Alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt)

Use for Distancing effect; estrangement effect

RELATED TERMS: Avant-garde movements; Defamiliarisation, Ostranenie or making strange; Literary theory; Psychogeography; Situationist International; Epic theatre - Brecht; Theatre of Cruelty

Mode of address and mode of engagement of audience and/or participant are important aspects of the threshold and immersive experience of the narrative environment, both in terms of narrative beginning and sequential progression and environmental entrance and situational flow. They concern the character of the performative invitation to engage with, and persist with, the narrative environment. The question that arises, then, is whether this constitutes an empathic engagement or some mixture of empathic and intellectual engagement, which may prompt consideration of the value of the alienation effect discussed by Brecht and the defamiliarisation process discussed by Shklovsky, as devices for guiding responses and interactions.

Alienation effect is a term derived from the theoretical and theatrical practice of the German Marxist playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, 1898-1956. Brecht sought to discover ways of dramatising Marx’s insights into the ways capitalism works. To this end, he sought to create a ‘dialectical theatre’ by means of a set of devices in staging, music, acting, and the telling of parable. The goals was to confound an audience’s comfortable empathic identification with characters and story, as is encouraged by conventional realism [1] or naturalism (Brooker, 2003: 5), through the illusion of the real, the natural and/or the inevitable, i,e, as ‘matters-of-fact’ in contrast to ‘matters of concern’, in Latour’s terms.

Brecht introduces the term Verfremdungseffekt, translated as ‘alienation effect’ [2], in an article entitled “On Chinese Acting” [3], arguing thatthe term had been used in Germany with reference to plays that were of a non-Aristotelian kind, by which he means plays that did not rely on an identification on the audience’s part with the characters on the stage. In Brecht’s (1961: 130) words, the alienation effect refers to,

“… attempts to act in such a manner that the spectator is prevented from feeling his way into the characters. Acceptance or rejection of the characters’ words is thus placed in the conscious realm, not, as hitherto, in the spectator’s subconscious.”

Together these techniques produced the ‘alienation effect’.

Martin Esslin (1960) writes that Brecht could never successfully achieve his famous ‘Verfremdungseffekt, the inhibition of any identification between spectator and actor, in his own highly rational theatre. ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ really comes into its own in the Theatre of the Absurd, where it is impossible to identify oneself with characters one does not understand or whose motives remain a closed book, and so the distance between the public and the happenings on the stage can be maintained.

As Selden, Widdowson and Brooker (2005: 89) explain, Brecht rejected what he called Aristotelian theatre, referring to Aristotle’s formalisation of the practices of Greek tragedy, a form of drama performed in theatres across ancient Greece from the late 6th century BCE whose main proponents were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Cartwright, 2013). Aristotle emphasised the universality and unity of the tragic action, and the identification of audience and hero in an empathic relation which produces a catharsis of emotions. In contrast, Brecht urges that the dramatist avoid a smoothly interconnected plot and prevent any sense of inevitability or universality. The facts of social injustice, Brecht contended, needed to be presented as if they were shockingly unnatural and totally surprising.

To avoid lulling the audience into a state of passive acceptance, the illusion of reality, achieved through the audience’s empathic identification with the tragic hero figure, must be shattered by the use of the alienation effect. The actors must not lose themselves in their roles or seek to promote a purely empathic audience identification. They must present a role to the audience as both recognizable and unfamiliar (recalling Freud’s notion of the uncanny), so that a process of critical assessment can be initiated. The situation, emotions and dilemmas of the characters must be understood from the outside and presented as strange and problematic. This is not to say that actors should avoid the use of emotion, simply that they should not resort to empathy. This is achieved by ‘baring the device’, to use the Formalist term (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker, 2005: 90).

Brecht did not seek, through this effect, to reinforce alienation in Marx’s sense. Marx depicts a condition of human alienation from nature, from other people and from the products of his/her own labour. The latter, in particular, is induced by the exploitation of the worker under capitalism, enforcing an identification of the worker with the commodity value of the products of labour. Ultimately, this is seen by Marx to produce a profound alienation of humans from themselves.

