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... Epic Theatre and webshow [ combination of both, including Lirics? ] Book of Spectator II

episodic structure

TOPICS: drama + comedy + postmodern + time + space + show + spectacle + audience + theory + public +
Andrea (Galileo's student): "Unhappy is the land that has no heroes." Galileo: "No Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero." (from the drama "Galileo")
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Stage Directing Theory
Directing Theory: pre-text, text and super-text

Brecht Page @ script.vtheatre.net -- playwrighting

Epic Theatre @ biomechanics -- theory

Brecht on Theatre : The Development of an Aesthetic (Paperback) 0809005425
This volume offers a major selection of Bertolt Brecht's groundbreaking critical writing. Here, arranged in chronological order, are essays from 1918 to 1956, in which Brecht explores his definition of the Epic Theatre and his theory of alienation-effects in directing, acting, and writing, and discusses, among other works, The Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny, Mother Courage, Puntila, and Galileo. Also included is "A Short Organum for the Theatre," Brecht's most complete exposition of his revolutionary philosophy of drama.

FROM Notes on the Opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) + FROM Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction (c. 1935) THE EPIC THEATRE :
Many people imagine that the term "epic theatre" is self-contradictory, as the epic and dramatic ways of narrating a story are held, following Aristotle, to be basically distinct. The difference between the two forms was never thought simply to lie in the fact that the one is performed by living beings while the other operates via the written word; epic works such as those of Homer and the medieval singers were at the same time theatrical performances, while dramas like Goethe's Faust and Byron's Manfred are agreed to have been more effective as books. Thus even by Aristotle's definition the difference between the dramatic and epic forms was attributed to their different methods of construction, whose laws were dealt with by two different branches of aesthetics. The method of construction depended on the different way of presenting the work to the public, sometimes via the stage, sometimes through a book; and independently of that there was the "dramatic element" in epic works and the "epic element" in dramatic. The bourgeois novel in the last century developed much that was "dramatic", by which was meant the strong centralization of the story, a momentum that drew the separate parts into a common relationship. A particular passion of utterance, a certain emphasis on the clash of forces are hallmarks of the "dramatic". The epic writer Döblin provided an excellent criterion where he said that with an epic work, as opposed to a dramatic, one can as it were take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual pieces, which remain fully capable of life. (p. 112)
[ from Twentieth-Century Theatre: A Sourcebook by Richard Drain; Routledge, 1995 ] [+ table, left]


As with Biomechanics (Meyerhold) the ideas of Brecht are very useful outside of the historical period.

* great directors * 20th century (a few):



Tairov (new)

new -- new06 +


Brecht, Web and Internet:

College Theatre and Educational goals of Epic Theatre. Dramaturg Page (to think about) *

Stylistically speaking, there is nothing all that new about the epic theatre. Its expository character and its emphasis on virtuosity bring it close to the old Asiatic theatre. Didactic tendencies are to be found in the medieval mystery plays and the classical Spanish theatre, and also in the theatre of the Jesuits... (p.112. Brecht)

FROM Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting: The A-Effect (1936) (p.114)
The A-effect was achieved in the German epic theatre not only by the actor, but also by the music (choruses, songs) and the setting (placards, film etc.). It was principally designed to historicize the incidents portrayed...

Brecht and Beckett: Godot --



Brecht in "Theatre Theory Files" -- epic-thr?

Epic Theatre Page in biomechanics

[ terms are in dictionary ]


The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects by John Willett; Methuen, 1959 - Introduction - Groundwork - A Short Chronology of Productions and Publications - Analysis of the Plays - Eight Aspects - One: The Subject Matter - Two: The Language - Three: Theatrical Influences - Four: The Music - Five: Theatrical Practice - Six: The Theory - Seven: Politics - Eight: The English Aspect - Technicalities

The Theater of Meyerhold and Brecht by Katherine Bliss Eaton; Greenwood Press, 1985 (see Meyerhold Pages).

Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays by Peter Demetz; Prentice-Hall, 1962

Performing Brecht by Margaret Eddershaw; Routledge, 1996

Playwrights and Acting: Acting Methodologies for Brecht, Ionesco, Pinter, and Shepard by James H. McTeague; Greenwood Press, 1994


Directing Index * Part I * Part II * Part III * Part IV * Part V *
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Bertold Brecht (1898 - 1956) -- German poet and dramatist

Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht was born in Augsburg, Bavaria. Raised in a comfortable middle-class home, he attended secondary school in Augsburg and studied briefly at the University of Munich. In 1924 he gained a foothold in the cultural metropolis of Berlin as an assistant dramaturge (drama specialist) at the Deutsches Theater. He achieved enormous popular success following the 1928 premiere of his collaborative effort with German composer Kurt Weill, Die Dreigroschenoper (published 1928; translated as The Threepenny Opera, 1964). Forced to flee Germany in 1933 because of his leftist political beliefs (he had become a convert to the socioeconomic theories of Karl Marx) and opposition to the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, Brecht and his family spent 14 years in exile in Scandinavia and the United States. Although he tried hard to become established in the United States, Brecht failed to make a breakthrough either as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, California, or as a playwright on Broadway. He returned to Europe in 1947. Two years later he moved to East Berlin and remained there until his death.

