Epic Theatre

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Plays

The Antigone of Sophocles

Bertolt Brecht
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (7), Female (4), Neutral (0).

In his book The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, John Willett writes of The Antigone of Sophocles: 'Perhaps two-thirds of the play follows the Hölderlin version, but even here Brecht has largely reshaped the verse so that although much of the sense, many of the images, and even the words themselves are the same as Hölderlin's the cadence is different. Almost indistinguishable in style, his new passages are woven into this. Considerable changes result. A prologue set in Berlin of 1945 shows two sisters whose brother has deserted from the German army and is found hanged: should they risk being seen by the SS cutting his body down? In the play itself Creon becomes a brutal aggressor who has attacked Argos for the sake of its iron ore; Polyneikes deserts in protest against this war which has killed his brother; and Antigone is partly moved by a like disapproval of her uncle's policy.'

The Antigone of Sophocles was conceived as a new experiment in the epic theatre, and is linguistically an extraordinary composition. It was first produced in February 1948.

Born

Edward Bond
Acts: 5. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (8), Female (2), Neutral (0).

Born is a tragic epic for the twenty-first century. In it Edward Bond examines violence and terror in a dehumanised world in the terse and broken language of extreme deprivation.

Peter and Donna and a baby have moved in to a new house. The removal men have broken a mug. Twenty years later, the street is being evacuated, people piled into trucks – Peter and Donna are ejected from the room, one suitcase each. They are afraid for their son Luke, but he puts on a uniform and joins the fighting, asking questions of an ailing and silent world.

Born was first staged at the Avignon Festival in 2006. It is the third play in Bond’s The Paris Pentad (originally called The Colline Tetralogy), preceded by The Crime of the Twenty-First Century and Coffee, and followed by People and Innocence.

The Bundle: or New Narrow Road to the Deep North

Edward Bond
Acts: 0. Scenes: 10. Roles: Male (22), Female (5), Neutral (0).

The Bundle, or New Narrow Road to the Deep North is a compelling and forceful story exploring the origins and mechanisms of moral concepts through cruel ethical dilemmas.

Like Bond’s Narrow Road to Deep North, the play begins with the discovery of an abandoned child on a riverbank. The poet Basho who is searching for enlightenment protests that he cannot take it with him, so reluctantly the ferryman adopts the child though he can barely afford to feed another person. The play first describes the boy’s upbringing within the social values of his community, before turning to revolution to dissect and rework accepted attitudes and ideologies. The Bundle weaves together lives beset with social injustices and torn by agonizing choices, with the moral force of parable and the scope and depth of epic.

The Bundle was first performed in 1978 at the Warehouse Theatre, London.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle (trans. J. Stern, T. Stern, Auden)

Bertolt Brecht
Acts: 0. Scenes: 6. Roles: Male (45), Female (23), Neutral (6).

Written in exile in the United States during the Second World War The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a politically charged, much-revived and complex example of Brecht’s epic theatre.

In a prologue set in Soviet Georgia, a narrator-figure called The Singer introduces the story of choice and sacrifice. The servant girl Grusha sacrifices everything she has to look after an abandoned child, even marrying a dying peasant in order to provide for him. But when the boy’s biological mother attempts to reclaim him, the unruly judge Azdak, one of Brecht’s most vivid creations, calls on the ancient tradition of the chalk circle to resolve the dispute. Brecht subverts an ancient Chinese story (echoed in the Judgement of Solomon) into a parable advocating that resources should go to those best able to make use of them.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed in 1948 by students at Northfield, Minnesota in Eric and Maja Bentley’s translation, and has since become one of his most popular works. A morality masterpiece, the play powerfully demonstrates Brecht's pioneering theatrical techniques.

This version is translated by James and Tania Stern with W. H. Auden.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle (trans. McGuinness)

Bertolt Brecht
Acts: 0. Scenes: 5. Roles: Male (59), Female (24), Neutral (2).

Written in exile in the United States during the Second World War The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a politically charged, much-revived and complex example of Brecht’s epic theatre.