Brecht’s intentions were precisely the opposite: to induce a ‘critical attitude’ which would dispel the acceptance necessary to the maintenance of the conditions producing alienation under capitalism. Brecht intended to describe a technique of distancing the audience from intense empathic involvement in the action of a play, in order to encourage and enable them to reflect objectively on the content, themes and messages inherent in that action.

This difference can be seen in the term Brecht used in German. Marx used the word Entfremdung while Brecht wrote of the Verfremdungseffekt, for which a better translation would be ‘de-alienation’ effect. As such, it is related to similar devices in modernist theory and art such as ‘defamiliarization’ or ostranenie and ‘making strange’ or ‘estrangement’, though these have not always had the overtly politicizing intention of Brecht’s method.

Brecht’s ideas were widely adopted, often in association with feminism, psychoanalysis and the Marxism of Louis Althusser, in the film theory of the 1970s associated with the British film journal Screen.

Brecht’s concept is to a degree indebted to the theories of montage developed in Soviet cinema theory and practice of the 1920s, notably in the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein. Later examples in the ‘Brechtian’ tradition in theatre are Heiner Müller, John Arden, Edward Bond, Dario Fo; and in cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Marie Straub, and Hal Hartley and Peter Greenaway, the latter two more indirectly.

The alienation effect is now pervasive. It can be found in advertising and television programming as well as cinema and theatre. Consequently such devices are no longer the province of a critical avant-garde. Scepticism about its continued value is related to arguments about a loss of distinction between the image and the real in postmodern society and the frustrations therefore attending any form of artistic or theoretical ideology critique.

Stuart Jones writes,

Brecht proposed a range of techniques through which verfremdungseffekt could be achieved. These include:

Brecht was a committed Marxist and wished to replace the illusions and empathy of ‘realist’ theatre with a dialectical ‘epic’ theatre which made people think and encouraged them to social and political action. He rejected the Aristotelian aim of eliciting pity leading to catharsis, replacing it with one of supporting the impulse to act through a process of curiosity and reflection. He aimed to replace the conflict between a protagonist and his antagonist with contradictions between theses and antitheses. This all does not mean that his theatre is dry or heavy, done well it is entertaining and exciting, and made very rich by the contradictions – for example, a song might have a touching melody and ironic words, as, for example, in several songs in The Threepenny Opera.

Alienation-effect has relevance to you if you want your audience to consider and reflect on issues you raise in your Narrative Environment. You need to think about what techniques you use to ‘break the illusion’, which might be quite different from those Brecht proposes. Also, structurally, you might, for example, want to create an immersive environment but break the spell at various points in order to get your audience to reflect on the experience they are having.


[1] In particular, Brecht opposed Socialist Realism. This offended the East German authorities after he settled there in 1949. Socialist Realism favoured realistic illusion, formal unity and ‘positive’ heroes. He called his theory of realism ‘anti-Aristotelian’, a covert way of attacking the theory of his opponents (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker, 2005: 89)

[2] Henri Lefebvre discusses the adequacy of this translation and also the risks and dangers inherent in Brecht’s dialectical theatre in a passage in the Introduction to volume 1 of Critique of Everyday Life. Thus, Lefebvre (1995: 23) argues that in Brecht’s theatre,

“The spectator wavers between an externalized judgement – an intellectual state which implies high culture – and an immersion in the image proposed. Perhaps this is what the dialectic of the Verfremdungseffekt is. The spectator is meant to disalienate himself in and through the consciousness of alienation. He is meant to feel wrenched from his self but only in order to enter more effectively into his self and become conscious of the real and the contradictions of the real.”

