Epic theatre

The idea of objectivity and the absence of empathy developed into a concept of theatre that’s called Epic theatre, as opposed to what Brecht referred to as Dramatic theatre.

Dramatic theatre has a plot or story. We go to the theatre expecting the plot to be laid out before us and all issues to be resolved at the end. Epic theatre doesn’t attempt this neatness. The narrative starts and ends, leaving issues unresolved, confronting the audience with questions about what they’ll do. Ideally Epic theatre will be an inspiration to action whereas Brecht thought Dramatic theatre was entertainment. Dramatic theatre in his view should engage the audience in an emotional experience only for their time in the theatre.

Scenes are episodic, which means they stand alone and are constructed in small chunks, rather than creating a lengthy and slow build of tension. Dramatic theatre has a linear narrative which means its events happen in chronological order. Epic theatre often has a fractured narrative that is non-linear and jumps about in time.

Epic theatre also shows an argument. It’s a clear political statement. The audience remains objective and watches a montage or a series of scenes. Standing outside the action emotionally, the audience can study the story objectively and should recognise social realities.

This clip from the National Theatre explains Brecht’s philosophy about using objectivity and distance in his work and also looks at the staging of Mother Courage and Her Children.