Epic theater and the
principles of counter-cinema

by Alan Lovell

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 64-68
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

Contemporary radical filmmakers and theorists have constructed a political aesthetic out of their response to the work (plays, films, theoretical and critical writings) of Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard. This aesthetic identifies art as a form of ideology whose principal function is to make the capitalist social formation seem natural. The convention of Realism is the main instrument for performing this function. As part of its struggle against the naturalization effect, Marxist art has to oppose Realism. To do so it needs to produce an art that is self-reflexive and foregrounds form. Such an art demands active and critical audiences, not the passive ones demanded by Realism.

This political aesthetic emerges out of an analysis of the failure of revolutionary politics in the capitalist countries of Western Europe, the United States, and Japan in the period since the end of the Second World War. The analysis draws on a well-known characterization of these as affluent societies. It argues that capitalism's increased productive capacity over the past thirty years has led to the development of consumption as a major social process. By making available an enormous range of commodities (washing machines, television sets, frozen food, long-playing records, pocket calculators, jogging suits, Kleenex, electric toothbrushes, package vacations, etc.) the mass of people are encouraged to regard themselves as passive consumers. Consciousness of their role as active producers is suppressed.

Mass media like cinema and television play a central role in this process. The nature of the cultural commodities they offer (soap operas, variety shows, documentaries, advertisements, news programs, pop music shows, comedy series, feature films) and the framework they are offered in immeasurably adds to people's sense of themselves as consumers not producers.

The analysis is made distinctive when it is joined with Louis Althusser's philosophical account of ideology. The social world is constructed ideologically around the concept of the subject. People think of themselves as subjects in the active sense of the word, unique centers of consciousness who control their own destiny. In fact, they are subjects in the passive sense, products of a structure which generates their consciousness and controls their destiny.


Brecht and Godard reinforce each other in the formulation of this position, but undoubtedly Brecht is the dominant figure. Much of the attractiveness of the position depends on the way an ideal Brecht has been constructed. This ideal Brecht is all these: a modernist who produces art which reaches a popular audience; an unwavering Marxist who has a skeptical, anti-dogmatic attitude to knowledge; an avant-gardist who values and uses popular art; and a didactic artist who remains an entertainer. In the first part of this essay, I will show that Brecht's work doesn't make all these reconciliations, and that there are confusions and failures which can't be glossed over.

Brecht's concept of Epic Theatre with its basic opposition of two kinds of drama, Aristotelian and Epic, is the starting point of the whole position. Aristotelian drama draws the audience into its representation, encouraging us to accept uncritically the illusion of reality created on the stage. Its method is founded on a tight narrative structure into which the other elements of the drama (music, decor, lighting, acting) "disappear." The method produces a sense of the inevitability of the narrative, of Fate working itself out.

Epic drama keeps its audience at a distance from its representation, encouraging it to be critical of what happens on stage. Its method is founded on a loose narrative structure which is interrupted by titles, films, songs, etc.; an active separating out of the other elements of the drama from the narrative; and a detached style of acting — playing in "quotation marks." This method produces a sense of events which could have happened differently and of a world amenable to change.


“But what has knowledge got to do with art? We know that knowledge can be amusing, but not everything that is amusing belongs in the theatre.”

"I have often been told when pointing out the invaluable services that modern knowledge and science, if properly applied, can perform for art and especially for the theater, that art and knowledge are two estimable but wholly distinct fields of human activity. This is a fearful truism, of course, and it is as well to agree quickly that, like most truisms, it is perfectly true. Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences." (Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett, Eyre: Methuen, 1978)

The status of Realism is at the heart of current discussion. Traditionally, Marxist aestheticians have positively valued Realism. There are a number of reasons why this attitude has been reversed. Artistically, the support for Realism is regarded as reactionary, in that it prevents Marxism from coming to terms with modern art and attaches it to outmoded 19th century forms. This has special force at a time when Marxism as a whole is trying to modernize itself and show it's not an outdated 19th century doctrine. Philosophically, Realism implies a superficial and dogmatic position about the way knowledge is acquired and authorized (it is acquired simply by observing the world and then presented authoritatively by disguising the point from which it is acquired).