Brecht's first major play, Baal (1922; translated 1964), features a materialistic and promiscuous poet, the opposite of the view then in vogue of the artist as a visionary. Baal and his next play, Trommeln in der Nacht (1922; Drums in the Night, 1966), reject idealism in favor of crass individualism. Brecht's turn to Marxism resulted in plays that indicted capitalism. In Die heilige Johanna der Schlachth��fe (1932; St. Joan of the Stockyards, 1956), a modern-day Joan of Arc advocates the use of force in the fight against exploitation of workers. The austere and controversial Lehrst��ck (learning play) titled Die Ma��nahme (1930-1931; The Measures Taken, 1960) appeals to the spectators' reasoning faculties rather than to their emotions. The play takes the form of a stylized trial to demonstrate the errors in political thought and behavior for which a young Communist Party member has been liquidated.

Brecht's narrative style, which he called epic theater, was directed against the illusion created by traditional theater of witnessing a slice of life. Instead, Brecht encouraged spectators to watch events on stage dispassionately and to reach their own conclusions. To prevent spectators from becoming emotionally involved with a play and identifying with its characters, Brecht used a variety of techniques. Notable among them was the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation or estrangement effect), which was achieved through such devices as choosing (for German audiences) unfamiliar settings, interrupting the action with songs, and announcing the contents of each scene through posters. Brecht temporarily returned to a more traditional dramatic mode in Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (1941; The Private Life of the Master Race, 1944), an attack on the fascist government of Germany under Hitler.

"...the epic poet presents the event as totally past, while the dramatic poet presents it as totally present."

The epic invites calm, detached contemplation and judgement; the dramatic overwhelms reason with passion and emotion, the spectator sharing the actor's experiences.

Brecht's objection to "Aristotelian" theatre was an objection to Goethe's and Schiller's interpretation of it - an objection to:

catharsis by terror and pity
identification with the actors
illusion - the attempt to represent the present event

Brecht's idea of epic is informed by the ideas of Goethe and Schiller regarding the mood and character of epic poetry - this is a rational, calm detachment, to which Brecht aspires as a playwright.

"Today when human character must be understood as the 'totality of all social conditions' the epic form is the only one that can comprehend all the processes, which could serve the drama as materials for a fully representative picture of the world."
(Brecht's comment, 1931, in The Threepenny Opera)


Brecht's theory of acting
Brecht's view is that actor should not impersonate, but narrate actions of another person, as if quoting facial gesture and movement.

"The Brechtian style of acting is acting in quotation marks." Brecht uses the example of an accident-eyewitness. To show bystanders what happened, he may imitate, say, the victim's gait but will only quote what is relevant and necessary to his explanation. Moreover, the actor remains free to comment on what he shows.

As the audience is not to be allowed to identify with character, so, too, the actor is not to identify with him or her. Brecht agrees with Stanislavsky that, if the actor believes he is Lear, the audience will also believe it, and share his emotions. But, unlike Stanislavsky, he does not wish this to happen.

As he does not wish to put the audience into a trance, just so the actor must keep himself free from this state: he must be relaxed, not letting muscles be tense. Even if playing someone who is possessed, the actor must not appear possessed. Brecht is opposed to frenetic and convulsive intensity on the stage. The Brechtian actor must always be in control of his emotions. Brecht sees the actor's task as greater than Stanislavsky's merging of character and actor.

This is one important element but it must be complemented by implied comment on the character's actions. The actor must show how these are wise or foolish and express, say, pity or disdain. The actor must show that he foresees where a character's actions will lead, and that his course of action is only one among many possibilities.

Since the actor should show the audience that he has chosen one action, as opposed to another, he must be aware of the presence of the audience, not, as in Stanislavsky's ideal, wrapped up in himself and oblivious of audience.

Finally, there is to be nothing improvised in his delivery: the actor's performance should be the "delivery of a finished product."

This theory is not as complicated as it appears: in the Victorian melodrama, the actor plays the villain in just such a critical way - the audience sees that the actor disapproves of the character; there is no identification of one with the other; there is awareness and enjoyment of the skill in showing villainy; the actor shows that the villain could choose an alternative course of action, and that he will come to a bad end.

