one’s “own occupation has influenced his or her mood, opinions, and relations with colleagues, as well as how each would compare the person she or he was at the time of taking up an occupation to the person she or he has become in performing that occupation.”19 Similarly, in “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street,” Miriam Hansen offers an influential assessment of the role biomechanics played in Brecht’s and Benjamin’s theories of artistic influence. According to Hansen, “A major reference point in this regard is Sergey Eisenstein who, drawing on and revising William James and the conservative philosopher Ludwig Klages … sought to theorize the conditions of transmitting or, more precisely, producing emotion in the beholder through bodily movement.”20 She continues:

Seeking to adapt Klages’s (metaphysically grounded) concept of expressive movement for a materialist theory of signification and reception, Eisenstein, like his teacher Vsevolod Meyerhold, returned to James’s axiom that “emotion follows upon the bodily expression” (“we feel sorry because we cry”), although Eisenstein modified James by insisting on the two-way character and indivisible unity of movement and emotion. Without going into distinctions here, what seems important to me … is the notion of a physiologically “contagious” or “infectious” movement that would trigger emotional effects in the viewer, a form of mimetic identification based in the phenomenon known as the Carpenter Effect. The recourse to neuro-physiological, mechanistic, and reflex psychology may not be as sophisticated as the insights of psychoanalysis; yet it may have been more in tune with new, technically mediated forms of aesthetic experience, predicated on mass production, unprecedented circulation and mobility, and collective, public reception.21

Hansen’s and Doherty’s media-based claims—the centrality of “psychotechnics,” “new, technically mediated forms of aesthetic experience predicated on mass production, unprecedented circulation and mobility”—grounded as they are in Benjamin’s writings, do not reflect Brecht’s purposes. (Brecht considered Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility,” with special reference to the notion of aura, “pretty abominable.”22 ) Most forms of media theory assume that new forms of technology influence behavior independently of the intentions of their users or receivers. Brecht’s interest in behaviorism, in contrast to contemporary media theory, is an interest in how people express themselves in their deepest intentions, expressions hidden from conscious awareness. Unconscious behavior, for Brecht, is not collapsible into unintentional or precognitive response to stimuli. Despite Hansen’s emphasis on the “two-way” character of Brecht’s interpretation of the James-Lange theory, she nonetheless assumes the viability and usefulness of “neuro-physiological, mechanistic, and reflex psychology,” which treats response as a matter of “movement and emotion.”

Given the recent emphasis on technological and biological concerns in Brecht,23 it is important to see how Brecht substantiates his point about response in the essay on amateur theater by reference not to music but to film. He describes his affective response to seeing George Stevens’s 1939 (loose) adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din.” I cite the passage at length as it touches on Brecht’s most basic claims about the role of affect in art:24

In the film Gunga Din, based on a short story [sic] by Kipling, I saw British occupation forces fighting a native population. A tribe—the term itself implies something wild and uncivilized, as opposed to the word “people”—attacked a body of British troops stationed in India. The Indians were primitive creatures, either comic or wicked: comic when loyal to the British and wicked when hostile. The British soldiers were honest, good-humored chaps and when they used their fists on the mob and “knocked some sense” into them, the audience laughed. One of the Indians betrayed his compatriots to the British, sacrificed his life so that his fellow-countrymen should be defeated and earned the audience’s heartfelt applause.

My heart was touched too: I felt like applauding, and laughed in all the right places, despite the fact that I knew all the time that there was something wrong, that the Indians are not primitive and uncultured people but have a magnificent age-old culture, and that this Gunga Din could also be seen in a very different light, for example, as a traitor to his people. I was amused and touched because this utterly distorted account was an artistic success and considerable resources in talent and ingenuity had been applied in making it.

Obviously artistic appreciation of this sort is not without effects. It weakens the good instincts and strengthens the bad, it contradicts true experience and spreads misconceptions, in short it falsifies our picture of the world. (BT, 240)

Brecht is disturbed by the power of the film’s effects, as though the director could have predicted all of them without the audience’s awareness. In the film, Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. play sergeants in the Royal Army fighting off a murderous Indian cult in colonial British India. Brecht feels himself, as though at a biological level of behavioral response, mirroring their moves, identifying with their roles. And yet, his affective responses are upended when he exits the theater. Looking back, he senses his feelings were manipulated, as were those of everyone watching the film. Like the café owner, the film director made the audience consume, against their conscious will and morals, his (and Kipling’s) politics.