In a prologue set in Soviet Georgia, a narrator-figure called The Singer introduces the story of choice and sacrifice. The servant girl Grusha sacrifices everything she has to look after an abandoned child, even marrying a dying peasant in order to provide for him. But when the boy’s biological mother attempts to reclaim him, the unruly judge Azdak, one of Brecht’s most vivid creations, calls on the ancient tradition of the chalk circle to resolve the dispute. Brecht subverts an ancient Chinese story (echoed in the Judgement of Solomon) into a parable advocating that resources should go to those best able to make use of them.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed in 1948 by students at Northfield, Minnesota in Eric and Maja Bentley’s translation, and has since become one of his most popular works. A morality masterpiece, the play powerfully demonstrates Brecht's pioneering theatrical techniques.

This version by Frank McGuinness was published to coincide with the National Theatre's production which toured the UK in 2007.

Chicken Soup with Barley

Arnold Wesker
Acts: 3. Scenes: 6. Roles: Male (6), Female (4), Neutral (0).

This landmark state-of-the-nation play is a panoramic drama portraying the age-old battle between realism and idealism.

The kettle boils in 1936 as the fascists are marching. Tea is brewed in 1946, with disillusion in the air at the end of the war. In 1956, as rumours spread of Hungarian revolution, the cup is empty. Sarah Khan, an East End Jewish mother, is a feisty political fighter and a staunch communist. Battling against the State and her shirking husband, she desperately tries to keep her family together. Chicken Soup with Barley captures the collapse of an ideology alongside the disintegration of a family.

The play, the first in a trilogy with Roots and I'm Talking about Jerusalem, was first performed at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in 1958.

The Days of the Commune

Bertolt Brecht
Acts: 0. Scenes: 14. Roles: Male (29), Female (13), Neutral (0).

The Days of the Commune tells the story of the uprising and ultimate failure of the Paris Commune in 1871, a city council in France's capital which based its policies on socialism and proclaimed its right to rule over all of France. It held out for two months of counter-attack by the regular French army before its final defeat in May, 1871.

Brecht's account of the Commune is based on Norwegian playwright Nordahl Grieg's play The Defeat. In his adaptation, Brecht eschews a central protagonist, focusing instead on the Commune as characterised by the people in the street.

Ultimately, as in life, the Commune is defeated. But, as the editors write in their introduction: 'In his interpretation of the Paris Commune Brecht adhered closely to the 'classical' line established by Marx . . . that the outcome of the siege of Paris after the Franco-Prussian War could only have been different if the ruling class had been prepared to align themselves behind the National Guard, but that the French bourgeoisie were terrified at the thought of an armed labour force, and so initiated the betrayal of the French people by its government and the capitulation of Paris.'

The Days of the Commune was first performed in November, 1956, shortly after Brecht's death.

Enron

Lucy Prebble
Acts: 3. Scenes: 25. Roles: Male (17), Female (6), Neutral (0).

One of the most infamous scandals in financial history became a theatrical epic in Enron, a dazzling exposition of the shadowy mechanisms of economic deceit.

At once a case study and an allegory with continuing importance, the play charts the notorious rise and fall of the company Enron and its founding partners Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Market strategies based on engineering ever-rising stock prices, rather than actual profits, turned the company into an empty shell, a virtual organism balanced on a pin-point of market confidence. Mixing classical tragedy with savage comedy and surreal metaphor, Enron follows a group of flawed men and women in a narrative of greed and loss which reviews the tumultuous 1990s, and the financial chaos which has spilled over into the new century.

Enron premiered at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester in 2009.

The Genius

Howard Brenton
Acts: 2. Scenes: 9. Roles: Male (5), Female (5), Neutral (0).

A nuclear physicist runs away from the horrifying consequences of his research in this flinty, electric modern parallel to Brecht’s Life of Galileo.

Brenton’s genius is Leo Lehrer, a brilliant and magnetic American, in academic exile at a rainy English Midlands university because he refused to work for the Pentagon. His inability to confront the moral and ethical implications of his discoveries leave him unable to work, or do anything except get high and sleep with his friend’s wife in the snow.

Then he meets Gilly, a first year mathematics student, who can do the equations he has been trying to hide from: she has worked them out for herself. Together they struggle to deny science’s imperative for progress, and stare in horror at the momentous power which they have articulated.

The Genius was first performed in 1983 at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

The Good Person of Szechwan (Modern Classic)

Bertolt Brecht
Acts: 0. Scenes: 10. Roles: Male (10), Female (5), Neutral (1).

