Epic theatre began in Germany in the early 20th century with Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. Working independently and together on a number of projects during the 1920s, mostly in Berlin, both practitioners developed their own brand of this radical new theatre form. Largely anti-realistic in style, epic theatre aimed to politically educate the German working class using an intellectual mode of delivery with limited emotion. Brecht’s epic theatre saw stages that were sparsely populated with few set pieces, signs, visible stage machinery, open white light and basic costumes. Piscator’s theatre, however, employed the full use of technology, huge multi-level sets, ramps, treadmills and projection in an expressionistic style. – Justin Cash
Epic Theatre Resources
Excellent series of practical activities developed for A Level Drama and Theatre students involving Brecht and politics, Marxism, gestus, quotes and techniques/conventions.
Excellent introductory guide for students with several pages exploring Bertolt Brecht and the many aspects of the epic theatre style, from BBC Bitesize.
A series of posts about Epic Theatre for students from The Drama Teacher website:
The “dramatic theatre” in the table below refers to guidelines set down by the Greek philosopher Aristotle and can be loosely interpreted as the realistic or naturalistic theatre. The “epic theatre” employed by Brecht should not be interpreted as direct opposites of the previously accepted conventions of Aristotelian drama. Brecht himself said “This table does not show absolute antithesis but mere shifts of accent. In a communication of fact, for instance, we may choose whether to stress the element of emotional suggestion or that of plain rational argument”. – Justin Cash
|Dramatic Theatre||Epic Theatre|
|events are incorporated and enacted within a plot||events are narrated and telescoped over time|
|implicates the audience member in a situation (emotional connection)||turns the spectator into an observer|
|wears down the audience’s capacity for action (pacifies)||arouses the spectator’s capacity for action (stimulates)|
|provides audience member with sensations (feelings)||provokes the spectator to make decisions (thought)|
|experience of what is happening on stage (passive)||broader knowledge of the outside world (active)|
|the audience member is involved in the action (internal)||the spectator is confronted with something (external)|
|instinctive feelings are preserved|
|brought to the point of recognition|
|the audience is in the middle of everything (feels)||the spectator stands from a distance and studies (observes)|
|characters are taken at face value||human being is the object of investigation|
|people do not change||people can change / changed by others|
|the plot is concerned with reaching a conclusion||the plot is more concerned with the process|
|scenes are the result of those preceding them (cause and effect relationship)||each episode exists for itself|
(independent, loosely connected)
|growth is evident in the plot||narrative looks like a montage of events|
|plot progresses in a linear fashion||narrative progresses in curves|
|characters determined by evolution|
|jumps in character behaviour|
|human being as a fixed point (static)||human being as a process (dynamic)|
|thought determines being||social being determines thought|
Stories hiding a deeper meaning behind the surface, evident in several of Brecht’s plays.
Theatre company established by Bertolt Brecht and his actress-wife Helene Weigel in East Berlin, 1949. The Berliner Ensemble still operates today.
Exaggeration of a character that is often comical, but at other times grotesque. Many characters in epic theatre plays have a hint of caricature attached to them, some more obvious than others.
Description of how an actor in an epic theatre play establishes role. Instead of becoming the character, actors are asked to demonstrate role at arm’s length.
To teach or instruct – the purpose of many of Brecht’s plays.
Device where an actor directly faces and delivers dialogue to the audience, in the process breaking the imaginary fourth wall that divides stage from spectator.
Term used to title Brecht’s form of theatre, originally coined by collaborator Erwin Piscator, deriving from the great epic poems in history.
End section of a literary work, separate from the main plot. Some of Brecht’s plays contain an epilogue where a character directly addresses the audience.
A self-contained unit of action common in epic theatre plays. Preferred epic theatre term for ‘scene’.
A fusion of Marxism and theatre, gestus had multiple meanings over time as Brecht’s ideas evolved. Generally accepted as a form of physical expression with a social comment.
Basic curtain covering only the lower half of the stage opening. Used by Brecht during scene changes to destroy illusion, thus remind spectators they were watching a play.
Historicisation (formerly historification)
Technique employed by Brecht in several of his works. Events of the present Brecht wished to highlight to the spectator for critical assessment, were placed in the past (often disguised). Brecht hoped the spectator would now be able to view the events with critical detachment.
