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Brecht's Theatre
The Theatre of Alienation or Epic Theatre


Bertolt Brecht is known for developing a new style of theatre, a theatre of, what he termed, alienation. He wanted to distance his audience from the empathy they felt in dramatic theatre so that they would always remain conscious of the problems the dramatist was exploring. By keeping them from stepping in the place of the characters, he felt he could make the human being the object of inquiry.

But there is no easy way to define that style and no set of consistent characteristics. Richard Gilman in the Making of Modern Drama says:

Governing everything was Brecht's wish to move the theatrical spectator away from empathy or identification with the play's characters, for this put him in the presence of what he already knew and left consciousness unchanged. Brecht sketched this confirming action of convention drama and his own developing theater's counteraction in this way:

The dramatic theater's spectator says: "Yes, I have felt like that too - just like me - it's only natural - it'll never change - the sufferings of this man appall me because they are inescapable - that's great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world. I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

The epic theatre's spectator says: "I'd never have thought of it - that's not the way - that's extraordinary, hardly believable - it's got to stop - the sufferings of this man appall me because they are unnecessary - that's great art: nothing obvious about it. I laugh when they weep. I weep when they laugh.

Brecht's style was highly "theatrical." It attempted to remind the audience they were in a theatre watching a play. He used signs to let people know where the action took place; he had short self-contained scenes; he covered vast amounts of time and jumped from location to location and kept the audience from every seeing the familiar. It celebrated the theatre itself and made the audience aware that they were watching rather than being a part of the action. However, many of his plays succeeded because he was unable to accomplish what he had set out to do - he infact moved the audience in ways he had not intended.

The introduction in your book points out an important point: Brecht was not an accurate historian. As Bently says: "History can be (or appear to be) chaotic and meaningless; drama cannot." For the purpose of drama is to communicate the vision of the artist - not the history of a period as it necessarily occurred. And so, Galileo says more about Brecht than it does about Galileo.

Brecht has strong ideas about the nature of inquiry, the nature of science and the role of the scientist. As you will read in the following introduction, his ideas changed and so he wrote his play twice; once with the idea of celebrating Galileo for his pursuit of truth in the face of authority which tried to stop him; later vilifying Galileo for betraying his ideals and not seeing his responsibility as a man of morality and courage. He gives up his fight and admits to his smallness in the second writing, and for that, Brecht cannot ever forgive him.

Read Introduction to Galileo