Brechtian Theatre Techniques in Franz Kafka’s The Trial

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

The Trial written by Franz Kafka and adapted by Steven Berkoff who portrays the themes of power, judgement and law, sex, society and social status and isolation. Kafka’s Trail questions the relationship of justice and the law (often capitalised in the novel as ‘the Law’). If there’s an unjust or an unfair law, we expect to be able to work to get the law overturned by appealing to higher principles of justice. The play follows the narrative of a character named Josef K., a man who is arrested without having done anything wrong, never formally charged with a crime but continually harassed, persecuted, and finally execute. He represents the fate of countless victims of political and legal injustice. Kafka conveys Josef K.’s horrible sense of being trapped as helpless man in the hands of an all-powerful, mysterious “Court.” In The Trial Josef K. is arrested and executed without having done anything wrong; yet everyone in the novel takes this to be a natural if unfortunate state of affairs. The Trial is a kind of mystery novel and uses similar techniques of suspense and intrigue, and when adapted into a play also included techniques introduction by both theatre practitioners Berkoff and Brecht.

Brecht was a German practitioner and playwright born in 1898 in the German town of Augsburg. He was serving as a medical orderly in the First World War and was, therefore, influenced by events and political ideas as he experienced the Cold War and events that the Nazis were involved in. Bertolt Brecht lived in the period of time where Hitlers power was growing and his capitalist work system was apparent in Russia. The revolution was growing and with Hitler knowing this after he gained power, Nazi’s were sent to band the plays and disable any performances made to Capitalists, with workers hoping to bring about a communist revolution. When a play of Brecht’s was performed in the USA in 1935 it was seen as an offence to Capitalists, which was the system of American economics. Brecht was hoping to advertise Communism in his plays against Capitalist, which was what the workers in Russia were living in, for as Brecht was a Marxist and agreed that communism should be the system of work that Russia was under. The Russian Evolution began in 1917, so there would have been communist rebels before, yet a play of this context could release the workers from Capitalism and rebel for Communism. The revolution grew and grew and if it wasn’t for songs that were featured in the play, illegal pamphlets that were sent it out and the play itself and others like it the workers may have never been inspired to revolutionise from a Capitalists to a Communist country.

Steven Berkoff, this playwright and theatre practitioner wrote the play ‘The Trial’. He was born in Stepney, East London, on August 3 193. His family background was Jewish Russian and his grandparents fled Russia for Britain in the 1890s. During the Second World War he, like most children, was evacuated from the bombing of London to Luton in 1942. He was therefore brought up in Luton, where his father worked as a tailor. After the war, on October 26th 1947, his mother and sister moved for a few months to Nyack, New York, staying with close relatives before returning back to London on February 10th. Berkoff has an unpleasant childhood, unable to get “anything I wanted” and beloved he “was becoming awfully familiar” as he desired to be different rather than common. He wanted to stand out as represented in plays as most of them used the element of surrealism which differed to the usual naturalistic plays that was popular and common at the time of the start of his career This style was very popular but also controversial due to it defying the norms of naturalistic theatreHe studied drama in London and Paris and performed with repertory companies before forming the London Theatre Group in 1968. Their first professional production was In the Penal Colony, an adaptation of a Kafka short story.

As a director he fuses all the elements of drama together in a while experience. His work is earthy, physical, musical and extremely surreal, combing movement and mime with text to achieve a high dramatic intensity. Berkoff’s theatre style is full of surrealism – this means that the play is not set in a recognisable place or time. The task is to take the audience on a journey into the subconscious or dream-world, this was done by breaking the forth wall through different techniques to disconnect the audience with the characters and the narrative so they are aware that they are watching a play rather than connecting to the individuals on stage. Berkoff was teaching the Webber Douglas Academy of dramatic art where he turned Kafka’s novel into a theatre piece for twenty students to work with Berkoff says, ‘Kafka expressed me as I expressed Kafka. His words stung and hung in my brain’.

In the premiere in the Oval House, London 1970, Berkoff played the role of the painter Titorelli, who he based his role on Salvador Dali. Berkoff´s staging uses frames and a rope and otherwise a bare stage. He originally was going to use screens but when the bare frames arrived he realised on stage you could hide behind an open frame as well as a covered screen with minimal props or symbolic props (a technique where an object was used with a different purpose than its typical use). The frames can be turned into never ending corridors, and the rope traces out the route as Joseph K vainly tries to find his way out of the legal maze. This limits the audience’s imagination and separates the piece from being naturalistic and realistic. The chorus voices the stage directions, ‘He steps over the inspector’ as the character’s mime action. Therefore, the forth wall is broken and the audience have the opportunity to focus on the play as a play rather than getting attracted and making connections with the actors and scenes. When staging, it is important to avoid any hesitation in moving the frames- there should be no pause in the change of scene, the action should flow smoothly, if necessary with the next scene starting before the fames are all in place.

