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The Weill Project blog: What Is 'Epic Theater'?

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #bertoltbrecht #erwinpiscator #joemabel #epictheater #threepennyopera
Original 1928 poster for the <cite>Dreigroschenoper</cite> ("Threpenny opera")
Original 1928 poster for the Dreigroschenoper ("Threepenny opera"), used here on a fair-use basis.

In my post about Threepenny Opera and other events of 1928 I mentioned the concept of "epic theater" and said it deserved a blog post of its own. Here we go. Warning: intellectual history and cultural criticism ahead. And maybe a couple of cheap shots at Brecht, who is nonetheless a genius.

The idea of "epic theater" has become so closely associated with Bertolt Brecht that it would be impossible to discuss either subject without taking on the other. Brecht is justifiably considered one of the great German-language writers of the 20th Century, but he was also a big ego who mythologized himself (think Picasso, or Bob Dylan) and often took sole credit for the ideas of a team (think Lady Gaga or David Bowie, especially their visual presentation). Reading Brecht, you could think that when he and Kurt Weill met, Weill was writing difficult post-Wagnerian/atonal music very much like Schoenberg or Anton Webern; months later he was writing cabaret- and jazz-inflected theater music like, well, Kurt Weill (because there is no precedent). And of course, in this telling, this was entirely because of Weill's encounter and collaboration with… Bertolt Brecht. Unsurprisingly, Brecht said that a lot more after their collaboration fell apart in 1930 than when they were working together. I'm guessing he also shut up about it for a while in 1933 when the two of them, in exile now that the Nazis had taken over Germany, worked together in Paris with George Balanchine on the Seven Deadly Sins. Or maybe not: it was their last major project together.

People today—Germans, especially—still read Brecht a lot, including his excellent writings on theater, so his views tend to be much better known than those of his colleagues. To go back to my frequent analogy of Weill to John Cale: Lou Reed similarly got a lot of credit for Cale's ideas, for analogous reasons. Brecht's readers tend to take Brecht's remarks on Weill at face value, and see Weill as executing well on Brecht's plans, instead of collaborating equally in forming that plan. They perhaps forget that Brecht is the same person who always referred to Elisabeth Hauptmann as his "assistant" (also his mistress, for a while), ignoring that she was the one who translated John Gay's The Beggar's Opera into German as the basis for the Threepenny Opera, and for many decades hiding the fact that some "Brecht/Weill songs"—notably "Alabama Song," later covered by both the Doors and David Bowie, and soon to be covered by Juliana and me—are really "Hauptmann/Weill songs". (Hard to see how people missed that: the original lyrics are in English, a language Brecht had not yet mastered at the time.)

Brecht's idea of "epic theater"—well, really Erwin Piscator's idea of "epic theater" but by now you understand, I'm sure—was that theater should not heighten the emotions of the audience, but give them distance: break the fourth wall, let them see the back of the stage sets, let a narrator make witty comments on the action or even have the actors break character to do so, put up placards and title cards, etc. Epic theater is social and political, but not psychological. Music should not typically echo a character's emotions: it should comment on them. "The essential point of the epic theatre," Brecht wrote in 1927, shortly after the completion of the Mahagonny Songspiel but before Threepenny Opera, "is perhaps that it appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator's reason. Instead of sharing an experience, the spectator must come to grips with things."

Naturally, because Brecht was a great playwright, he had the sense not always to follow his own advice over-faithfully. Even when he wrote the above, he had the sense to add, "At the same time it would be wrong to try and deny emotion to this kind of theatre." Still, this accurately describes his general practice. His plays are peppered with what he called Verfremdungseffekten (variously translated as "distancing effects," "estrangement effects," or "alienation effects"). Combined with a certain cynicism, they are exactly what makes a play "Brechtian." And he saw this in very ideological, Marxist terms, referring to epic theater as part of the "'ideological superstructure' for a solid, practical rearrangement of our age's way of life." "The epic theatre," he wrote elsewhere, "works out scenes where people adopt attitudes of such a sort that the social laws under which they are acting spring into sight… Human behavior is shown as alterable; man himself as dependent on certain political and economic factors and at the same time capable of altering them." Clearly, Brecht is implicitly echoing Karl Marx's late views: "superstructure" such as the arts is seen not merely as the product of material conditions Marx had earlier imagined it to be, and which "vulgar Marxists" so often view it as being, but can affect those material conditions "dialectically", that is, with the two influencing each other back and forth. Brecht (probably far more than Weill) believed that the right art could change the world. I don't want to get too far into the Marxian woods here (Der Marxwald! Mit seinen berühmten roten Bäumen!), but if you are not familiar with Marx's use of the term "superstructure" (in German, "Überbau") and want context, here's a decent, if stubby, Wikipedia article on the subject 🔗 and a maybe better overview on ThoughtCo 🔗.

