Plato’s Republic outlined his views on good literature using the Epic Tales of Homer, The Odyssey and The Iliad as exemplary texts. Later classical works such as Vergil’s Aeneas, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost were written in this tradition based on an objective approach, appealing to reason - the mind - satisfying our intellectual needs rather than our emotive desires.
In a Platonic approach, we are distanced or alienated (estranged) from the action and critically evaluate it. Instead of getting emotionally involved we are detached and objective. We are made to feel emotionally disconnected to the action and detached from the characters. Instead of playing with our emotions, Epic Literature. affects the mind and moves us to action leading to social remedies. As the characters are singular,atypical or super heroic, we are not encouraged to identify with them.
Rather than focussing on individuals it looks at the broader scale and appeals to the masses, the collective psyche because it involves mass suffering. As Stalin put it: “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Suffering is degrading and dehumanising, leading to desensitisation or brutalisation, promoting the instinct of self-preservation. Epic Literature can often appear to be Nihilistic.
1Nihilism is a 19th C. Russian extreme revolutionary movement. A skeptic doubts, a cynic distrusts, while a nihilist rejects all traditions, beliefs, morals, values and aspirations. They are utterly negative, destructive and subversive, believing or valuing nothing. They appealed to disenchanted youths urging them to destroy a repressive society and rebuild it from scratch.
“Someone who does not bow to any authority or accept any principle or trust”.
Rather than emotionally empathising or identifying with the main characters we become critical observers and respond rationally and intellectually. We assume a universe governed by chance, randomness, or caprice. Chaos rides supreme in a discordant world where evil often triumphs over good. The literature of the Absurd often uses this approach with limited plots, disconnected scenes, a montage, lack of sequence or structure and minimalism in props
The plots are often well known so we are interested in the course of the action not the result because of a lack of suspense. We dwell in the present, not the past or the future.
Epic Literature is realism rather than illusion so lacks subtlety and nuance. It tends to be direct, explicit, overt, didactic.
A good example would be Brechtian Epic Theatre which is different; dissident, divergent, variant, resistant, subversive. It is the Theatre of Realism and Intellectualism
Brecht’s techniques – Verfremdung – Estrangement
Bertolt Brecht – a German dramatist and poet 1898 – 19656
His definition: “to take from an event or character that which is predictable, self evident, obvious and to arouse surprise and curiosity”. Brecht regarded conventional theatres of illusion as soft thinking; a narcissistic romanticism, - a desire to use the theatre for escapism. The principle of Einfuhlung (empathy) was regarded as theatrical seduction which clouded the minds of the audience to the true issues. He tries to divorce the audience from sentimental involvement or engagement and detach, distance or alienate us from the characters on stage. We are not meant to identify or empathise with them, rather stand back and judge them critically.
The Epic devices in Mother Courage:
- Setting – the past. Removes us – no attempt at verisimilitude, rather it is a chronicle set 50 yrs ago.
- Interrupted by Songs which destroy our sense of realism.
- Loose episodic structure with inscriptions shown before each scene which inform the spectator of the events to come.
- Long breaks between scenes -often years- interruptions, the war goes on for MANY years – war as natural as peace.
- Stage set up minimally, realistically; no curtain, sets changed in full view of audience- sparseness of scenery.
- Introduction of countless transient characters.
- The characters are not only alienated from themselves but also from one another. Their words belie their feelings, their deeds their words – they bluff each other as well as the audience.
- Mixture of comic and tragic – that which appears comic, often laden with tragic implications. Black humour disengages and distances us from empathy.
Actors talking directly to the audience helps the break the spell or illusion of reality. Suddenly we become aware that we are not voyeurs perving through an invisible fourth wall sharing the intimate secrets of domestic strife.
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