However, Lefebvre (1995: 24) continues, there is a risk that this dialectic process will fail and take on the disturbing form of fascination, which is a worse outcome than the identification that takes place in the Aristotelian model of tragic theatre: rather than ‘classic’, tragic completeness, the audience will look for satisfaction in “ a sort of bloody ecstasy” (Lefebvre, 1995: 24). Furthermore, Lefebvre (1995: 24) notes, “generalized strangeness entails a danger”, one that was avoided by Brecht but is not necessarily avoided by the people who produce his plays or write about them.

The danger is that in seeking to construct a drama that, while based on alienation, seeks to struggle against it, the drama will end up sanctioning alienation. It is significant, in this respect, that Brecht’s term Verfremdungseffekt is translated as ‘effet d’alienation’ in French and as ‘alienation effect’ in English, as if alienation were the goal of the effect rather than that which it seeks to overcome.

Lefebvre (1995: 24) concludes that it would be a cruel paradox if Brecht’s drama were “to sanction alienation by giving it all the glamour of violence”, a danger, Lefebvre thinks, that is more evident in Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty that Brecht’s epic or dialectical theatre.

[3] Min Tian (1997) warns that Chinese acting does not in fact generate anything identical with, or even similar to, the Brechtian Alienation effect, and that the influence of Asian theatre on Brecht should not be overemphasised. Long before he saw Mei Lan-fang’s performance in 1935, Brecht had formulated in his theoretical writings and theatrical practices his new conceptions of theatre and acting, in particuliar his theory of the epic style of acting. What later came to be called the Alienation effect was already firmly established and clearly articulated as the core of his epic theatre, as outlined, for example, in “The Street Scene” (Brecht, 1978a). While he later elaborated the theory in greater detail, none of the basic ideas were changed (Hecht 1961, 95-96). John Willett, furthermore, contends that Brecht’s term Verfremdung, which was virtually a neologism, appears to be a precise translation of Viktor Shklovsky’s term “priem ostranenniya”, i.e. the device of making strange (Brecht 1978b, 99).

Rather than deriving from elements of Chinese theatre, Tian argues that, to a large extent, Brechtian theatre represents a return to the mainstream of the European classical tradition. A similar point is made by Jacques Derrida (1978, 244) who, while citing Antonin Artaud’s discussion of the theatre of cruelty, noted that,

“The Verfremdungseffekt [alienation effect] remains the prisoner of a classical paradox and of “the European ideal of art” which “attempts to cast the mind into an attitude distinct from force but addicted to exaltation” (TD, p. 10). Since “in the ‘theater of cruelty’ the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him” (TD, p. 81), the distance of vision is no longer pure, cannot be abstracted from the totality of the sensory milieu; the infused spectator can no longer constitute his spectacle and provide himself with its object. There is no longer spectator or spectacle, but festival (cf. TD, p. 85).”


Brecht, B. (1961). On Chinese acting. Tulane Drama Review, 6 (1), 130–136.

Brecht, B. (1978a). The Street scene: a basic model for an epic theatre. In: Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by John Willett. London, UK: Methuen Drama, 121–129.

Brecht, B. (1978b). Brecht on theatre, edited by John Willett. London, UK: Methuen Drama.

Brooker, P. (2003). A Glossary of Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. London, UK: Arnold.

Derrida, J. (1978). The Theater of cruelty and the closure of represenation. In: Writing and difference. London: Routledge, 232-250.

Esslin, M. (1960) ‘The Theatre of the absurd’, The Tulane Drama Review, 4(2), pp. 68–70. Available at: essay tdr.pdf.

Hecht, W. (1961). The Development of Brecht’s theory of the epic theatre, 1918-1933. Tulane Drama Review, 6 (1), 40–97. Available from [Accessed 22 March 2016].

Lefebvre, H. (1995). Critique of everyday life. Volume 1: Introduction. London, UK: Verso.

Selden, R., Widdowson, P. and Brooker, P. (2005). A Reader’s guide to contemporary literary theory, 5th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.

Tian, M. (1997). ‘Alienation-effect’ for whom? Brecht’s (mis)interpretation of the classical Chinese theatre. Asian Theatre Journal, 14 (2), 200–222. Available from [Accessed 11 March 2016].