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Bertolt Brecht. And Epic Theatre. “Actors should not impersonate, but should narrate the characteristics of a person”. Words you need to know.

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Bertolt brecht

Bertolt Brecht

And Epic Theatre

“Actors should not impersonate, but should narrate the characteristics of a person”

Words you need to know
Words you need to know

  • Allegory/ allegorical (In a play)- a character, event, prop etc. that represents (symbolises) a deeper moral or political meaning. (eg Animal farm is communism)

  • Didactic/ didacticism- Intending to teach (in a play something didactic is there to reveal the playwright/ director’s intention/ message)


  • Gestus- Gestus is an acting skill (voice, Body language/ gesture etc.) that represents social meaning either for a character or for the whole scene.

  • Eg a perverted character may walk with a pronounced crotch, a character symbolising the government may be old and blind.

  • These skills are very useful in multi-roling.

Exercise 1
Exercise 1

  • In a pair pick two famous people/ institutions (government, companies, fast food) and try to use Gestus to allegorically say something about them.

  • This may be a freeze or a repeated movement- you may wish to interact or stand next to each other.

Brecht vs stan
Brecht vs Stan

  • While Stanislavski (Naturalism) was concerned with audience willing to believe what they saw was on stage, Brecht’s (Epic Theatre) main goal was for the actors to present the message behind the play.

  • Brecht wished to ‘break the forth wall’ audiences should not use ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, but should be aware they are watching a play in order to engage with the messages it presents (didacticism)- rather than getting caught up in sympathising with the protagonist.

Epic theatre
Epic Theatre

Through Epic Theatre Brecht sought to use theatre as a tool for social change. This was in reaction to the ‘dramatic theatre’ of the time which Brecht felt encouraged the audience to be overwhelmed with passion and emotion, as opposed to calm and detached and therefore capable of contemplation and judgement.

To achieve this Brecht was constantly striving for ways to break the illusion of the 4th wall on stage, getting the audience to leave the theatre considering the messages/ questions presented in the play


Also know as- alienation, distancing effect, V-effeckt

This is the name given to what Brecht was trying to achieve, but using his techniques the audience were alienated (verfremdungs) rather than drawn into the character’s emotional state.


  • He used a series of techniques to try and achieve this-

  • Gestus,

  • Representational props/ Representation costume- changing in front of the audience.

  • Cast are ensemble not individual actors

  • Tableaux,

  • Placards,

  • Narration/ third person acting/ direct address of the audience,

  • Discordant music,

  • Episodic structure and

  • Historification.

Task 2
Task 2

  • (you aren’t getting marked for how good these are, so just go for it- they are to illustrate a point, not show off how good you are.)

  • Group 1- Jack, Emily R, Tara, Phoebe (and IB Shannon later)

  • Group 2- Grace, Emily W, Shannon, Vicky

  • Group 3- Joe, Fabien, Danielle, Erin

    Create this episode as a short performance- we will see these as we go through the techniques.

  • Group A- Three Penny Opera As an Ensemble, Use Tableux, Gestus, montage and narration

  • Group B- Laramie Project (not a Brecht play) Use Placards, narration and Gestus

  • Group C- Mother Courage and Her Children use representation props/ costume and gestus to multi-role as the characters


  • Brecht, as a marxist, did not like the idea of one actor being a ‘star’ above the other actors- therefore he saw his cast as an ensemble where each actor played many roles.

  • This helps with the Verfremdungseffeckt as the audience seeing an actor in more than one role stops them believing it is real. Brecht pushed this further by having the actors change costume/ character in front of the audience and often sit and watch the play out of character when not in a scene.


  • Actors should not ‘get into character’, but instead adopt a new Gestus to present a new character to the audience- they should focus on what they represent, not what their motivations/ objectives are.

Ensemble 2
Ensemble 2

  • Actors also often multi- role using mask, a device that further alienates the audience.

  • Also most characters were deliberately 2 dimensional- they are given names like “The Priest”, “The Cook”, “Soldier 1” to make it clear that they are there to represent something, not to be seen as a character with Given Circumstance

  • In Caucasian Chalk Circle all the ‘bad’ characters wore masks- this instantly meant the audience knew who were not trust worthy

Representational props costume
Representational Props/ costume

  • A prop that represents a character, rather than a realistic set/ costume, a single prop or piece of clothing represents the whole, eg

  • The actress in the picture

    Wears a wig and coat to

    Represent a naval officer,

    Bust still a dress on below

Representational props cont
Representational props cont.

  • The prop/ costume may also represent something allegorically about the character.

  • Eg this character holds

    His tuba like a gun,He is multi

    rolling as a Soldier, but the

    Prop Represents an

    ‘instrument Of death.

