Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theatre
Created | Updated Dec 9, 2005
Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1898, the same year that Konstantin Stanislavski established the Moscow Art Theatre. He was the son of a Protestant mother and a Catholic father who was director of a paper company. At the age of 12 he had his first heart attack, but recovered to go on to have poems published in 1914 - the start of his writing career. Three years later, he enrolled in the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich as a medical student; he took a hiatus to work as a medical orderly in his military service and then finally abandoned his studies in 1921. During the 1918 Bavarian revolution he wrote his first play, Baal, which was produced in 1923, and in 1919 he became connected with Communism as a member of the Independent Social Democratic party where he developed his anti-bourgeois attitude that had its genesis in the horror of the Great War.
Having already fathered an illegitimate son at the age of 19, he went on to marry an actress in 1922, although he didn't see her after she moved into her parents' house during her pregnancy with their daughter. Brecht was also thought to have had at least three mistresses at any given time. This may be because his sex life started young when, as a child, the family's second servant used to hide objects in her undergarments for Bertolt and his brother to find. By the age of 16, he would frequent the local brothel to consciously broaden his experiences and soon he would experiment with homosexuality. After some success in the theatre he divorced his first wife to marry Helene Weigel, who had his second child in 1930. She was tolerant of his constant affairs; in fact, she helped prevent other men sleeping with his mistresses so as not to upset him.
Life In The Theatre
His first play to be performed was Drums in the Night in 1922, for which he won a prize for young dramatists. After this play and another, Baal, he became consultant at a Berlin theatre, where he began a reworking of John Gay's 18th Century operetta The Beggar's Opera, that satirised Italian opera, contemporary fashion trends and the politics of the 18th-Century court. Brecht combined forces with composer Kurt Weill for his 1929 version, The Threepenny Opera, which moved the subject towards attacking bourgeois respectability. Rehearsals were disastrous, but audiences loved, among other things, the opening ballad, the 'Moritat'1. Two years later, he wrote another opera with Kurt Weill, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny while he began to study the theories of Karl Marx and became largely Communist. It was also around this point that Brecht began developing his own conceptual ideology of drama, known as the 'epic theatre'.
Violently opposed to the spectacular bourgeois theatre of the day, Brecht sought to inject commitment into his work and provide the audience with something that would provoke them mentally rather than evoke mere emotions. The techniques used were far removed from the social realism and naturalistic styles of Stanislavski. As naturalistic theatre prohibited the playwright to speak through the words of characters, Brecht had to create his own style that allowed him to talk directly to the audience, as in epic poems such as Homer's Odyssey, and make sure his work was not forgotten as soon as the curtain came down.
As a Marxist, Brecht believed that the proletariat2 should take control of their lives and that his plays should help people become rational and unafraid while making judgements about the oppressive capitalist society they lived in. He wanted people to challenge the status quo of society and to challenge tradition; ironically, his techniques have now become clichés of the modern theatre that he would probably have to dismiss if he were alive today. Brecht rejected traditional tragedy, as discussed by Aristotle and exemplified by Shakespeare, where a person's downfall is a result of their own flaws but cannot be helped; here, the audience reacts with emotion; they pity the hero's fall and become grateful that their fate is not as bad. Brecht wanted to prevent the idea that man did not have a capacity to change their own fate and that society could not be changed. For Brecht then, the focus of theatre was not on plot but on narrative, why a person achieves what they do, rather than if they will. The emphasis is on reason, not emotion, and the audience is made to face a social ill that can be changed, rather than be shown an inexorable part of life. Brecht achieved this mental evocation via his alienation effect.
Sometimes known as the V-effect, coming from the German for distancing effect, verfremdungseffect3, Brecht used various techniques to make sure that thought took priority over emotions in his audience; he had to make sure they knew they were there to engage and react to the play, rather than to merely enjoy, emotionally, what was in front of them.
The set and props were only on stage if they were necessary for telling the story; if something was not used or spoken about then it was not needed and could therefore be dispensed with. The stage would therefore be almost bare and empty, and any set changes would be made in full view of the audience. Props themselves were often symbolic representations rather than real objects.
The lights were to be in full view of the audience, as were their operators, to ensure actors were seen in the same world as the audience. Light would indicate passage of time or change of scenes rather than create mood or atmosphere.
Rather than accompanying the action on stage, music was meant to comment on or conflict with the action on stage. He modelled it on working class favourite, music hall.
Ideally each element of the play should operate independently on its own; every scene must tell its own story and carry its own message. Though this is hard to achieve, it is exemplified by Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in which all of the eleven scenes have a definite beginning and end, but all thread through into a main narrative.
This was to be avoided in epic theatre and so dramatic irony4 was commonplace. Many scenes were introduced with a projected title or a brief song which would synopsise the coming action. Like myths and legends, some of which Brecht turned into plays, the story is already known but it can be enjoyable to hear it again because of the teaching message inherent in it. If the ending is already known the audience can focus on how and why something happens, rather than whether or not it will come to pass.
Rather than live or 'be' the character, an actor must show and portray them - become a representation of that person. Brecht, in rehearsals, advised actors to speak in the third person, the past tense and even say their stage directions in order to help this. Another way to achieve this is to show the actors changing costume and becoming different characters in full view of the audience; the play is cemented as not being real and the focus can move back to the message. This particular technique has had a great influence on theatre and continues to be used regularly.
In the 1930s, the German government began censoring plays and Brecht's performances were sometimes interrupted or forbidden entirely. He became an expatriate in Zurich, then Denmark in 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939, when he moved to Finland and then once more to the US in 1941; his third child was born illegitimately in 1945 after a short-lived affair. During his exile, he wrote the majority of his plays, essays and poems but his interest in social revolution and equal rights gained him a bad reputation and he left in 1947 after being summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Communist scare. After a year in Zurich, he returned to Berlin, where he was reunited with his wife, Helene, and established his own theatre company. After receiving praise from both sides of the Iron Curtain, Brecht died in 1956.