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Features Of Epic Form In The Theatre

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1923 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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The very concept of epic theatre would infuriate Aristotle, for whom theatre and epic were two distinct genres (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001, p. 88), with their own laws of being both composed and expressed, so that their juxtaposition in a single formula would be unacceptable. Bertolt Brecht, following Erwin Piscator, have not only brought the term to the attention of the authors and the spectators, but imposed an innovative theatrical poetry that was meant to be non-Aristotelian.

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Ever since 1927 Brecht, in an article published in the newspapers, was to proclaim the epic theatre as a style of the contemporary theatrical scene, stating what distinguishes the new theatre from the traditional one: “The essential thing about Epic Theatre is perhaps that it appeals more to the spectator’s reason than to his feeling. The spectator is not supposed to share the experience, but to come to terms with it. It would, however, be completely wrong to deny the role played by feeling in this form of theatre”. (Dickson, Towards Utopia “A study of Brecht”,1978, p.236) That “Modern theatre is epic theatre”. (Dickson, Towards Utopia “A study of Brecht”, 1978 p. 229)

The definition of the non-Aristotelian theatre will be completed in subsequent essays, but especially in “A Short Organum for the Theatre” (1949), which will decide the well-known aesthetics of epic theatre: debating a socio-historical context, the anti-illusionist nature of the show by creating the Verfremdungseffekt (the use of multi-media pieces, actors and setting are changing without blackouts, but in front of the audience, performers address the spectators directly through comments or satirical explanations) in the narrative-parabolic dramatic structures subjected to a neutral interpretative style that seeks to objectively describe the facts and not the way the actor identifies with role he plays. The Brechtian theatre, exposed in a theoretical manner and exemplified by his entire creation, became worldwide known as a critical lucidity school, an indictment of the stringent reality, made through epic theatre processes that involve a conscious, non-empathic perception of the stage game so as to stimulate the unbiased view of the reality of the audience. Brecht makes the theatre lose its entertainment purposes, aiming at turning the amused view of the spectators into one that is aware of the convention between the theatrical game and the mission of revealing the truth to the audience.

“Mother Courage and Her Children” was written in 1939 as a response to Polish invasion and it is set during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648. For Anna Fierling this war represents the perfect opportunity to sell the armies the goods she is carrying on her cart. Although some readers might criticize her for being too hard-headed, she has probably acquired a lot more life experience than she should of, turning into a paranoid woman who, although spiritual, feels the pulse of reality as she is condemned to live a tragic paradox: she trades goods because she is a mother, but she cannot be a mother because of the trading. She is not considered to be a noble character, which is where the Brechtian epic theatre differs from the Aristotelian one in which the majority of the characters are above the average, some having exceptional characteristics. The ending of “Mother Courage and her Children” does not make the reader nurture any feelings for Ana Fierling, or the desire to follow suit, unlike some of the Greek plays.

Brecht rejected the illusory life of the classic theatre and its effect on the audience, who have to empathize with the heroes’ tragic end. The epic form of theatre makes the audience into observers, confronting them with the action. The spectators are “alienated”, taking part in the social transformations, as “social existence determines thought”. (Dickson, Towards Utopia “A study of Brecht”, 1978, p.235)

The use of the caption at the beginning of each scene, in which the events are summarized, creates the “estrangement effect”, or Verfremdungseffekt (V-effekt), emphasising that with Brecht’s plays, every scene is a separate unit. This way, the author is trying to draw the audience’s attention on what the important events in the scenes are and how should the spectators feel about it. The playwright wants to divide the story into unattached episodes, creating a unique arrangement in which every scene has its own central basic action. For example, before Scene Three the caption says: “Three years later Mother Courage is taken prisoner along with elements of a Finnish regiment. She manages to save her daughter, likewise her covered cart, but her honest son is killed. ” (The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama, 2004, p. 718) The playwright draws our attention on the death of Mother Courage’s son, whereas the cart was saved.

An epic feature that we find in Brecht’s play is the presence of the songs. Mother Courage tries to teach her children the facts of life through songs, this representing a way of bonding with them, apart from the cart. This latter keeps the family together, and probably that is why in the end we see a lonely Mother Courage pulling the cart: it reminds her of her three children as well as still being a means to make a living. “Epic theatre is gestrual. […] The gesture is its raw material and its task is the rational utilization of this material.” (Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, 1966, pg. 3) Brecht wanted to incorporate the “Gestus” in his plays’ dialogue. Thus, with extreme precision he uses parallelism, rhythm pause and counterpointing to create a “gestic” language. The actress performing Mother Courage should deliver the songs in such a way as to emphasise the basic attitude such as desperation or surrender.

