Alienation effect or estrangement effect (Verfremdungseffekt): Literary Terms

Alienation effect
Alienation effect or estrangement effect (Verfremdungseffekt): Literary Terms 2

In his theater of the 1920s and beyond, German playwright Bertolt Brecht adapted the Russian formalist concept of “defamiliarization” into what he referred to as the “alienation effect” or “estrangement effect” (Verfremdungseffekt). The term “alienation” in English carries negative connotations of detachment, emotional numbness, and social apathy, which is why the term “distancing effect” is closer to Brecht’s intention. This effect, according to Brecht, is employed by the playwright to make familiar aspects of current social reality appear strange, thereby preventing the audience from emotionally identifying or becoming too involved with the characters and their actions in a play. Instead, Brecht aimed to create a critical distance and attitude in the spectators, in order to provoke them to take action against, rather than passively accept, the state of society and behavior represented on the stage.

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