You are on page 1of 4





A. Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is known as the most influential German dramatist, theatre
activist and theoretician of the theatre in the 20th century. He first attracted attention in the
Berlin of the 1920s as the author of provocative plays that challenged the tenets of traditional
theatre. Brecht was a campaigner for change in society through the intervention of ideas. His
essay ͞A Short Organum for the Theatre" (published 1949) provides a focused enunciation of
the role that literature could play in changing society. In this essay, he propounded what is
popularly called ͞epic theatre͟Ͷa radical departure from conventional or traditional theatre. It
was a quest to discover the special pleasures and proper entertainment of his time, and
therefore, to find a theatre fit for the scientific age.

In traditional theatre, all that matters is the illusion of compelling momentum in the
story told, which is created by all sorts of poetical and theatrical means, which often hides the
imprecision of the story. Incorrectness or improbability is usually not seen as disturbing. It is
safely dependent on the beauty of language and elegance of narration. Conventional theatre
requires the complete "possession" of the actor by the character. It shows the structure of
society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by the people (in the
auditorium). Therefore the catastrophes happening onstage are considered beyond criticism.

Brecht called ͚slice-of-life͛ representations as nothing but "a little miming, a bit of
text..." The central protagonist(s) are always kept general so that a vast majority can identify
with them. It makes people into cowed, credulous, and hypnotized masses. It turns the
spectators into motionless figures in a peculiar condition. They scarcely communicate with each
other. They stare rather than see, listen rather than hear and look at the stage as if in a trance.
They are in a detached state, where they seem to be submitting to vague but profound
sensations. This is why Brecht called conventional theatre as ͞bourgeois narcotics͟ since it turns
viewers into passive spectators and ͞sleepers͟. Brecht disliked the shallow spectacle,
manipulative plots, and heightened emotion of melodrama and its quality to absorb the
audience completely in the fictional world of the play.

Epic theatre, on the other hand, constructs workable representations of society, which
are then in a position to influence society, wholly and entirely as a game. It lets its spectators
enjoy the particular ethic of their age, which springs from productivity. 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 the popular naturalistic forms
of theatre. The epic approach to play production utilizes a montage technique of
fragmentation, contrast and contradiction, and interruptions. The epic form describes both a
type of written drama and a methodological approach to the production of plays. It should be
about depiction of human (social) relationships, about "men's life together". The term 'epic'
means plainly that the tangible, matter-of-fact social processes are no longer hidden behind a

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.

͚Dialectical theatre͛ is a label that 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. He also
referred to it as "non-Aristotelian drama" since it rejects Aristotelian concepts of drama, like

Brecht wanted people to realize that the evils of humanity are in the hands of mankind
itself, that is to say that the society is not unalterable and that the world can be managed, that
Art can and should intervene in History; that it should accomplish the same tasks as the
sciences, with which it shares so much. Theatre should resolutely come to the aid of the
unfurling of the historical process; by showing that stage-techniques themselves are socially
engaged; and that in the end there is no eternal "essence" of art, but rather that "each society
should invent the art that disposes it best to its own redemption."

Epic theatre makes it hard for the spectator to identify with the characters on stage, by
showing that they are moved by social impulses that differ according to the period. This leads
to the development of a critical attitude in the audience. The 'historical conditions' must not be
thought of as mysterious powers (in the background); but should be shown to be created and
maintained by men, and thus alterable by men as well. This leaves the spectator's intellect free
and highly mobile, by mentally switching off the motive forces of our society or by substituting
others for them. This "unnaturalness" in conduct makes real motive forces capable of
manipulation, and is thus a part of the 'alienation effect' (A-effect). 'Naturalness' or
verisimilitude is the enemy of epic theatre. A representation that alienates is the one which
allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it unfamiliar. It involves
conscious distancing and detachment, and constitutes the centrality of epic theatre. It breaks
the notion that society cannot be influenced by individuals. The exposition of the story and its
communication by suitable means of alienation constitute the main business of the epic

Epic theatre incorporates a mode of acting that utilises what Brecht calls ͞gestus͟.
Acting in epic theatre requires actors to play characters believably without convincing either
the audience or themselves that they have "become" the characters. The actor should observe
and examine the world around him. He must pay close attention to gestures, and imitate the
world through a process of reflection. The actor must take possession of his character and
critically calculate its various manifestations. He must reflect and interrogate himself about the
possibilities; he should surprise himself. Actors frequently address the audience directly out of
character (known as "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."

The construction of one character happens simultaneously with all the others.
Therefore, learning a character is not only a critical process, but one that must evolve with the
development of the other characters. The fictive object is a character that has evolved in a
society, a given situation, and owes its construction to relationships with other characters. In
the scientific age, an actor should be able to play an emotion sociologically, by the interaction
of the ensemble of characters.

The ͚story͛ is the heart of the theatrical performance. It fits together all the gestic
incidents, embracing the communications and impulses that make up the audience's
entertainment. The story is shown by the theatre as a whole--by actors, stage designers, mask-
makers, costumiers, composers and choreographers; and it is their job to entertain the children
of the scientific age with humour and sensuousness.

The individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are
easily visible. The episodes must give the spectator a chance to interpose his judgement. Each
part of the story should be given its own structure as a "play within the play". In the words of
Jean Genet, ͞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.

The epic theatre should leave its spectators productively disposed even after the
spectacle is over.