Realism vs Epic Play
It is a common misconception that plays like The Grapes of Wrath are Brechtian pieces of theatre, perhaps because of Steinbeck's obvious critical and political agenda in writing about this human misery. Yet this play is in fact a modern piece of realism. Essentially the direct similarities between the two styles are not at all related because the intentions of each completely differ.
Realism was a style of theatre established before the turn of the 20th Century that attempted to put the theory of naturalism into practice. It looked at putting 'a slice of life' onstage and also creating verisimilitude, that is, an overall harmony among all elements of the production. Realism focuses upon method acting, which means the actors became the characters, and creating a piece of theatre that rings true of life itself, whereas Brechtian acting demands a distinct detachment between the actor and the character.
The Grapes of Wrath represents a particular time in history, and intentionally captures farmers and the working class throughout the Depression. Galati's script, like the book, speaks for real experiences and aims to place 'real' situations on stage. The play uses realism, because Galati does not make Brechtian demands on either the actors nor the story itself. There is no doubt the play has an 'epic' magnitude, but this is where the comparison to Brecht ends. Brechtian theatre was in fact labelled 'epic' because his plays consisted of broad historical and social backgrounds in their narratives.
For Brecht, 'epic theatre' was a style that alluded to familiar situations that were then made 'strange' in order to offer contradiction as the central tension driving the plays forward. It can be argued that The Grapes of Wrath is a purpose-built tragedy that uses the epic tale only as part of the realism; to reveal Steinbeck's gift for faithfully and fully depicting American farmers during the Depression.
Nonetheless there are some comparisons between The Grapes of Wrath and Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children that are interesting. Firstly, the two plays powerfully reverberate with a working class voice. Mother Courage herself is subjected to barter her way through the war by selling items she carries around on a wagon. Likewise, the Joad family comes to rely on their Hudson Super 6, which becomes their home. Both the wagon and car become symbolic of the owner's survival methods, as they must reinvent the value of their material possessions for their
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company, aiming to focus upon the art of acting, easily chose to present The Grapes of Wrath in their 1988 season because the method acting technique (used it realism) was integral to the play.
Take a piece of realism, such as The Grapes of Wrath, and ask students to perform a short scene (five-ten lines) from it, as they instinctively believe it should be performed. In the knowledge of Brecht's kooky ideals – ask them to pick specific lines and apply one principle or as much of Brecht as they can into that short scene. Does this work? Why/Why not? Another step to each activity would be to then apply the respective tenets to the script and perform accordingly. The students could then compare more extensively and identify the differences between the two styles.