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Intimidation, Imitation, and Intimacy-- Comments on the Brechtian Method 

Many have focused on Brecht’s most distinctive theatrical technique, the Verfremdungseffekt.  It makes sense to do this.  In his own time, Brecht pushed the alienating effect of the stage to its limits.  But it is actually one of the least salient aspects of Brecht’s designs for his Epic Theatre. Initially, it is all too easy to be consumed by the unfamiliarity of his technique and to make it seem more distant than it really is.  Here it must be remembered that the alienation effect is not a distancing effect.  Brecht’s theater is anything but cold.  Critics often impart coldness to his terminology and to his theatre, while overlooking the fact that Brecht’s expression of intimacy is built upon and expressed by and through alienation, which actually creates a new form of intimacy. 

This new form of intimacy comes out of his advance in technique. These techniques include Lehrstücke, Gestus, Gestalt, das Paradox des politischen Dichters. Far from putting emotion at bay, Brecht uses his technique to explore emotions rarely addressed in the theater. He looks at emotional states rarely elicited in the conventional bourgeois theater of his time, such as collectivized detachment, enslavement, dysfunctioning illusions, and the psychodynamic of the ego and its social construction. Emotions are always contextual for Brecht. Brecht is rarely linked to Freud, but he was interested as Freud was in new and explored regions of human intimacy.  Much of this goes to a sense of public intimacy.  He is interested in the confluence of historical forces (Brecht calls it Historisierung) that energize a particular moment of felt emotion.

This new form of intimacy is the result of his use of imitation and intimidation, so I will deal with these first. Brecht’s imitation trails away from the Aristotelian mimesis, or the theatre of “identification” of his time. He mediates on this in his poem “On Imitation”:


He who only imitates and has nothing to say

On what he imitates is like

A poor chimpanzee, who imitates his trainer's smoking

And does not smoke while doing so. 

For never

Will a thoughtless imitation

Be a real imitation.


Instead, Brecht proposed a substituted concept of imitation that represents reality--underpinned by the emotional schema, the physical motor of the spectator, who ultimately leaves the sphere of theatrical reality that Brecht created and dictates the social reality. The raison d'etre, the essential function of the refunctioned  (Umfunktionierung)  imitation is to result in intimidation. The intimidation felt by the audience becomes an alienation caused by, to a certain extent, the audience themselves. 


The idea of intimidation in Brecht is sometimes misunderstood.  The usual sense of the word involves a cowing into submission and a strong sensation of fear.  But Brecht makes it clear that intimidation for him is among his arsenal of ideas for human liberation.  Intimidation is not a pejorative in Brecht’s lexicon but an investigation of contradictions that feeds into the conscious and subconscious realm of emotion.


In this way, this specific kind of intimidation leads to a new form of radical, highly functional intimacy that differs from the emotional appeal projected in the Theatre of “Identification”. The critical faculty of the audience is preserved because there is an emptied space for a new mode of thought and a range of textured emotional patterns. Brecht creates that space by balancing objectivity through intervening with alienation. It allows the audience to assimilate the direct experience at the forefront but also become intimate with their own inner climate, and social institutions that Brecht exposes in his plays-- through the staging of the ills of the capitalist reign. Brecht’s conception of figures of history produces a reverse experience of “strange familiarity” felt by the audience. This type of alienated intimacy assures a maximized awakening effect-- this is what Brecht strived for. 


The intersection between my three interpretations proved to be in touch with Brecht’s newly defined intimacy that delves into cognitive defamiliarization through intimidation. The Caucasian Chalk Circle historicizes Germany of his time and the tangled, inseparable notions of alienation, but inside the dilemma of estrangement lives people and communities yearning for individual expression (Brecht was one of them). This is the basis of the focal points in Brecht’s Epic Theatre—which underscore a radically new inflection of intimacy in theater. I hope to return to this idea again in a later essay discussing Brecht’s last and incomplete works, which move intimacy into an even more radical register.

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