Brecht shaped theatre in a way that had a huge impact on his development. At the time period, naturalistic and dramatic theatre was at its peak. This was when the audience members cared about the characters’ lives and emotions onstage and forget about their own social situation and where they stand in society. When an audience cries for a character or feels emotion through the events happening to them it’s called catharsis. Brecht believed it made the audience ‘hang up their brains with their hats in the clock room’ meaning that it acts as an opportunity to escape from their personal lives. This was because he thought even though it caused the audience to believe what it is on stage they lose the ability to think and judge. He wanted the audience to remain objective and distant from emotional involvement so they can make rational judgments about any social comments or issues in his work. He also wanted to get his plays straight to the point without any members getting emotionally attached.

To explore social situations, we were given a character of society or occupations to become. We then as a group put out characters in order of social class – considering quality of life and money. The line from the lowest being a homeless woman, a member of the elderly, a DJ, a policewoman to the highest being a soldier in the army. This exercise helped think of different positions in society and differences between people. This connoted how Brecht wanted his audience to be aware of any social situations or stereotypes that were present in his work, in order to help the audience to think about their social situation and the society around them. This kind of theatre was called Epic theatre and he did this by using various techniques so the audience where reminded that they were watching theatre not real life. Epic theatre breaks the forth wall, the imaginary wall between the actors and audience which keeps them as observers. They are active members of the theatrical experience as they are kept thinking throughout, not switching off. Brecht definitely wanted his audience to remain interested and engaged by the drama piece otherwise his message he was aiming to communicate would be lost. It was emotional investment in the characters he aimed to avoid.

Within The Trial there are many Brechtian theatre techniques. He believed that while the audience believed in the action onstage and became emotionally involved they lost the ability to think and to judge the situation and characters. He wanted his audiences to remain objective and distant from emotional involvement so that they could make rational judgements about any social comment or issues in his work. To do this he introduced a range of theatrical devices or techniques so that the audience were reminded throughout that they were watching theatre; a presentation of life, not real life itself. He called the act of distancing the audience from emotional involvement the Verfremdungseffekt, which translates to distancing and is also known as the ‘V’ effect or Alienation effect.

Another familiar Brechtian technique is Plaacards – a piece or card labelled with text such as a significant line, stage direction or emotion that the audience are expected to feel. It is an additional piece of written information or sign presented on stage. What’s important is that the information doesn’t comment only upon the action but depends out understanding of it. The audience are forced to consider other aspects of the scene and breaks the forth wall (the imaginary wall between the actors and audience which keeps them as observers). We used this technique in rehearsals in order to understand the effect Plaacards gives and what information to put on the card that will create the effect. We chose the city scene to consider what’s significant to be commented onto the Plaacard. Some examples included ‘Tick Tock’ which signals the sound of the clocks made by the chorus and ‘The city came to life’ which was a line said by a member of the chorus and also sets the location of the scene for the audience to be aware that they are watching a play and are split from the narrative. In another rehearsal as a group of developing practitioners, we analysed the technique of ‘feeding the line’. This is when people repeat lines into the actor’s ears and then the actors repeat the line after. It helps deliver character and focus on the character as a whole rather than focusing on only the voice of the character. It also brings attention to the actors about the meaning and the message they need to express to the audience. This is needed in order to understand what they’ it helps deliver character and focus on the character as a whole rather than focusing on only the voice of the character. It also brings attention to the actors about the meaning and the message they need to express to the audience. This is needed in order to understand what’s the line means and use gestures to present the words. Therefore, every actor was getting the message across to the audience through gestures and emotions for the audience to reflect their position in society.

Antonio Artuad (1896-1948) was one of the 20th century’s most important theoreticians of the drama. He developed the theory of the Theatre of Cruelty, which influenced Berkoff. He was involved in the surrealist movement as a writer and came up with the idea known as “The Theatre of Cruelty” which argued that drama must abandon its emphasis on text and rely on more mysterious, primal expressions of sound, movement and light to shock the audience. Artuad wanted to disrupt the relationship between audience and performer. The ‘Cruelty’ in Artuad’s thesis was sensory, it exists in the works capacity to shock and confront the audience, to go beyond words and connect with the emotions: to wake up the nerves and the heart. He believed gesture and movement to be more powerful than text like the effect Gestus gives. Sound and lighting could also be used as tools of sensory disruption. The audience, he argued, should be placed at the centre of a piece of performance.

We used this ideology of the Theatre of Cruelty in rehearsals to explore the effect. We had a Greek chorus that constantly repeated K’s name throughout the scene. This created confusion for the audience that we performed to. Therefore, making disruption within the piece to separate the audience’s emotions with K’s emotions and do not make connections with the character but rather focus’ on the narrative and the performance itself. This is the same effect and result the Theatre of Cruelty aimed to give to the audience – a sense of confusion and uncomfortableness. As a developing theatre practitioner myself, I also wanted to apply and consider the use of sound and lighting in a rehearsal session we chose a scene from The Trial where K’s father appears as a ghost or hallucinations of K’s. Brecht believed in keeping lighting simple as he didn’t want the production values to overshadow the message of the work. He believed in using harsh white light as this “illuminates the truth.” However, many modern productions do use lighting effects. The important thing is that the audience still see the theatre, so often they will see the productions staff, such as backstage crew, in action on the stage rather than hidden.


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