Bruce Reif

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer. Brecht had enormous influence on the formation of 20th century theater, and perhaps a wider influence still on the way film emerged from the theatrical tradition.

The Epic Theater


Generally, audiences consider theatre to be an art form filled with emotion. As plays unfold, audiences identify with characters. They follow the characters through rising action, through the climax of the action, and find a solution to their problem. The rising-action → climax → falling action form is a popular model to follow for audiences and authors alike.

When audiences hit the area of the piece after the climax, they generally experience emotional catharsis, a Greek term referring to the cleansing of emotion. In other words: after following the action of the piece through to its resolution, the audience experiences a grand emotional change. In a mystery, the suspense and tension we feel for a detective might finally transform to joy when the murder is solved.

Brecht spearheaded the movement for the episches Theater. The Epic Theater was a new theatrical theory that proposed a different role for theatrical works: rather than escort the audience on an emotional journey, the theater was intended to provoke the audience. The epic theater forced a view of self-reflection and critical thinking.

The Distancing Effect

Brecht felt that catharsis as a result of climax left audiences complacent. By being so directly involved in the action of the play, the audience misses the chance to be self-reflective. Brecht preferred the audience take on a critical standpoint, engaging the play's problems at a distance. In this way, the audience would identify the problems presented as somehow parallel with their own, and–hopefully–go and take steps to resolve real-world problems.

To this end, Brecht's most important principle was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt, translated as a “distancing effect” or an “estranging effect” (and often mistranslated as an “alienation effect”.) The purpose is not to make the piece incomprehensible to the audience, but to create distance between the audience and the piece–enabling the audience to take that critical perspective without experiencing catharsis.

The primary tenet of the Verfremdungseffekt is to make sure that the audience is constantly aware that they are watching a play. This is very different from typical theatrical theory. More often theatre employs the suspension of disbelief–the idea that the audience is aware that they are watching theater, but suspend that as they identify with the characters therein.


The Verfremdungseffekt is created on all levels of the play, from its writing to the way it is staged. Actors frequently break character. Characters and actors alike directly address the audience. Costume changes happen onstage. Actors stay onstage when they are not in the current scene. The action of the play is frequently interrupted by other motifs, often song.

Brecht developed an entire acting technique called Gestus for actors of the epic theater. Gestus reveals an aspect of a character's relationships to other characters. This interaction between people was key to Brecht and he insisted this was where the audience could find material to discuss and to criticize afterward.


episches Theater - The Epic Theater, theatrical theory proposing that theatre should be thought-provoking rather than cathartic

Katharsis - German transliteration of the Greek term catharsis. Refers to a purging of emotions from the audience after the climax of a piece

Verfremdungseffekt - The Distancing Effect, Brecht's principle to create distance between actor and audience, enabling critical perspective

Gestus - literally attitude or the gist of something. Brecht's acting technique to reveal a single aspect of a character's social dealings, providing critical material

Fabel - coined by Brecht. Refers to the analysis of the plot of a play. This analysis includes a focus on social interactions among characters; the dramatic structures of the play; and the attitudes or the gist of a piece–its Gestus

ger/101/2010/fall/bruce_reif.txt · Last modified: 2010/11/01 08:57 (external edit)
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