Brecht’s Epic Theatre Conventions (Pt.1)

Well, lots of university and high school students around the world study Bertolt Brecht and his Epic theatre style in drama and theatre courses.

So I thought I’d pop up a post about one of the most influential people in 20th century theatre and maybe it will prove useful for Drama/Theatre teachers out there. If people are interested, I can make it a series of posts.

A collection of fun facts, perhaps!


Where did “Epic”come from? Many argue Brecht did not coin the term “Epic Theatre” himself. Some argue it was fellow German collaborator Erwin Piscator who actually coined the term. Others argue Brecht borrowed the term from the great “epic” poems of literature, such as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Illiad or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Still, others claim the term “Epic Theatre” was already in use in various avant-garde theatre circles in Germany by the time Brecht claimed it as his own.

Why “Epic”? Epic implies a narrative, rather than a simple plot. It also implies a story that spans multiple time frames and locations. Many of Brecht’s own plays follow this convention and there are numerous examples that can be easily found. I always try to associate this convention with modern film examples for my senior high school students, so they can relate to it and understand it properly. Epic films with huge narratives of yesteryear include Ben Hur. Today’s examples may be Gladiator (2000) and The Lord of The Rings trilogy of films (2001, 2002, 2003). There are many others.

“Scenes” or “Episodes”? Brecht began writing his plays with no act or scene divisions, which were later added after the work was completed. Publishers may call them “scenes”, but Brecht preferred to name them “episodes”. Once again, I use modern media examples in order for my students to understand the convention, and we then discuss the characterisitics of television “episodes” with a number of contemporary shows. These also differ, depending on the show (daily soap opera, weekly show, mini series etc). “Episode” implies a self-contained unit of action and less of a reliance on the cause and effect relationship between scenes in the theatre of realism … a style of theatre Brecht loathed.

Audience” or “Spectator”? One of Brecht’s primary goals was to emotionally distance the audience from the action on stage. We will discuss in a future segment in this series on Brecht and his Epic Theatre conventions that he achieved this via a number of alienation techniques. Meanwhile, Brecht labeled the audience “spectators” in his writings on the theatre. In the classroom, I dicusss with students when do we refer to the term “audience” and when do we use the term “spectator”? What are the differences? We always come to the conclusion that cinema and theatre viewers are an “audience”, while large venue, arena and sporting examples (often, but not always outdoors) are “spectators”. In a 100, 000 seat arena, the spectator is physically distanced from the action and feels less involed in the experience. But in the cinema, the audience can be much more involved in the event. “Audience” implies intimacy. “Spectator” implies detachment. On this level, it may simply be semantics, but coupled with Brecht’s techniques, labelling the audience member a “spectator” has much more meaning.

12 Responses

  1. erin taylor says:

    dec who even are you? back to libby, it is very interesting and it was nice to have chatted with you, one more thing often he would use symbolic props, where one item could be used in a variety of ways. E.g a suit case might become a desk, a car door or a bomb. He is defiently on the top of my list of insperational directors, along with Stanislavski.

  2. erin taylor says:

    Yes, he would use mulit-roling – where an actor plays more than one character onstage to create emotional distance. Also, split-roling which is similar but more than one actor plays the same character.

    • libby madgett says:

      Also Brecht belived in keeping light simple as he didnt want the production values to overshadow the message of the work. He belived in using harsh white light as this ‘illuminates the truth’.

  3. libby madgett says:

    This is really appropriate to the topic i am studying and helped me understand alot more than before. Bertolt Brecht is an inspreration and i love his work.

  4. john sweeney says:

    very concise and helpful location for my high school students and saves them gong through the endless texts available which can be ifficult to negotiate for beginners. jfs

  5. Melanie X says:

    ooooh mr. cash, 3 years since i’ve been in your class and i’m still finding this so helpful in my uni assignments!!!!
    love ya work, thumb man!

  6. Hilary Phillips says:

    Any help appreciated teaching epic to year 13 for the first time.

  7. Rosie says:

    Thank you so much for this, not the exact information i need, but it offers a great insight into the inner workings of Brecht and his Epic Theatre (:

  8. Sarah says:

    This is really handy, it’s hard to find simplified versions of anything to do with Brecht because everything you read is about his entire life, not the important bits we’re studying. Thanks for the heads up 🙂

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