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Epic theatre (German: episches Theater) is a theatrical movement arising in the early to mid-20th century from the theories and practice of a number of theatre practitioners who responded to the political climate of the time through the creation of a new political theatre. Epic theatre is not meant to refer to the scale or the scope of the work, but rather to the form that it takes.[1] Epic theatre emphasizes the audience's perspective and reaction to the piece through a variety of techniques that deliberately cause them to individually engage in a different way.[2] The purpose of epic theatre is not to encourage an audience to suspend their disbelief, but rather to force them to see their world as it is.

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  • ✪ Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theatre: Crash Course Theater #44
  • ✪ An introduction to Brechtian theatre
  • ✪ Epic Theatre
  • ✪ What a Wonderful World, Devised style of Brecht, 2017
  • ✪ Epic theatre


Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course Theater, and today we are hanging with playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. As theatrical modernists go, Brecht is the lace to Artaud’s leather. Or is it the other way around? His plays are hugely literary and staunchly political—surprise surprise!—but they’re also designed to wake up the audience, providing a more intense and essential vision of reality. Feeling alienated yet? Lights up! INTRO Bertolt was born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1898. He studied medicine, but he also took classes in theater. And in 1924... he apprenticed himself to the director Max Reinhardt. His early works were episodic plays about macho heroes and fragmenting societies in the expressionist style of Ernst Toller or Georg Kaiser. In the late 1920s, he began to work with the theater director Erwin Piscator, who we briefly discussed in our episode on expressionism. One of the first multimedia directors, Piscator created a theater that was overtly political. He thought that theater could be a means of educating the audience. And boy, did he love scaffolding. Brecht combined Piscator’s technique with elements borrowed from cabaret, silent film, and Shakespeare’s history plays to create his own unique style. In 1928, he had maybe his greatest success with “The Threepenny Opera,” a tale of the criminal underclass, co-written with the composer Kurt Weill. This became the runaway hit of Weimar Germany. Brecht, however, sensed that his politics weren’t a great fit for Nazi Germany. He left in 1933, first for Denmark, then Sweden and Finland, and then the United States. In exile, he wrote several of his major plays, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” “The Life of Galileo Galilei,” and “The Good Person of Setzuan,” and he formally articulated his theories. In 1947, he was summoned before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. He agreed to testify. But, while he didn’t name names, he also didn’t win any popularity contests with Hollywood. So he left the U.S., ultimately resettling in East Germany. Back in Germany, he and his wife, Helene Weigel, created the Berliner Ensemble, a theater company that would perform his texts and put his theories into practice. Brecht died in 1956. Brecht is credited with developing the idea of “epic theater,” although Piscator used that term first. Epic theater is supposed to be the opposite of dramatic theater and also the opposite of Aristotelian theater. It’s largely achieved using the Verfremdungseffekt or the V-effekt. That’s often translated as the “alienation effect,” or the “distancing effect”; a better translation is “the estrangement effect.” Why would you want to estrange or alienate an audience? Like a lot of dudes in the non-realist camp, Brecht worried that conventional plays were too easy to sit through. You see a psychologically realistic show, you have all the feels, and then you leave the theater mostly worrying about whether the currywurst stand was still open. Currywurst is delicious! But using theater as mere escape is no way to topple exploitative capitalism! Instead, Brecht tried to create plays that would force an audience to think critical and uncomfortable thoughts about money, power, and ethics. “Art,” he wrote, “is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Yes, this is about waking up an audience. Just like Artaud! But it’s not about working on an audience’s unconscious and waking them up to myth and magic and violence and ritual. Epic theater is about working on their waking brains and waking them up to the political realities just beyond the door of the playhouse. The appeal is intellectual, not emotional. There’s no crying in Dialectical Materialism. Brecht believed that an estranged audience would be forced to engage with a play’s content actively and intellectually. Here’s how Brecht put it: “The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too—Just like me—It’s only natural—It’ll never change … I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh. The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it—That's not the way—That’s extraordinary, hardly believable—It’s got to stop … I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.” How do you do this? Well, you know how, in most productions, lights, sounds, sets, costumes, and songs all work together to produce one coherent vision? Brecht was all, how bout not? He wanted a theater in which the various elements wouldn’t integrate but actually sort of cage fight each other, continuously ejecting the audience from the theatrical illusion. DISBELIEF WILL NOT BE SUSPENDED. A good example is in “The Threepenny Opera,” when the sweet and virginal Polly Peachum steps out to sing the violent revenge ballad “Pirate Jenny.” The audience is supposed to be like, whaaa!? Why would she sing that!? But often the audience is like, hey! This is a Fun song! Because mimesis is powerful. And estrangement is hard. Brecht also encouraged a style of acting in which actors don’t fully embody characters, but just sort of gesture at them, often with an actual repeated, symbolic gesture that Brecht called the “gestus.” Brecht also provided dialogue in which actors speak about their characters in the third person. He described this model in his essay “The Street Scene.” In the essay, he imagined an eyewitness demonstrating a traffic accident to some bystanders. The witness doesn’t try to fully become the driver or the victim. Instead, he gestures at those roles, allowing the bystanders to make up their minds. “The actor is not Lear,” Brecht wrote. “He shows Lear.” Brecht also cut