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.”
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 other 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.
As with the principle of dramatic construction involved in the epic form of written drama (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 to 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 thefourth 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.”
Dialectical theatre is a label that the German modernist theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht came to prefer to Epic theatre near the end of his career to describe the type of theatre that he had developed earlier in his career. 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 toManfred 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