A number of smaller “learning plays” written by Brecht originally not intended for performance. Actors in rehearsal and workshops were asked to discuss the events of the play from a Marxist perspective.
Economic, social and political belief that underpins the practice of socialism and communism. Several of Brecht’s plays, rehearsal and performance techniques had a Marxist underlining.
Description of how the plot exists in many epic theatre plays. Unlike in the theatre of realism, Brecht’s plots often develop in curves instead of a linear manner. Sometimes, action clashes with events in surrounding scenes that are only loosely connected (episodic).
Implies a large storyline covering multiple locations and time-frames. Consistent with epic theatre.
A character in an epic theatre play that functions as the storyteller of the plot, often addressing the audience directly.
A simple story used to illustrate a bigger issue, often a moral lesson. Brecht inserted parables in some of his plays as well as writing entire works scholars refer to as “parable plays”.
Introductory section of a literary work, separate from the main plot. Some of Brecht’s works contain a prologue where a character directly addresses the audience.
Information used, sometimes misleadingly, to promote a political issue. Brecht’s plays from 1926 onwards (since his embrace of Marxism) can be viewed as propaganda.
The deliberate ridiculing or mocking of people and events, often with exaggeration. Satire is commonly linked with comedy. Brecht associated satire with politics and society.
Brecht inserted songs in some of his plays as a means of reinforcing the theme or message of the play. He collaborated with composer Kurt Weill to create The Threepenny Opera. Music and song in epic theatre plays are intended to neutralise, instead of enhance emotion.
German word for fun, Brecht used spass as an interlude between more serious subject matter often in the form of a satirical song.
Preferred epic theatre term for audience member, implying a critically detached view of the action.
Misleadingly translated for decades as “alienation effect”, this core term in Brecht’s epic theatre is today translated as “defamiliarisation”, “estrangement” or “to make the familiar, strange”. Brecht’s aim was partly to jolt the spectator with an acting or staging technique that was not anticipated, thus awakening them for critical thought and action.
Visual article about Brecht and epic theatre with artefacts from the British Library.
Semester-length Drama unit outline for a political theatre group-devised piece using the conventions of epic theatre.
Three worthwhile student activities for the classroom using emotional detachment, gestus and a narrator.
Outstanding website for teachers, university students and actors, Brecht in Practice, maintained by David Barnett, Professor of Theatre, University of York.
For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. – Erwin Piscator.
Wikipedia Useful explanation of the major aims and techniques of Bertolt Brecht’s theories behind his epic theatre.
Summary of the principles for this new theatre form.
Great 13 lesson unit for the students in the drama classroom from the Ministry of Education, New Zealand.
Wikipedia entry on the concept of ‘the fourth wall’ in the theatre, something Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre often ‘broke through’.
Semester-length political theatre unit for Drama using a scene from Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children and political cartoons as stimulus, while employing the conventions of epic theatre.
Student activities using epic theatre techniques: chorus, episodic storytelling, gestic song.
The audience should never be allowed to confuse what it sees on stage with reality. Rather, the play must always be thought of as a comment upon life – something to be watched and judged critically. – Oscar Brockett.
Handy worksheets and activities for drama students involving Brecht and Artaud‘s non-naturalistic styles of theatre.
A few useful exercises for students of drama focusing on some of Brecht’s techniques.
Wikipedia Outline of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘V-effect’ (verfremdungseffekt), sometimes known as ‘alienation effect’.
Brecht’s famous 1938 essay The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre.
Series of lesson plans with practical activities to help theatre students understand the techniques of Bertolt Brecht (and Stanislavski and Artaud, also)
Worthwhile explanation of many of Brecht’s theories and techniques, accompanied by a Brecht dictionary of related terms. Great for students.
Useful Brecht and political theatre resource for students and teachers (includes exercises).
Brecht hoped that combating the audience’s tendency to become absorbed in the staged action in the present would turn the anticipatory “What’s going to happen next?” into the problem-solving “Why did they do that?”. – Meg Mumford
Great teacher and student resource about Brecht’s theatre with a range of conventions defined, plus activities involving episodic structure and gestus.
If you’re up for a bit of a read, this is an excellent Masters Thesis outlining the direction of a political theatre piece for students in schools incorporating many epic theatre conventions.