Brechtian AlienAsian: Socialist ex Machina from Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan and David Hare's Fanshen


Sheng-mei Ma


Anchored in working-class culture and socialist belief, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht theorizes Alienation-effect to advocate performers’ and spectators’ emotional dissociation from the stage in favor of thinking. The A-effect intends to overhaul the modern stage for a non-Aristotelian, non-Stanislavsky alternative, partly inspired by a Peking Opera female impersonator Mei Lanfang, whose performances, for lack of a better word, “wowed” him in Moscow in 1935. The theory of A-effect legitimizes the dramatist’s own sense of dis-orientation by “Oriental” theatrical stylization. That which is taken for granted within traditional Chinese dramaturgy so shocks Brecht that he finds the model for his vision of epic theater. The white love for the inexplicable, mystical Orient means to love it to death, to read into the riddle of a “Chinese box” the West’s own wish-fulfillment. The West’s enlightenment comes at the expense of occluding the East. Not to mince words, Brecht births epic theater over the dead body of Chinese theater, a collage of fragmentary impressions rather than an evolving, organic heritage. This self-centered, left-leaning Orientalism is inherited by the socialist David Hare in his early agitprop and populist plays. Critiquing Brecht’s theory and practice of Alienation-effect, this exploration focuses on his seminal essay “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” (1936), his play The Good Woman of Setzuan (1947 henceforth Setzuan), and Hare’s copycat or “copychinese” Fanshen (1976).

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.