One of the most significant performance styles of 20th century theatre was epic theatre, initially conceived by Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in 1920s Berlin, and later developed further by Brecht over the next three decades. While thankfully epic theatre is easier for students to grasp than many other non-realistic theatre forms, unfortunately there is very little we can show our students on film about it.
I recently re-watched Dogville, directed by Lars von Trier, starring Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall and John Hurt. This 2003 film about a woman on the run from the mob taking refuge in a small Colorado town, is important for students of theatre as it is clearly inspired by Brecht’s epic theatre. In fact, von Trier lists the ballad Pirate Jenny (Seeräuber-Jenny) from Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, with music composed by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, as one of the main inspirations for this film.
If your students watch part of all of Dogville, then they will better understand some of the conventions of epic theatre for the stage, as employed in the film. This can further generate classroom discussion and debate, followed by students themselves including some of these conventions in their own classroom performances. When my Year 12 Drama students study epic theatre in a matter of weeks time at the start of the school year, we will be watching excerpts from Dogville. The visual learners in the room will lap it up.
Here are just some of the epic theatre conventions found in Dogville, the film:
“The film “DOGVILLE” as told in nine chapters and a prologue”
This is a common epic theatre convention. Either via the use of projection or placards, scenes were often introduced to the spectators in the house.
Other screen titles such as
Prologue (which introduces us to the town and its residents)
Chapter NINE in which Dogville receives the long-awaited visit and the film ends
These scene titles help destroy any sense of dramatic tension or upcoming suspense, because the spectators are informed of events in advance of them occurring. Brecht believed tension belonged to the theatre of realism; a theatre he loathed. Tension creates emotion which in turn pacifies the spectator, ruining the opportunity for an intelligent response to the action.
The narration throughout Dogville by John Hurt is a common epic theatre convention. In the film, Hurt acts as a form of storyteller. Brecht would often employ characters to narrate or story-tell action on stage. Few were actually called “narrator” or “storyteller”.
Dogville was shot entirely in one sound studio, which looks a like a theatre stage of sorts. The aerial view of the studio from above directly opposes conventional filmmaking. It resembles a floor plan of a theatre set with street names and other titles clearly marked on the floor, such as “HOUSE OF JEREMIAH” (note this is merely factual information).
The sparse, minimalistic set comprises of a handful of functional props – enough only to denote the locations eg. rocking chair, bookcase etc., with walls and doors missing in the houses on the street.
In Dogville, characters mime opening invisible doors (deliberately not constructed), yet the sound effects of the doors opening are still heard.
There is no background scenery in the sound studio, just a bare wash of white or black in the distance behind characters.
The dog in Dogville is invisible (until the very end), denoted only by his place on the floor marked “dog” and an outline of his body.
The film is shot with a hand held camera and the jerky movements of the camera, deliberate panning from side to side, and close-ups merely remind us we are watching a performance being filmed, as opposed to the illusion of reality within that film.
The lighting is deliberately absent of all colour. Brecht believed colour was closely linked to emotions (such as a beautiful pink sunset) and therefore insisted only on using open white light in his productions. Specific areas are not lit or dimmed. The entire set either is lit of dimmed at once. Only a few shadows exist. It is neutral, even clinical.
I highly recommend watching some of Dogville with your students (it is a long film, excerpts are best) if you are teaching epic theatre in the classroom. Check suitability rating before viewing.