Neues Schauspielhaus on Nollendorfplatz in Berlin.

The Neues Schauspielhaus on Nollendorfplatz in Berlin was once the Piscator-Bühne. Brecht and Weill were both involved in productions here in the less-than-year between the premiere of the Mahagonny Songspiel and their work on Threepenny Opera.

Photo by A. Savin, licensed under the Free Art License.

In the essay "On the use of music in an epic theatre" (written 1935, but only posthumously published) Brecht does a very good job of explaining how Weill's music worked in their plays together. Writing of Threepenny Opera, he wrote, "Its most striking innovation lay in the strict separation of the music from all other elements of the entertainment offered." The small orchestra—no wash of strings, the only classical string instrument was a single cello—was onstage. The song titles were projected on screens and many of these songs had rather expository titles like, "Song concerning the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor" or, in the extreme, "A short song allows Miss Polly Peachum to confess to her Horrified Parents that she is wedded to the Murderer Mcheath". The start of each song was accompanied by a lighting change (some of these emphasizing the presence of the musicians) and by position and posture changes by the actors. The songs, more than anything else in the play, showed the parallels between the bourgeois world and the criminal world, in terms of emotions but even more importanly in terms of values. And these were emphatically songs, detachable from the play and capable of having lives of their own. (Brecht doesn't mention it, but some of them such as "Mack the Knife," once they made it in the world, were pretty good at sending home some money.)

Again, the only real flaw in Brecht's account of this is how much of the credit he takes. Weill was headed firmly in this direction before he and Brecht met. Yes, his very early music sounds post-Wagnerian or like younger, lesser Schoenberg or Webern, but that is true mainly of what he wrote around age 20, before he studied under Busoni and before he found his own mature musical voice. (Weill was 27 when he and Brecht met.) As I've discussed at length in my posts on Weill's student years (especially this one), Weill's mentor was the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, under whom Weill studied for several years in a master class at the Preußische Akademie der Kunste (Prussian Academy of Art). Weill referred to himself as not so much Busoni's student but as his "disciple." Busoni admired and advocated the more formal Bach and Mozart more than the more individually expressive Beethoven, and certainly had little use for the heightened emotions in Wagner. Writing to critic Paul Bekker toward the end of his life (Busoni died in 1924) Busoni described the ethos of his Junge Klassizität (usually rendered in English as "New Classicality") as "renuciation of subjectivity… rejection of personal feelings and metaphysics…" It's not hard to see the line from there to epic theater. If you want to check out Busoni, Busoni's opera Arlecchino ("Harlequin") is available in full online and well worth your time.

Besides Busoni's influence on Weill, there is also the influence of the year around age 22 when Weill supported himself playing popular tunes on the piano in a beer cellar, because being a young avant garde classical composer was no better way to make a living in Weimar Germany than in today's America. Over the next several years, Weill's harmonies became simpler and more accessible, even though he still clearly remembered how to deploy some clash-y expressionism when he wanted the edginess.

