epic theater

“The one tribute we can pay the audience is to treat it as thoroughly intelligent. It is utterly wrong to treat people as simpletons when they are grown up at seventeen. I appeal to the reason.”

-Bertolt Brecht (Brecht, 14)

The first definition for the term epic in the Oxford English Dictionary is in reference to the words association with a traditional heroic narrative, “represented typically by the Iliad and Odyssey” (OED).  However, the term was also employed by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht to describe a theatrical style which transcended tradition and the norm.  This use is cited in the dictionary’s second entry which defines the term as “a play or plays characterized by realism and an absence of theatrical devices,” and continues stating, “this method of theatrical presentation was dubbed by Brecht the ‘epic’ as opposed to the ‘dramatic’ style.” In the early 20th Century Bertolt Brecht unified and employed non-traditional, non-Aristotelian, theater techniques to create a performance arena he referred to as the epic theater. The theater was based on the demystification and de-familiarization of the production in relation to both the audience and the actors. Brecht wrote plays and characters specifically molded from and contingent upon the style of his notion of the epic theater. Each play and character was a manifestation of Brecht’s technique of alienation and stressed the importance of critical observation. He sought to create a dialectical relationship a person- whether it was a character within a story or a member of the audience- and his or her society. It is through these, he believed, that the spectator is able to play a more active and intelligent role in the theater production. Those who had once sat outside the realm of the stage become integral parts of its narrative, and the actor’s actions became pivotal points of social commentary.

Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1989 in Augsburg, Germany. He attended the University of Munich in 1917 and began writing one-act plays shortly after (Thomson, xv). Through his writing and interest in the theater, he became involved in the Berlin theater and the works of its three main producers: Max Reinhardt, Leopold Jessner, and Erwin Piscator. Piscator, in particular, regarded the stage as an instrument to mobilize the masses and he used unorthodox methods to accomplish it.  This included plots developed from news reports and documentaries and the use of lantern slides, graphs, and a variety of other projections. His goal was a theater that was both “political” and “technological” and in a combination of the two, non-conventional (Esslin, 26).  It is said that Brecht was heavily influenced by Piscator’s work, though Brecht also advocated a scientific drama that would outline wider historical and social backgrounds of the theatrical production. He began work as a dramatug at Kammerspiele in Munich in 1922 where he began to direct he had written (In the Jungle, 1923) and plays which he had adapted to fit his theatrical style (Marlowe’s Edward II, 1924).  After his move to Berlin in 1924, Brecht became and assistant dramturg at the Deutsches Theater and began to dabble in radio productions including a broadcasted adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Brecht became a recognized figure in the German theater business with the success of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928 (Thomson, 39). Following the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and their consequent spread, Brecht fled Berlin in 1933. After staying in various countries including Sweeden, Paris, and Finland, and continuing his theater work on the road, Brecht left Europe for America in 1941. He stayed outside of Hollywood, California until he returned to Berlin and 1949 where he lived and continued to work until his death on August 14, 1956.

The traditional Aristotelian theater seeks to appeal to the emotions of its spectators who, in return, find meaning in the theater through their realization of feelings such as pity or fear. The theater relies on the employment of “mimesis, the Greek term for imitation or representations, and “catharsis,” the Greek term meaning purging or cleansing.  The Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics referred to these two terms in relation to the theater.  He saw mimesis as the perfected imitation of nature and catharsis, unlike its purely medical use, was the purging of emotion and excessive passion. (For more information see mimesis). To the philosopher, a good poet shared the “natures of their characters” and entered their afflictions (Aristotle, 1341-1342). The successful employment of mimesis and catharsis in dramatic theater were not only contingent upon the playwright, but on the audiences’ recognition yet distance from the subject matter of the stage as well.  The theatrical approach is a means for the audience member to purge his or her emotions through the drama of the narrative on stage. It was applied to the German classics’ theory of drama as presented by Goethe and Schiller in 1797. The two “Giants of the German tradition” also distinguished “epic” and “dramatic” as events of the “past” and “present” respectively, and believed that their was to be no contemplation on the part of the spectator (Esslin, 129).

Catharsis was not the aim of the epic theater and a thoughtful audience was a necessity. Rather than play for emotional empathy, the epic theater calls the audience to “learned to be astonished at the circumstances within which (the drama’s hero) has his being” (Benjamin, 18). According to Walter Benjamin, the “relaxed interest” of the epic theater’s audience comes from the lack of appeal made towards their empathy (Benjamin, 18). This stems from Brecht’s theory that the theater does an injustice to the audience, even a betrayal, to treat them as “simpletons” (Willet, 14) and lull them into the illusion that the action on stage was something real and outside of them as the realistic, Aristotelian approach of theater did.  Emotionally identifying with characters does not afford the spectator the opportunity to relate the theatrical production to his or her own life. A critical audience is a necessary and vital component of the Brechtian epic theater

In order to achieve such a dramatization which allowed the spectator to critically engage with the performance, Brecht used what he referred to as the “alienation effect.” The ultimate goal of this effect was to eliminate any and all sense of total immersion the traditional theater had previously given. “The production (takes) the subject-matter and the incidents shown and (puts) them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up” (Brecht, 71). Epic theater is not the illusion of reality but the re-representation of events.  Probably the most vital aspect of the epic theater is the presence of what Brecht refers to as the “alienation effect.”

“The object of the (Alienation)-effect is to alienate the social gest underlying every incident. By social gest is meant the mimetic gestural expression of the social relationships prevailing between people in a given period,” (Brecht, 139).