Recall that Brecht admired the café owner’s and the director’s capacity to control response and that he sought to put behavior research to use in the theater. The problem with Stevens’s film is not that he produces “foreseeable effects” on the audience; the problem is not even the politics of the director—Brecht assumed a properly educated political subject could resist suggestive effects—but rather the kind of effects deployed. Brecht is just as critical of “Leftist” suggestive effects as he is of conservative ones. It “is not enough to produce empathy with the proletarian rather than the bourgeois,” he insists, “the entire technique of empathy has become dubious (in principle, it’s entirely conceivable that you could have a bourgeois novel which encourages empathy with a proletarian).”25 Brecht further notes that one can have a “complete theatrical experience” based in a picture of real life that is “entirely misleading” (BP, 121). And if empathy with the proletariat does not constitute a Leftist politics, Brecht also argues the opposite. Consider his seemingly peculiar statement that Hitler’s “general intention, to improve himself by copying others [by studying acting], is not ridiculous—even if his choice of models was” (AP, 195). Hitler understood as well as Brecht the necessity of mimetic models, only Hitler’s were suggestive, while Brecht sought models that would teach one how to guide an audience to reason for themselves.

Empathetic attractions are ubiquitous and normal: human beings mimetically respond to other humans automatically (recall Brecht describing children at a funeral, or kids at a movie). Chopin, café owners, Hollywood film, and bourgeois actors and directors exploit this primordial fact. The point of Brecht’s theater is to introduce cognition into mimesis, to “divide the audience,” to provide space to reflect on, even refuse, one’s affective responses, not just succumb to them. And yet, Brecht also assumes that the kinds of responses his plays produce would lead to certain predictable results. But the predictability of response he intends is not a matter of the viewer’s normal response to stimuli—the products of empathetic identification—but rather to the normative demands of educated response; that is, socially, historically, and culturally saturated, normative responses allow for a failure to respond.

The problem of affective response in Brecht is difficult to see because the normal and the normative overlap so closely on the level of language. Paraphrasing Aristotle’s Poetics, for example, Brecht explains that when the actor imitates events from life those “imitations are supposed to have specific effects on the soul” (BP, 17-18). The crucial mistake of Aristotelian aesthetics is not the production of “specific effects” on the audience, but rather that those effects occur at the level of the psyche or soul, that is, to the biological subject. Aristotle appeals to the normal subject for his research into audience response and that biological body inevitably responds to stimuli in the way that drugs affect any normally functioning biological unit. That is why empathy, in Brecht, is always identified with the effect of drugs.

Like his experience of seeing Gunga Din, Brecht describes sound film as a “blooming branch of the international narcotics traffic” (BT, 153). He watches

entire rows of people transported into a peculiarly doped state, wholly passive, self-engrossed, seemingly the victims of severe poisoning. Their vacant, gaping gaze shows that these people are the helpless and involuntary victims of their unchecked emotions. Trickles of sweat prove how such excesses exhaust them. (BT, 152)

The music-benumbed audience in the grip of a poison attack is not a specific feature of film media. The effects available to silent film are crucial to Brecht because they allow for contradiction, for performances that work “against the sentiment that the music called forth” (a point further made by Eisler and Adorno in Composing for the Films) (BT, 153). Brecht assumes that the intentions behind most silent films are different from those of sound films; it is not a matter of the ontological nature of the medium, as it is in part with music. Brecht rejects predetermined emotional reactions, but not predictable ones. The latter, crucially, allow for a failure to come off and require activation by the viewer—what he called “the active, creative element” in response (BP, 153)26 —while normal response always occurs, whether one assents to it or not.

Shakespeare offers a test case on the difference between empathy and influence. The Philosopher in the Messingkauf Dialogues ribs the Actor about his performance of Lear: “As your Lear cursed his daughters, a bald-headed gentleman next to me started gasping in such an unnatural way that I wondered why, having lost himself completely in your wonderful portrayal of madness, he didn’t start frothing at the mouth” (BP, 22). Brecht’s point here, part of the joke, is that the actor is better than he lets on. The actor cannot actually bring himself to produce a wholly seamless performance, one that hypnotizes the spectator through the actor’s total identification with the fevered Lear. Brecht calls for the abandonment of the “expedient of suggestibility, which comes about as in epilepsy, where the epileptic carries along with him everyone disposed to epilepsy” (AP, 72-73).