Weill's opera Der Protagonist with the prolific older playwright Georg Kaiser as librettist, was completed in 1925, before Weill and Brecht had even met, certainly before either had a chance to influence the other. (I've discussed Der Protagonist at length in an earlier blog post.) It premiered in Dresden in March 1926 and finally played in Berlin in October 1928 after the success of Threepenny. The very subject of the play is an actor who becomes overly identified with his characters and ends up killing his own sister because he has lost track of the difference between stage and reality, so it is a bit of a manifesto in its own right for "epic theater" over naturalism and "method acting." But there's more: as Douglas Jarman points out, the mad scene in Der Protagonist must be the calmest mad scene in any opera ever, instead of heightening to some big climax as the central character goes mad. In Jarman's words, it is "a fitting commentary on the banality and emptiness of the Protagonist's own artistic beliefs…" Der Protagonist got rave reviews from the likes of Theodor Adorno, who understood exactly what was going on here. Jarman half-quoting Adorno: "the music 'in no way mirrored the drama' but worked through disassociation…" Weill himself was pretty explicit in 1926: "on the stage, meaningful things can only be said with the simplest, most inconspicuous of means."

As I've shown in my last several blog posts, jazz elements and dance forms were already steadily creeping into Weill's works before he met Brecht. After Der Protagonist, he moved firmly toward individual "numbers" rather than through-composed works for the stage, and he had already moved away from a romanticist conception of either theater or music. The Mahagonny Songspiel, his first significant work with Brecht, is a completely logical progression from where Weill was already headed. For more on Weill's continuing transformation in the year or so after Der Protagonist, just before he and Brecht began collaborating, see my earlier blog post entitled "Transformation". For strategic discord, check out the piano part on Teresa Stratas's version of "Die Muschel von Margate" 🔗, presumably one of the first environmental protest songs ever (1928); that accompaniment is apparently exactly as Weill wrote it. I've worked up an original arrangement that does more or less the same on guitar, and Juliana has done her own translation and adaptation of Felix Gasbarra's lyrics. Stay tuned. Weill wrote this with Gasbarra (Piscator's dramaturg) when he and Brecht were both working at Piscator's theater, just before they started work on Threepenny Opera. The man definitely knew how to find the right "wrong" note.

Weill wrote of Threepenny Opera, "It gives us the opportunity to make opera the subject matter for an evening at the theater." That is, his and Brecht's partial embrace and partial rejection of the conventions of opera made their play an implicit commentary on opera. For Weill, this commentary was probably of more interest than the text's social satire. When the Communist paper Rote Fahne complained there was "no trace of modern social or political satire," they were probably missing the point: if the pair had written the bluntly political play that the Party would have preferred, there is no way it would still be revived regularly in theaters around the world over 90 years later.

Weill saw musical theater as largely incompatible with naturalism, the sole exception being when characters are overcome by emotion so strong that normal speech simply cannot express it. In that latter case—rarely found in his work with Brecht—he wrote in the mid-1940s after many years of writing for Broadway, "singing takes over naturally whenever the emotion of the spoken word reaches a point where music can 'speak' with greater effect." Weill also wrote a good deal about what he called "Gestus", from the same root as "gesture": music can force the actor into a particular rhythm, and control accent, emphasis, and syllable length in a way that a mere text cannot.


Bertolt Brecht in 1954
Bertolt Brecht in 1954, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-W0409-300, photo by Jörg Kolbe, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

After World War II, Weill stayed in New York where he had become a very successful Broadway composer. There wasn't all that much demand for even a great German-language writer in the U.S., so Brecht headed back to Berlin—East Berlin—and reopened his theater. Although very much a Communist, Brecht hedged his bets: he took Swiss citizenship, not East German citizenship. As my mother said to me when I just tapped a deck of cards she had shuffled, "You trust your mother, but you cut the cards."

When the Communists suppressed the workers' uprising in Berlin in 1953, Brecht became a mild critic of the East German government:

"After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas. Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?"

"Die Lösung" ("The Solution") didn't get published until 1959, after Brecht was dead, and only in the West, but it eventually became one of the most famous poems he ever wrote.

[I usually try to end these blog posts by citing sources. What I wrote here draws on too many books over too many years for me to be thorough in that respect. Besides Brecht's own writings on the subject, thanks especially to Douglas Jarman's Kurt Weill: An illustrated Biography for clarifying and deepening my thoughts on this topic. I'm pretty sure I also got a good hunk of this from Stephen Hinton's writings, especially his book Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform.]




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Last modified: 12 July 2021

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