“Mother Courage and Her Children” gathers some of Brecht’s vital elements of work, such as anger, not only from the mother when she realises her worst fears are, unfortunately, coming true, outrage, because of the war, revenge and violence all around Anna Fierling’s family. Every character in the play stays condemned by these and lives scared by the events, desperately trying to change the course of the action. Brecht is probably trying to master these emotions in himself, for his work exposes his desire for absolute submission, a state of being in which he can conquer his unbridled feelings, and, instead of engaging himself with the external world, merge with it. (Berstein, The Theatre of Revolt, p. 239)

Bertolt Brecht became very famous due to his modern conception of epic theatre and plays an important role in helping audience understand that in modern theatre the unchangeable can change.

Throughout the twentieth century, Brechtian influence was fully present in the works of various playwrights such as John Arden, Thornton Wilder, Robert Bolt, Peter Weiss, Arthur Adamov, Roger Planchon, and even the famous director Giorgio Strehler.

Compatibility between the methods promoted by Bertolt Brecht and the playwrights’ desire to initiate open debates on history and contemporaneity contributed to creating a strongly opinionated political theatrical genre, formed by the coalition of “fringe” theatre groups (who would perform on the outskirts) which young playwrights such as David Hare, David Edgar and Howard Brenton joined.

As the main proponent of political drama, Howard Brenton believed in theatre’s mission to shape consciences and transform society. Despite his desire to distance from epic theatre, which he considered rather artificial and simplistic to suit his artistic criteria, the episodic structure and the principle of minimal scenic parts remain Brechtian in origin. In addition, just as Brecht, the playwright starts a crusade against humanist tradition of social drama, seeking for a theatrical form that would incite the dormant audience with disapproval, persuasion and argument.

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The English playwright is distinguished by his virulent analysis of socio-political structures and putting forward a personal dramatic style, being a master of the temporal dislocations technique and of stage embodied visual images. For him, the theatre had to be the expression of the perfect collaboration between the show and the trenchat message of the play. His first creations Christie in Love (1969), Revenge (1969) and Fruit (1970) successfully materialize this artistic goal.

In Christie in Love, Howard Brenton directed his entire attention to the effects of social injustice, which inevitably metamorphose into violence and crime (this, in fact, being a prominent feature of English political theatre of the period, where many playwrights would tell the story of society dehumanization through violence and indifference). Brenton was said to have aimed at giving the audience a feeling of moral vertigo with his short piece “Christie in Love”. Looking at it from this perspective, the play succeeds in fulfilling Brenton’s wish because it did indeed outrage the collective morality.

The grounds on which Christie, the serial killer, commits the crimes can be analysed from different perspectives, with little chance of running out of options. He may be the incarnation of evil, an outburst of human nature’s inherent brutality or a psychoanalytic ritual of decompression of repressed love, a deviated revenge of the man who is vulnerable to women. The numerous possibilities of understanding this stage event proves that Brenton is closer to the Brechtian view about the open theatre, the one that does not have to give answers, but to make the audience reflect on those explanations and options they consider suitable and convincing, than he had previously stated. However, it is quite obvious that if the meanings the reader and the audience can infer from this play would stop to the psychological level of killer instinct, the Brentonian theme would be much too simplified.

The real purpose of the play concerns society as a whole. What the author wants to suggest is that the protagonist’s atypical behaviour, presented in an almost naturalistic way, is actually society’s behaviour, however much the latter one is trying to hide it under the guise of respectability. The equality sign the author puts between a miserable bastard and the world justifies the inversion of the characters portrayals, bringing us to one of the features typical of the epic form of the theatre, that of presenting an image of the world, instead of one’s experience. Christie, the famous mass murderer, appears as a normal human being while the police, the defenders of the people, become abnormal, achieving the bold features of some surreal characters.

Roland Barthes has pointed out that “the verisimilitude of [epic] acting has its meaning in the objective meaning of the play, and not, as in “naturalist” dramaturgy, in the truth inherent in the actor”. (Styan, Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3, 1981, p. 142) Brenton keeps the character of Christie in the objectivity sphere, thus provoking the spectators to live with the suspense throughout the play.


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