Bearing in mind the distinction between normal and normative claims in Brecht’s approach to effects, it is easier to see the potential value of the contemporary sciences. Brecht frequently calls on writers to be aware of the latest developments in the science of the self. “Only very few of our ‘realists,’” he writes, “have … taken notice of the development of views on the human psyche in contemporary science and medical treatment. They are still stuck with an introspective type of psychology, a psychology without experiments, a psychology without history, etc.” (AP, 248). He repeatedly draws on the lessons of “physics” and “modern physiology,” of Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, to explain theater (BP, 18, 38). The Dramaturg in the Messingkauf Dialogues asks about the “direct transfer of emotions” like “when horror is aroused by horrific actions” (BP, 38). The Philosopher explains that at the theater one typically experiences “rich, complex, many-sided incidents which could be compared to those of Pavlov’s dogs: feeding plus bell-ringing” (BP, 34). For a failed actor, these complex events only show “secondary features,” a dulled set of reactions, not the full sweep of emotions, which is why the actor is “making the audience ill, just like Pavlov and the dogs.” Given Brecht’s understanding of the power of suggestive effects, one gathers that the illness is neither a joke nor imagined. The Pavlov experiment finds its way into Mother Courage when Eilif recalls how he strategically starved his soldiers in order to make a raid (a massacre) on peasants storing ox meat. They were so hungry that “their mouths watered if they even heard a word beginning with me … like measles.”27 What Eilif, Hollywood directors, Pavlov, and café owners share is a commitment to hypnotic suggestion and what the audiences share is a susceptibility to its effects.

Brecht’s relation to Pavlov is complicated. Pavlov was largely celebrated by Lenin and his research was supported by the Soviet Union (the admiration did not go both ways as Pavlov held little regard for Lenin). The Marxist revision of Pavlov comes out clearly in the “Threepenny Lawsuit.” Here, Brecht argues, “the reflexes are biological; only in certain films of Chaplin are they already social” (FR, 172). He goes on:

the great American comedies depict the human being as an object, and could have an audience entirely made up of reflexologists. Behaviorism is a psychology that, based on the needs of commodity production, seeks to develop methods to influence the customer, an active psychology, therefore, quintessentially progressive and revolutionary. Its limits are those that correspond to its function in capitalism. (FR, 171-72)

These sentences have been the source of trouble for commentators. It appears that Brecht is distinguishing the café owner or industrialist influencing the customer from the Pavlovian responses of the audience at a Chaplin film. Chaplin performs a scene open to the audience’s evaluation, while the café owner, performing his actions offstage, does not. In this sense, Pavlov was a crucial theorist of the normative. Pavlov showed how one can ring a bell and have the dog attack the owner under the right circumstances. The problem is that this implies that Pavlov, like an actor or director, is someone who could persuade dogs (the viewers of epic theater) of the wrongness and rightness of their salivations (their actions) independent of their associations with food (the object of empathy).

Suggestion/Influence, Empathy/Action

As Brecht explains in a short but important text written at the beginning of 1941, “On the Gradual Approach to the Study and Construction of the Figure,” what needs to be avoided at all costs is a mode of acting that “obscures from the spectator the process by which [the actor] himself gained knowledge of the figure” (BT, 228). To appear before the audience “already transformed” into a character is to show someone “free of influences and therefore also apparently unable to be influenced” (BT, 228). This kind of “general, absolute and abstract person” is the antithesis of the “step-by-step” construction required for properly epic theater. The audience must see how subjectivity is terminally influenced by others, for good and for ill.

In the period between January 11 and February 1, 1941, Brecht’s Journals are filled with discussion of the problem of influence, of how to understand “the social effect of works of art” (J, 130). The question, again, is not whether art has social effects, but what kind they are. In his journal entries Brecht presents a slightly revised picture of epic theater. He now claims that “empathy in non-aristotelian theater” is a “rehearsal measure,” that is, one can use empathy in preparing for a role (J, 124). Above all, Brecht writes, “whatever empathy is achieved should incorporate no element of suggestion, i.e., the audience is not to be induced to empathize too” (J, 124-25). Here, Brecht introduces a crucial distinction between empathy and suggestion, which he elaborates over the next several entries.

