Neher, Caspar

(1897-1962)
   Designer. Neher is best remembered as a member of Bertolt Brecht's "inner circle," a close collaborator who participated in several of the triumphs and disappointments in the Brecht portfolio. Neher and Brecht almost literally grew up together, attending the same school in Augsburg. They corresponded throughout World War I, when Neher was in the trenches with an infantry division; he was severely wounded and nearly killed in 1917, but later was commissioned an officer and awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. By the time Neher designed Im Dickicht der Städte (In the Jungle of Cities) for Brecht at the Munich Residenz Theater in 1923, he had already established himself in Berlin with Jürgen Fehling's production of Heinrich von Kleist's Käthchen von Heilbronn (Kathy of Heilbronn) at the Berlin State Theater.
   In early 1924 Neher returned to Munich to design Brecht's Edward II at the Kammerspiele, which Brecht himself directed. Later the same year Max Reinhardt hired Neher as a resident designer at the Deutsches Theater and at the same time hired both Brecht and Carl Zuckmayer as dramaturgs. In 1925 Neher designed sets and costumes for Erich Engel's production of Brecht's Coriolanus at the Lessing Theater. In 1926 he designed the world premiere of Mann ist Mann (A Man's a Man) in Darmstadt, followed by three other productions of the play, the most important of which took place at the Berlin State Theater with Peter Lorre in 1931. The most significant design he executed for Brecht before the Nazi takeover was for Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) in 1928, followed by Happy End the following year. Neher both directed and designed Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) for its Berlin premiere in 1931.
   During the Third Reich, Neher worked in Frankfurt am Main with Walter Felsenstein and in Berlin with Heinz Hilpert, a collaboration which had begun at the Volksbühne in 1932. From 1933 to 1944 Neher designed several Hilpert productions, mostly William Shakespeare and Kleist, both in Berlin and in Vienna at the Theater in der Josephstadt. His most significant design for Hilpert, however, came after the war with the world premiere of Zuckmayer's Des Teufels General (The Devil's General) at the Zurich Schauspielhaus.
   Neher resumed designing Brecht's works in the postwar period with The Threepenny Opera in 1948 at the Munich Kammerspiele. Subsequent designs with Brecht included Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (Mr. Puntila and His Servant Matti, 1949), Die Mutter (The Mother, 1950), Der Hofmeister (The Tutor, 1950), and Die Verurteilung des Lukullus (The Trial of Lucullus, 1951). Neher quit working in East Berlin in 1952, largely due to political forces beyond his control. Late in 1952 Neher asked Brecht for his understanding, but communications between the long-time friends stopped. In the following years, Neher worked in West Berlin, at the Salzburg Festival, and in England, even while the Berliner Ensemble did a residence at the Palace Theater in London, absent any of Neher's design work in the productions staged there.
   After Brecht's death in 1956 there was a scramble for royalties on several collaborative efforts, but Neher in most cases was excluded from financial considerations. A November production of Die Tage der Kommune (Days of the Commune), staged by Benno Besson, used Neher's designs without his permission. In 1957, Engel staged Das Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo) with Neher's designs and participation, but Neher by that time remained focused on activities in Salzburg and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he designed Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth. In 1959, Gustaf Gründgens premiered Brecht's Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (St. Joan of the Stockyards) at the Hamburg Deutsches Schauspielhaus with Neher's design, 30 years after Neher and Brecht had originally discussed and planned the project.
   Neher had a significant impact on design in the postwar period. He embraced a self-referentiality in design that supplanted illusionism. He had an ability, cultivated in his collaborations with Brecht, to see a playwright's text in concrete terms, "then use his controlled sensitivity to line and color [and] set them down . . . as supplements to the words in the script" (John Willett, Caspar Neher: Brecht's Designer [London: Methuen, 1986], 31). Yet Neher was never so rational in his designs as to make spectacle didactic. Though he employed realistic touches, his emphasis was on the theatrical and the exploitation of scenic stratagems. Frequently the screens, lighting, or abstract details he provided were functional, but they also provided the proper mood or atmosphere required in the scene.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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