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Bertolt Brecht

Brecht and Epic theatre

by Justin Cash  (Theatre Links)

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” which he discussed in his work “A Short Organum for the 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 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.

Here's A Video Crash Course on Bertolt Brecht: Take Notes!!!

Here's an example of Epic Theatre in performance!

What is the "Alienation Effect"?

Bertolt Brecht, German leftist playwright and director, had nothing but disdain for the conventional, commercial “bourgeois” theater of his time. He considered it a “branch of the narcotics business.” Why? The theater of his time, like most Hollywood movies now, relied on emotional manipulation to bring about a suspension of disbelief for the audience, along with an emotional identification with the main character. Audience members were taken on an uncritical emotional roller coaster ride, crying when the main character cried, laughing when s/he laughed — identifying with him/her even when the character had nothing in common with them or their interests (working-class audiences swooningly identifying with a Prince of Denmark, for example).

Brecht saw that these audiences were manipulated by theater technology — beautiful, realistic sets, cleverly naturalistic lighting, the imaginary fourth wall, and most importantly, emotionally effusive acting techniques. He soon watched with horror as the Nazi movement gained popular support in his country with its racist, xenophobic demagoguery, relying on similar emotional manipulation. Emotional manipulation was, to him, Enemy Number One of human decency.

It was in this context that Brecht developed his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, also known as V-effekt, alienation effect, or distantiation effect. (Important disclaimer: there is compelling evidence that many of Brecht’s greatest ideas were developed in uncredited cooperation with his artistic partners).

The alienation effect attempts to combat emotional manipulation in the theater, replacing it with an entertaining or surprising jolt. For instance, rather than investing in or “becoming” their characters, they might emotionally step away and demonstrate them with cool, witty, and skillful self-critique. The director could “break the fourth wall” and expose the technology of the theater to the audience in amusing ways. Or a technique known as the social gest could be used to expose unjust social power relationships so the audience sees these relationships in a new way. The social gest is an exaggerated gesture or action that is not to be taken literally but which critically demonstrates a social relationship or power imbalance. For example, workers in a corporate office may suddenly and quickly drop to the floor and kowtow to the CEO, or the women in a household may suddenly start to move in fast-motion, cleaning the house, while the men slowly yawn and loaf around.

By showing the instruments of theater and how they can be manipulative — for example, the actor calling out “Cue the angry red spotlight!” before he shrieks with rage, or “Time for the gleeful violin” before dancing happily as the violinist joins him on stage, or visibly dabbing water on his eyes when he is supposed to cry . . . the audience can be entertained without being manipulated. Many of Brecht’s techniques have been co-opted and incorporated into contemporary bourgeois theater and film, though his challenge remains relevant: how to confront the problem of emotional manipulation while creating a stimulating, surprising, entertaining, radically critical, popularly appealing and accessible social art practice.


  • 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


  • Brecht wrote over fifty plays

  • Brecht’s form of theatre was known as ‘epic theatre’, most likely coined by German collaborator Erwin Piscator

  • some scholars argue the term ‘epic theatre’ was already in use in European experimental theatre by the time Brecht started using the term

  • 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

  • epic plays used non-linear, fractured plots, where the events of a single episode were not necessarily a result of the preceding one

  • this juxtaposition of episodes 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

  • Brecht wrote his plays with no act or scene divisions; these were later added

  • long episodes told the main events of the story and were interspersed with occasional short(er) episodes

  • short(er) episodes normally involved parables, used to emotionally detach the audience (marginally)

  • parable episodes often involved the use of song, a device employed by Brecht to help deliver the (Marxist) message of the play

  • ‘historification’ was a term Brecht used to define the technique of deliberately setting the action of a play in the past in order to draw parallels with contemporary events

  • ‘historification’ 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 (where the action takes place over the course of a single day at one location)

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

  • narration was common in Brechtian dramas


  • 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

Brecht Assignment:

  1. Find your theme script you finished during the last unit.

  2. During this assignment we're going experiment using production and stagecraft used in Epic theatre.

  3. First run your scene using "Realism". Remember "realism" is played as if there was a "fourth wall" between the audience and the actors. Performances mimic behavior in real life.

  4. Acting modes are either "presentational" (an awareness that we are giving a presentation to an audience) and "representational" (where the actor and production represents real life behavior).

  5. Rewrite your scene so it deals with your chosen issue using Epic Theatre techiques. Go through techniques above and experiment with Characterisation, Stagecraft, Actor/ Audience Relationship, Form, Movement and Gesture.

  6. During your rewrite you must use at least five Epic Theatre Performance and Stagecraft  for conventions in your performance.

  7. How do these techniques change the meaning of your presentation?

  8. How would this scene move the audience to make social change?

  9. Present your re-written script and notes as well as a reflection on the task.

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