Although “in reality” empathy and suggestion “occur separately,” Brecht observes how difficult it is to maintain this distinction in current modes of theatrical production because “an actor … empathizing himself and inducing the audience to empathize (suggestive empathy)” is “identical” (J, 125). “Today’s actor,” he contends, “cannot imagine effects being achieved without empathy, nor effects without suggestion” (J, 125). Even Brechtian performers Helene Weigel and Hermann Greid seem to reject the idea that empathy and suggestion can be separated in practice. Brecht observes that the only performance precedent for this kind of distinction is comedy (and, outside theater, silent film). The question Brecht raises is “can the preventive techniques used in comedy to avoid empathy also be employed by tragic actors”? (J, 125)

In his January 14, 1941, entry Brecht again stresses that the “actor should empathize with person presented in the play” but adds that it should not happen “on a suggestive basis, i.e. not so that the eventual audience would be forced to participate in this empathy” (J, 125). Brecht draws out the artifice of suggestive acting, showing that it is a set of objective techniques. Brecht dissects this artifice: “Tension in certain parts of the muscular system, head movements executed as if pulling on an elastic band, the feet as if wading in tar, intermittent stiffness, sudden changes, moments of restraint, also monotony of voice, remembered from church responses” (J, 125). As Brecht makes clear, suggestion is derived from the literature and practice of hypnosis. Suggestion is a technique the hypnotic operator uses to put their patient into a state of passive openness to the operator’s commands. According to Brecht, a certain pattern of muscle, head, feet, movement, voice “induce hypnosis” and that “snakes, tigers, hawks and actors rival one another in this art” (J, 125-26). That is, snakes, tigers, and hawks use suggestive techniques to lower the defenses of their prey before they pounce and consume them. Above all, Brecht wants to dissociate “convincing, rounded acting” including empathetic acting and its effects from suggestive acting and its effects.

Brecht goes on to describe the traditional acting as a “simultaneous act of auto-suggestion and suggestion: he suggests to himself that he is somebody else, and he suggests to the audience that he is that other person” (J, 126). The actor drugs himself in the performance and induces the audience to feel the same. The classical actor “makes his simulation suggestive, i.e. he forces the audience to go through it with him” (J, 126-27). What marks the suggestive mode of acting as problematic is the automaticity of its effects. The audience is unable to think and feel other than what the actor, as hypnotic operator, wants them to. Brecht’s seemingly casual reference to the hypnotic powers of snakes and tigers is more serious than it appears. He writes that in the “case of hypnosis by snake movements or by the look of a tiger, simulations also occur—of the movements or of rigidity” (J, 127). At this point Brecht hedges some of his more forceful claims about the separability of empathy and suggestion. “I cannot yet see exactly whether the act of empathy (which is an act of auto-suggestion) can be carried out without the suggestion affecting the audience,” he writes. He provocatively describes the possibility of empathetic acting without suggestive effects as “straightforward imitation, which in turn can of course only affect the persons presented” (J, 127). Indeed, marking a surprising shift of emphasis in his theorization of epic theater, he offers that “in the same way as the act of empathy the a-effect can also be used on a suggestive basis” (J, 127). As the latter makes clear, Brecht’s concern bears on suggestive effects, on audience response, rather than on techniques of empathy or alienation.

Despite some equivocation over the separability of empathy/alienation and suggestion, he now writes that for actors “there is sometimes a fear of being unable to achieve any effect at all, except on a suggestive basis.” Rejecting this claim, Brecht returns to his basic supposition: “one thing at least is certain; there are some actors who ‘have presence’ without using any of the known means of suggestion” (J, 127). Brecht briskly closes off the line of inquiry—“I do not set much store by all these speculations”—and considers the problem of empathy and suggestion as a practical manner. “It is more important to find exercises … which produce the desired effects. They are relatively easy to check” (J, 127). How does one check the success of a “desired effect”? Part of the answer is to say that suggestive technique generates a sequence of readable reflex actions. “Is the moment of reality in question sufficiently exposed to causal scrutiny or not?” (J, 127) The latter is possible with any technique other than suggestion.