Echoing Marxist theories, the purpose of epic theater was to make the familiar unfamiliar as an invitation to the audience to rationally think about that which seems natural and turns the spectator into a “consciously critical observer” (Brecht, 91). (See collective consciousness). In Brecht’s comparison of the epic theater to a street performance in “The Street Scene,” he deliberately highlights the essential tenets of epic theater: alienation must occur if the performance is to achieve the aim of epic theater. The alienation effect essentially highlights human incidents to be portrayed as “something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural.” In order for the audience to “criticize constructively from a social point of view,” the feeling of alienation must not only be prevalent, but also unmistakable. If the alienation effect were not fully recognized by the viewer, the play would merely invoke empathy and follow the aim of the dramatic theater, rather than force the spectator to pause and examine the situation critically. If the essence of epic theater is to inspire a new way of examining the world in a social and critical manner, then such a process can only happen in a jarring form so that it illuminates the issue as one in need of further examination. Once one can recognize ideologies within the social system in a different light, one can see that the ideologies of a system portray the social conditions of that system as natural when they really are not.

By alienating that which is considered familiar, one can show this unnatural system of assumed ideology at work and purpose an alternative. The alienation within the theater setting of those who have been or are alienated within society can help to bring the two concepts together and establish a break in conformity. This is a pivotal moment, “the moment when the mass begins to differentiate itself in discussion” (Benjamin, 10).  This raises the issue of balance within the epic theater regarding art for pleasure and art for instruction.

In Brecht’s plays, the alienation effect was employed stylistically in a number of ways, broadly through the use of various media which had traditionally lain outside of the realm of the theater. As customary with many of his plays, each scene of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” begins with stage “inter-titles” (like those commonly used for dialogue in silent cinema). Projected upon a screen on stage amidst the scenery and action is an explanation of the event(s) to be reenacted. This leads to the audience’s immediate disillusionment of their expectation that the actions of the scene will unfold. For Brecht, rather than detract from the story, the jarring and unfamiliar break in the action on the stage, the incorporation of mechanical techniques in the stage play, allowed for an incorporation of the narrative element. “The possibility of projections . . . completed the theatre’s equipment, and did so at a point where the most important transactions between people could no longer be shown simply by personifying the motive forces or subjecting the characters to invisible metaphysical powers” (Brecht, 70). Jarring movements and breaks are also employed for similar reasons by Soviet filmmakers, namely Sergei Eisenstein who developed his own theories on the aesthetics of scene juxtaposition known as montage theory (See montage). Both the playwright and the filmmaker use the gestural capabilities of rhetorical forms of representation (Barthes, 74).

Brecht was also concerned with the “fourth wall” which separating the audience from the stage, and sought to remove it order to allow the spectator to analytically take in the action of the stage. The projections help to accomplish this by allowing the audience to analyze the actions and results of that which is projected, and eliminating “metaphysical powers” from playing into the action that follows.  Thus Brecht “give(s) the incidents baldly so that the audience can think for itself” (Brecht, 14). The employment of digital media within the theater is a testament to epic theater’s “modern level of technology” (Benjamin, 6).

An integral part of Brecht’s epic theater was the actor’s portrayal of the character he or she reenacted on stage. The playwright placed great importance on fostering within his performers a sense of detachment from their characters so as to avoid identifying with their characters and creating “realistic” imitations of them. Like the audience, the actors were to be observers of action. As the spectator was stopped from fully immersing his or herself in the production, so “the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him,” (Brecht, 71).  The key for the epic theater actor lay in their demonstration through the physical disposition of the body, their “gestus.” (Brecht, 106). This was a specific technique which incorporated not only the physical actions of the character but also a social attitude or judgment intertwined with their portrayal. There is a delicate balance between classification without critical judgment and judgment without classification. It is pivotal that:

“The attitude which he adopts is a socially critical one. In his exposition of the incidents and in his characterization of the person he tries to bring out those features which come within society’s sphere. In this way his performance becomes a discussion (about social conditions) with the audience he is addressing. He prompts the spectator to justify or abolish these conditions according to what class he belongs to,” (Brecht, 139).

Through the actor’s gesture as well as the character’s dialogue, a complete character was shown on the stage who was self motivated while at the same time confined by his or her place in the social construct of the portrayed society. It creates a multilevel representation of the on-stage action and makes it accessible to the critical audience. The importance of these gestuses in the epic theater as they relate to the critical message of the play and its characters cannot be overstated. It is verbal and physical exchanges which provide the basis for criticism, discussion, and alteration. “Even if the particular person represented by the actor has ultimately to fit into more than just the one episode, it is mainly because the episode will be all the more striking if it reaches fulfillment in a particular person,” (Brecht, 200). The social constructs stimulated by gender and socio-economic class surround a character and when understood on the level of social relevance, they give greater meaning to his or her interactions.

It is through the de-familiarization of characters throughout the framework of the narrative, and the overarching alienation of the audience employed through epic theater’s techniques, that a larger picture can be drawn from the stage play.  For Brecht, “the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding” (Brecht, 73). In order to accomplish this greater understanding, the epic theater employs the use of various mediums. The audience becomes unfamiliar with the theater, and in turn the play at hand, when outside media are used within it. This alienation of the theater production and demystification of the audience enables the epic theater, for Brecht, revolutionize theater.

Annette Roland
Winter 2010


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