A major force in modern theater, German playwright Bertolt Brecht is perhaps best known for his concepts of epic theater and Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect). A Marxist, Brecht reacted against what he called culinary theater, which provides its audience with the illusion of reality. Brecht wanted theatrical productions to destroy comforting illusions, so the audience would think rather than feel.
Brecht defined the learning process of alienation as a dialectical progression, moving the audience from its familiar—and false—understanding to an estranging nonunderstanding, achieved by a defamiliarizing theatrical presentation, to the final stage of understanding in a new way. This was to be achieved through productions that used the techniques of epic theater. The ideal was a dispassionate presentation. One means was the use of a narrative voice, through projected slogans on stage, to intervene between the audience and events of the play and eliminate audience identification with the character, thus forcing the audience to maintain objectivity.
The plots of epic plays consist of loosely knit episodes, complete within themselves. The nonliterary elements—stage design, music, choreography—are designed to be autonomous, interrupting the flow of the production. Together, these elements are to create distance, resulting in an audience’s viewing the play with a critical eye.
Mother Courage and Her Children, loosely based on Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche (1670; Courage: The Adventuress, 1964), is Brecht’s most successful play. It uses many epic...
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