Tag Archives: Brecht

Open the Eyes of the Audience


Michael Chekhov

Political theatre can easily be didactic . It has frequently been lambasted for being artistically worthless. I suppose a criticism might be that it often ploughs a thin furrow; that it expresses one point of view; that it has an agenda –  a spurious argument when every tv show, play or movie has an agenda of some description (even if it is to stop you thinking about anything at all). Of course political theatre can satirise, fight against and keep resistance alive. Michael Chekhov believed that as artists we had to be responsible and had to make our art useful to our audiences. He lived during a terribly traumatic world period (1896 -1955) and after fame in Russia escaped with his life after falling foul of the authorities because of his artistic approach. He  travelled through various theatres in Europe seeking a foothold before he was offered the chance to run his school in Dartington. Even then the school was not able to continue because of World War Two so he started it again in Ridgefield Connecticut before moving to Hollywood, starting a studio and also working as an actor.

What might be the conditions for fascism and what is the atmosphere it thrives in? Why is it so important to find this when we approach plays like Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, to truly be able to build a connection between that time and ours? Because if we cannot build that connection then we are, as artists, not doing much. We are not making people think or consider. We are making them feel worthy or amused.

IMG_6226.JPGIf I look at what is happening now in the world, (Boris Johnson got his big majority a few days ago) I get a sense of negativity and gloom but primarily, impending chaos (largely considering the climate emergency and the apparent refusal to make meaningful change). It seems to have created circumstances ripe for dictatorship. In addition,  there needs to be a sufficient body of unhappy people who can be utilised as long as the authorities press the right buttons. In such times it is easy to manipulate and enrage a people who see themselves under threat.  Fear and Division seem to be effective tools of rulers and that is a place we might consider starting from in our workshop. What is it actually like to live with fear and division all the time?  How does that manifest in the actions of characters?  By getting in touch with some of these archetypal forces through atmosphere, polarities and archetypes, we can immediately enrich both our acting and the message of the plays. We can thicken it and make it complex without simply sounding angry yet still empower our message to encourage change. It seems to me besides scape-goating (the nation’s problems are always someone else’s fault) another atmosphere that is tapped into is the Potency of the Idealised Past; it is the nurturing of a longing for a perfect past that never really existed; it encourages the view that if only the politicians and their people could turn back the clock there would be a rosy heaven in the country. So the problems, forces and tools used to create a dictatorial Fascist state are dense and complex…. A state turning fascist is like a whole people falling into a thick swamp. Ironically the more grotesque a state becomes it is hard to laugh good-humouredly anymore. There is a humour but it is the cold raucous icy humour which is close to tears.

As Chekhov said,”We have to open our own eyes in order that we may open the eyes of our audience. ….. Because of our artistic work our audience will awaken and understand these things anew. This is one of the theatre’s missions.” Lessons For Teachers


Declan working with the group earlier this year


This fascinating  exploration of Brecht and Chekhov Technique with practise and application of the work takes place at NUI Galway between January 10 – 12th for three full days . The leaders are Max Hafler and guest tutor Declan Drohan . The cost is €150. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place. There are still a few places available.


‘That it shall bear fruit’ Chalk Circle final act

Before I finally let go of my production of the Caucasian Chalk Circle I would like to share some discoveries that came because of my exploration into Chekhov’s laws of composition, along with my own experience and common sense.

In my experience it is always a massive wrench for the audience when we leave the story of Grusha suspended in the narrative, and take a step back in time to follow the story of Azdak, the man who will become her judge in the case of the child. This is inevitable given we feel we know Grusha, have followed her story for three acts, and understand what she has given up in order to keep the child. We identify and empathise with her and suddenly she is gone from the play. Ironically I know all this flies in the face of the idea of Brechtian alienation but I feel, as did one of my student actors, that Brecht fails miserably in his attempt to alienate in the Chalk Circle because Grusha, Simon and Azdak are such sympathetic characters.

So back to the wrench the audience experience as they move not just from one story to the other, and one lead character to another , but to a different style of playing as well. They move from an epic tale to a cabaret. 

In exploring the play through the principles of composition of Michael Chekhov I looked at the shape of the play with the cast as to its beginning, middle and end. The whole of the first three stories concerning Grusha and her escape and her sacrifice in order to protect little Michael, belonged to the beginning .It seemed,in our exploration, that the Story of the Judge, the section in which Azdak is introduced and,through a fluke, becomes the judge throughout the chaos which follows the revolution, was like a party; an anarchic time through which fairness and justice occasionally shone through on those poor and disenfranchised people who were usually ignored, abused and spat upon. We felt this section had the atmosphere of a party. This party section was the middle. 

Before the end of this act though, the rulers from the beginning were back, and order (and repression) was restored. This was beginning of the end section.

So we reach the Trial, a heady atmosphere where the forces of repression and anarchy struggle in the courtroom. There is a great temptation in this final act to fall into the ‘fable trap’. What I mean is an assumption that everyone knows the end so we just play the act with strength and pace. The act however is full of moral twists and turns.

What is interesting for me is how Azdak gives Grusha such a hard time for nearly 30 minutes before eventually being courageous enough to award the child to her. Is he just a boor? What is clear is though he knows full well the Governor’s wife wants the child for her own material reasons, he is rude to Grusha and appears to side with the nobles. His life has just been saved and he has been reappointed as judge through his own random act of kindness. 

It seems to me that Grusha is his conscience; through her sacrifice and endurance and love for this child she moves from being an obedient servant to being an outspoken revolutionary. For me though this is less interesting than what is happening to Azdak, who has a decision to make. Is he going to side with the rich, compromise his principles and save his life? Or is he going to side with Grusha and move into a very dangerous future? It is easy to justify giving the child to the nobles. After all, Natella is the real mother, but it is not the moral decision. We all make these compromises every single day of our lives, and for me this courageous decision of Azdak, along with the fact that both he and Grusha perform acts of generosity which result in transformation is what makes this a really great uplifting yet unsentimental play.