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June 1992


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Jeremy Butler <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 2 Jun 1992 10:02:28 CST
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
text/plain (105 lines)
    Since my previous request for info on a "Brechtian" music video sparked
    so much commentary, I thought I'd send along the segment of my chapter
    that deals with Brecht.  The chapter, "Building Narrative:  Character,
    Actor, Star," deals with the construction of character, the
    significance of performance to TV, and the function of stars in the
    televisual apparatus.
    Remember, the following is for a >textbook< called READING BETWEEN THE
    it's designed to be read by students, not Brechtian scholars.
    Off we go...
The Anti-Naturalists
      Vaudeville performance.  Vaudeville was a style of theatrical
presentation that was built around song-and-dance numbers, comedy routines and
short dramatic "skits" and "tableaux" (the cast freezing in dramatic poses).
Vaudeville was at its most popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
and was eventually eclipsed by the competing mass entertainment form of the
movies in the teens and twenties.  Even though vaudeville as a medium no
longer exists, the style of performance it used survives in many television
      Significantly, vaudeville performance does not demand that the viewer
forget the presence of the actor within the guise of the character.  That is,
vaudeville performance frequently reminds us that we are watching a
performance and that the characters before us are not real people.  This is
largely achieved through the direct address of the viewer.  Vaudeville actors
often look straight at the audience and make comments to them.  This violates
the theatrical concept of an invisible "fourth wall" that separates audience
from characters.  In conventional theatrical performances the viewer observes
the action without being observed him or herself.  In vaudeville the presence
of the viewer is repeatedly acknowledged.  And if the viewer is acknowledged
as viewer, then the entire illusion of the fiction is undermined.  The
naturalist concept of the believable character becomes immaterial to the
      Much of early television bore the legacy of vaudeville.  Musical variety
programs--mixing vaudeville-esque music, acrobatics, ventriloquists and comic
skits--dominated fifties television.  The Milton Berle Show (1948-67), The Ed
Sullivan Show (1948-71) and The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-70) are just three
of the long-running variety programs that were particularly popular during
that time.  In each a host spoke directly to the viewer, introducing each of
the short performances that constituted the weekly show.  And the performances
themselves were also directly presented to the viewer.  Even the comic
narrative pieces featured the performer looking directly at the camera (a
taboo in dramatic television) and implicitly or explicitly addressing the
      In the seventies the musical variety program fell from favor with the
U.S. audience, but vaudeville-style performance continues in programs such as
Saturday Night Live (1975-) and in comic monologues such as those that begin
The Tonight Show (1954-) and Late Night With David Letterman (1982-) and
litter the many stand-up comic programs on cable television.
      Brechtian performance.  German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht
once posed rhetorically, What ought acting to be like?  He then answered:
      Witty.  Ceremonious.  Ritual.  Spectator and actor ought not to approach
      one another but to move apart.  Each ought to move away from himself.
      Otherwise the element of terror necessary to all recognition is
Brecht's theories, as exemplified by his plays, jettison the naturalistic
ideal of a believable character with whom the viewer can identify.  In his
so-called epic theater (which has little to do with the traditional "epic"),
the viewer is alienated from the character rather than identifying with him or
her--or "approaching" him or her, as he puts it in the quotation above.  And
the actor does not relive the character as in the Method, but, rather, he or
she quotes the characters to the viewer, always retaining a sense of him or
herself as actor.  Or, in other words, the actor presents the character to the
viewer without pretending to actually be the character.  Viewer and actor
alike are distanced from the character:  hence the term, Brechtian
      What is the purpose of this distanciation?  Brecht argues that
conventional dramatic theater narcotizes the spectator.  He or she immerses
him or herself in a story for two hours and then emerges from the theater as
if waking from a drug-induced nap.  Brecht felt instead that the spectator
should be confronted, alienated.  His was a specifically Marxist perspective
that believed that the theater should be used to point out social ills and
prompt spectators to take action about them.  He advocated nothing less than a
revolutionary theater.
      Brechtian performance theory has found fertile soil in the cinema of
filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard--whose sixties work aspired to transpose
the epic theater to the cinema--but its significance to broadcast television
is, admittedly, marginal.  However, Brecht has definitely influenced avant
garde video production of the past twenty years, including works done in that
medium by Godard.
      One can find small instances of Brecht skulking about the edges of
commercial television, if one looks hard enough.  In the music video for The
Replacements' "{beyond my reach?}," for instance, all that is seen is a
speaker in a room.  The video begins with a tight close-up of the speaker
which vibrates as the music starts.  Then the camera pulls back to reveal the
entire room:  a desk, a window, nothing spectacular.  The video ends without
the band ever appearing, as is the convention in, say 80 per cent of music
videos.  So, to start with, there's no one to identify with.  Beyond that,
however, {video title} breaks some of music video's other conventions by
refusing to create a spectacle.  Nothing really happens.  The viewer is left
to amuse him or her self, to think about the video and the conventions its
breaking.  There's nothing for the viewer to identify with:  no spectacle, no
characters (i.e., band members).  This, we would argue, could be considered
Brechtian television.
      It is also possible to contend that the remarks characters on
Moonlighting (1985-89) and It's Garry Shandling's Show (1988-90) made directly
to the viewer are a watered-down form of Brechtian distanciation, although, in
the final analysis, they're probably closer to the direct address of
vaudeville and musical variety.
      Thus, even though there is actually little Brechtian television to be
found, the reader should be still aware that alternatives to naturalism do
exist and, in film and theater, are actively investigated.