Glossary Home Movements

Epic Theatre

Epic theatre was a theatrical movement that began in the early twentieth century and last through the middle of the period. It consisted of new political dramas and was inspired by the social climate of the time.

The name “epic theatre” does not refer to the scope of the plays, or the grand form they take. Instead, is emphasizes the nature of the plays and what their intentions are. They focus on the audience’s perspective and reaction to the piece. They use numerous modernist and sometimes surprising techniques in order to accomplish this. One of the most important features of this genre is the playwright’s desire to make the audience see the world the way it is. These writers are not, as many others are, interested in transporting their audience somewhere else or allowing them to suspend their disbelief. 

Epic Theatre definition, characteristics, and examples

Epic Theatre Definition

Epic theatre is a theatrical movement of the mid-twentieth century. It was concerned with inspiring the audience to see the world the way it is.

This was accomplished through various techniques. These are listed out below but include poor or ironic acting, captions, obvious set transitions, actors speaking with audience members, and the actors stepping out of their roles. Often, actors would also play multiple characters ensuring the audience could not, for a moment, consider what they’re seeing on stage as real. 

Important Playwrights 

Bertolt Brecht 

Brecht was born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht in Februar 1898. He was a German playwright and poet who spent much of his life collaborating with composer Hanns Eisler. He is noted for his work on theories of epic theatre and what he called “the so-called V-effect. Bretcht is well regarded for his contributions to theatre as well as to political and social philosophy. He often used his work to criticize cultural happenings he disagreed with. When composing his plays, Brecht wanted to treat each element of the play separately. He often used comedy to separate his audiences from events. 

Erwin Piscator 

Anther well-known practitioner of epic theatre. He was born in December 1893 in Greifenstein-Ulm and is considered to be one of the most important writers of the movement. He sought to influence voters with his works and make left-wing policies clear. This was accomplished through the use of lectures, moving sets, and other mechanical devices. His contribution to the movement has been described by Günther Rühle as “the boldest advance made by the German stage” during the 20th century, according to Erwin Piscator: Dream and Achievement. 

Epic Theatre Characteristics 

Epic theatre is often defined in the terms of what Bertolt Brecht named the “alienation effect” or “Verfremdungseffekt.” Sometimes also known as the estrangement effect, its characteristics are defined below: 

  • Captions explaining what’s going on on stage/screen.
  • Emphasizes the audience’s perspective.
  • Actors summarizing events that have just played out.
  • Exposing set functions, like ropes, pulleys, and extras.
  • Screen projections or placards.
  • Actors interacting with the audience members.
  • Bringing audience members on stage.
  • Intentionally poor or ironic acting.
  • The actor steps out of their role.
  • The actor speaks the stage directions.

Examples of Epic Theatre 

“Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht

This is one of Brecht’s most commonly performed plays. It is a great example of the alienation effect and is often cited as one of the most important anti-war plays ever written. It depicts a female main character, Anna Filing, and her children, and their struggle to survive. Over the course of the play, she loses all of her children. Through the play, Brecht wanted to convey the message that some people don’t care who wins a war as long as there is a profit to be made.

Throughout this play,  the actors might verbalize their actions and intentions, focus single-mindedly on one scene and ignoring the broader storyline, and more. “Mother Courage and Her Children” is considered to be one of the best plays of the 20th century and a great example of the characteristics of epic theatre.

“The Good Soldier Shweik” by Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht

This collaborative creation was produced in the 1920s. Throughout it, Piscator chose to use film sequences, cartoons, and more to draw the audience’s attention to recent events in European history. On stage, viewers could see life-size puppets, and a conveyor-belt-like stage that moved set pieces and actors. 


Why is epic theatre important? 

It is important because it sought to do what other theatrical movements did it. It exposed its workings and ensured the audience was aware they were watching a production at all times. They also focused on social issues and political policies. 

What are the features of epic theatre?

The features of epic theatre include the use of poor or ironic acting, moving sets, actors playing multiple characters, the actors interacting with the audience, and the direct address of social issues. 

What is the Brechtian technique?

Writers use distancing techniques and the alienation effect to make audiences consider narratives in a new way. They become a critical observer rather than becoming engaged in a form of escapist fiction. 

Why is Brechtian theatre important?

t is important because of the way he changed how writers considered theatre and how audiences enjoyed it. He wanted to create theatre for a new age, something he achieved. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • The Alienation Effect: occurs when the writer makes a concerted effort to remind the audience that they’re engaged in something artificial.
  • Dystopia: the opposite of a utopia. It is an imagined place or community in which the majority of the people suffer.
  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
  • Play (Theatre): a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes. 

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