Epic Theatres”Epic Theatre turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity foraction, 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, BertoltBrecht. This direction of theatre was inspired by Brecht’s Marxist politicalbeliefs.
It was somewhat of a political platform for his ideologies. Epictheatre is the assimilation of education through entertainment and is theantithesis of Stanislavsky’s Realism and also Expressionism. Brecht believedthat, unlike epic theatre, Expressionism and Realism were incapable of exposinghuman nature and so had no educational value. He conjectured that his form oftheatre was capable of provoking a change in society.Order now
Brecht’s intention wasto encourage the audience to ponder, with critical detachment, the moraldilemmas presented before them. In order to analyse and evaluate the action occurring on stage, Brecht believedthat the audience must not allow itself to become emotionally involved in thestory. Rather they should, through a series of anti-illusive devices, feelalienated from it. The effect of this deliberate exclusion makes it difficultfor the audience to empathise with the characters and their predicament. Thus,they could study the play’s social or political message and not the actualevents being performed on stage.
This process is called Verfremdungseffekt, orthe alienation effect, where instead of identifying with the characters, theaudience is reminded that they are watching only a portrayal of reality. Several well-known Brechtian plays include Drums in the Night, Edward 2, TheThreepenny 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 isThe Caucasian Chalk Circle (CCC). The prologue of this play transpires in aCaucasian village of the Soviet Union, where the people of this village arebeing 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 thegovernor’s son when their city falls under siege. The son, Michael, has beenleft 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 forover 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 andintroduces a man, Azdak.
By chance this character becomes an amoral and almostabsurd judge in Grusha and Michael’s former city. The paths of Grusha andAzdak cross when Grusha is summoned to the trial that will determine who is tohave custody of Michael. His biological mother or the peasant Grusha who hascared 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 hassuccumbed, justice has prevailed.
It is arguable that Brecht’s message in thiswas to the Germans, that in order to uphold justice they must revolt againstHitler’s law. Many components of The CCC brand it to be an epic drama. The Singer narrateswhat is to occur at the commencement of each scene, so that the audience isfamiliar with enough of the plot in order for them to refrain from becomingemotionally involved. Thoughts that could only be expressed through soliloquiesare also executed by the Singer.
This person additionally allows the play touninhibitedly change place and time by just citing several words. The abilityof altering the situation and time is another element of epic theatre. TheSinger accomplishes the transition from Grusha’s story to Azdak’s and thisaction assists in weakening the audience’s engagement with Grusha’s plight. Brecht has calculated the character of Grusha to be one that the audience doesnot wish to identify with. Her salvation of Michael is not a maternal and nobleact but more of a disheartened resignation. Throughout her ongoing strugglefor survival she is not courageous’ but insidious.
However, she does ignoreher own interests, putting her life in jeopardy, and is thus humane. Thisaction could be evaluated as a further social directive of Brecht’s, again aimedat the Germans. It could represent that they can only be humane by striving tothwart Hitler, though they would be endangering their lives by doing so. Theexistence of a social message in this play further indicates that the CCC isindeed an example of epic theatre. When performing an epic drama many Brechtian alienation techniques can beincorporated. To illustrate these possible techniques, scene 6 of the CCC willbe briefly studied and directed.
This scene begins with a narration by theSinger. During this speech the Singer could be finishing erecting the sets upon stage, demonstrating to the audience that the scenery and props are just thatand not authentic. In Brecht’s time he often used a German theatre called theTheater am Schiffbauerdamn where the auditorium was structured in an extravagantway close to fantasy, while its stage was stark and mechanical. This contrastreminded the audience that, while they were there to be entertained, they werealso to think scientifically.
Thus, a theatre resembling this layout could beemployed. In Brechtian plays great care is taken to symbolically portray what social classeach character belongs to and so the costumes of Grusha and the governor’s wifewould greatly differ. Soldiers called Ironshirts appear in this scene andthese characters could speak in mechanical and non-human voices and movements. By doing this the Ironshirts would be symbolic of their characters, rather thanrealistic, 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 onlywatching a reenactment of reality. It would therefore be most profitable toutilize this technique when there is the threat that the audience is becominginvolved. Hence, this device should be implemented at the critical moment ofthe Chalk Circle test and before Azdak announces his descision.