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20 Helpful Epic Theatre Flip Cards for Students

Here are 20 Epic Theatre flip cards outlining this revolutionary form’s key concepts, terms, and techniques. These can be used by students undergoing revision for tests and exams, preparing written material on Epic Theatre, or simply wanting to understand better one of the most explosive and influential movements in 20th-century theatre.

Introduction to Epic Theatre

Epic Theatre, a theatrical movement that emerged in early 20th-century Germany, was primarily associated with the works and theories of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. This form of theatre was conceptualised as a reaction against the naturalistic and psychological theatre prevalent at the time, aiming to engage the audience intellectually rather than emotionally.

Piscator, a pioneer in this movement, utilised multimedia elements, documentary material, and an episodic structure to emphasize the socio-political context of the drama, aiming to educate and activate the audience towards social change. Brecht further developed these ideas, incorporating his theory of the Verfremdungseffekt to prevent the audience’s emotional identification with characters and instead encourage critical detachment and reflection on the issues presented.

Both Piscator and Brecht employed various innovative techniques and devices to achieve their aims. Among these were the use of placards or projections to provide context or commentary, non-linear narratives that disrupted traditional storytelling, and direct addresses to the audience that broke the fourth wall.

Brecht’s Epic Theatre also favored actors presenting characters from a critical distance, rather than fully embodying them, to highlight the constructed nature of social roles and behaviors. Music and song were used not for entertainment but as another layer of commentary, further distancing the audience from the emotional pull of the narrative.

Through these methods, Epic Theatre sought not merely to entertain but to transform the theatre into a tool for social and political critique, challenging audiences to question and, ultimately, change the world around them.

Epic Theatre Flip Cards

In what type of theatre space were Bertolt Brecht’s plays originally performed?

Brecht’s theatre company, the “Berliner Ensemble”, performed on a traditional proscenium arch stage in a theatre with a standard audience configuration.

What is the preferred term and translation for Brecht’s alienation techniques?

Contemporary scholars prefer the German word “verfremdungseffekt” to the English term “alienation effect”, which is misleading. The translation of verfremdungseffekt in the context of Epic Theatre is “to make the familiar, strange’.

What was the form, or structure, of Epic Theatre plays?

Epic Theatre plays consist largely of self-contained episodes instead of traditional scenes. The cause-and-effect relationship between scenes, so often employed in the theatre of Realism, is crushed. Instead, the plot is like a montage of dramatic action, occurring in a non-linear fashion.

What does Brecht’s concept “gestus” mean?

Brecht’s dramas focused on the society represented in the play, usually from a Marxist viewpoint. “Gestus” (pronounced guest-oos), from the Latin meaning “gesture, attitude, carriage”, is a term he used to define the social attitude of a character, often in an historical context. Gestus involved specific movement and gesture – the way an actor “carried” the character.

How did Brecht use parables in his plays?

Parables were often used in songs. These, in turn, were usually employed in shorter episodes, between two longer ones. Brecht’s entire play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” set amongst the Chicago greengrocer trade, was a parable for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany.

Epic Theatre Flip Cards Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht

What does “didactic” mean in the context of Epic Theatre?

In Epic Theatre, Brecht employed a number of acting and staging devices to remind the audience they were watching a play. His was a didactic theatre; one used to instruct. After Brecht embraced Marxism around 1926, his works can be also viewed as anti-capitalist, Marxist propaganda.

What was Brecht’s preferred term for “audience”?

Brecht preferred the term “spectator” to the more traditional term “audience”. He believed the theatre of Realism pacified the audience in a trance-like fashion, and so he sought to arouse the thinking, enquiring spectator who could view his works from a critical perspective.

Is the use of emotion permitted in Epic Theatre?

While many believe Epic Theatre should be devoid of all emotion, this is simply not the case. More accurately, Brecht discouraged emotion from his actors. There are in fact moments where spectators feel for Brecht’s protagonists in performance. Limited emotion is acceptable in Epic Theatre.

Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theater: Crash Course Theater #44

How did Brecht name characters in his plays?

Many of Brecht’s characters had standard names, but others were named according to their social role. In his play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” some of the character names include “poor old peasant woman”, “the girl tractor driver”, “a very young workman”, “a nurse”, “three merchants”, and “the inkeeper”.

What is meant by the term “historification”?

The term “historifcation”, sometimes also referred to as “historicisation”, is the term for a device sometimes used in Brecht’s Epic Theatre plays where events of the drama are deliberately set in the past in order to eliminate overly emotional responses from the spectator (such as recontextualising a recent traumatic event to a different period and setting).

What is multi-roling in Epic Theatre?

Multi-roling in Epic Theatre is a technique where one actor plays mutiple roles. While this is a common device used in contmeporary theatre for economic reasons, Brecht used it to remind the spectator they were watching a play, destroying the illusion of the realistic theatre where an actor should only play a single role.

What were “Lehrstücke”?

Brecht wrote a small number of short plays he called “Lehrstücke” (learning plays), translated as “teaching pieces”, where he experiemnted with techniques such as gestus. These pieces were for rehearsal only, and not intended for performance.

Erwin Piscator
Erwin Piscator

How should an actor perform a role in Epic Theatre?

Unlike in the theatre of Realism, where an actor should be fully immersed in the character, the Epic Theatre asks the actor to identify with the character and demonstrate it at arm’s length. Brecht encouraged his actors to never “become” the character, as if viewing their character suitably distanced in front of them in order to critically judge their own words and actions.

How were song and music employed in Epic Theatre?

Song and music in Epic Theatre were used to neutralise emotion, not intensify it, as is the case in musical theatre. Brecht often used song in short episodes containing parables with the intention to deliver a message to the spectator to arouse a critical, thinking response, not an emotional one.

From where did the term “Epic Theatre” originate?

There are several theories:
1. Fellow German theatre practitioner Erwin Piscator coined the term, only for it to be borrowed by Brecht
2. The term was already in use in certain avant-garde art circles in Germany
3. The term was borrowed from literature (e.g. Indian epic poems “The Mahabharata” and “The Ramayana”).

How did Epic Theatre use the stage, scenery, and props?

Epic Theatre plays employs a largely bare stage, with little or no scenery, and functional props, only. Sets and props are rarely used for aesthetic purposes.

Who is Bertolt Brecht ?

Are time jumps acceptable in Epic Theatre?

Epic Theatre dramas often consist of large jumps in time and place between episodes. This is the antithesis of Realism and Naturalism which disallow these conventions due to a lack of authenticity and believability. The “epic” nature of this is seen in play narratives spanning many years.

What sort of lighting is used in Epic Theatre plays?

Brecht preferred to employ open white lighting in his Epic Theatre productions (i.e. lighting without colour), as he believed coloured lighting intensified the spectator’s emotions.

Did Epic Theatre promote social and political change?

Yes, it did, but one has to view this in context. From 1926 onwards, Brecht embraced Marxism and most of his works from this moment forward asked the spectator to go out into their world and make change for the better from a Marxist perspective.

What are some other devices Brecht used to “make the familiar, strange ” for the spectator?

– direct address (breaking the fourth wall)
– projection (facts, figures, etc.)
– minimalist or fragmentary “social role” costuming
– a half-curtain or no curtain at all
– use of a narrator/storyteller
– use of signs and placards to comminucate information

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