Epic theatre was first practised by Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in Berlin in the 1920s. Although Brecht would soon claim the notion of an “epic theatre” as his own idea, there is evidence the term was previously being used in debates in avant-garde circles before this.
Epic references the great epic poems of literature. Works such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Indian epics The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, and Milton’s Paradise Lost are vast poems spanning multiple time frames and locations, often containing a narrator figure and an episodic structure. These great poems comprised many of the elements Piscator and Brecht wished to include in their theatre.
The early days of epic theatre were spearheaded by Piscator, who worked extensively in Berlin theatres between 1919 and 1930, first at the Volksbühne, then the Comedy-Theatre, and later at his own Piscator-Bühne. As a practising director, Piscator had a significant opportunity to implement and refine his ideas.
Brecht’s introduction to drama began while studying medicine at Munich University. He soon started writing theatre reviews for a German newspaper while creating his own dramatic works in his spare time. Brecht’s first play, Baal, was completed in 1918 at the age of just twenty, while his second play, Drums in the Night, was performed in Munich four years later. In 1924, Brecht moved to Berlin.
The two men quickly became highly accomplished theatre directors. Although now both working in Berlin at the same time, the only known collaboration between Brecht and Piscator was in 1927-28 when Piscator adapted for the stage the Czech novel The Good Soldier Schweik, with Brecht as one of his dramaturges. A number of acting and staging techniques in Brecht’s writings on epic theatre were initially developed by, or in collaboration with Piscator. Like Brecht, Piscator was a Marxist and deeply involved in using theatre as a mechanism for change in society.
Where the two men differed in their concepts of epic theatre, was in staging. Brecht’s form of epic theatre preferred an open stage, not that dissimilar to the bare stage of Elizabethan times. It was often sparsely populated with just a few set pieces and props, visible stage equipment and the use of a half curtain, or no curtain at all.
Piscator’s staging, on the other hand, was more akin to a total theatre experience. He utilised all available theatre technology at his disposal, directing plays involving mechanised treadmills and ramps, scaffolded platforms on multiple levels, and projected screen imagery (first still, then later moving images). His early plays were clearly expressionist in design. It was starkly different to the staging of Brecht’s plays in Germany around the same time, yet both men employed their own versions of an epic theatre to the German working class.
In 1920s Germany, Brecht was able to experiment with his own theoretical writings on epic theatre in plays he had written himself. He became fascinated by historical events and began placing a new emphasis in his plays on telling stories about history, instead of showing stories about the present. He would go on to write plays that told stories of large events set in the past, such as Mother Courage and her Children (1939), a play whose protagonist was a canteen woman for the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years War of Europe (1618-1648), and The Life of Galileo (1938), a historical drama spanning twenty-eight years about the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
Piscator left Berlin in 1931 to work on a film project in the Soviet Union, while Brecht’s work was upended when Hitler came to power in April 1933. The two major exponents of epic theatre were exiled from their own country, as freedom of speech under Hitler’s rule was banned. Both men eventually found their way to America.
– Justin Cash