Epic Theatre is identified as an anti-realist approach. The issue has been further dramatized by contrasting Brecht's position with that of Hungarian Communist Georg Lukács. This contrast has then been presented as a Realist versus anti-Realist debate.

To describe Epic Theatre as anti-Realist is misleading in a way that makes it hard to understand many of Brecht's other ideas. He clearly was opposed to Lukács, but his opposition centered on the character of Realism rather than a rejection of it. Both Brecht and Lukács were realists in the mainstream of traditional Marxist aesthetics. They believed the function of art was to provide knowledge of the real world, that is, a world which exists in a substantial way outside of and independent of the human mind. Their key difference was over how art provided that knowledge.

This difference can be pinpointed by describing Brecht and Lukács' attitude to Naturalism. Lukács was uncompromisingly hostile to Naturalism because of its belief that truth could be arrived at through the observation of appearances. Brecht's hostility was more qualified. Brecht was sympathetic to some aspects of Naturalism:

"The naturalistic drama developed from the bourgeois novel of Zola and Dostoevsky which itself announced the invasion of science into the domains of art. The naturalists (Ibsen, Hauptmann) tried to bring the new subject matter of the new novels onto the stage and found no other form for it except that of the novelists: an epic form." (As Reinhold Grim has pointed out in his “Naturalism and Epic Drama,” Essays on Brecht/Theatre and Politics, ed. Siegfried Mews and Herbert Knust, U. of N. Carolina Press, 1974. Here, Brecht is quoted by Grim, p. 3.)

Most important, what Brecht took from Naturalism was the equation which joined art with science and radical politics. Art was a form of social science, a way of studying and understanding the nature of society. A scientific approach to the study of society inevitably led to socialist conclusions.

Within a common acceptance of this equation, Brecht differed from the Naturalists in the stage of the scientific process he valued. Like them, he accepted a positivist account of science, but where they valued the moment of observation, he valued the moment of experiment. For Brecht works of art were effectively experiments. They offered models of the world for critical testing on the part of their audiences. Apart from this, Brecht basically agreed with the Naturalists in seeing art as providing knowledge of reality in the same way as science.

Lukács couldn't accept this way of joining art to science. For him the way knowledge was gained depended on the area dealt with. The natural world was appropriately studied through the methods of positivist science (observation, quantification, experiment). Knowledge of the social world was to be gained differently by way of Geisteswissenschaft, a method of imaginative reconstruction, sympathy and reflection on the phenomena to be understood. Using these methods, "great" artists apprehended the truth of the world and shared it with their audiences.

Both Lukács and Brecht believed that the world should be represented in works of art. Lukács believed that an artist should fully and sympathetically enter into that represented world; Brecht that an artist should remain at some distance from it. But the differences are within a common realist aesthetic and not a fundamental Realist/Anti-Realist opposition.


By uniting art with science, Brecht defined a role for the audience. If a work of art is analogous to an experiment, the audience is analogous to the scientist, who judges whether the experiment is a success or not. In this comparison, however, the audience and the scientist differ in a crucial respect. A scientist comes to the experiment with a critical attitude already built in. Brecht made the opposite assumption about the theatre audience. The task of Epic Theatre is to encourage a critical attitude in the audience.

Theatre as Science is therefore dependent on Theatre as Education. In the broadest sense, Brecht conceived of the theatre as an educational institution. A principal concern was to create the right conditions for learning. For Brecht, learning could only take place if a critical attitude existed. This attitude was best produced if the audience was encouraged to remain emotionally uninvolved, detached and relaxed.

As well as dealing with the conditions for learning, a political theory must be concerned with the content of learning. Brecht was less interested in this. Most often he specified the content in terms of a few generalities — the world is historical and changeable, human beings are not conditioned by fate.

