Epic Theatre Conventions

Along with Constantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht was one of the two most influential figures of 20th century theatre and the most significant practitioner since World War II. Brecht’s theories for the stage, including his well-known epic theatre form and distancing techniques, made him a force to be reckoned with.

Although it is well documented Brecht had a team of workers around him to ease the load, his creative output was nothing short of prolific. He was a theorist, poet, playwright of over fifty plays, an essayist, and above all a practitioner who painstakingly applied his theories to the works of one of the great theatre companies of the world, the Berliner Ensemble.

Unlike Grotowski, Brecht preferred to demonstrate his concepts for epic theatre in performances instead of acting exercises. Unlike Artaud, Brecht’s ideas were concrete and translatable for actors for generations to come. A staunch Marxist, Brecht’s plays often had a political and social message for those viewing them. Accordingly, his works included songs that drummed home the message of the play, storytellers and narrators, projection, placards, and actors directly addressing the audience.

Although there are a couple of other posts on The Drama Teacher referring to Brecht’s epic theatre conventions (Brecht’s Epic Theatre Conventions Pt.1, Brecht’s Epic Theatre Conventions Pt.2), below is a more complete list of his techniques for teachers and students of theatre.

Theory

  • Brecht loathed the theatre of realism
  • he likened the realistic theatre to the effects of a drug, in that a realistic performance pacified its audience
  • Brecht’s plays were didactic and aimed to teach or instruct their audience
  • Brecht used the term ‘Lehrstück’, meaning ‘learning-play’
  • social activist theatre wanting the spectators to make change in their own world outside the theatre walls
  • in 1926 Brecht embraced Marxism and his theatre techniques after this point served his Marxist beliefs
  • Brecht’s umbrella title for a range of non-realistic techniques is ‘verfremdungseffekt’
  • verfremdungseffekt, or  V-effekt (German) /  A-effect (English), short for ‘alienation-effect’
  • misleadingly translated over the decades as ‘distancing effect’
  • recent and more accepted translation is ‘to make the familiar, strange’ or ‘estrangement’
  • ‘epic’ borrowed from the great poems of literature (The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Mahabharata, Ramayana)
  • Brecht was influenced by (German) expressionism and had an interest in the cabaret scene in Berlin

Form

  • Brecht wrote over fifty plays
  • Brecht’s form of theatre was known as ‘epic theatre’, most likely coined by collaborator Erwin Piscator
  • some scholars argue the term ‘epic theatre’ was already in use in European experimental theatre
  • epic plays employed a large narrative (as opposed to a smaller plot), spanning many locations and time frames
  • Brecht called scenes ‘episodes’, with each scene being relatively self-contained in the story
  • epic plays used non-linear, fractured plots, where the events of an episode were not necessarily a result of the preceding episode
  • this juxtaposition of scenes employing multiple locations and time frames created a montage effect
  • he used his acting troupe at the Berliner Ensemble to perfect his theories on acting and the theatre
  • some of his plays were historical, chronicling the life of a person (Life of Galileo, Saint Joan of the Stockyards)
  • focus was always on the society being presented in the play, not individual characters
  • events in plays were sometimes told from the viewpoint of a single storyteller (alienation device)
  • Brecht wrote his plays with no act or scene divisions; these were added later
  • long scenes told the main events of the story and were interspersed with occasional short(er) scenes
  • short(er) scenes normally involved parables, used to emotionally detach the audience marginally
  • parable scenes often involved the use of song, an alienation device employed by Brecht to help deliver the (Marxist) message of the play
  • ‘historification’/’historicisation’ was a Brecht term defining the technique of setting the action of a play in the past to draw parallels with contemporary events
  • ‘historification’/’historicisation’ enabled spectators to view the events of the play with emotional detachment and garner a thinking response
  • Brecht crushed Aristotle’s model of the three unites of time, place and action (one location, single day)

