Many people imagine that the term "epic theatre" is self-contradictory, as the epic and dramatic ways of narrating a story are held, following Aristotle, to be basically distinct. The difference between the two forms was never thought simply to lie in the fact that the one is performed by living beings while the other operates via the written word; epic works such as those of Homer and the medieval singers were at the same time theatrical performances, while dramas like Goethe's Faust and Byron's Manfred are agreed to have been more effective as books. Thus even by Aristotle's definition the difference between the dramatic and epic forms was attributed to their different methods of construction, whose laws were dealt with by two different branches of aesthetics. The method of construction depended on the different way of presenting the work to the public, sometimes via the stage, sometimes through a book; and independently of that there was the "dramatic element" in epic works and the "epic element" in dramatic. The bourgeois novel in the last century developed much that was "dramatic," by which was meant the strong centralization of the story, a momentum that drew the separate parts into a common relationship. A particular passion of utterance, a certain emphasis on the clash of forces are hallmarks of the "dramatic." The epic writer D6blin provided an excellent criterion when he said that with an epic work, as opposed to a dramatic, one can as it were take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual pieces, which remain fully capable of life.
This is no place to explain how the opposition of epic and dramatic lost its rigidity after having long been held to be irreconcilable. Let us just point
out that the technical advances alone were enough to permit the stage to incorporate an element of narrative in its dramatic productions. The possibility of projections, the greater adaptability of the stage due to mechanization, the film, all completed the theatre's equipment, and did so at a point where the most important transactions between people could no longer be shown simply by personifying the motive forces or subjecting the characters to invisible metaphysical powers.
To make these transactions intelligible the environment in which the people lived had to be brought to bear in a big and "significant" way.
This environment had of course been shown in existing drama, but only as seen from the central figure's point of view, and not as an independent element. It was defined by the hero's reactions to it. It was seen as a storm can be seen when one sees the ships on a sheet of water unfolding their sails, and the sails filling out. In the epic theatre it was to appear standing on its own.
The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, . along with the fourth wall. Not only did the background adopt an attitude to the events on the stage-by big screens recalling other simultaneous events elsewhere, by projecting documents which confirmed or contradicted what, the characters said, by concrete and intelligible figures to accompany abstract I conversations, by figures and sentences to support mimed transactions whose sense was unclear-but the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and I clearly inviting criticism of him.
The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically (and without practical consequences) by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject-matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems "the most obvious thing in the world" it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.
What is "natural" must have the force of what is startling. This is the only way to expose the laws of cause and effect. People's activity must simultaneously be so and be capable of being different.
It was all a great change.
The dramatic theatre'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 appal 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 it-That's not the way-That's extraordinary, hardly believable-It's got to stop-The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are unnecessary-That's great art: nothing obvious in it-I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.