Dances with Mei Lanfang: Brecht and the Alienation Effect


Ronnie Bai


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Brecht's formal employment of the terminology Verfremdungsejfekt did not appear until he witnessed Mei Lanfang's demonstration of traditional Chinese theater arts in Moscow in the spring of 1935, after which he wrote two essays, "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting" (1936) and "On the Theater of the Chinese" (1940). It was repeated and expounded in several further essays such as "The Street Scene" (1938), "On Experimental Theater" (1939), "Short Description of a New Technique of Acting Which Produces an Alienation Effect" (1940), and "A Short Organ um for the Theater" (1948 ). Chinese theater is repeatedly referred to for corroboration in these essays, which are interspersed with statements such as "[t]raditional Chinese acting also knows the alienation effect, and applies it most subtly"; "the theatre of past periods also, technically speaking, achieved results with alienation effects-for instance the Chinese theatre"; "[a] masterly use of gesture can be seen in Chinese acting. The Chinese actor achieves the A-effect by being seen to observe his own movements"; and "the Asiatic theatre even today uses musical and pantomimic A-effects."1 Judging by the tone and the content of these essays, particularly "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting" which is resonant. with his admiration for Mei Lanfang, Brecht's response resembles that of a man happy to have found a new friend who shares with him the same outlook about the world as well as similar views about art.

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