Spass literally translates as ‘fun’. Brecht wanted to make his audience think. He realised that while we are laughing we are also thinking. So much so that the playwright Eugène Ionesco called him a ‘postman’ because he was always delivering messages! However, Brechtian work isn’t boring and it’s definitely not always serious either. Even if the message itself is serious Brecht realised that comedy could be an excellent way of engaging the audience and forcing them to think about issues.
Spass was also an excellent way to break the tension. Brecht needed to break rising tension to stop the audience from following characters on their emotional journey. It might be used in the form of a comic song, slapstick or physical comedy or even a stand-up routine. It’s ‘silliness’ in effect but often makes strong social comment in the way it’s used in the treatment of a serious subject.
For example, a very serious work addressing suicide might break the action at a key moment in a character’s unhappiness to break into a parody of an American advert:
Are you feeling low? Depressed? Think there’s no way out? Then you need new ‘End it All’...
The poor taste of this would be shocking for an audience. But it actually highlights the pain of depression through contrast and black comedy. The audience will laugh and then question why they laughed.
Gestus, another Brechtian technique, is a clear character gesture or movement used by the actor that captures a moment or attitude rather than delving into emotion. So every gesture was important. Brecht and his actors studied photographs of the plays in rehearsal to ensure each moment worked effectively. Could the audience tell by the actor’s gestures alone what was happening in the scene?
Brecht didn’t want the actors to be the character onstage, only to show them as a type of person. For example, the boss who is corrupt and smoking a fat cigar as his workers starve is representative of every boss who profits through the exploitation of others. For this reason Brecht will often refer to his characters by archetypal names, such as ‘The Soldier’ or ‘The Girl’.
The interpretation will be built on the character’s social role and why they need to behave as they do, rather than looking inwardly at emotional motivation. So we judge the character and their situation, rather than just empathising with them.
Gestus is also gesture with social comment. For example, a soldier saluting as he marches across a stage is a gesture. But if he was saluting as he marched over a stage strewn with dead bodies, it would be Gestus as a social comment about the type of person he represents. Mother Courage’s silent scream in the face of her son’s dead body is strange. Therefore we think of why she must hide her feelings rather than losing ourselves in the emotion. We react as
thinking human beings as Helene Weigel – Brecht’s wife and partner in work - puts it.