1.  Bertolt Brecht, Journals, 1934-1955, ed. John Willett, trans. Hugh Rorrison (New York: Routledge, 1993), 272; hereafter abbreviated in the text as J. I am grateful for ongoing exchanges with Charles Palermo, Nicholas Brown and Jennifer Ashton on the problems raised in this essay.
2.  Walter Benjamin, “Notes from Svendborg, Summer 1934,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934, ed. Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 789.
3.  Quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 160.
4.  Chopin’s march also appears in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941).
5.  Brecht, notes to Man Equals Man in Collected Plays: Two, ed. John Willett and Ralph Mannheim (London: Metheun, 1994), 294. I have also consulted an alternate translation here, Brecht, Baal, A Man’s A Man, and The Elephant Calf, ed. and trans. Eric Bentley (New York: Grove, 1964), 181.
6.  Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. Marc Silberman, Steve Giles and Tom Kuhn, trans. Jack Davis, Romy Fusland, Steve Giles, Victoria Hill, Kristopher Imbrigotta, Marc Silberman and John Willett (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 153; hereafter abbreviated in the text as BT.
7.  Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Film and Radio, ed. and trans. Marc Silberman (London: Methuen, 2000), 15; hereafter abbreviated in the text as FR.
8.  Woody Allen unintentionally parodies Brecht’s point in his mock restaurant review “Fabrizio’s: Criticism and Response.” The chef Spinelli’s “linguine … is quite delicious and not at all didactic. True, there is a pervasive Marxist quality to it, but this is hidden by the sauce. Spinelli has been a devoted Italian Communist for years, and has had a great success in espousing his Marxism by subtly including it in the tortellini” (The Complete Prose of Woody Allen [New York: Wings Books, 1991], 441). For Brecht, one did not need to be a connoisseur to feel the political effects of the pasta, it was available to everyone.
9.  There are a range of accounts of Brecht’s engagement with behaviorism, including Hansjürgen Rosenbauer, Brecht und der Behaviorismus (Bad Homburg: Gehlen), 1970; John J. White, “A Note on Brecht and Behaviorism,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 7 (1971): 249-58; Jan Knopf, Bertolt Brecht. Ein kritischer Forschungsbericht. Fragwudiges in der Brecht-Forschung (Frankfurt am Main: Athenaum, 1974), 85-86; Lutz Danneberg and Hans-Harald Müller, “Wissenschaftliche Philosophie und literarischer Realismus. Der Einfluß des Logischen Empirismus auf Brechts Realismuskonzeption in der Kontroverse mit Georg Lukacs,” in Realismuskonzeption der Exilliteratur zwischen 1935 und 1940/41, ed. by Edita Koch and Frithjof Trapp (Maintal: Koch, 1987), 50-63; Lutz Danneberg and Hans-Harald Miller, “Brecht and Logical Posivitism,” Essays on Brecht: The Brecht Yearbook 1, no. 5 (1990): 151-63; and Steve Giles, Bertolt Brecht and Critical Theory: Marxism, Modernity, and the Threepenny Lawsuit (Bern and New York: Peter Lang, 1997).
10.  Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Performance: Messingkauf and Modelbooks, ed. Tom Kuhn, Steve Giles and Marc Silberman, trans. Charlotte Ryland, Romy Fursland, Steve Giles, Tom Kuhn and John Willett (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 19; hereafter abbreviated as BP.
11.  Brecht, “Notes on ‘Pointed Heads and Round Heads,’” Collected Plays: Four, ed. Tom Kuhn and John Willett (London: Methuen, 2001), 309.
12.  As Brecht makes clear, influence and suggestion are terms drawn from hypnotic literature and practice, concepts I explore in a range of modernist practices in Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). For an important analysis of hypnotic influence in Freud see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988).
13.  Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 242.
14.  Brecht, notes to “The Mother,” in Collected Plays: Three, ed. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1997), 356, 352.
15.  Brecht, notes to “The Mother,” 352.
16.  Brecht, notes to “He Said Yes/He Said No,” in Collected Plays: Three, 342.
17.  Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 247.
18.  Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 32.
19.  Brigid Doherty, “Test and Gestus in Brecht and Benjamin,” MLN 115, no. 3 (April 2000): 445.
20.  Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 317.
21.  Hansen, “Benjamin and Cinema,” 318.
22.  Brecht, quoted in Erdmut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Christine Shuttleworth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 48.
23.  Undoubtedly the most technologically focused of the recent accounts of Brecht is Devin Fore’s Realism After Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
24.  Around 1924 in Berlin, Brecht was inspired by Kipling’s example to transform the setting of Man Equals Man from Ireland to a British-Indian military-colonial milieu.
25.  Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Art and Politics, ed. Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles, trans. Laura Bradley, Steve Giles and Tom Kuhn (London: Methuen, 2003), 230; hereafter abbreviated in the text as AP.
26.  Brecht affirms that “the appeal has to be made to reader as a thinking and feeling person,” what he calls the “responsive spectator” (Bertolt Brecht, Journals, 1934-1955, ed. John Willett, trans. Hugh Rorrison [New York: Routledge, 1993], 130, 131; hereafter abbreviated in the text as J).
27.  Brecht, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” in Collected Plays: Five (London: Metheun, 1995), 147.