GER 341, 342, 343 HomepageOregon State University

Bertolt Brecht and the THE EPIC THEATER (1)****

****To read this material in German, click here: Das Epische Theater
NOTE: The term Epic Theater, used by Brecht for the first time in 1926, did not originate with him, although it is generally applied to his work today. It was already in the air in 1924 when Brecht moved from Munich to Berlin and was first used in connection with revolutionary experiments by director Erwin Piscator. Many playwrights and composers produced plays and musical compositions in the 1920s which have been since been labeled epic (Stravinisky, Pirandello, Claudel), and others have followed in their footsteps (Wilder, Miller, Becket).

This is what Bertolt Brecht wrote about his concept of the Epic Theater:

. . . This is no place to explain how the opposition of epic and dramatic lost its rigidity after having long been held to be irreconcilable. Let us just point out that the technical advances alone were enough to permit the stage to incorporate an element of narrative in its dramatic productions. The possibility of projections, the greater adaptability of the stage due to mechanization, the film, all completed the theater's equipment, and did so at a point where the most important transactions between people could no longer be shown simply by personifying the motive forces or subjecting the characters to invisible metaphysical powers.

To make these transactions intelligible, the environment in which the people lived had to be brought to bear in a big and "significant" way. This environment had of course been shown in the existing drama, but only as seen from the central figure's point of view, and not as an independent element. It was defined by the hero's reactions to it. .

The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall. Not only did the background adopt an attitude to the events on the stage--by big screens recalling other simultaneous events elsewhere, by projecting documents which confirmed or contradicted what the characters said, by concrete and intelligible figures to accompany abstract conversations, by figures and sentences to support mimed transactions whose sense was unclear--but the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him.

The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically (and without practical consequences) by means of simple empathy with the chracters in a play. The production took the subject matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems "the most obvious thing in the world" it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.

What is "natural" must have the force of what is startling. This is the only way to expose the laws of cause and effect. People's activity must simultaneously be so and be capable of being different.

It was all a great change.

The dramatic theater's spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too-- Just like me--It's only natural-- It'll never change--The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable--That's great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world--I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

The epic theater's spectator says: I'd never have thought it -- That's not the way -- That's extraordinary, hardly believable -- It's got to stop -- The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary -- That's great art; nothing obvious in it -- I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.
Historischer Hintergrund .
Literatur 1925-1945.