Piscator, Erwin

(1893-1966)
   Director. Piscator's experience of frontline duty in World War I had a lifetime impact on his work. The German army drafted Piscator into infantry service when he was a student in Munich, and the daily experience on the Western Front of violent death, filth, and dread had profound repercussions. Though he was relieved of direct battle duties in 1917 and became a leader of a military theater troupe (often playing female characters, such as the title role in Brandon Thomas's Charley's Aunt), he returned to Berlin from the trenches determined to become a theater artist who could enlist theater as an art form in service to political and social change. In the process, he changed the theater by creating a new sense of mass-media performance, made possible through the implementation of technology.
   Piscator joined the German Communist Party in 1919 and began working with Richard Hülsenbeck (1892-1974), Karl-Heinz Martin, Wieland Herzfeld (1896-1988), Herzfeld's brother John Heart-field (1891-1968), and Georg Grosz to stage "alternative theater" under the rubric "Kunst ist Scheisse!" (Art is shit!). Later the same year, he departed for Königsberg, where he planned to establish a troupe dedicated to the presentation of "propaganda and agitation," or "agitprop" in the terminology borrowed from the Bolsheviks. His ultimate goal at the time was to employ theater in fomenting German revolution similar to the one the Bolsheviks had carried out in Russia two years earlier. He returned a year later to Berlin, where he joined the "Proletarian Theater" troupe, doing agitprop plays in union halls and on the street in working-class neighborhoods. Piscator's experiences with this troupe included the accidental invention of "epic theater," he later stated. It developed from necessity, when Heartfield failed to show up with the required scenery. Piscator substituted a large, hastily sketched map to inform the audience where the action was set. Proletarian audiences greeted the Proletarian Theater with indifference, and police frequently broke up their performances.
   Piscator next tried working in Berlin's small Central Theater, which Hans-José Rehfisch (1891-1960) had leased in 1922. With Rehfisch, he directed three plays that resulted in his Berlin breakthrough: Maxim Gorky's Philistines, Romain Rolland's The Time Will Come, and Leo Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness. Critics praised Piscator's modest productions of them, and in 1924 Friedrich Kayssler hired Piscator to direct at the Berlin Volksbühne. His first production there was Alfons Paquet's Fahnen (Flags), the first that Piscator publicly labeled "epic." Paquet was not a playwright but a journalist who had assembled a kind of documentary script dramatizing the 1877 Chicago street riot, after which several anarchists were executed for their perceived complicity in the event. Piscator eschewed anything American in the production but added projections on upstage screens to establish the social context of the play. Critics found little to praise in it, but Volksbühne audiences found it riveting.
   Piscator then staged two revues for the German Communist Party, but party officials insisted that no "epic" devices be used in them. He returned to the Volksbühne to direct Eugene O'Neill's Moon of the Caribbees, which critics found much to their liking. His next two productions, however, enraged critics. The first was an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller's Die Räuber (The Robbers); the second was Ehm Welk's Gewitter über Gotland (Storm over Gothland), featuring medieval fishermen who looked curiously like Lenin, Trotsky, and other Russian revolutionaries. He also used filmstrips of World War I sea battles, harbors, and sailors. Despite critical opprobrium, Piscator attracted widespread admiration from middle-class leftists in Berlin, who began contributing money to help Piscator lease his own theater.
   With the help of Tilla Durieux, Piscator leased the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in 1927, renamed it the Piscator-Bühne, and opened his first season with a stunning series of productions that remain among the most remarkable in 20th-century German theater. The first was Ernst Toller's Hoppla, wir leben (Hurrah, We Live!), for which Piscator presented lengthy newsreels of events taken over the 10-year period in which the play's action takes place. Actors provided a documentary "feel" to the performance by engaging in dialogue that acknowledged the presence of the film images, since the Nollendorf facility provided a technical apparatus more advanced than had the Volksbühne. Critical and audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, allowing Piscator (and his designer Traugott Müller) to mount an even more elaborate production for his next offering in 1927, Rasputin. This production featured a globe-shaped structure situated center stage that served the dual functions of both film screen and stage unit. It contained several acting areas, and as it revolved, the different areas revealed a host of actors playing in what Piscator called "the destiny of Europe, from 1914 to 1917." Like the Toller play, Rasputin created a sensation and earned him enough funding to mount his most successful production yet, Die Abenteuer des guten Soldats Schweyk (The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik). In it, Piscator (this time with the designs of Grosz) employed projections, filmstrips, conveyor belts, cutout figures, and set pieces in a satirical caricature of Schweik, the "good soldier" of World War I who hilariously survives one disaster after another, only to die in the end. It was Piscator's greatest triumph, one he never equaled.
   Piscator left Germany in 1931 for Moscow, where he hoped to make films; he met with Josef Stalin about the project and hoped to convince him of the need for a German-style Volksbühne in Moscow. Nothing came of the discussions, however, and Piscator left in 1936 for Paris, where he hoped to finish a large-scale dramatization of Tolstoy's War and Peace. In 1938 he moved on to New York and accepted an invitation to set up the "Dramatic Workshop" at the New School for Social Research, where students were mostly adults who had fled Europe and had been granted asylum status. He remained in New York for the next 12 years, and his students eventually included Marlon Brando, Shelley Winters, and several other young Americans who later became well known.
   In 1951 Piscator returned to West Germany with little prospect of reestablishing himself as a director. His first efforts took place in small provincial theaters and among student groups. Audiences found his work stimulating, however, despite his widely condemned background as a Communist and his perceived sympathies with Stalin. Piscator's staging of The Robbers in Mannheim, Georg Kaiser's Gas I and Gas II in Bochum, and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in Berlin attracted widespread attention, and in 1962 he was appointed intendant of the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin (refurbished after its destruction in World War II to countervail the original Volksbühne, which was in East Berlin).
   At the Freie Volksbühne, he initiated his tenure with sensational controversy and ushered in a new trend in German dramaturgy called "documentary theater." It was not really new at all, since many of his productions in the 1920s had been based on documentary evidence employed in performance, but the aftermath of World War II provided an urgency to Piscator's "documentary" efforts. The first of his productions was Rolf Hochhuth's Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), loosely based on reports about the complicity of Pope Pius XII in German war crimes. The next year, Pis-cator presented In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer (In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer) by Heinar Kipphardt (1922-1982), and in 1965 Peter Weiss's Die Ermittlung (The Investigation). The Weiss play was composed almost entirely of testimony about investigations into the Auschwitz extermination camp. Characters recited original testimony, identified by names of the original defendants. The Kipphardt play was likewise based on investigative proceedings, culled from hearings that probed the loyalty of Oppenheimer both when he helped develop the atomic bomb during World War II and when he declined to work on thermonuclear weapons after the war. All three playwrights claimed to be "documenting" events in history, and Piscator insisted that the theater was a valid forum for such deliberations. Both Piscator and the playwrights failed to acknowledge the fictional quality of the undertakings, especially since all of the material employed in the performances was selective and the product of extraction for the purpose of theatrical effectiveness, if not directly or obviously for political emphasis. Political emphases, however, were never far from Piscator's intentions throughout his career as a director. Through five tumultuous decades, he retained to the end the idealistic conviction that theater could effect change in political convictions and viewpoints.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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  • Piscator, Erwin — ▪ German dramatist born December 17, 1893, Ulm, Germany died March 30, 1966, Starnberg, West Germany       theatrical producer and director famed for his ingenious Expressionistic (Expressionism) staging techniques. He was the originator of the… …   Universalium

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