In the theatre of illusion the actor explores the character, trying to merge with him. Only then does he react to other characters. In the Brechtian theatre the character's inner life is of no importance, save in its effect on outward action. Brecht does not portray human nature in the individual, but human relations. The story is the point of interest, not the characters. The story is the sequence of events that is the social experiment, allowing the interplay of social forces, from which the play's lesson emerges.

"There is nothing so interesting on stage than a man trying to get a knot out of his shoelaces."

"In the contradiction lies the hope."




plot --- narrative

implicates the spectator in a stage situation --- turns the spectator into an observer, but

wears down his capacity for action --- arouses his capacity for action

provides him with sensations --- forces him to take decisions

experience --- picture of the world

the spectator is involved in something --- he is made to face something

suggestion --- argument

instinctive feelings are preserved --- brought to the point of recognition

the spectator is in the thick of --- it, shares the experience

the spectator stands outside, studies --- the human being is taken for granted

the human being is the object of --- the inquiry

he is unalterable --- he is alterable and able to alter

eyes on the finish --- eyes on the course

one scene makes another --- each scene for itself

growth --- montage

linear development --- in curves

evolutionary determinism --- jumps

man as a fixed point --- man as a process

thought determines being --- social being determines thought

feeling --- reason

p.111 * This table does not show absolute antitheses but mere shifts of accent. In a communication of fact, for instance, we may choose whether to stress the element of emotional suggestion or that of plain rational argument.
Translated by John Willett

Epic Theatre

"Violently opposed to the spectacular bourgeois theatre of the day, Brecht sought to inject commitment into his work and provide the audience with something that would provoke them mentally rather than evoke mere emotions. The techniques used were far removed from the social realism and naturalistic styles of Stanislavski. As naturalistic theatre prohibited the playwright to speak through the words of characters, Brecht had to create his own style that allowed him to talk directly to the audience, as in epic poems such as Homer's Odyssey, and make sure his work was not forgotten as soon as the curtain came down.

As a Marxist, Brecht believed that the proletariat2 should take control of their lives and that his plays should help people become rational and unafraid while making judgements about the oppressive capitalist society they lived in. He wanted people to challenge the status quo of society and to challenge tradition; ironically, his techniques have now become clich��s of the modern theatre that he would probably have to dismiss if he were alive today. Brecht rejected traditional tragedy, as discussed by Aristotle and exemplified by Shakespeare, where a person's downfall is a result of their own flaws but cannot be helped; here, the audience reacts with emotion; they pity the hero's fall and become grateful that their fate is not as bad. Brecht wanted to prevent the idea that man did not have a capacity to change their own fate and that society could not be changed. For Brecht then, the focus of theatre was not on plot but on narrative, why a person achieves what they do, rather than if they will. The emphasis is on reason, not emotion, and the audience is made to face a social ill that can be changed, rather than be shown an inexorable part of life. Brecht achieved this mental evocation via his alienation effect.


Sometimes known as the V-effect, coming from the German for distancing effect, verfremdungseffect3, Brecht used various techniques to make sure that thought took priority over emotions in his audience; he had to make sure they knew they were there to engage and react to the play, rather than to merely enjoy, emotionally, what was in front of them.

Stage Design

The set and props were only on stage if they were necessary for telling the story; if something was not used or spoken about then it was not needed and could therefore be dispensed with. The stage would therefore be almost bare and empty, and any set changes would be made in full view of the audience. Props themselves were often symbolic representations rather than real objects.


The lights were to be in full view of the audience, as were their operators, to ensure actors were seen in the same world as the audience. Light would indicate passage of time or change of scenes rather than create mood or atmosphere.


Rather than accompanying the action on stage, music was meant to comment on or conflict with the action on stage. He modelled it on working class favourite, music hall.


Ideally each element of the play should operate independently on its own; every scene must tell its own story and carry its own message. Though this is hard to achieve, it is exemplified by Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in which all of the eleven scenes have a definite beginning and end, but all thread through into a main narrative.


This was to be avoided in epic theatre and so dramatic irony4 was commonplace. Many scenes were introduced with a projected title or a brief song which would synopsise the coming action. Like myths and legends, some of which Brecht turned into plays, the story is already known but it can be enjoyable to hear it again because of the teaching message inherent in it. If the ending is already known the audience can focus on how and why something happens, rather than whether or not it will come to pass.

Storytelling Actor

Rather than live or 'be' the character, an actor must show and portray them - become a representation of that person. Brecht, in rehearsals, advised actors to speak in the third person, the past tense and even say their stage directions in order to help this. Another way to achieve this is to show the actors changing costume and becoming different characters in full view of the audience; the play is cemented as not being real and the focus can move back to the message. This particular technique has had a great influence on theatre and continues to be used regularly."




Russian American Theatre Project Files (RAT)
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Bertolt Brecht Collage

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