Epic theatre, the non-realistic theatre style which emerged in early 20th century Berlin with director Erwin Piscator and playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, produced epic theatre plays that were understandably different in structure and form to what audience’s were previously used to.
Epic Theatre Plays
Dramatic form refers to structure, the formation of a play to be enacted on the stage. Brecht originally wrote his plays without scene divisions. These were added later. Some of Brecht’s works follow a structure where content integral to the plot is contained in longer scenes, being interspersed with shorter scenes of less importance.
The Good Person of Szechwan (1941) consists of a prologue, ten long scenes, seven short scenes, and an epilogue. The short scenes often contain Wang the water-seller talking to the audience and sometimes the three Gods who have come down to earth to find a good person. On other occasions these short scenes contain songs, and in the following example a short scene has the play’s protagonist, Shen Te, in a direct address with the stage direction:
Before the curtain. Shen Te, in her wedding outfit and on the way to her wedding, turns to the audience.
This epic theatre device asking the main character to suddenly turn and speak to the audience during the performance is unexpected, powerful, confronting and revolutionary for its time.
Consistent with the epic poems of days gone by, Brecht preferred to write plays consisting of a vast narrative rather than a simple plot. This was manageable considering many of his dramas were set in the past and were based on historical events and people. It was common to have noticeable jumps in time and place between scenes in a play written by Brecht.
Like Brecht’s plays, director Erwin Piscator’s epic theatre productions similarly ignored Greek philosopher Aristotle’s formula that stated the action of a play should take place in one location over the course of a single day (known as The Three Unities … of time, place and action). This may have suited the theatre of naturalism, but constraints such as this were the very antithesis of Brecht and Piscator’s epic theatre in 1920s Germany.
The realistic theatre simply cannot employ significant leaps in time and place, as audiences will not consider the process plausible. This is partly because the theatre of realism normally has a cause and effect relationship between scenes, which generally means what happens in one scene is a direct result of what occurred in the previous scene or scenes.
But epic theatre plays such as those by Brecht do not employ the same cause and effect relationship of realistic plays. Brecht preferred to call his scenes “episodes”, just like episodes of a modern day television serial, implying a self-contained nature in each unit of action. Existing both on their own and in association with other parts of the narrative, these episodes were sometimes only loosely connected. Brecht’s narrative moved in curves, akin to a montage, with episodes even juxtaposing against each other instead of happily following in a linear fashion from one scene to the next. Flash forwards and flashbacks spanning many years, was commonplace.
Several of Brecht’s epic theatre plays contain songs, the most famous of these being The Threepenny Opera (1928) and Mother Courage and her Children (1939). The Threepenny Opera, one of Brecht’s earlier works where he collaborated with German composer Kurt Weill contains the popular song Mack the Knife. Importantly, The Threepenny Opera was not in fact an opera or a musical, but rather a “play with music”.
The text of The Threepenny Opera was a translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann of a play with music by John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, which premiered in London two hundred years earlier in 1728. The Beggar’s Opera was an example of a ballad opera, a form of satirical English stage entertainment involving spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. Many songs in Brecht’s plays contain one or more themes, while others introduce characters, but importantly they often contain satire that sends up aspects of the middle class, capitalism, or both. In fact, The Threepenny Opera as a whole is a satire on bourgeois capitalist society.
In a traditional musical or opera, music and song are intertwined and used to reinforce the text, emphasise, or further illustrate the events of the plot. However, Brecht’s use of music and song was often separated from, and even at odds with, what was occurring on stage at the time. Even within the songs themselves, lyrics and music often juxtaposed instead of blended, such as Mack The Knife with its upbeat, joyful melody set against dark, sinister lyrics.
In epic theatre plays music and song were used to neutralise emotion and elicit a thinking response from the spectator. In musical theatre and opera, music and song are commonly used to intensify emotion. But for Brecht, emotion belonged to the theatre of realism. Furthermore, as spectators did not anticipate song, it was an unexpected device that often broke the rising dramatic tension on stage.