Brecht's Epic Theatre
When Brecht was looking for a term that would encompass the type of theatre he was looking to create, he was influenced by the work of Erwin Piscator, an established German director who during the 1920s and 30s was involved in the creation of new theatre forms. Piscator was the first person to coin the phrase Epic Theatre, a term that Brecht is often associated with.
The Epic Play
The Epic Play will follow a story familiar to the audience. The story is often in the form of a fable, or it will show historical events. Brecht's intention in using known material was to make it unsensational: by taking away any attraction-grabbing ‘wrapping' that an original story may have, Brecht was stripping away a disguise that dramatic theatre often uses.
The form of an epic play is episodic. Whereas the plays of Ibsen or Chekhov will construct scenes that relate directly to every other scene, Brecht's plays consist of a series of lone standing, loosely connected scenes. Scenes were often book ended with musical interludes, captions or gestures. These interludes allowed the audience to reflect critically on what they had just witnessed and also prevented feelings of empathy or the illusion of reality.
His plays were able to stand-alone as Brecht wished to illustrate a story of perspective from many different viewpoints. He likened it to 10 different people witnessing the same car crash. The retelling of the story will be slightly different from each person as they have seen it from a different angle.
The characters in the epic play represent an individual who in turn represents all humankind. This also assists in breaking any empathy that one might feel for a character.
The Epic Actor
Epic Actors serve as narrators and demonstrators. They retell events and in doing so demonstrate actions and events that assist in the audience's understanding the situation. Brecht wanted his actors to always remember that they are an actor portraying another's emotions, feelings and experiences.
To assist in achieving this, Brecht often used a device or theatrical technique called Gestus. Gestus was a gesture or position that an actor would take up at crucial sections in the play. The gesture or action aimed to encapsulate the feelings of the character at the one time, and also briefly stopped the action. The most famous Gestus ever used was in Brecht's Mother Courage where the character of Mother Courage looks out to the audience, her face posed in a silent scream.
The Epic Stage
Brecht envisaged the Epic Stage as a place for discussion. The audience is presented with a topic of social or political relevance and an opinion or message on said topic. The epic stage provides its audience with questions, possible solutions and actively encourages them to think, determine and act.
Brecht had no desire to hide any of the elements of theatrical production. Lighting, music, scenery, costume changes, acting style, projections and any other elements he called upon were in full view of the audience; a reminder that they are in a theatre, and what they are watching is not real.
Brecht also wished to change the scale of the properties used, and then also use them out of context. For example, using a skyscraper that makes up part of the set and turning it over to use as a judges table in a courtroom. This challenged the audience, and also reminded them that they were watching something that was being manufactured, and not real life.
The Alienation Effect
Perhaps the best known technique of Brecht's epic theatre is the Alienation Effect: to make the familiar strange. Although the term ‘alienate' may conjure up images of separating one thing from another by building a wall, this is not the case. The A-effect takes "…the human social incidents to be portrayed and label[s] them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted…" (Willet 125) The purpose is that the audience be put in a situation where they can reflect critically in a social context.
The Epic Audience
"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."(Willet, 14)
The Relaxed Audience is how Brecht referred to the audience he wished the epic theatre to attract. Brecht often spoke of what he termed a ‘smoker's theatre', where audience members would puff on cigars, much like they would at a boxing match, whilst watching a performance. The relaxed audience are interested in what they are watching; they are there to be entertained, and to think.
Although epic theatre is often perceived as lacking in emotion or entertainment value, Brecht was actually intent on creating a theatrical experience that entertained, educated and provoked thought. This misconception seems to stem from the notion that entertainment and education cannot co-exist. However his productions used intelligent humour, dance, music, clowning and colour to tell stories with high political and social content. After all, theatre is supposed to represent life, and life is derived from of combination of the personal, social and political climate of the time.
Acknowledgement to Dr Janet McDonald in her assistance with preparing this article.