Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht was born in 1898 in the medieval city Augsburg, Bavaria to a Protestant mother and Catholic father. Brecht began writing at a very early age: composing plays, collaborating with school newspapers, and keeping a detailed diary of his many sexual exploits. At the mere age of 25, Bertolt Brecht‘s first play was produced in Munich. For Drums in the Night, Brecht received the prestigious Kliest Prize for Young Dramatists. Within the next year two more of his plays, Baal andJungle of Cities, were produced and performed. Brecht eventually became one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th Century in his movement against the theatre standard of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov who had revised and implemented the plot and character structures of Aristotle. Rather than exhibiting the form of dramatic naturalism that, according to Goethe and Schiller, focused on the present and the “personally limited suffering” of the “inwardly directed man”, Brecht initiated a form of epic theatre which, also according to Goethe and Schiller, focused on the past and “man working outside himself.”
Brecht’s idea of the epic theater was a form of drama that engaged contemporary social dilemmas and political issues with events of the past. Throughout his life he was fascinated with and studied Chinese and Japanese acting traditions, entirely separate from the naturalistic western tendencies. He also admired the mask work of Italian Commedia del’arte which drew attention to the artificiality of theatre. “The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work. As a result everything put forward by him has a touch of the amazing. Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic.” Brecht wanted to theatre to be a means of evaluation for the audience. He discouraged previous trends of identification and empathy prevalent in the styles derived from Aristotle’s notions in favor of maintaining an intellectual distance from the action, to reason about it rather than just responding emotionally. In fact, Brecht wanted the spectator’s experience to alternate between emotional reaction and distanced reflection upon that emotional reaction.
Actors of the epic theatre were directed by Brecht’s insistence that the actor must always be aware of, and make the audience aware of, the distance between actor and role. He believed the actor was portraying a part and observing it from outside at the same time, which would allow the audience to observe the part critically. “The actor is not Lear he shows Lear.” In the mid-1930s, he termed this method Verfremdungseffekt or the “estrangement effect” or the “V-effect”. Brecht believed that Aristotelian theatre had rendered audiences into a state of passivity. Yesterday was transformed into today and therefore nothing could change. Brecht wanted to revolutionize audience members into believing they could arise and become a change.
Brecht’s method of Epic Theatre also inflicted a change on methods of playwriting, staging, and technical theatre. To continue in the vein of alienating the audience from the action, Brecht employed a style of writing that included an open, almost-Elizabethan style that matriculated non-linear story lines that allowed for each scene to stand on its own and often avoided a climax and the result state of Aristotelian catharsis, direct address to the audience, stylized speech including: rhyme and free and blank verse, the insertion of songs in sharp contrast to the surrounding dialogue, the insertion of a narrator or chorus, and the primary goal being to deliver a clear, one-sided message. In regards to staging, one of the principal techniques Brecht employed was gestus, a gesture with attitude. As a note of comparison, in Brechtian theatre an example of a gesture would be “soldiers marching across a stage” while an example of gestus would be “Soldiers marching over wounded and dead across the stage”. The idea was to highlight the episodic elements of the playwriting style and promote the overlaying message.
Each scene was defined by a dominant gestus, almost a tableau, which could be hypothetically frozen and analyzed by the audience. Brecht also promoted methods of mime and mask work within his works. The lighting director in Epic theatre needed to abandon the idea of hiding sources of light to achieve a mysterious effect to draw the audience into the action. Brecht flooded the stage with ‘harsh white light’, regardless of where the action was taking place and left the stage lamps in full view of the audience. Scene shifts and changes were also performed in full or partial view of the audience to leave no question of reality unanswered. Obvious lighting and blatant technical maneuvers constantly reminded the audience they were watching a play not real people and events. Brecht also dictated to designers that they should dispense with any illusions or symbolism. There was no fourth wall, dropped in or projected signs explaining the following scene were encouraged, and a minimal set and props was required.
Brecht wanted to use everything on the stage to make the audience develop a more critical attitude. Brecht was against theatre where the audience would “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom”. Brecht’s Epic theatre represents both a thematic and technical innovation and a reversion to some pre-naturalist styles of theatre. If it did not bring about the total revolution in the theatre (and elsewhere) that its advocates boldly claimed it did, it did however have a major impact on twentieth-century drama and staging practice.
Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic