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Epic Theatres

“Epic Theatre turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity for

action, forces him to take decisions…the spectator stands outside, studies.”

(Bertolt Brecht. Brecht on Theatre. New York:Hill & Yang, 1964. p37)

The concept of ?epic theatre? was brought to life by German playwright, Bertolt

Brecht. This direction of theatre was inspired by Brecht’s Marxist political

beliefs. It was somewhat of a political platform for his ideologies. Epic

theatre is the assimilation of education through entertainment and is the

antithesis of Stanislavsky’s Realism and also Expressionism. Brecht believed

that, unlike epic theatre, Expressionism and Realism were incapable of exposing

human nature and so had no educational value. He conjectured that his form of

theatre was capable of provoking a change in society. Brecht’s intention was

to encourage the audience to ponder, with critical detachment, the moral

dilemmas presented before them.

In order to analyse and evaluate the action occurring on stage, Brecht believed

that the audience must not allow itself to become emotionally involved in the

story. Rather they should, through a series of anti-illusive devices, feel

alienated from it. The effect of this deliberate exclusion makes it difficult

for the audience to empathise with the characters and their predicament. Thus,

they could study the play’s social or political message and not the actual

events being performed on stage. This process is called Verfremdungseffekt, or

the alienation effect, where instead of identifying with the characters, the

audience is reminded that they are watching only a portrayal of reality.

Several well-known Brechtian plays include Drums in the Night, Edward 2, The

Threepenny Opera, Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahoganny, The Life of Galileo,

The Good Person of Szechwan, Triple-A Plowed Under, One-Third of a Nation,

Mother Courage and her children and the Caucasian Chalk Circle.

A play whose dramatic structure and didactic purposes epitomises epic theatre is

The Caucasian Chalk Circle (CCC). The prologue of this play transpires in a

Caucasian village of the Soviet Union, where the people of this village are

being presented a play called ?The Chalk Circle?. This play is narrated by a ?

Singer? and embarks on the story of a servant girl, Grusha, who rescues the

governor’s son when their city falls under siege. The son, Michael, has been

left behind, without so much as a backward glance, by his fleeing mother.

Grusha escapes, with Michael in her arms, to the mountains where they live for

over a year. Along this journey, countless places and people are encountered,

a number that would only occur in epic theatre.

In truly epic fashion, the play then regresses to the beginning of the story and

introduces a man, Azdak. By chance this character becomes an amoral and almost

absurd judge in Grusha and Michael’s former city. The paths of Grusha and

Azdak cross when Grusha is summoned to the trial that will determine who is to

have custody of Michael. His biological mother or the peasant Grusha who has

cared for him the past years? Azdak’s ruling results from the outcome of the ?

Chalk Circle? test. Grusha is awarded the child and hence, though the law has

succumbed, justice has prevailed. It is arguable that Brecht’s message in this

was to the Germans, that in order to uphold justice they must revolt against

Hitler’s law.

Many components of The CCC brand it to be an epic drama. The Singer narrates

what is to occur at the commencement of each scene, so that the audience is

familiar with enough of the plot in order for them to refrain from becoming

emotionally involved. Thoughts that could only be expressed through soliloquies

are also executed by the Singer. This person additionally allows the play to

uninhibitedly change place and time by just citing several words. The ability

of altering the situation and time is another element of epic theatre. The

Singer accomplishes the transition from Grusha’s story to Azdak’s and this

action assists in weakening the audience’s engagement with Grusha’s plight.

Brecht has calculated the character of Grusha to be one that the audience does

not wish to identify with. Her salvation of Michael is not a maternal and noble

act but more of a disheartened resignation. Throughout her ongoing struggle

for survival she is not ?courageous’ but insidious. However, she does ignore

her own interests, putting her life in jeopardy, and is thus humane. This

action could be evaluated as a further social directive of Brecht’s, again aimed

at the Germans. It could represent that they can only be humane by striving to

thwart Hitler, though they would be endangering their lives by doing so. The

existence of a social message in this play further indicates that the CCC is

indeed an example of epic theatre.

When performing an epic drama many Brechtian alienation techniques can be

incorporated. To illustrate these possible techniques, scene 6 of the CCC will

be briefly studied and directed. This scene begins with a narration by the

Singer. During this speech the Singer could be finishing erecting the sets up

on stage, demonstrating to the audience that the scenery and props are just that

and not authentic. In Brecht’s time he often used a German theatre called the

Theater am Schiffbauerdamn where the auditorium was structured in an extravagant

way close to fantasy, while its stage was stark and mechanical. This contrast

reminded the audience that, while they were there to be entertained, they were

also to think scientifically. Thus, a theatre resembling this layout could be


In Brechtian plays great care is taken to symbolically portray what social class

each character belongs to and so the costumes of Grusha and the governor’s wife

would greatly differ. Soldiers called ?Ironshirts? appear in this scene and

these characters could speak in mechanical and non-human voices and movements.

By doing this the Ironshirts would be symbolic of their characters, rather than

realistic, and so the audience would again feel alienated.

Another popular Verfremdungseffekt effect is to flood the stage with a harsh,

white light. This induces the audience to remember that again they are only

watching a reenactment of reality. It would therefore be most profitable to

utilize this technique when there is the threat that the audience is becoming

involved. Hence, this device should be implemented at the critical moment of

the Chalk Circle test and before Azdak announces his descision.

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