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Epic theatre (German: episches Theater) was primarily proposed by Bertolt Brecht who suggested that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage. Brecht thought that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation and to be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change in the world outside. For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience's reality was equally constructed and, as such, was changeable.
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 who were responding to the political climate of the time through the creation of a new political theatre. Those practitioners included Erwin Piscator, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and, most famously, Bertolt Brecht. The term epic theater comes from Erwin Piscator who coined it during his first year as Director of Berlin's Volksbühne (1924-1927). Piscator aimed to encourage playwrights to address issues related to "contemporary existence" thereby creating new subject matter to stage and then staging it through the use of documentary effects, audience interaction as well as creating ways in which the audience feel distanced from the event. 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" near the end of his career over epic theatre to describe the style of theatre he pioneered . From his later perspective, the term "Epic Theatre" had become too formal a concept to be of use anymore; one of Brecht's most-important aesthetic innovations prioritized function over the sterile opposition between form and content. According to Manfred Wekwerth, one of Brecht's directors at the Berliner Ensemble at the time, the term refers to the "'dialecticizing' of events" that his theatre produces. which he discussed in his work "A Short Organum for the Theatre". A function of the style of theatre is to ensure that the audience is consistently aware that they are watching and involved in an artificial production.
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.
One of the most important techniques Brecht developed to perform epic theater is the Verfremdungseffekt, or the "alienation" effect. The purpose of this technique was to make the audience feel detached from the action of the play, so they do not become immersed in the fictional reality of the stage or become overly empathetic of the character. Flooding the theater with bright lights (not just the stage), having actors play multiple characters, having actors also rearrange the set in full view of the audience and "breaking the fourth wall" by speaking to the audience are all ways he used to achieve the Verfremdungseffekt.
As with the principle of dramatic construction involved in the epic form of spoken drama amalgamated or what Brecht calls "non-Aristotelian drama", the epic approach to play production utilizes a montage technique of fragmentation, contrast and contradiction, and interruptions. While the French playwright Jean Genet articulates a very different world view in his dramas from that found in Brecht's, in a letter to the director Roger Blin on the most appropriate approach to staging his The Screens in 1966, he advises an epic approach to its production:
|“||Each scene, and each section within a scene, must be perfected and played as rigorously and with as much discipline as if it were a short play, complete in itself. Without any smudges. And without there being the slightest suggestion that another scene, or section within a scene, is to follow those that have gone before.||”|
Brecht, too, advised treating each element of a play independently, like a music hall turn that is able to stand on its own. Common production techniques in epic theatre include a simplified, non-realistic scenic design offset against a selective realism in costuming and props, as well as announcements or visual captions that interrupt and summarize the action. Brecht used comedy to distance his audiences from the depicted events and was heavily influenced by musicals and fairground performers, putting music and song in his plays.
Acting in epic theatre requires actors to play characters believably without convincing either the audience or themselves that they have "become" the characters. Actors frequently address the audience directly out of character ("breaking the fourth wall") and play multiple roles. Brecht thought it was important that the choices the characters made were explicit, and tried to develop a style of acting wherein it was evident that the characters were choosing one action over another. For example, a character could say, "I could have stayed at home, but instead I went to the shops." This he called "fixing the Not / But element."
- Augusto Boal
- Bertolt Brecht
- Howard Brenton
- Caryl Churchill
- Distancing effect
- David Edgar (playwright)
- Experimental theatre
- Dario Fo
- Joan Littlewood
- Vladimir Mayakovsky
- John McGrath (playwright)
- Erwin Piscator
- Political theatre
- Franca Rame
- Theatre of the Oppressed
- Theatre Workshop
- Wiles, Timothy (1980). The Theater Event. Chicago: Chicago Universtiy Press. ISBN 0-226-89801-6.
- Innes, C.D. (1972). Erwin Piscator's Political Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521084563.
- Bertolt, Brecht "Brecht on Theatre", page 121.
- Willett (1964) 281.
- Quoted by Willett (1964) 282.
- Brecht "A Short Organum for the Theatre", page 276
- Genet (1966, 25).
- Brecht, Bertolt. 1964. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. British edition. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-38800-X. USA edition. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-3100-0.
- Brecht, Bertolt. 1965. The Messingkauf Dialogues. Trans. John Willett. Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Poetry, Prose Ser. London: Methuen, 1985. ISBN 0-413-38890-5.
- Brecht, Bertolt. 1949. "A Short Organum for the Theatre". Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. British edition. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-38800-X. USA edition. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-3100-0. p. 179-205.
- Genet, Jean. 1966. Letters to Roger Blin. In Reflections on the Theatre and Other Writings. Trans. Richard Seaver. London: Faber, 1972. 7–60. ISBN 0-571-09104-0.
- Willett, John. 1964. Editorial notes. In Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, by Bertolt Brecht. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-38800-X. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-3100-0.
- Wiles, Timothy (1980). The Theater Event. Chicago: Chicago University Press. ISBN 0-226-89801-6.