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Collecting – Preserving – Remembering
Erwin Piscator
Erwin Piscator
Erwin Piscator was born on December 17, 1893 in the small village of Ulm near Wetzlar / Hesse. One of his ancestors was the bible translator Johannes Piscator. After his A-level exam in Marburg, he went to Munich to study art history, philosophy and German literature. One of his teachers at the University of Munich was Professor Artur Kutscher, who established dramatics as an academically independent subject matter. Piscator began his career in the theatre in 1913 as an apprentice at the Hoftheater Munich, Germany, a stage still committed to the traditional aesthetics of the 19th century. There he played several small roles, among them in 1914 the Hauptmann Astolf in Kleist’s Hermannsschlacht.
When the First World War started, he was called into the army, where he served as a signaler in a front-line infantry unit from the spring of 1915. The gruesome war experiences shattered his whole outlook on the world and deeply influenced his artistic work. “My calendar begins on August 4, 1914. From that day the barometer rose: 13 million dead; 11 million crippled; 50 million soldiers who fought; 6 billion guns; 50 billion cubic meters of gas. How does ‘personal growth’ figure into that? Nobody is going to grow ‘personally’ there. Something else develops him. The twenty-year-old was confronted by War. Destiny. It made every other teacher superfluous.” Thus begins Piscator’s groundbreaking book Das Politische Theater (Political Theater).
In November 1918, right after the end of the First World War, Piscator came to Berlin. He joined the Berlin DADA section of George Grosz, John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfeld. In the following years he became a great advocate of politics in the theatre and a leading director of the Weimar Republic, who contributed a great deal to the move away from expressionism, and the marrying of theatre and film. He founded Das Tribunal, an avant-garde theatre, and directed plays by Strindberg, Wedekind, Sternheim, and the works of Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser. He soon became known for his revolutionary work, his love for experimentation, his great scenic innovations, his invention of epic theater and his vision of stage as a moral institution, a platform from which to call upon man to honor man.
In 1927 he founded the Piscator Theater on Nollendorfplatz, Berlin, which opened on September 3 of that year with his production of Toller’s Hoppla, wir leben. In June of 1928, the first Piscator Theater was bankrupt. But within those ten months Piscator presented four productions which all became landmarks in theatrical history. The most famous of those productions is Piscator’s adaptation of Jaroslav Hasek’s novel The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schwejk. This play established Piscator’s international reputation. One reason for the play’s tremendous success was the famous Viennese actor Max Pallenberg who perfectly personified the anti-hero Schwejk. Equally important were the technical innovations which Piscator introduced to the theater: For the first time ever, a director used conveyor belts on the stage: On one of them Pallenberg as the soldier Schwejk would march endlessly from left to right without ever arriving at the frontlines, on the other one – moving from right to left – other actors and entire sceneries would pass by.
In addition, the entire backdrop of the stage was used as a screen. A politico-satirical cartoon which George Grosz created for this production was projected onto it, thus commenting on the action on stage and drawing parallels to the present time.
The political theatre, which Piscator envisioned and practiced, examined the function of theatre in the world. Piscator believed in theatre as an instrument to develop interpersonal relationships and to relate human beings to their societies, to their environment and to the world around them, on a conscious level. His emphasis was not merely on presenting a political ideology but rather on a continuing investigation and exploration of the individual’s ability to effect change. “The purpose of theatre”, said Piscator, “should not only be to teach us about the creative process, but to teach us of human relations, human behavior and capacities. It is to this task, consciously and unconsciously, suggestively and descriptively, that the theatre is best suited.”
Piscator always looked for material that was suited for the stage. When Theodore Dreiser’s trailblazing novel An American Tragedy was published in 1925, Piscator soon came up with a stage adaptation. Upton Sinclair was another US-writer whom Piscator followed closely. Already in 1920, he had directed Sinclair’s play Prince Hagen. Later, Piscator produced Sinclair’s Singing Jailbirds, a biting satire dealing with the social and political grievances of US society. Eventually, when Piscator fled to the United States, the literature nobel prize winner Sinclair Lewis vouched for him. Lewis had earned his stripes in the socialist school founded by Upton Sinclair and Jack London; with the title character of his novel Babbitt written in 1922, Lewis created the prototype of the middle-class American citizen, describing in great detail the pressure on individuals toward conformity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Babbittry as: “Behaviour and attitudes characteristic of or associated with the character George F. Babbitt; esp. materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.”
In 1936, Piscator emigrated to Paris, where he began the dramatic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and in December of 1938 emigrated to the U.S. Like many of his fellow exiles, Piscator found a new home for his efforts at the New School for Social Research in New York, where he founded and directed (1939 – 1951) the Dramatic Workshop, influencing a generation of actors, directors, and playwrights, such as Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Anthony Franciosa, Ben Gazzara, Walter Matthau, Arthur Miller, Tony Randall, Rod Steiger, Elaine Stritch, Tennessee Williams, and Shelley Winters. From the beginning, his aim was to make “a school that is a theatre and a theatre that is a school” and “to stimulate the development of the repertory theatre as a non-commercial institution of artistic expression.” During his New York years he presented many productions; among them Shakespeare’s King Lear, Klabund’s The Chalk Circle, Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Warren’s All the King’s Men, O’Neill’s Mourning becomes Electra, and Matthew’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Piscator’s political productions served as a catalyst for the emergence of non-commercial theatres Off- and Off-Off-Broadway.
An increasingly hostile political climate generated by Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria, had a seriously debilitating effect on Piscator’s creativity. In October 1951, when he received a summons to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Piscator chose to leave America and return to Germany. Again he had to start all over. He spent the next eleven years as a guest theater director throughout Germany and Europe, until finally, in 1962, the Freie Volksbühne Berlin (Free People’s Theater), appointed him artistic director. Piscator opened the 1963 season with a provocative new play by Rolf Hochhuth titled, The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter), which takes the Catholic Church to task over its silence during the Holocaust. The spectacular success of the play was  followed in 1964 by Heinar Kipphardt’s, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and The Investigation, by Peter Weiss, in 1965, which re-established Piscator’s reputation from his original success in the 1920s.
During the rehearsal of The Rebellion of the Officers, a play By Hans Hellmut Kirst on the attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20th 1944 by German officers, Piscator suffered from renal failure and was taken to a hospital. He lived long enough to see the play open, but died shortly after the premiere, on March 30, 1966 in Starnberg.
Bertolt Brecht once said of him: “Piscator is the greatest theatre man of all time. He will leave a legacy which we should use.”


Other sources:
Piscator rehearsing Richard Strauss’ opera Salome in Florence, Italy in 1964
Maria Ley Piscator in front of the Piscator House in New York City

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