Epic Theatre

Epic theatre was a theatrical movement arising in the early to mid-20th century from the theories and practice of a number of theatre practitioners, including Erwin Piscator, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and, most famously, Bertolt Brecht. Although many of the concepts and practices involved in Brechtian epic theatre had been around for years, even centuries, Brecht unified them, developed the style, and popularized it. Epic theatre incorporates a mode of acting that utilises what he calls gestus. The epic form describes both a type of written drama and a methodological approach to the production of plays: “Its qualities of clear description and reporting and its use of choruses and projections as a means of commentary earned it the name ‘epic’.” Brecht later preferred the term “dialectical theatre” which he discussed in his work “A Short Organum for the Theatre”.

One of the goals of epic theatre is for the audience to always be aware that it is watching a play: “It is most important that one of the main features of the ordinary theatre should be excluded from [epic theatre]: the engendering of illusion.”

Epic theatre was a reaction against popular forms of theatre, particularly the naturalistic approach pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski. Like Stanislavski, Brecht disliked the shallow spectacle, manipulative plots, and heightened emotion of melodrama; but where Stanislavski attempted to engender real human behavior in acting through the techniques of Stanislavski’s system and to absorb the audience completely in the fictional world of the play, Brecht saw Stanislavski’s methodology as producing escapism. Brecht’s own social and political focus departed also 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.

Australian Catholic University Brief lecture on Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre.

Baruch College Essay examining Bertolt Brecht and alienation effects in Chinese acting.

Epic Poetry Site exploring the origins of the term “epic” and its literary use in the ancient world.

HSC Online Useful explanation of Brecht’s epic theatre techniques. Brief explanation of epic theatre with activities.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lecture outlining the similarities and differences between Aristotlean theatre and epic theatre.

Montana State University Brief Bertolt Brecht biography and short descriptions of the features of epic theatre.

Oregon State University Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre.

Stanford University Investigation into epic theatre.

Studying Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive analysis of various aspects of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre.

Talk Talk Brief overview of epic theatre.

University of Durham Table examining the similarities and differences between the ‘dramatic theatre’ and epic theatre, plus quotations and explanations from Bertolt Brecht’s story “A Short Organum for the Theatre”.

University of Missouri Table examining the similarities and differences between the ‘dramatic theatre’ and epic theatre; ‘dramatic opera’ and ‘epic opera’.

University of Southern Queensland Basic concepts of epic theatre. Excerpts of notes and resources on various aspects of epic theatre.

What is Epic Theatre? Brief explanation of Bertolt Brecht’s theatre.

Wikipedia Useful explanation of the major aims and techniques of Bertolt Brecht’s theories behind his epic theatre.

Wikipedia Outline of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘V-effect’ (verfremdungseffekt), sometimes known as ‘alienation effect’.

Wikipedia Entry on the concept of ‘the fourth wall’ in the theatre, something Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre often ‘broke through’.

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Last updated by Justin Cash