off interest in story or suspense by describing what would happen at the beginning of a scene or actually writing it out on a half-curtain. Because full curtains are too disbelief suspending. There’s often a narrator and a use of signs and placards. He wanted each scene to exist independently and for the audience to have to work out how to put them all together. He was also big on speaking stage directions out loud. Brecht wrote that he wanted theater to feel like a boxing match. No one attending a boxing match thinks that these guys pummeling each other are doing it because they’re super mad at each other. The audience understands that the construct is artificial. That said, maybe Brecht didn’t choose the best metaphor, because in boxing the punches are real. And if you’ve been to a match, you’ll know that the ringside audience is not especially … distanced. But here’s a funny thing about Brecht’s plays: yes, they’re episodic and brainy, and they keep reminding you that YOU ARE DEFINITELY WATCHING A PLAY. But even when they’re directed in a V-effect style, you usually end up pretty engaged with the characters and the story, and not necessarily with the dialectics. Curse you, entertainment! “The Threepenny Opera” was such a runaway success not because people were so on fire for Brecht rendering London’s criminal underworld as an allegory for exploitative labor practices in a play-staged-as-such. It was probably because Kurt Weill wrote some fire tracks. I mean “Mack the Knife.” Come on! And all that stuff about girls, crimes, and general skulduggery was pretty fun. UH HUH SURE A SKULL JOKE Brecht wrote in a bunch of styles—comedies, dramas, biographies, history plays, musicals, and folk dramas. His plays cover a huge temporal and geographical range, too—part of the whole estrangement thing. They’re smart and playful. They often have really good roles for women, which isn’t always a given. And the balance of political dynamics with narrative pull is usually fascinating. But there’s one more thing to know about Brecht. His own labor practices were maybe exploitative, too. He had a whole bunch of co-writers, usually women he was involved with, and he almost never gave them credit for their significant contributions… Like mostly writing some of the plays! I guess maybe that partly explains his well written female roles? Let’s look at “The Good Person of Setzuan,” first performed in 1943 with songs by Paul Dessau added later. It’s the heartwarming fable of a kindly prostitute who learns to protect herself from exploitation by dressing and acting like a really, really mean dude. It’s full of sweet, sweet Brechtian devices like talking directly to the audience and explaining the action before it happens. Help us out, ThoughtBubble: A bunch of gods drop in on Setzuan, looking for a really good person. They have trouble finding one until they come to the door of the prostitute Shen Teh, who takes them in even though she’s penniless. The gods reward Shen Teh with money and tell her to continue to be good. She takes the money, buys a tobacco shop, and tries to be good, but her generosity just makes her a target. She falls for a pilot, Yang Sun, but he steals her money and leaves her pregnant. Then Shen Teh has a bright idea. She invents a cousin named Shui Ta, dresses up as him, and orders all of the freeloaders to leave the shop. Turns out, Shui Ta is really good at business, so good that he turns Shen Teh’s tobacco shop into a full-on tobacco factory. But this subterfuge is hard on Shen Teh. People hear her crying behind a door when only Shiu Ta is supposed to be around, and they find some of her clothing. So they try Shui Ta for murder. Shui Ta convinces the judge to close the courtroom and reveals all. The gods are present, but they leave Shen Teh, who cries out that it’s impossible to be good AND survive in the real world. In an epilogue, the responsibility is foisted onto the audience: “You should now consider as you go What sort of measures you would recommend To help good people to a happy end. Ladies and gentlemen, in you we trust: There must be happy endings, must, must, must!” Thanks, Thought Bubble. Was that happy? In having the same actor play both Shen Teh and Shui Ta, Brecht distances us from strictly identifying with the character, and the story creates a dialectical conflict between right moral action and social survival. The gods can’t resolve that - can you? Be the change Shen Teh needs to see in the world. Maybe Brecht never really achieved his goal of turning the theater from a place of entertainment to a place of education. His plays are too entertaining! But his style became a huge influence on modern and postmodern theater, television, and film. Or is that just what Mike Rugnetta would say? We’ll see you next time, when things are going to get absurd. [[[Yorick flies in, and they have a moment in which everyone acknowledges that our sidekick is a non-verbal skull.]]] More absurd. We’ll be exploring the Theater of the Absurd with Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett—the whole madcap and deeply-pessimistic-about-the-human-condition gang. Until then… curtain. Which is a device the theater uses to obfuscate the machinery of stage craft, and maintain the illusion of the stage as a location subject to different rules than the so called “real world”, a division that is ultimately [[the curtain actually closes]] HEY HEY C’MON


Famous practitioners


The term "epic theatre" comes from Erwin Piscator who coined it during his first year as director of Berlin's Volksbühne (1924–27).[3] Piscator aimed to encourage playwrights to address issues related to "contemporary existence." This new subject matter would then be staged by means of documentary effects, audience interaction, and strategies to cultivate an objective response.[4] Epic theatre incorporates a mode of acting that utilises what Brecht calls gestus. One of Brecht's most-important aesthetic innovations prioritised function over the sterile dichotomical opposition between form and content.[5] Epic theatre and its many forms is a response to Richard Wagner's idea of "Gesamtkunstwerk", or "total artwork", which intends each piece of art is composed of each other art form.[6] Since epic theatre is so focused on the specific relationship between form and content, these two ideas contradict each other, despite the fact that Brecht was heavily influenced by Wagner. Brecht discussed the priorities and approach of epic theatre in his work "A Short Organum for the Theatre".[7] Although many of the concepts and practices involved in Brechtian epic theatre had been around for years, even centuries, Brecht unified them, developed the approach, and popularised it.

