Friday, July 26, 2013

Epic Theatre

Many of the revolts against Realism have been elitist in nature. They were preformed in small theatres for a select group of artists and thinkers. In the 1920s, however, the director Erwin Piscator tried to create a non-realistic theatre style for the masses known as Epic Theatre. In Epic Theatre, the audience is always aware that they are watching a play, rather than losing themselves completely in the action. This new style avoided escapism, instead trying to move the audience to action, usually political action.

A devoted leftist, Piscator frequently adapted and staged progressive works not originally intended for the theatre. In 1928 he directed an adaptation of the anti-war novel The Good Soldier Schweik. The production utilized film clips, cartoons, and other elements of mass culture to comment upon the action of the play. Though Piscator took the lead in adapting The Good Soldier Schweik for the stage, he used a collaborative approach, in which many people participated in a collective that shaped the production. One member of that collective was Bertolt Brecht, who would go on to make Piscator's style of Epic Theatre famous.

Brecht began as an Expressionist poet and playwright, gaining the attention of Germany with his three early plays Baal, Drums in the Night, and In the Jungle of Cities. He later teamed up with the composer Kurt Weill and fellow writer Elizabeth Hauptman on the musical plays The Three-Penny Opera, Happy End, and The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny. Due to his leftist leanings, Brecht went into exile in Sweden in 1933. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Brecht had to flee again, first to Finland and then to the United States, before returning to Germany after the war. It was while abroad that Brecht wrote his major plays, The Private Life of the Master Race, Mother Courage and Her Children, Galileo, The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

These plays relied upon what Brecht called the Alienation Effect. This was an idea he borrowed from the Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky, who believed that the aim of all literature should be defamiliarization, making people see the ordinary in new ways. Brecht wanted audiences to think about his plays, not just to feel them emotionally. To do this, he would create scenes of intense emotion, but then force the audience to look critically at the characters provoking these emotions. For instance, in Mother Courage and Her Children, Brecht has a heart-rending scene depicting the death of a mute girl, then he shows the selfish attitude of her war-profiteering mother, leading the audience to question many of the assumptions they have made about the characters and about the world in which they live.

In 1949, Brecht returned to Berlin and set up a theatre company in Communist East Germany known as the Berliner Ensemble. He directed many of his own plays and the company toured the world, introducing new audiences to the Epic Theatre aesthetic. Productions often featured Brecht's wife, the actress Helene Weigel, who took over the Berliner Ensemble after her husband's death in 1956. Of all the theatre artists who revolted against Realism in the early twentieth century, Brecht has had the clearest impact, both on playwrights and directors. Dario Fo, Augusto Boal, Tony Kushner, and Caryl Churchill are just a few of the many theatre practitioners that have been influenced by the Epic Theatre popularized by Brecht.