Movement & Gesture

  • mix of realistic and non-realistic movement
  • movement was at times graceful, but at other times forceful
  • Brecht used the Latin word ‘gestus’ to describe both individual gestures and whole body postures
  • character gestus denoted one’s social attitude and human relationships with others (linked to Marxist principles)
  • some Oriental gesture used (Brecht’s influence of a Balinese dance showing)
  • groups of characters often positioned on the stage for functional and not aesthetic reasons
  • characters grouped according to their social relationships in the play (Marxist)

Space & Actor Audience Relationship

  • Brecht’s plays were performed in traditional proscenium arch theatre houses
  • however, the stage curtain was often dispensed with or a half curtain used instead of a full one
  • Brecht preferred to call the audience ‘spectators’
  • direct address by actors/characters to audience was a strong and unconventional technique used by performers
  • direct address broke the (invisible) ‘fourth wall’ and crushed traditional realistic/naturalistic conventions
  • the narrator was a common figure in Brechtian dramas (Brecht was probably the father of the modern narrator)

Stagecraft

  • costume was not individually identifiable eg. the farmer’s costume represented ‘a (typical) farmer’
  • costume was sometimes incomplete and fragmentary eg. tie and briefcase for the businessman
  • costume often denoted the character’s role or function in society (plus wealth/class)
  • sets were sometimes non-existent or fragmentary (either partial sets or one object representing many of the same)
  • at other times sets were industrial eg. ramps, treadmills (influence of Meyerhold’s constructivist set design)
  • some makeup and mask use, but non-realistic and ‘theatrical’ eg. grotesque and/or caricatured
  • makeup and costume used to depict a character’s social role in the play, not that of his/her everyday appearance
  • signs/placards used to show audience a range of information
  • screen projection used to reinforce play’s theme/s (to garner an intellectual response, not emotional)
  • open white light only (as colour would generate an emotional response from the audience)
  • if the house lights were left on during a performance, open white light also allowed for the spectators and performers to share a single same-lit space
  • lighting instruments in full view of audience (no attempt to hide them, but rather remind the audience they were watching a play)
  • music and song used to express the play’s themes independent of the main spoken text in the play (in parable scenes)
  • music was used to neutralise emotion, rather than intensify it (opposite to a modern-day musical)

Acting and Characterisation

  • actor was never to fully become the character, as in the realistic/naturalistic theatre
  • actor was asked to demonstrate the character at arm’s length with a sense of detachment
  • often characters tended to be somewhat oversimplified and stereotyped
  • yet other characters were sometimes complex
  • historical, real-life characters in some Brecht plays
  • some (but not all) character names were generic eg. the worker, the peasant, the teacher
  • mix of presentational and representational acting modes
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43 comments on “Epic Theatre Conventions

  1. Well ariculated.Thank You so much guys!Kindly do the isms for me please.

    Thank You
    Zanele

  2. We should stop writing “alienation techniques” once for all. This is an outright wrong translation of Brecht’s term “Verfremdung”. “Verfremdung” does NOT have anything to do with “Entfremdung” (alienation). Not in the slightest. “Defamliarization” is the correct term. “Entfremdung” is a Marxist term that has nothing to do with theatre although one might be tempted to confuse these things because Brecht was a Marxist.

  3. What is it called when a performance does a breif overview of the play at the start…ie…in a short movment piece.. and therefore leaves the audience to then watch how it all took place, knowing already what took place? Does the techniqu have a name?

  4. Fanks for dis, halp mi on mi asignement a lot. fanks agan

  5. A fantastic resource, thank you for developing these pages. Expect a lot of hits from South Australia as I will be sharing this with my students as it is so clear and accessible.

  6. A great resource that has helped me develop throughout the entire year. From my Solo performance to developing descriptive language for my Performance analysis, this resource has helped a lot.

    Thanks!

  7. its more helpful to me…thanks..