Once the content of learning is acknowledged as an issue, its relation to the conditions of learning needs resolving. Put crudely, do the conditions guarantee that the right content is learned? In an informative and perceptive essay on Brecht's reception in the United States, David Bathrick argues that the theory and practice of Epic Theatre never resolved this issue:

"On the one hand there is the notion of drama as a play for learning (Lehrstück): an emphasis upon the open, tentative and heuristic presentation of ideas; upon learning through involvement, through active, critical, testing participation. The quintessence of ‘the play for learning' — Brecht realized this only in theory, never in practice — is the very opposite of ‘didactic’ for it required that the audience not accept action and character as finished products, but rather as unhewn attitudes and behaviors which must be tested. Opposed to the Lehrstück is the drama as Thesenstück, as a ‘thesis play’ which focuses less on questions and more on answers — on final conclusions and ideological premises. These two contradictory dramatic modes co-exist to a greater or lesser extent in all of Brecht's political plays." ("Brecht's Marxism and America," Essays on Brecht/Theatre and Politics, p. 213)

The presence of this contradiction is particularly evident in The Mother, one of Brecht's more overtly political plays. It dramatizes the making of a communist militant. If the demands of Epic Theatre are taken seriously, the spectator should be critical of this process and free to come to the conclusion that the heroine shouldn't have become a militant. But the Mother is presented very sympathetically, and no criticism of her development is built into the drama. Neither the play nor Brecht's reflections on it suggests he wanted to encourage such criticism.

In his discussion Bathrick takes the scene where the communist son tried to explain to his mother the labor theory of value. Pavel says:

“… there is a big difference between whether a table or a factory belongs to you. A table can belong to you. So can a chair. Nobody is hurt by it. Suppose you feel like setting them on a roof: what harm can it do? But when a factory belongs to you, you can hurt hundreds of men with it. In this case you are a man who owns others' tools: and you must use them to get use out of men.“ (The Mother, trans. Lee Baxandall, Evergreen Edition, New York: Grove Press, 1965, p. 62)

Bathrick comments:

“… the main focus of this scene is not on the answers of Pavel but on the hard common sense questions of the mother. ‘Why don't you think Mr. Sulnikov should cut the wages he pays you just as he pleases? Is it or isn't it his factory? But what happens when he says he doesn't need you any longer?’” (p. 214)

The critical attitude demanded by Epic Theatre is present in the play at the level of the character of the mother. The audience is clearly not meant to critically detach itself from the character but to identify with her critical attitude. Brecht assumes that the exercise of a critical attitude inevitably leads to the truth. In other words, the conditions of learning and the content of learning are at one. If an audience adopts a critical attitude, it must reach socialist conclusions. This assumption is clearly not borne out in practice. Starting from a critical attitude, people often reach anti-socialist conclusions. Brecht could make the assumption because (a) he identified socialism as a scientific position, and (b) he identified science as a form of critical rationalism. So to be critical was to be scientific was to be socialist.

This position can lead to elitist conclusions — the rule of the rational minority. Brecht took it in a populist direction by seeing the common sense of the proletariat (at least, the militant section of it) as inherently critical. As the attempt to dramatize the labor theory of value in Pavel's speech shows, theory is conceived as a kind of systematic common sense.


Aristotelian drama supports and comforts its bourgeois audiences in their view of a fixed, unchanging world. If Epic Theatre is intended as an antidote to Aristotelian theatre, it needs to reach the same bourgeois audiences.

In his discussions of Epic Theatre, Brecht varies about its intended audience. Sometimes he assumes the audience will be of a mixed class character, and he urges that plays should divide the audience along class lines. Presumably the positive effect of the drama will be on the proletarian sections of the audience. The bourgeois sections can be ignored, or at least left to stew in their own indignation. At other times, he assumes the audience will be primarily proletarian (the essay "The Popular and the Realistic," defines a kind of drama whose only real function is the education of the proletariat). Finally with the Lehrstück plays, there are suggestions that the plays will have achieved something worthwhile even if they only educate their performers.

