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Dance / Drama: Year 9 Drama: Modern Theatre Styles
“Verfremdung”, pronounced “fair-frem-doong”, is a German word used by Bertolt Brecht that lies at the very heart of his theories on epic theatre. In practice he called it “verfremdungseffekt”. The term has variously been translated as “alienation effect”, “distancing effect” and “estrangement effect”. For decades, “alienation effect” was the accepted term for Brecht’s acting and staging devices in the belief they were used to distance the spectators from the action of the drama, particularly the detachment of a strong emotional connection.
Epic theatre was first practiced by Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in Berlin in the 1920s. Although Brecht would soon claim the notion of an “epic theatre” as his own idea, there is evidence the term was previously being used in debates in avant-garde circles before this.
Bertolt Brecht was born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht on 10 February 1898 in Augsburg, Germany, to middle class parents. As a young man he studied medicine and served in an army hospital as an orderly, successfully avoiding active duty in World War I. When studying medicine at Munich University, Brecht was introduced to drama for the first time.
Where did “Epic”come from? Many argue Brecht did not coin the term “Epic Theatre” himself. Some argue it was fellow German collaborator Erwin Piscator who actually coined the term. Others argue Brecht borrowed the term from the great “epic” poems of literature, such as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Illiad or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Still, others claim the term “Epic Theatre” was already in use in various avant-garde theatre circles in Germany by the time Brecht claimed it as his own.
Part 2 of Brecht’s Epic Theatre conventions involves an overview of some of his techniques. In future posts, I will go into more depth with certain conventions, but for this post, we will look at a shopping list of Epic Theatre conventions my Year 11 Drama students summarised in class this morning. I trust some readers of The Drama Teacher will find this list useful.
Video: Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theater: Crash Course Theater
Are you ready to learn something about the world? Then you're ready for Bertolt Brecht, and his ideas about Epic Theater. Brecht wanted to lean into the idea of theater as a tool to upset and educate the world about stuff like the struggles of the working class and the problematic aspects of capitalism. He wanted to SHOCK people into seeing the world as it is and taking action, rather than merely entertain audiences. But, he messed up, and wrote some pretty entertaining stories, with some really catchy music integrated into it. And do, people ended up whistling Mack the Knife instead of throwing off the shackles of an oppressive social order. To be fair, it is a catchy tune. Today you're going to learn about Brecht, Epic Theater, and a little bit about the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Because those jerks hauled Brecht up in 1948 to shake him down about whether or not he was a communist.