The Accident and the Account: Towards a Taxonomy of Spectatorial Witness in Theatre and Performance Studies

Caroline Wake


One of the most famous witnesses in theatre and performance studies is Bertolt Brecht’s eyewitness, who stands on the street corner giving an account of how a traffic accident has just happened. The eyewitness appears in Brecht’s essay ‘The Street Scene’ (1964) as well as his poem ‘On Everyday Theatre’ (1979). In the essay, he argues that epic theatre:

can be seen at any street corner: an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident took place. The bystander may not have observed what happened, or they may simply not agree with him, may ‘see things a different way’; the point is that the demonstrator acts the behavior of driver or victim or both in such a way that bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident. (Brecht, 1964: 121)

While Brecht refers to only one eyewitness, it has always struck me that there are, in fact, several witnesses within the Street Scene: the eyewitness-demonstrator; the driver; the victim; the bystander who ‘sees things a different way’; and, perhaps, the bystander who sees nothing at all. Similarly, I have always thought that there are two scenes here: the accident and the account.

Within the scene of the accident, witnessing is a mode of seeing whereas within the scene of the account, witnessing is not only a mode of seeing but also of saying and, for the bystanders, a mode of listening. In this way what starts as a small and simple scene with one eyewitness, rapidly becomes two scenes, each dense with many witnesses and many types of witnessing. Yet despite the diversity this scene, or scenes, represents for modes of witnessing in theatre and performance studies, we still have only one word at our disposal – witness.

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