Brecht’s famous parable pivots around a moral paradox – that in an unjust society good can only survive by means of evil.

The play opens on three gods, who have come to earth in search of enough good people to justify their existence. They find Shen Teh, a good-hearted and penniless prostitute, and make her a gift that enables her to set up her own business. But her generosity brings ruin and trouble to her small tobacco shop, and she is forced to disguise herself as an invented male cousin, Shui Ta, in order to reclaim her shop from the scroungers and creditors. Shui Ta turns out to be the stern and ruthless counterpoint to Shen Teh, helping her to capitalist success and financially-motivated marriage, but not to happiness.

Through this sharply split personality Brecht points to the impossibility of living anything like a ‘good’ life in a corrupted and persistently exploitative world.

The Good Person of Szechwan was first performed in Zurich in 1943. This version is translated by John Willett.

In the Poetics Aristotle drew a distinction between tragedy and epic, though conceding that they had much in common. The separateness of the two genres has been acknowledged down the centuries. Linking them is therefore something of a paradox. This originated after the First World War with German radical theatre practitioners who felt that the linear plot and focus on the individual characteristic of Aristotelian dramaturgy were inadequate tools for representing the clash of vast social forces. They also rejected naturalism as providing too limited an angle of vision for revolutionary times.

The term ‘epic theatre’ was coined by the left-wing director Erwin Piscator in the early 1920s. For him, the chief connotation of epic was that of scale, of social dimension. In his work in Berlin – at the Proletarisches Theater, the Volksbühne and particularly in his own house, the Theater am Nollendorfplatz (1927–9) – he sought, often with less than ideal texts, to make the stage respond to the political battles of the moment. He included a good deal of documentary and indeed didactic material in his shows. In order to demonstrate the connection between widely separated events or to provide a historical context for the stage action, he made a bold use of theatrical machinery: lifts, treadmills, multiple stages, even a huge globe that opened up to reveal acting areas inside. In particular, Piscator pioneered the projection of slides and films as an integral part of a stage performance. What mattered, however, was not so much the technical ingenuity of these devices as the social vision they brought to his productions. His commitment to factual drama resurfaced in the final period of his life, when he ran the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin (1962–6); here he premièred documentary plays by Hochhuth, Kipphardt and Weiss.

Brecht – unlike Piscator not only a director but also, indeed primarily, a playwright and a theorist – appropriated the term ‘epic theatre’ in the mid-1920s. For him, the chief connotation of epic was that of a narrative mode. (In his definitions he drew on and modified from a Marxist perspective the work of Goethe and Schiller, who had collaborated in the 1790s on reformulating Aristotle’s concepts of drama and epic for the modern world.) Brecht’s plays were fictional rather than documentary; they were intended to be models (in the laboratory sense) of human interaction. Their form was non-Aristotelian, i.e. open and structurally closer to Elizabethan drama than to the well-made plays of nineteenth-century bourgeois theatre. Since he wanted his audience to react rationally rather than emotionally, he built his plays on a non-linear storyline, with each scene standing on its own, which often avoided a climax; thus the spectators were denied a catharsis. Brecht introduced the so-called Alienation effect and would employ a number of distancing devices, some borrowed from oriental theatre, such as direct address to the audience; stylized speech, including rhyming, free and blank verse; the insertion of songs in sharp contrast to the surrounding dialogue; a narrator or a chorus; miming and masks. He would expose stage lighting and illuminate the action with bright, untinted light, openly show the source of (live or recorded) music, identify scenes by means of dropped-in or projected captions and use half-tabs (curtains) that only partially concealed scene changes, thus reminding the audience that they were in a theatre.

Towards the end of his life Brecht had come to doubt whether epic theatre was a really useful description; it could be applied too easily to other kinds of non-Aristotelian plays, such as those by Claudel and Thornton Wilder, which had no bearing on social conflict and the class struggle. He was tempted to substitute the term ‘dialectical theatre’ but never found time to evolve a suitable theory.

Epic theatre represents at the same time thematic and technical innovations and a reversion to some pre-naturalist styles of theatre. If it did not bring about the total revolution in the theatre (and elsewhere) that its advocates polemically claimed it would, it did at any rate make a major impact on twentieth-century drama and staging practice.

from George Brandt, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).