  • Masks were sometimes used,

    usually to allegorically show a character as ‘faceless’ to society (homeless, prostitute) or untrustworthy


  • Tableaux is another word for freeze frame, you do A level now- use it!

  • Brecht would have actors freeze at key moments where something was revealed (eg a character’s greed)- the image would be carefully constructed to show this to an audience.

  • eg

Imagine this is a play, the man in the foreground has presented himself as a good person, freezing at this point clearly shows the audience he is a thief and holding this moment breaks the naturalism (forth wall) highlighting it as significant to the audience

Tableaux montage
Tableaux/ montage

  • Alternatively, Brecht would have the actors form a series of tableaux to present the message or to show a character’s journey without the audience getting emotionally attached.

  • This is called a Montage.

  • eg if someone because an alcoholic, if the audience see this as a series of pictures rather than the actors playing out someone falling into the disease, then they are less emotionally attached

  • also through this symbols are much more obvious- (eg the alcoholic maybe allegory for a country poisoning itself, so the images could play under a song or projection about global warming)


  • Narration breaks the forth wall as

    • It directly addresses the audience, acknowledging they are there

    • It can be used to present a character’s dilema in the third person.

  • Eg in Caucasian Chalk Circle a character has taken a baby from a war torn area, but as a refugee can’t feed it. She has a dilemma or weather to keep the baby she has bonded with, or leave it with a family who can afford to feed it and take care of it. Rather than have the character perform a monologue about her dilemma, a narrator presents her dilemma in the third person- this means the audience consider the impact of her decision on the baby, rather than her emotional reaction to the situation

  • Also actors may step out of character and narrate their own situation, speaking directly to the audience (from the Good Soul of Szechuan)

    • Shu Fu (addresses the audience) What do you think of me, ladies and gentlemen? Could such an esteemed man do more? Be more unselfish? More understanding? More forward looking?

  • Placards

    • Placards are cards with messages to the audience written on them. Often with statistics or locations, or to replace a prop (eg a card saying briefcase instead of an actual briefcase.)

    Placards were also often used in the form of projections- most modern Epic plays employ projection of video to draw a modern parallel from Brecht’s texts.

    Discordant music
    Discordant music

    • This can be two things- either dissonance (notes that do not harmonise) or that the tone of the song does not suit the atmosphere of the scene.

    • Mac The Knife, is a fairly well known crooner number- upbeat and sang with a smile to a cheering audience.

    • But originally it is from Three Penny Opera and is about MacHeath- who in the song murders 3 men, rapes 6 women, and hovers in the background. In fact the actor comes out of character and sings the song about Macheath

    • Brecht often used music for narration and with direct address, ensemble presenting tableaux, third person narration in order to achieve the Verfremdungseffeckt.

    • Also, his actors were often not good singers so the songs, even if only meant to be discordant in atmosphere, were usually discordant in musical tone as well.


    • Is an allegorical technique used by Brecht to criticise current political issues by setting his plays in the past and different countries and using these events as allegory-

    • The Resistable Rise Of Artuaro Ui is set in Chicago in the 1920s, but is actually about the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s Germany.

    • This would have been a good way to get around criticising Hitler (who Brecht had to flee after this), but actually it is used to distance the audience- the audience see how Ui is a horrible figure who is motivated by greed and power, then Placards, Gestus or projection are used to make it clear Ui is allegorically representing Hitler

    Episodic structure
    Episodic structure

    • A play with ‘scenes’ usually have a structure where one is directly related to the other and a fairly consistent (and short) period of time between them, each scene building on the last with character developing.

    • Epic plays have episodes, where the gap between scenes is often years and characters do not necessarily develop from one scene to the next.

    • Scenes would sometimes feature a montage- a series of tableaux designed to show many things happening over a long period of time or a rather unsubtle way to reveal the allegory (showing characters with a Gestus that clearly shows them to be their real life counter part- eg hitler sallute in Ui), now this is more often done with projection

    • Life of Galileo

    • Good Soul (woman) of Szechuan

    • Where can you spot Brecht’s techniques in these performances (they are not that good, but use a few of them)

    Verfremdugnseffeckt alienation effect
    Verfremdugnseffeckt (Alienation effect)

    • The V-effect is the distancing of the audience from a play, its purpose is to remind them that they are watching a play and should not believe what they are seeing is real. He feels that emotional investment in the characters distracts from the message that the play is trying to present.

    • “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”.

    Homework- Do this for next lesson…

    As with Stanislavski- write out the Brecht techniques and describe briefly your experience in working with them- You can also refer to anything you saw from other performers or in the clips of Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Three Penny Opera, Life of Galileo or Good Soul/ Person/ Woman of Szechuan.