Near the end of his career, Brecht preferred the term "dialectical theatre" to describe the kind of theatre he pioneered. From his later perspective, the term "epic theatre" had become too formal a concept to be of use anymore. According to Manfred Wekwerth, one of Brecht's directors at the Berliner Ensemble at the time, the term refers to the "'dialecticising' of events" that this approach to theatre-making produces.[8]

Epic theatre is distinct from other forms of theatre, particularly the early naturalistic approach and later "psychological realism" developed by Konstantin Stanislavski. Like Stanislavski, Brecht disliked the shallow spectacle, manipulative plots, and heightened emotion of melodrama; but where Stanislavski attempted to engender real human behaviour in acting through the techniques of Stanislavski's system and to absorb the audience completely in the fictional world of the play, Brecht saw this type of theatre as escapist. Brecht's own social and political focus was distinct, too, from surrealism and the Theatre of Cruelty, as developed in the writings and dramaturgy of Antonin Artaud, who sought to affect audiences viscerally, psychologically, physically, and irrationally. While both produced 'shock' in the audience, epic theatre practices would also include a subsequent moment of understanding and comprehension.



While not invented by Brecht, the Verfremdungseffekt, known in English as the "estrangement effect" or the "alienation effect", was made popular by Brecht and is one of the most significant characteristics of epic theatre.[9]

Some of the ways the Verfremdungseffekt can be achieved is by having actors play multiple characters, rearrange the set in full view of the audience, and "break the fourth wall" by speaking to the audience. The use of a narrator in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is another example of Verfremdungseffekt at work.[2] Lighting can also be used to emulate the effect. For example, flooding the theatre with bright lights (not just the stage) and placing lighting equipment on stage can encourage the audience to fully acknowledge that the production is merely a production instead of reality.

As with the principle of dramatic construction involved in the epic form of spoken drama amalgamated or what Brecht calls "non-Aristotelian drama", the epic approach to play production utilizes a montage technique of fragmentation, contrast and contradiction, and interruptions. While the French playwright Jean Genet articulates a very different world view in his dramas from that found in Brecht's, in a letter to the director Roger Blin on the most appropriate approach to staging his The Screens in 1966, he advises an epic approach to its production:

Each scene, and each section within a scene, must be perfected and played as rigorously and with as much discipline as if it were a short play, complete in itself. Without any smudges. And without there being the slightest suggestion that another scene, or section within a scene, is to follow those that have gone before.[10]


Historicisation is also employed in order to draw connections from a historical event to a similar current event. This can be seen in the plays Mother Courage and Her Children and The Good Person of Szechwan, both written by Brecht, which comment on a current social or political issue using historical contexts.[11]

Brecht, too, advised treating each element of a play independently, like a music hall turn that is able to stand on its own. Common production techniques in epic theatre include a simplified, non-realistic scenic design offset against a selective realism in costuming and props, as well as announcements or visual captions that interrupt and summarize the action. Brecht used comedy to distance his audiences from the depicted events and was heavily influenced by musicals and fairground performers, putting music and song in his plays.

Acting in epic theatre requires actors to play characters believably without convincing either the audience or themselves that they have "become" the characters. This is called Gestus, when an actor takes on the physical embodiment of a social commentary. Actors frequently address the audience directly out of character ("breaking the fourth wall") and play multiple roles.[12] Brecht thought it was important that the choices the characters made were explicit, and tried to develop a style of acting wherein it was evident that the characters were choosing one action over another. For example, a character could say, "I could have stayed at home, but instead I went to the shops." This he called "fixing the Not / But element".

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Barnett, David (2015). Brecht. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  3. ^ Wiles (1980).
  4. ^ Innes (1972).
  5. ^ Willett (1964) 281.
  6. ^ Brown, Hilda Meldrum (1991). Leitmotiv and Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  7. ^ Brecht (1949, 276).
  8. ^ Quoted by Willett (1964) 282.
  9. ^ Schall, Ekkehard (2015). The Craft of Theatre: Seminars and Discussions in Brechtian Theatre. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 205. ISBN 9781474243308.
  10. ^ Genet (1966, 25).
  11. ^ Gordon, Robert (7 September 2017). "Brecht, interruptions, and epic theatre". British Library.
  12. ^ Gordon, Robert (7 September 2017). "Brecht, interruptions, and epic theatre". British Library.


External links

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