The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre
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"The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre" is a theoretical work by the twentieth-century German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. It was composed in 1930 as a set of notes to accompany his opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In it, he outlines his ideas for a "refunctioning" of the theatre, his principle of the 'separation of the elements" (conceived in opposition to Wagner's principle of the "integrated work of art"), and the "shifts of accent" involved in the move from traditional "dramatic" theatre to his own "epic" theatre. It also contains one of the earliest formulations of "Gestus".
Life of Galileo by Brecht as epic theatre
Brecht thought, the "old" forms of European theatre based on Aristotle, which, in the face of changing contemporary circumstances were inadequate to represent social reality. Therefore, he came up with the concept of “epic theatre”. This direction of theatre was inspired by Brecht’s Marxist political beliefs. It was something of a political platform for his ideologies. Epic theatre is the assimilation of education through entertainment and is the antithesis of Stanislavsky’s Realism and also Expressionism. Brecht believed that, unlike epic theatre, Expressionism and Realism were incapable of exposing human nature and so had no educational value. He conjectured that his form of theatre was capable of provoking a change in society. Brecht’s intention was to encourage the audience to ponder, with critical detachment, the moral dilemmas presented before them.
Life of Galileo by Brecht is a play pregnant with all the stipulations of an epic theatre. The goal is one of estrangement or Verfremdung with an emphasis on reason and objectivity rather than emotion. Brecht provokes the audience not only into thinking about the play but into reforming society by challenging common (dominant) ideologies. The V-effekt (verfremdung effek) in the play is produced by employing various techniques.
The Life of Galileo has been fabricated as a montage of independent incidents. It moves from scene to scene by curves and jumps which keep the audience detached and make them capable to judge that whether the things are happening in a right way. There is a sudden shift of scenes. Galileo reaches Florentine in scene 4 where he explains his discovery which is in complete contrast to Ptolemaic system of Aristotle and argues with mathematician and philosopher. The sudden shift of scene is observed in scene 5 where Virginia is sent home from the convent because city is stricken with plague. The shift serves the aim to focus on the human relationships. The individual episodes are loosely connected, all contributing, however, to the play's main theme. Instead, the scenes are united by means of the repetition of the main characters, settings and motifs. While Aristotelian theatre aimed at the identification of the spectator with the character and at emotional involvement, Brecht believed that, in order for the audience to be critical and intellectually involved in the play, distance was needed, the audience needed to be alienated. His new, epic theatre was not to be "culinary", or, in other words, for easy consumption, but to appeal to reason.
To encourage the audience to adopt a more critical attitude Brecht used episodic structures with a loosely knit plot. Brechet has used ‘anti-illusive’ technique of missing time to distance the audience and actors, to keep the audience alert and aware and to make them think critically about the incidents. Scene 1 starts in sixteen hundred and nine in padua then there is a gap of one year and scene 3 starts in January ten, sixteen ten; scene 6 starts in 1616 after the lapse of six years. Eight years are past in scene 9 where Galileo is kept silent for 8 yrs, scene 11 starts in 1633 and it is followed by a big lapse of 9 yrs in scene 14 which starts in 1642. The technique of flash back is used in scene 15 which opens in 1637.
Brecht has also projected explanatory captions for the readers/audience to drive important messages. Narrators are important as they fill in the missing action. Narration has been given before starting any scene that is a major characteristic of an epic drama. In this play the author relates an account in a way that invites the readers to consider the events involved and then to make their own evaluation of them. Scene 3 begins with the caption “…Galileo Galilei abolishes heaven” which instigates the reader to search for the truth. The caption of scene 4 describes the clash between the ideologies of church and reason, empiricism and science with the significant brevity. The old says: what I’ve always done I’ll always do. The new says: If you’re useless you must go.
Another characteristic of life of Galileo as an epic drama is that man’s thinking is inured by social situation and it will get change if the social situation changes. When Sargido puts Galileo on alert that his discovery is theological dynamite and attempts to convince him that people over here “are not open to reason” and even if u come up with seven proofs ‘’they'll just laugh at you”. Galileo insists jubilantly, "humanity will accept rational proof" “I believe in reason’s gentle tyranny over people. Sooner or later they have to give in to it.” “Thinking is one of the chief pleasure of the human race”.But in the end of the play the state of affairs and social situation compels him to change his outlook and makes him denounce his own theory.
As an epic play Life of Galileo is ample with arguments. Galileo as well as men of the cloth make arguments to substantiate their ideas right. Galileo gives arguments to mathematician, Gentlemen, to believe in the authority of Aristotle is one thing, tangible facts are another. You are saying the according to Aristotle there are crystal spheres up there, so certain motions just cannot take place because the stars would penetrate them. But suppose those motions could be established? Mightn’t that suggest to you that those crystal spheres don’t exist ? Gentlemen, in all humanity I ask you to go by the evidence of your eyes. Unlike traditional drama the arguments are presented with rationale and logic. It turns the spectator into observes and instigates him for an action. There are bits and tinges of humour in the play. The dialogue between Mrs. Sarti and Galileo in scene 3 is an apt example.
Galileo: it’s a question about the heavens…This is it: are we to take it that the greater goes round the smaller or does the smaller go round the greater?
Mrs. Sarti: Is that a serious question or are you pulling my leg again?
Galileo: a serious question.
Mrs. Sarti: then I’ll give you a quick answer. Do I serve your dinner or do you serve mine?
Galileo: You serve mine. Yesterday it was burnt.
Music is important characteristic of epic theatre. Song is incorporated in scene 10 of life of Galileo which is neither soothing in the effect nor it heightens the emotions of audience. In fact it serves as commentary to the play leading to a V-effekt. At the end of the play, the discrepancy between the scientific and other developments of Galileo’s time and local social structures that prevented them for being taken for the general benefit would have left the masses with unequivocal questions about the nature of the society. Like a master piece epic drama the language in Life of Galileo varies with characters. Galileo strikes a scientific and logical tone. He uses aphoristic and figurative language, it is intentionally made striking to lend force to his damnation. In contrast the procurator’s language is occasionally flairy while that of the Florentine mathematician and philosopher is in fun chichi and double edged. Galileo’s change with Andrea and Mrs. Sarti are direct and laconic as well as taciturn. The Life of Galileo is replete with biblical, literary allusions and quotations from Dante, V Roe, and Einstein. This stylistic choosing of the references also renders colours to its recognition as an epic drama.
- Brecht, Bertolt. 1950. "The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre: Notes to the Opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny". Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. London: Methuen, 1964. ISBN 0-413-38800-X. pp. 33–42.