This uncertainty about the social character of the audience was a consequence of Brecht's own development. The basic concept of Epic Theatre was articulated before he became a Marxist. In common with other art movements of the early 1920s, its stance was aggressively anti-bourgeois. Epic plays were directed against the traditional audience for the theatre, the bourgeoisie.

Brecht's espousal of Marxism in the latter part of the 1920s complicated the situation because it posed the issue of Epic Theatre's relation to proletarian audiences. If it could be assumed that such audiences had a similar outlook to that of the bourgeoisie, no difficulties arose. Epic Theatre would be just as appropriate for proletarian audiences as for bourgeois ones. Brecht never made this assumption. He became involved with the German communist movement when it was active and militant. He saw the movement as the advanced representative of the whole proletariat and his attitude to it was decidedly positive.

His rather uncritical, almost patronizing attitude towards the proletariat has often been criticized. Certainly he credited the proletariat with great aesthetic sophistication:

“There will always be educated persons, connoisseurs of the arts who will step in with, ‘The people won't understand that.’ But the people impatiently shove them aside and comes to terms directly with the artist. There is highly cultured stuff made for minorities, designed to form minorities: the two thousandth transformation of some old hat, the spicing-up of a venerable and now decomposing piece of meat. The proletariat rejects it (‘they've got something to worry about’) with an incredulous, somewhat reflective shake of the head … When they themselves took to acting and writing they were compellingly original. What was known as ‘agit-prop’ art which a number of second-rate noses were turned up at, was a mine of novel artistic techniques and ways of expression. Magnificent and long-forgotten elements from periods of truly popular art cropped up there, boldly adapted to the new social ends. Daring cuts and compositions, beautiful simplifications (alongside misconceived ones); in all this there was often an astonishing economy and elegance and a fearless eye for complexity. A lot of it may have been primitive, but it was never primitive with the kind of primitivity that affected the supposedly varied psychological portrayals of bourgeois art. The sharp eye of the workers saw through naturalism's superficial representation of reality. When they said in Fuhrmann Henschel,’That's more than we want to know about it,’ they were in fact wishing they could get a more exact representation of the real social forces operating under the immediately visible surface.” (Brecht on Theatre, p. 111)

Given such sophistication, a proletarian audience hardly needs Epic Theatre to provoke it into critical activity. In fact, whenever Brecht discusses the relationship between art and the proletariat, he tends to move away from the notion of a "learning play" towards that of a "thesis play."

The circumstances of Brecht's life made the problem of the audience particularly complicated. During his period of exile he had no long-term relationship with an audience: the audiences his work got were occasional and extremely varied. When he finally established a regular relation with an audience, it was in East Germany in a social and political situation very different from the one Epic theatre was developed in. Perhaps his groping towards a new concept of theatre, Dialectical Theatre, was recognition of this.


Even if Brecht didn't provide an overall, coherent account of the audience, he was always curious about the effect of his plays. Discussing the way audiences responded to Mother Courage, he wrote:

“We felt that the tradeswomen's voluntary and active participation in the war was made clear enough by showing the great distances which she traveled to get into it. From a number of press notices, however, and a lot of discussions … it appeared that many people see Courage as the representative of ‘the little people’ who get ‘caught up’ in the war because ‘there's nothing they can do about it,’ they are ‘powerless in the hands of fate,’ etc. Deep-seated habits lead theatre audiences to pick up on the characters' more emotional utterances and forget all the rest. Business deals are accepted with the same boredom as descriptions of the landscape in a novel... In our discussions war was always cropping up in this way as a timeless abstraction, however hard we might try to present it as the sum of everybody's business operations.” (Brecht on Theatre, p. 220)

Brecht explains the play's almost reverse effect to the one intended by suggesting that the audience's traditional prejudices lead it to misunderstand the play. To say this is to make a serious criticism of Epic Theatre. Drama that aims to have an effect on its audiences must take account of the prejudices the audience is likely to bring with it and try to deal with them. This entails, Brecht himself was fond of remarking, "the inflexible rule that the proof of the pudding is the eating."

