Epic Theatre is a theatre movement in mid-20th century that is greatly linked to German playwright Bertolt Brecht who called it his modern theatre; it’s also known as Brechtian acting.
The goals of Epic Theatre are what make it so different. The main purpose of the play is to only present ideas and not to imitate reality. It encourages the audience to think and then make judgments and act. It clearly shows the audience an argument with its different viewpoints. Due to the fact that the audience is only an observer, he remains at an emotional distance from the action thus always aware that it is watching a play. It’s an enacting of reality and not reality itself. It should be able to change the human being because if the audience can be critical about what’s happening, it’ll be able to know its causes and effects and will be able to change it in their own real lives. Brecht deliberately used unrealistic techniques in set design, light and visuals to always remind the audience that this is not even close to reality and that they are watching a play. Brecht wanted actors to make a balance between “being” their characters and showing the audience that the character is “being played”. The actor must always remember that he is an actor and that he is only portraying the feelings and emotions of his character. Epic actors are only narrators and tools of representation. They narrate the events and do its actions only to make the audience understand the situation. For example, in A Man’s a Man, widow Begbick breaks the fourth wall and comes out of character and talks to the audience about Brecht which is a great example for narration. The character represents one individual and this individual represents all human kind. Brecht wanted to create productions that are entertaining and that provokes people to think and learn. An epic play consists of scenes that exist by its own and doesn’t connect to the scene before or after it. In A Man’s a Man, scenes can exist by their own (like scene 9).
Dramatic (Aristotelian) Theatre on the other hand is not the opposite of epic theatre but has different goals and techniques. Dramatic theatre treats its audience as passive and can not be reached except through their emotions. The dramatic stage fully embodies the plot/event. It fully involves the audience by putting them into the action thus endangering emotion in him. For example in The Skin of our Teeth, the audience are asked to get chairs from the auditorium to ‘save the human race’ by burning them to keep themselves warm. It makes the audience very involved in the play and what’s happening to the extent that it doesn’t give them a chance to look at the play from a distance and reflect. Scenes are linked to each other; in The Skin of our Teeth, scenes lead to each other. It presents you with the world as it is so the audience leaves the theatre believing that life is unchangeable and inevitable. Dramatic theatre allows the audience to see a representation of reality encouraging us to accept it without thinking so that’s why it gives you a sense of inevitability and fate. The audience identifies with the characters through terror and pity. Dramatic theatre’s illusion of representing the present event doesn’t encourage the audience’s reflection on what’s happening and on the themes presented.
According to Aristotle, to achieve unity of action and maintain its illusion, the dramatic play must consist of scenes that are linked to each other and that lead to each other leading to a climax of catharsis (evocation of intense fear and pity).
Brecht believed that theatre should not play with the audience’s feelings but should appeal and influence his reason/mind. It should encourage the audience to have a more critical attitude to what’s happening on stage. He wanted to reach ultimate objectivity from the audience’s side instead of identifying with the characters. This way the audience will learn the real truth about their society and world.
Brecht refuses to assume that the audience could only be reached through their emotion but through their minds so he doesn’t want the audience to relate to the characters and become emotionally involved with them (breaking empathy for characters) at all but make them think about their own life and this is where change will come. He did present feelings but he did that from a standpoint critical to the feeling.
Feelings and identifying with the characters affect the audience’s objectivity and reasoning. Brecht believes that the Aristotelian thought on feelings (The audience feels exactly what the character on stage feels) wears out the audience. Feelings alone are not enough for transformation and change; thought and reason are the keys.