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Epic theatre

Epic theatre, (German: episches Theater) form of didactic drama presenting a series of

loosely connected scenes that avoid illusion and often interrupt the story line to address the

audience directly with analysis, argument, or documentation. Epic theatre is now most often

associated with the dramatic theory and practice evolved by the playwright-director Bertolt

Brecht in Germany from the 1920s onward. Its dramatic antecedents include the episodic

structure and didactic nature of the pre-Expressionist drama of the German playwright Frank

Wedekind and the Expressionist theatre of the German directors Erwin Piscator (with whom

Brecht collaborated in 1927) and Leopold Jessner, both of whom made exuberant use of the

technical effects that came to characterize epic theatre.

Brecht’s perspective was Marxian, and his intention was to appeal to his audience’s intellect

in presenting moral problems and reflecting contemporary social realities on the stage. He

wished to block their emotional responses and to hinder their tendency to empathize with the

characters and become caught up in the action. To this end, he used “alienating,” or

“distancing,” effects to cause the audience to think objectively about the play, to reflect on its

argument, to understand it, and to draw conclusions.

Brecht’s epic theatre was in direct contrast to that encouraged by the Russian director

Konstantin Stanislavsky, in which the audience was persuaded—by staging methods and

naturalistic acting—to believe that the action onstage was “real.” Influenced by conventions

of Chinese theatre, Brecht instructed his actors to keep a distance between themselves and

the characters they portrayed. They were to disregard inner life and emotions while

emphasizing stylized external actions as signs of social relationships. Gesture, intonation, facial
expression, and grouping were all calculated to reveal overall attitudes of one

character toward another.