It's not self-evident, however, that audiences misunderstood Mother Courage. In terms of the economic interests that Brecht claims maintain the war, the heroine is too small and marginal an operator to be representative. The Thirty Years War is one of the least tractable models for a war as a human social phenomenon, the product of economic forces. A war that dragged on for such a long period, was ostensibly fought over religious matters, and was so brutal and devastating surely invited the response that war is some kind of elemental phenomenon which sweeps up all "the little people" caught in its path. The play's organization of time and place supports this response. Although both are specified in the introductory titles to sequences, they are never localized in the dramatic working out of the sequence. Thus the action has a timeless, universal quality supported by the archetypal resonances of the play's title.

If Mother Courage is a typical play, then the effect Epic dramas have on their audiences needs scrutiny. It shouldn't simply be assumed that they will have the effect Brecht desired and that if they don't, the audience is at fault.


Brecht's critical rationalist orientation led him to propose that the relation between a play and its audience should be an intellectual one. From the start, this proposal produced a criticism of Epic Theatre that was to become common. If drama has a didactic function, it will necessarily bore audiences because it ignores their demand for entertainment. Since he had a strong commitment to pleasure in art, Brecht was particularly sensitive to such criticism. In his writings, he is constantly preoccupied with the problem of relating theatre's didactic function with its entertainment function.

His starting point was the classical definition of art as education through pleasure. This definition poses the problem of where in the dramatic process the pleasure resides. Brecht's answer was that it resided in the educational function, that there was a pleasure in learning. Such an assimilation of art to education makes it impossible to distinguish between what happens in a theatre and what happens in a school. The difficulty is highlighted in the essay "Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction":

“Theatre remains theatre even where it is instructive theatre, and insofar as it is good theatre it will amuse.” (Brecht on Theatre, p. 73)

Clearly there is something more to theatrical pleasure than instructiveness. In the quotation that something more is "good theatre." But what is it? What makes "good theatre"?

As Brecht grew older, he increasingly stressed the need for pleasure in the theatre. In 1948 he wrote:

“From the first it has been the theatre's business to entertain people, as it also has of all the other arts. It is this business which always gives it its particular dignity; it needs no other passport than fun, but this it has got to have.”(Brecht on Theatre, p. 180)

Pleasure rather than instruction was given more weight, but Brecht still found it impossible to provide a convincing account of pleasure. Two versions seem to have existed in his mind. The positive version is utilitarian; pleasure gained through understanding and controlling the world. The negative version is "indulgent,” sensual pleasures for their own sake and with no justification but hedonism — these pleasures are often specified through drug or culinary metaphors. The two versions exist in a tension throughout his work. If, in his theoretical writings the tension causes him problems, it gives a play like Galileo much of its force.

Any theory of pleasure in art needs to deal with emotional response, the way an audience is thrilled, bored, moved, amused, saddened. Brecht's suspicion of emotional effect made it difficult for him to deal with this kind of response. Initially he was totally hostile to it:

“I aim at an extremely classical, cold, highly intellectual style of performance. I'm not writing for the scum who want to have the cockles of their heart warmed.” (Brecht on Theatre, p. 14)

The way his suspicion limits his account of the relation between the play and the audience is well illustrated by the sporting metaphor he was fond of using to describe the relation. In this metaphor, the spectator in the theatre is compared with the spectator at a boxing match. According to Brecht, the boxing spectator observes the fight in a relaxed, critical frame of mind, admiring the boxer's skills, occasionally taking time out for a smoke. But this is a partial description. Completely missing is the emotional involvement of the spectators, their identification with one or other of the boxers, their excitement at the violence.