  8. Wow tanks alot for em write ups..i want to knw did he(Brecht) Talked about anything on using of multimedia on stage?pls i need to knw in detail or if u can refrence me to any work fine.tanks

    • Migel, Brecht collaborated with fellow German theatre director Erwin Piscator on a well-known production of a work entitled The Good Soldier Schweik (1928) in which film projection was used on stage. It is believed that Brecht, in collaboration with Piscator, were two of the first directors to successfully use projection in the theatre. Whether this included sound as well, and therefore closer to “multimedia”, I do not know for sure. I believe the production used projection as scenery, cartoon film and real film (John Willett – scholar and author of books on Brecht). This information is a little tricky to find. Sorry my reply was late, but if still relevant I recommend searching books such as Brecht in Context, Brecht on Theatre, Brecht on Performance, Bertolt Brecht (Mumford) etc for more details, or searching .edu websites for web information through Google, plus utilising university libraries with academic resources on Brecht.

  9. Hi, thank you for the information. Is doubling (an actor plays 2 characters) a Brechtian technique? I doubt it but somebody told me it was so.Thank you.

  10. I’m currently studying for my mock exams and this is a brilliant resource thank you so much!!!1

  11. Excellent! Glad it helped.

  12. What techniques could i teach a class to make them get into brecht more ?

    • Bella, it sometimes depends on the age of the students, whether they have had some introduction to Brecht already, and how academic the group in question is? Generally, I have found students enjoy using placards/signs, narration, song with a message. Other students get into Brecht and Epic Theatre by using conventions such as speaking stage directions out loud (though in reality, Brecht’s actors probably only did this as a rehearsal technique), and swapping characters mid-scene. More sophisticated and older students get in to Brecht’s political and social background (Marxist beliefs) and how this affected his theatre, by looking at his use of gestus. Other students enjoy using projection in their practical studies of Brecht. I have found over the years one just has to tailor it to your students at the time.

  13. I am student of theatre and performing Arts and I am happy for meet you because I have learnt a lots and I know brecht more better now. thank you sir

  14. neeeeeed help!!!
    what would you say Brechts theatrical influences would be?

    • Amber, German Expressionism of the 1910s and 20s and to a lesser extent, the German cabaret scene. Article on German Expressionism here on The Drama Teacher.

    • Hi there

      Brecht was highly influenced by Marxism. This is because he believed in an equal society and during his times Capitalism was at the forefront. He believed that Capitalism could not provide for its people and wanted a more communist approach and that was marxism.

      He was also influenced by Expressionism. However it wasn’t the whole expressionist movement but certain aspects of it listed below. Expressionism:
      – abolished theatre conventions,characterisation, plot and structure
      -Playwright represented thought, feelings and fate
      -There was a poetic dialogue used which was sometimes non-sensical
      – used unconnected scenes instead of a linear plot in the structure (influenced by the playwrights Georg Buchner and Frank Wedekind
      However I must mention that in Brecht’s epic theatre, emotions were removed from expressionism

      Erwin Piscator influenced Brecht in his semi-revolutionary theatre after world war one. He used themes that were against the government back then and turned them into skits and made songs, painted and drew posters. His goal was to re-educate and uplift the lower class/oppressed class. He used puppets, projections and screens and believe that art could not just be for art’s sake but should awaken social consciousness.

      Elizabethan theatre practises
      – a bare stage with the audience around it
      -A narrator and entertainment
      – personal issues and political being unravelled with changing scenes

      Oriental theatre practises
      – Verfremdung from chinese acting style
      -Dispassionate Noh Plays
      – revolving stage of Kabuki theatre from the Japanese

      I hope that helps 🙂

  15. This was extremely helpful in aiding my project surrounding Brechtian theatre and practices. Thank you so much for posting this, it means a lot to have so much information at my disposal!

  16. How might you take a regular musical in America and make it more interesting by adding Brechtian touches to become more artistic? I already have expresisonism and heightened realism as a goal. (This site is thought provoking…) Thanks for y our info and support.

  17. This material is very useful as it will be a very handy tool for me as I teach courses in “Introduction to directing” and “Advanced acting”. I look forward to more of such.

  18. Hi- what would you say the definition of epic theatre is? And the socio-political context??

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