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What is Theater of Alienation?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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Theater of Alienation, also called epic theater or dialectical theater, is a form of theater based on the principle of using live performance as a means of social and political commentary. Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright, is credited with combining past theatrical traditions to arrive at the concept of Theater of Alienation. It is often described as anti-realism, because it does not make an attempt to portray life as it is, but rather uses the medium of theater to present arguments and social ideas.

The cohesive concept of epic theater came about through the work of Bertolt Brecht. In his plays, he sought to forcibly remind the audience that they were watching a performance. In contrast to the suspension of disbelief associated with realistic plays, Brecht never wanted the audience to believe that they were emotionally in sync with the characters. By breaking conventions, such as having the actor’s speak directly to the audience, Brecht created what is termed “the alienation effect.” This allowed the audience to view the play from a critical, rather than emotional, standpoint.

Brecht and other proponents believe that the key concept of Theater of Alienation is that the audience views the play critically. Unlike the Stanislavski system of realism, alienation plays seek to destroy any possibility of escapism. Rather than leaving it up to the audience to understand what a character’s motivation for action is, Theater of Alienation tries to make their choices explicit and vocal. Characters frequently mention other things they chose not to do so they could do a particular action. This acting and writing technique seeks to prevent assumptions about the humanity of the characters. This type of theater tries to show that the characters are not people, they are ideas and manifestations of themes.

Sets in epic theater are often non-realistic, suggesting more than showing a particular location. In contrast, props are frequently important features that also portray themes or ideas and help indicate a character’s status or profession. Captions or projections are often used to provide quick summaries of off-stage action. This further alienates the audience from believing in the world of the play, and strives to keep them focused on the ideas rather than the characters.

To prevent melodrama or emotion from overtaking the audience, comic songs and music are often used to provide emotional details. The effect of this practice can be extremely jarring on an audience unused to Theater of Alienation. Frequently, it leads to cheerful, upbeat tunes with disturbing lyrics. One of the most famous epic theater songs is Kurt Weill’s “Mac the Knife,” which features jazzy, upbeat music combined with the tale of a deranged killer.

Aside from Brecht, several playwrights have produced works using the principles of Theater of Alienation. Thornton Wilder is believed to have intended The Skin of Our Teeth as epic theater. Modern playwrights Dario Fo and Caryl Churchill are also believed to have written plays following Brecht’s theories. Brecht’s own epic theater works are many, and include The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By DanceShiya — On Dec 20, 2013

Are morality plays at all in line with the Theatre of Alienation, as characters in such plays are often representative of good, evil or another theme or concept? What about existentialist plays, such as Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'? That play in particular doesn't really "go anywhere," but is more about certain moralistic concepts.

Another potential comparison could be drawn to the plays of David Mamet, which are often about character situations, and characters the audience isn't necessarily going to like.

On a side note, the mention of 'Mac the Knife' made me think of The Beatles' 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer'--a rather upbeat tune about a really disturbing topic!

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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