Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) called it Estrangement;
Luigi Pirandello, Nobel Laureate ( 1867-1936)
is often quoted as saying,
“. . . it is only a mask that man unconsciously assumes
in order to adapt himself to the social context in which he finds himself . . .”
What was it that playwright and director Bertolt Brecht and Nobel Laureate and playwright Luigi Pirandello explored and recreated in the 1930’s? Brecht called it Estrangement; Pirandello’s later works were framed self liberation by Disconnection. Both Brecht and Pirandello explored similar ideas through their plays and novels; and both arrived at the same intersection with theories and one fundamental question for audiences: What condition or cause affords us to be estranged or disconnected, i.e. emancipated from a predictable life? Both writers agreed: We (representing humanity) wear various masks, depending on who we’re with, where we are going, for influence, or lust, or determination. They challenged critics and writers alike by writing/directing that actor’s portray a character by imitation, impersonation, and isolation. While they both wrote some of the greatest plays of the modern age, it was Brecht who pursued his theory of Verfremdung, (They both wrote plays which explored their hypothesis: but it was Brecht that had the advantage by writing and directing his plays). Being both playwright and director he had the good fortune to write; test it on stage; rewrite . . . and so on, amalgamating ideas and discarding all but what worked within the Estrangement Movement: the actor isn’t the actual character, but a surreal representation of a character inside the play.
Does that sound, in any way, familiar to you? You’re not really crazy, you’re simply acting out; You’re not really crazy, you’re just vying for attention; you’re not the type, you’re just saying suicide to make me feel guilty. So maybe you’re the shy but lethal type? You stay in your room or apartment or Malibu Beach bungalow. Maybe you have these conversations with . . . the character you play in your melodrama. It doesn’t matter which target you’re aiming your epithets. Most of them don’t make sense any way. In your gut you know you would never say or do any of the hollow threats or cynical promises. Those things belong to the character you’re playing. But the redemption you sought and were politely given isn’t yours to keep. It belongs to that character you play (“a very convincing performance,” someone had said to you).
Your illness, it’s debilitating effects, duration, severity, and recovery provides a pension of patience and politeness. But you’ve become conscious of a hushed and tiny change like a slow drip that floods a basement if ignored long enough. This change, odd enough, isn’t about getting smaller. Indeed! This change or sense of change remains like an irritating allergy. And then, one day, one fine day, one more fine day, not another one fine day . . . you awaken to a certain degree of disorientation; you check your watch for the day of the week; the house has an eerily empty air; as though time simply passed by leaving you undisturbed. You walk to the kitchen and see that the mundane morning rituals were indeed completed and one set of car keys was missing from the hook.
A magnificent change occurred during the night. Quite similar to the fate of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa without all the bugginess. The world stopped interacting with me as a lover, friend, colleague, church member, brother and began to interact with me as an illness. It’s as though a giant magnet simply plucked me out of my life, then delicately placed Mr. Mental Illness, a clone of me with one obvious exception: it lacked me . But this likeness, it was showered with change; attention when I spoke, belief when I discussed my illness, even slowing our pace to a speed I could manage. A World of Magnificent Changes!
But it wasn’t quite the nirvana I’d thought. In this World of Magnificent Changes it was expected that I would welcome the absence of all those decisions I had to make, like going to parties, movies, late dinners (“oh no, he won’t come, he has trouble with evening events,”); brunches, art museums, and botanical gardens (“Yep, both of us. He likes daytime things,”) meeting friends for dinner, spontaneous day trips, “grab your-jacket-we’re-going-to-see-a-show-with-Richard (“He can’t do it, was all he said, he simply couldn’t do it.”) All that life lost because of my illness has been changed to “What life lost; it’s who he is now.”
Like characters that Brecht, Pirandello, and Kafka created in an attempt to understand their cultures, I too, had been hard at work creating mine, and then training those around me, and then Opening Night/Opening Day when I was no longer a guy with mental illness. Instead the world sees and interacts with my mental illness. The old me’s been retired.
- alienation effect (cmlt280.wordpress.com)
- NY1 Theater Review: “Clive” (statenisland.ny1.com)
- What Galileo saw (3quarksdaily.com)