Time to Say Goodbye to ‘Epic Theatre’

Time to Say Goodbye to ‘Epic Theatre’

Epic Theatre is a term synonymous with Brecht’s theatre. Yet its meaning has often been misunderstood, and so it’s perhaps worth setting out its terms clearly first.

‘Epic’ has nothing to do with the Hollywood use of the word: grand, extensive and expensive. Brecht takes the term from Aristotle, who divides the arts into different categories. Epic refers to narrative poetry, as found in the work of Homer, for example. Today we might consider novels ‘epic’ in this sense because they are told by a narrator. Then there’s the dramatic (plays) and the lyric (poetry). Brecht’s notion of epic theatre thus combines narrative and drama, and he saw the two as being at odds with each other. Narrative tells while drama shows. By offering different perspectives, epic theatre could unsettle the audience and make it more active.

Today, however, it is not unusual to hear voice-over narrative in films, television and advertisements, and sometimes in the theatre. A formal approach aimed at making the reception of performed material difficult has become commonplace. And it goes without saying that the internet offers discontinuities in spades, and people tend to be able to navigate that fairly easily. The radical departure point of epic theatre seems to have been overtaken by media that continually mix their modes.

Towards the end of his life, Brecht felt that ‘epic theatre’ was no longer a useful term and proposed ‘dialectical theatre’ in its stead. There were various aesthetic, philosophical and political reasons for the change of terminology, but I would suggest that Brecht’s shift is one that is eminently useful for our understanding of his theatre and its aims today. Epic Theatre as a concept can be misleading, and while ‘dialectical theatre’ may include a more complicated term, it is, at least, accurate.

Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye to ‘epic theatre’ and embrace ‘dialectical theatre’ as the best description of Brecht’s work for the stage, both in theory and practice.