Brecht and me

When Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, he was barely known in Germany. But not for us at KULTURAUSTAUSCH – he wrote this article about his understanding of theatre for the magazine in 1986.


By Gao Xingjian

The question of which playwright has had the greatest influence on my dramatic work would cause me as much difficulty as deciding which storyteller had the most influence on my creativity as a prose writer. I could write a whole list. You could say all writers are my teachers, but my enthusiasm for them changes from one day to the next.

As a student I was deeply fascinated by Goethe and Schiller – also by Stanislavski, who was an intense focus of mine. I was in a drama society with a few fellow students; we put on plays and I tried my hand at directing, of course using the Stanislavski method. Then I discovered Vakhtangov and Meyerhold, and later Brecht. I was captivated by Brecht straight away. This was in my fourth year of study, when I was just 20. At this age people tend to lean towards fanaticism, but you can also discover stability and maturity.

And this is when I read Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” and, a little later, a translation of “Brecht On Theatre” which at the time was being privately circulated and wasn’t generally available to the public. These were the days of “anti-revisionism”, when people were also moving away from Stanislavski, and it was clear that such revolutionary ideas weren’t really being allowed to spread to the kind of theatre work that Brecht represented. Maybe it was precisely because of these restrictions that Brecht held such an appeal for me and was able to supplant my admiration for Stanislavski.

Completely unexpectedly, the theatre was manifesting itself to me in a totally different form, and Brecht was the first dramatist who made it obvious to me that it’s also possible to define the rules of theatrical art in a new way. He later became a decisive factor for me over many years in my search for the art of acting. I discovered that you can write a play in an entirely different way from Ibsen, and that the art of directing could be practised in a different way from the Stanislavski approach. The most important artistic principle isn’t to reproduce life on the stage in an absolutely naturalistic manner. I think that, if an artist really wants to perform in this space, they first need to acquire a special feel for the genre, but their own artistic creation shouldn’t just mimic the fundamentals of their new awareness. Brecht offers us this kind of drama, never seen before.

I marvel at Brecht’s independent and critical spirit

I also understood, through him, that a drama can also be epic in nature. Acting originally came out of traditional, popular entertainment that of course also made use of theatrical tools – what was spoken was at the same time performed for the spectators. In no way did the actors or singers blithely equate their selves with their roles.

Right from the start, Brecht bolstered the position of the narrating performer, but gave this figure a modern sensibility, using this to completely overthrow the Ibsen-influenced dramaturgical structures that had been appearing. Theatrical pieces could be written in a different way, where it wasn’t necessary to create conflicts throughout so that all the details could be arranged within an overarching motif. Like with writing a novel, you could just tell a story in your own way and follow events at the same time.

From writing for theatre to directing, Brecht developed a new method. And when a dramatist takes an entirely new approach, not just in theory but in practice, then their contribution to theatre history is that much greater. Brecht didn’t create the theatrical epic for people to view the false as true but to speak to the sensibilities of each individual audience member – in this respect his take on the epic differed fundamentally from that of the ancients. Neither the epic’s narrator nor the spectators are blind followers of the emotional ups and downs of the person acting in the piece. The performer is aware of everything and observes the action in the play, which is perhaps taken from real-life events, though from a historical perspective. We’re not talking here about the content of Brecht’s plays, but only about the technique, permeated by consciousness, by which a person adopts a distanced attitude towards the world and to their own self. I marvel at Brecht’s independent and critical spirit. Of course, there was a historical backdrop to this epic style of narrative, namely the emerging national socialism. Humanity is still contending with a host of new problems in the contemporary world, despite huge progress. But you can still justifiably say that this epic narrative style, steeped in self-awareness, isn’t outdated today.


I think that this art springs from its own lore, and that I write my own pieces as a result of this set of teachings. 

Granted, there are many ways to incorporate epic storytelling in a theatre piece, but even during my search for another method I’ve always found myself in the end turning to Brecht. Ever since modern theatre adopted this originally present yet subsequently lost technique of epic narrative, it has been able to flourish, and these creative ingredients, which were formerly the purview of the novel or of poetry, have now been able to find their way into the dramatic arts.

In all my pieces, for example “Bus Station”, “The Savages” and “Selected Scenes”, I’ve sought out a diversity of storytelling methods and approaches to presentation. All the actors in “Bus Station” are narrators who can step out of the middle of a play and, by dint of their status as actors, can provide commentary on the piece they’re performing in. This is the alienation technique that Brecht used in his plays. I want to say to the audience that the actor, who is assuming a particular role on stage, still remains an actor. […]

Brecht never perfected his method or theory of epic theatre. His contemporary Antonin Artaud, and Beckett and Grotowski later, tried to reconstitute theatre from a different angle. But Brecht’s worth lies in having brought forth a complete and comprehensive dramatic approach in theory and practice. He convincingly demonstrates that “drama” can be conceived of in an utterly different way.

I think that this art springs from its own lore, and that I write my own pieces as a result of this set of teachings. And Brecht has also really motivated me in this endeavour.

Translated from the Chinese by Almuth Richter. This article originally appeared in Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch 3/1986 in the issue „Wechselseitige Bilder. Das Eigene im Fremden. Chinesen über Deutsche, Deutsche über Chinesen“ (“Reciprocal Images. Each in the Other. Chinese on Germans, Germans on Chinese”).