Epic Theater by Bertolt Brecht | Characteristics of epic theater

A dramatic movement known as “epic theater” emerged in the early to mid-20th century from the beliefs and work of several theater artists, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Erwin Piscator, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and—most notably—Bertolt Brecht.

Historical background of epic theater:

The 1920s saw the development of epic theater in Germany. Given that it was immediately following World War 1, this was a depressing time. In 1929, the Wall Street Stock Exchange crashed as Germany was dealing with the effects of losing a war. Brecht was irritated by this as he lived in Germany in the 1920s, a time of social and economic upheaval. Why should the audience be retreating to another world, when there are so many pressing concerns that require attention and action? Brecht preferred theatrical presentations that compelled the audience to take action in order to solve these social issues. Brecht created a brand-new, revolutionary theory of drama. The first writer to relentlessly prioritize political messages in his plays was him. He considered theater to be a vehicle for political and educational transformation.

Rejection of ‘total theater’

Brecht disapproved of the idea of a ‘total theater’ since it aimed to include music, scenery, lighting, costumes, acting (and singing), and all of these elements deliver the same meaning. According to Brecht, Each component had to make a unique statement. For instance, in a satirical song, the words or acting should be sarcastic. Furthermore, by disrupting expectations and by juxtaposition (placing two opposing ideas, pictures, or moods next to one another) two opposing moods, it might provoke conflict in the viewer’s mind, forcing the viewer to make sense of the disparate aspects. Hence, “dialectical” is the term. 

Alienation effect:

Brecht thought of the alienation effect as the theater’s political motive in addition to being a particular aesthetic agenda. Brecht’s epic theater is a kind of theater founded on the idea of utilizing live performance as a means of social and political criticism. It was inspired by the theories of G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx. Verfrumdungseffekt/Alienation Technique which roughly translates to “making strange effect,” aims to achieve just that: make the ordinary strange by elevating it to the level of a great or epic event. Brecht created the “Alienation Effect” in the 1920s and 1930s. 

This method “estranges” the audience and compels them to examine the social realities of the conditions being portrayed in the play. Brecht accomplished this by demolishing the illusion created by traditional plays of the time. He considered that the ‘suspension of belief’ produced by the traditional drama was a hollow spectacle with deceptive themes and exaggerated themes. The crowd was in no way challenged by this “escapism” theater. Brecht thought it was better to keep an emotional distance from the characters than to have a strong emotional attachment. Only after this the audience be able to analyze and assess the conflict between the characters and comprehend the social reality of the story. 

The main idea of ‘Theater of Alienation’, according to Brecht and other supporters, is that the audience evaluates the drama critically. Theater of Alienation dramas aim to exclude any chance of escape, in contrast to the Stanislavski approach of realism. Theater of Alienation makes an effort to make characters’ decisions clear and audible rather than relying on the audience to understand why they do what they do. This kind of writing and performing aims to avoid making assumptions about the characters’ humanity. Theater of Alienation aims to demonstrate that the characters are concepts and manifestations of themes rather than actual individuals. To emphasize the points/themes/issues the play and the characters are raising, Brecht’s approaches are still often utilized today, but with more expressive acting. This Alienation technique is seen in “Mother Courage and Her Children” when we witness Mother Courage reciting a lullaby to her daughter Kattrin and then paying for her burial later on without showing any emotion. 

Theatrical techniques in epic theater:

A theatrical device called gestus aids in defining a character’s feeling and the situation they are in. It occurs when a movement, attitude, or verbal show combines a gesture with a social significance. it might be alienating and startle the audience because it is an uncommon and unrealistic approach of making the audience understand the “larger picture” of a problem. The action that enables the audience to comprehend a certain aspect of the social situations shown on stage is sometimes referred to as the “social gest.”

Gesture is best illustrated in “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Mother Courage uses a physical presentation rather than words to express the emotional anguish inside of her. And again, the combination of this action and the social significance is what makes it gestus rather than the action alone. Mother Courage has recently lost a son, but if she shows any sort of recognition towards him in any way, she risks her life as well as the lives of her daughter. She has been thrown into such horrific situations and the audience can sense this from her gestus of a silent cry. 

Signs, banners, or projections that explain what will happen next before each scene, captions or graphics with explanations, directions, and explanations of off-stage or on-stage activity, all to dispel the illusion, provide us with a context or information on which to base our judgments. Epic theater frequently uses non-realistic stage designs that represent more than just one specific place while simultaneously reminding viewers that they are in a theater by revealing the lighting, ropes, and orchestra.


Epic theater operates under the tenet that live performance may be used to make social and political criticism. It is sometimes referred to as anti-realism because it makes no attempt to depict reality, instead uses the theatrical medium to communicate arguments and societal concepts. Brecht wanted the audience to take an active part in the performance by making the stage effects weird or unexpected, which would compel them to inquire about the artificial environment and how each component linked to real-life occurrences. It was thought that by doing this, viewers would become emotionally detached from issues that required rational answers.

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