The Defining Features Of Epic Form English Literature Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
The word ‘epic’ initially conjures several ideas on the thought. Classical Homeric epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey and other Greek epic poems such as tales of the Trojan War may come to ones mind. Or, if a more modern approach is taken, the definition of epic has appeared to have expanded – and is nowadays associated more with the notion of the epic films such as Braveheart. However epic in a theatrical terms is seen as movement arising in the early to mid-20th century from the theories and practice of a number of theatre practitioners, including Erwin Piscator, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and, most famously, Bertolt Brecht.
Aristotle compared epic with another dramatic form: tragedy. As he noted in The Poetics, ‘Epic poetry followed in the wake of tragedy.’ (ref) Comparisons he made of the features of epic poetry regarded the size of the work, its imitation, the people involved (who must be ‘taken seriously’) and the fact the piece should be in verse. However, Aristotle also said that the main way in which the forms of epic and tragedy differ was the time scale in which they take place. Tragedy mainly aims to take place within one daylight period, or thereabouts, whereas epic has a limitless timeframe and is consequently freer. Even though not all tragic elements are found in the epic form, with such similarities, it could be argued is epic a form in its own right, or more of a hybrid of the two genres, a tragic epic. Bertolt Brecht is often seen to have developed the theory behind the theatre of epic. Together with Erwin Piscator, who was five years Brecht’s senior, and a ‘radical stage director’, (Oppenheim, 1980) the two wanted to explore the didatic nature of the theatre. Both men were highly influenced by the Marxist movement, and together they want to a form of theatre that dealt with political and social issues of the time. Brecht first became interested in the work of Karl Marx in the 1920s (Worthern, 2004 p. 709) and through this reading he adopted an idea that ‘realistic theatre was not an unbiased window on social reality.’ (Worthern 2004 p.709) Instead, Brecht said that theatre represented one ‘political vision’ and a view of society that determined a historical outcome and therefore cannot be changed. To expand on this, Brecht redefined Marx’s concept of alienation. This ‘jarring of the audience out of its sympathetic feelings for what is happening on stage’ (Barranger, 2006 p.122) his alienation effect. In order to help the audience see political and social problems, Brecht placed similar historical events from the past on stage. This allowed the audience to see the parallels between past and present and allow them to see what actions should have been, but were not, taken. Through observing past failures, the audience can see how to right the social and political views of the present. (Barranger, 2006 p. 123) Brecht was interested in making the audience think about the errors in society, rather than confronting the problems directly on stage. Theatre from Brecht ‘works to alienate or estrange the audience from the commonplace realities of daily life’; the realities that people have come to see as natural. (Worthern, 2004 p. 710) This alienation effect is often seen as the primary innovation of epic form. (LeClair, 1989 p. 51)
Brecht’s plays tend to be ‘episodic, a disconnected, open-ended montage of scenes’ – which is a very common feature of epic theatre, where the audience must arrive at their own conclusion and understanding of how the scenes link together and the relevance of them. As previously noted, Brecht endeavoured to make the spectator think about the what they are watching and why it is relevant to the play, rather than being given an straight forward narrative – which is a very realistic approach to theatre.
Another feature of epic, again, coined by Brecht is that of gestus. The term gestus first appeared in a theatre review written by Brecht in the early 1920s. Here it was merely used as a referral to body gestures as opposed to spoken word. (Weber, 2005 p. 41) it was not until 1929 when Brecht began to use gestus and gestic in way that would become ‘one of the pillars of his paradigm for the new theatre, “Epic Theatre”‘. (Weber, 2005 p. 41) Gestus, with relation to the actor, is about the ‘ensemble’ of all physical movements and behaviour that the actor shows whilst portraying a character by way of his or her social interactions. Brecht aimed to express human attitudes through this ensemble of movements, gestures, facial expressions, speech and intonation, costumes, stage make up and any other device that the actor may employ to develop and complete the character. He wanted the actor to be able to express social attitudes in a symbolic and stylised way, embodying the gestus in the dialogue.
Mother Courage and Her Children, written in 1939, is archetypal of Brecht’s innovative approach to theatre, especially that of a political nature.
Brecht’s influential innovative of theatre and the development of the epic form can be seen in several more modern plays, in particular Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, Part 1: Millenium Approaches. Kushner tackles some very controversial topics in his play, including race, religion and homosexuality. These social issues were particularly predominant for the time in which the play is set; 1980s New York. Kushner also touches upon the AIDs epidemic, which was a major problem in the 1980s, with two of the primary characters suffering from the disease. The historicisation of these incidents and cultural topics
Scenes in Angels in America differ in length with some long and others much shorter in comparison. They often overlap each other, occurring on the stage simultaneously. This use of juxtaposition
Elements of Brecht’s development of the ‘Epic Theatre’ differ greatly from the ideas of that from Aristotle. Brecht was very specific if what he said that defined epic theatre. The political, historical and social issues are clearly very important in the basis of the storyline, with the idea that the audience must think about the consequences of the characters/societies actions. The lack of narrative only enhances the fact that the spectators must think for themselves about the story and the relevance to social history. This alienation effect and Brecht’s term of gestus are very specific to epic theatre, however they could be related in to tragedy with the idea of catharsis – evoking fear in the audience. Although this is not strictly related, Aristotle’s aim behind tragedy was to make the audience learn from the mistakes the characters made in a play, whereas Brecht looked at more social issues rather than personal flaws, the didactic nature is still present. Epic theatre looks at historical truths, and therefore is often ‘tragic’ in nature, however may not always conform to Aristotle’s strict definition of what a tragedy is. ‘Epic poetry followed in the wake of tragedy’ may be true for Greek and classical poetry, however modern day ‘Epic Theatre’ is very specific in its features with the Brechtian style.
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