Brecht felt strongly about the generally apolitical nature of the theater around which he grew up, particularly the realistic drama of Konstantin Stanislavski. When he began working as a writer and a director, the Second World War was looming large on the horizon, and Brecht believed that theater should engage more directly with the political climate of its day.
"Epic Theater" was Brecht's term for the form of theater he hoped would achieve this goal. Its basic aim was to educate its audience by forcing them to view the action of the play critically, from a detached, "alienated," point of view, rather than allow them to become emotionally involved. Coleridge's famous "willing suspension of disbelief," where the audience switched off its critical faculties in order to believe in the world of the play, had met its polar opposite.
Though his work was not always successful in this aim, Brecht devised several very famous techniques through which he could achieve a high level of critical detachment. These included placards that summarized the plot of the scene before the scene itself was played out. This technique decreases anticipation and tension, and it renders the plot inevitable. The songs were sung half in character and half out of character, which helps to comment dryly on the events of the play. The sets were spare and cold, using a minimum of stage furniture. In these circumstances, the audience can focus more easily on why the events happen and on what message is being conveyed.
It also is significant that Brecht asked his actors to play his characters with a permanent degree of critical awareness. He wanted an attitude to rather than an immersion in the character being played, and he demanded that the actors--as well he might, considering that plays like Mother Courage and Her Children include songs--be constantly aware of how they were playing their parts. Not only that, but Brecht also asked his actors to make clear that one choice was being made in favor to another. He often wrote dialogue accordingly. See, for example, the peasants' justification of their failure to act in Scene Eleven of Mother Courage and Her Children.
The purpose of the theater thus was not to imitate life but to educate the audience. Brecht wrote that there was "no more noble aim for any theater."