Brecht and the Muppets

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Christopher Leslie
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Call for papers for a proposed panel at the PCA/ACA 2012 National Conference in Boston, April 11-14.

The Muppets' clanging theme song, fumbling characters, and vaudeville format might make some viewers think they are watching Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. The characters are alienated from their roles and present an unfinished front to the audience. The show takes place in a comfortable theater like the Berliner Ensemble, and the use of "real" "fake" characters disrupts the illusion that would generate identification in the same way that Brecht's makeup should create a distance between the characters and the viewer.

Epic theater, Brecht writes, arouses viewers to action and forces them to make decisions. Instead of presenting art that purports to be an authentic experience, epic theater shows a particular picture of the world where the viewer can study and critique the world. Whereas the dramatic theater takes the human being "for granted," Brecht writes, "the human being is the object of inquiry." This is nicely done in the recent film's song "Am I a Man or a Muppet?," but it is certainly not the first time this theme appears in conjunction with these characters.

Brecht explains that his effort was to separate the elements of theater - words, music, and production must struggle with each other so that the combination is a muddle. If the parts are unified, as in a traditional seamless production, the spectator becomes a passive element of a totalized work. "Witchcraft of this sort," Benjamin writes, "must of course be fought against. Whatever is intended to produce hypnosis, is likely to induce sordid intoxication, or creates fog, has to be given up." It is remarkable the extent to which these programs for children make an effort to disrupt the audience's attention and create situations where children and adults can think about identity rather than be captivated by an attempt to represent it.

In describing Bertolt Brecht's epic theater, Walter Benjamin describes how the episodes of a Brecht play move in "spurts," where songs, captions, and lifeless conventions "set one situation from another" and "paralyze [the audience's] readiness for empathy." The style, according to Benjamin, seeks to disrupt the Aristotelian unities and present a world-in-progress that requires the audience's help to finish. Instead of "unalterable" characters who develop linearly, Brecht himself writes, characters are "alterable and able to alter" and they proceed "in curves." And so, one might argue, the aesthetic of the epic theater presents an appropriate format for the personal development of children and adults alike.

This proposed panel seeks to analyze the way in which the Muppet franchise can be seen to participate in this project of epic theater. So long as they make a connection with Brecht's epic theater, papers may address any manifestation of the Muppets:

1. Early appearances of the Muppets

2. "The Muppet Show," the television series from the 1970s

3. Jim Henson and Frank Oz's movies, "The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper," and "The Muppets Take Manhattan"

4. Brian Henson's movies that remake literature, "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island" (which keep in mind Brecht's prescription that familiar subjects are the best for epic theater?)

5. Later Muppet movies, "Muppets from Space," "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz," and "The Muppets" (2011)

Papers may also address recurring characters and locations, guest stars, or skits. Submit abstracts of 200-300 words by December 13 to Christopher Leslie,, in the body of an e-mail (no attachments, please).