Brecht became more tolerant of emotional effect as he grew older:

“A creation that more or less renounces empathy need not by any means be an ‘unfeeling' creation, or one which leaves the spectator's feelings out of account … A character's piecemeal development (sic) as he initiates more and more relationships with other characters, consolidating or expanding himself in continually new situations, produces a rich and sometimes complicated emotional curve in the spectator, a fusion of feelings and even a conflict between them.” (Brecht on Theatre, p. 101)

Despite this tolerance emotional effect was never properly integrated into the overall theory of Epic Theatre.

Brecht's difficulties in this area of pleasure/ emotion ultimately stem from his lack of a psychology of art. His lack of interest in psychology has often been noted. It is certainly striking how little Freud is present in his writing. This absence has been explained in a dubious personal/ political way by Martin Esslin's suggestion that Brecht's Marxism was a rationalist defense against a threatening emotional anarchism. It may be more helpful to see Brecht's attitude toward psychology in the context of those radical art movements like Constructivism and the Neue Sachlichkeit which, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War, tried to give art a social function. Mayakovsky, for example, thinks of this function in utilitarian terms when he writes, "Artists are engineers of the soul."

The psychology that does exist in Brecht's work — a compound of Behaviorism and an admiration for technology — belongs in this context. The inherent mechanism of this psychology makes it difficult to deal with the areas of pleasure and emotion in art.


Brecht's anti-bourgeois attitudes combined with his Marxism to make him want to produce a popular art, an art that wasn't only available to a minority audience but was positively directed at "the broad masses." His concept of popular art was, however, an unstable one. By popular art, he meant centrally something that might be termed "folk art" — the entertainments provided in fairgrounds and beer gardens, traditional ballads, theatre in the Commedia dell'arte vein. He learned many of his artistic methods from such art which he identified as part of the Epic theatre tradition. He also took from "folk art" a commitment to art as entertainment, an unpretentious social activity but nevertheless necessary and valuable.

His attitudes to this kind of popular art wasn't uncritical. His rationalism warned him against mystical beliefs about the nature of the "folk“ which led into reactionary directions:

“In this the folk or people appears with its immutable characteristics, its time-honored traditions, forms of art, customs and habits, its religiosity, its hereditary enemies, its unconquerable strength and all the rest. A peculiar unity is conjured up of tormentor and tormented, exploiter and exploited, liar and victim …” (Brecht on Theatre, p. 108)

Brecht's positive attitude to "folk" popular art was carried over to the new "mass" popular art — the art produced by media like cinema and radio. Given his enthusiasm for technology, he wasn't inherently suspicious of these new media, as many traditional intellectuals were. Indeed this enthusiasm for technology was the basis for his and Walter Benjamin's first attempts to think about the new media.

Brecht and Benjamin used Marx's concept of the contradictions between the forces and relations of production as a justification for a positive attitude to new art forms like film and radio. The new media were seen as belonging to the forces of production. Their development produced contradictions with the prevailing relations of production out of which forms like Epic theatre were generated.

This position remained a sketchy one. Its great merit was its recognition that the development of artistic forms and of technology might be related. But the discussion of this relationship depended heavily on technological optimism and a tendency to ignore the effects of the relations of production.

Because of its sketchiness Brecht's attitude to mass popular art was vulnerable to immediate developments. By the middle of the 1930s, he was attacking the emergence of the sound film — an attack hardly consistent with a belief in the revolutionary potential of the development of the forces of production.

Brecht's enthusiasm for mass popular art was undermined from two other directions. First there was his awareness that "folk" and "mass" popular art couldn't be totally assimilated. In addition to the kind of art that was nonnaturalistic, unsentimental and distanced, "mass" popular art also produced work that was naturalistic, sentimental and immediate.

Second, it was undermined by his contact with Hollywood where he was unable to work despite a number of efforts. His essay, "A Little Private Tuition for My Friend, Max Gorelik," forcefully expresses his hostility to Hollywood, making a conventional attack on it as misleading its audiences about reality by creating "certain excitements and emotions." It is ironic that his stay in the United States should have taken him away from mass popular art because in the 1920s, U.S. popular culture was an inspiration for his writing.

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