Berliner Ensemble

   The company founded by and for Bertolt Brecht attained international renown in 1954 and 1955 for its prize-winning productions at the "Theater of the Nations" festival in Paris; by the mid-1970s the company was moribund, essentially calcified in its status as a Brecht museum and icon of the East German state. Brecht had the establishment of his own company in mind when he accepted an invitation from Soviet officials and the Kulturbund zur demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands (Cultural League for the Democratic Renewal of Germany) to visit East Berlin in 1948. Authorities of the Socialist Unity party (formed in a 1946 merger between the Communist Party of Germany and eastern caucuses of the Social Democratic Party) had experienced a revelation with Wolfgang Langhoff 's production of Brecht's Fear and Misery in the Third Reich staged in 1948 at the Deutsches Theater; they found in the play valuable political attributes and offered Brecht the resources to restage Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children), which had premiered during World War II in Zurich. Given the opportunity of casting his wife in the title role and codirecting the play with former colleague Erich Engel, Brecht accepted the offer, and the production opened late in that year. The production proved to be such an enormous hit that it was still playing to sold-out houses in October 1949 when the German Democratic Republic was proclaimed into existence.
   Four weeks later, officials of the new republic's Ministry of Popular Education authorized Brecht and Helene Weigel to found the Berliner Ensemble. It became a lavishly subsidized operation, though utterly dependent on "the first peasant and workers' state on German soil," as the GDR grandiloquently described itself. The republic was financially strapped but nevertheless provided money that allowed Brecht extravagantly long periods to rehearse his plays and to mount very few new productions per year. The company was in residence at the Deutsches Theater when in June 1953 street riots broke out in Berlin; after Soviet troops quelled the revolt, Brecht publicly and enthusiastically supported the regime. As a reward for his loyalty, Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble were given a permanent home in 1954 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where the premiere of Brecht and Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) had taken place in 1928.
   Though Brecht was in agreement with the regime's political goals, he opposed with equal fervor its embrace of illusionism and Stanislavskian realism. As a result, he often ran afoul of party dictates and faced accusations of "formalism," accusing him of greater interest in theatrical form than in didactic content. Yet Brecht attracted some of the best talent available throughout the German-speaking world, who recognized in the company a determination to supplant ideas and methods that had held sway in the German theater since Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's day. There was little doubt in the German theater profession that the Berliner Ensemble was among the most innovative anywhere. The influence of the company throughout Europe and the United States was likewise substantial, as artists and scholars began to study Brecht's methods in the numerous Modellbücher the company published. These were profusely illustrated, folio-sized books documenting company productions, presenting in the smallest detail how the company employed Brecht's methods. Party disenchantment persisted, however, until Brecht's death two years later.
   Weigel continued to work along the lines Brecht had stipulated; she had officially been the company's leader anyway, with Brecht merely an artistic adviser. More than half the company's repertoire consisted of Brecht plays and Brecht adaptations, with Gerhart Hauptmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Molière, and Maxim Gorky comprising most of the rest. The company often toured Europe and the
   Soviet Union and did residencies in London on two occasions: in 1956 at the Palace Theater and in 1965 at the National.
   When Weigel died in 1971, Ruth Berghaus assumed leadership of the company, but its slow decline into predictability seemed inevitable. Manfred Wekwerth replaced her in 1977, but increasingly the company relied on old productions, staging new ones ever less frequently. New actors joined the troupe, but often merely as replications of established performers who had for one reason or another departed.
   When the GDR dissolved in the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was intense discussion about ways to preserve Brecht's legacy and ultimately the Berliner Ensemble itself in a newly reunified Germany. At one point there were five directors of the company, each of them vying for a claim ultimately to lead it. Heiner Müller prevailed in 1992 and ran the company until his death in 1995. The company officially dissolved in 1999 but continued under Claus Peymann's directorship as one of Berlin's major cultural centers, the recipient of generous subsidies.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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  • Berliner Ensemble — /bɜˌlɪnər ɒnˈsɒmbəl/ (say ber.linuhr on sombuhl) noun a theatre company founded in 1949 in East Berlin by Bertolt Brecht …   Australian English dictionary

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