Erwin Piscator

Erwin Piscator

Erwin Friedrich Maximilian Piscator (17 December, 1893 in Greifenstein-Ulm – 30 March, 1966) was a German theatre director and producer who, with Bertolt Brecht, was the foremost exponent of epic theater, a form that emphasizes the sociopolitical context of a play, rather focusing on its emotional manipulation of the audience or on the production's formal beauty. ["Piscator, Erwin." Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge, volume 15, copyright 1991. Grolier Inc., ISBN 0-7172-5300-7 ]


Piscator came from a middle-class family in Hesse-Nassau; he was descended from Johannes Piscator, a protestant theologian who produced an important translation of the Bible in 1600. [Willett (1978, 42).] In 1913 he studied theatre history with Arthur Kutscher in his famous seminar at Munich University (which Bertolt Brecht was also later to attend). [Willett (1978, 43) and Thomson (1994, 24).] He began his acting career that same year, working on small roles as an unpaid actor at the Bavarian Court Theatre, under the directorship of Ernst von Possart. It was during this time that Karl Lautenschläger installed one of the world's first revolving stages at that theatre.Willett (1978, 43).]

During the First World War Piscator was drafted into the German army, serving in a front-line infantry unit as a signaller from the spring of 1915. The experience inspired a hatred of militarism and war that lasted for the rest of his life, as well as a small number of bitter poems, which were published in 1915 and 1916 in the left-wing Expressionist literary magazine, "Die Aktion". In the summer of 1917, having participating in the First Battle of Ypres and suffered at least one hospitalization, he was eventually assigned to a army theatre unit. In November 1918, when the armistice was declared, where he gave a speech in Hasselt at the first meeting of the revolutionary Soldier's Council (soviet).

In collaboration with the writer Hans Rehfisch, he formed a "proletarian Volksbühne" (a rival to the Volksbühne) at the Comedy-Theater on Alte Jacobsstrasse, where, in 1922-1923, they staged works by Maxim Gorky, Romain Rolland and Leo Tolstoy. [See John Willett, "The Theatre of Erwin Piscator: Half a Century of Politics in the Theatre", London: Methuen, 1978 (p.15-16, 46-47). ISBN 0413378101.] As stage director at the Volksbühne (1924–1927), and later as managing director at his own theater (on Nollendorfplatz), he produced social and political plays especially suited to his theories. His dramatic aims were utilitarian—to influence voters or clarify left-wing policies. He used mechanized sets, lectures, movies, and mechanical devices that appealed to his audiences. In 1926, his updated production of Friedrich Schiller's "The Robbers" ("Die Räuber") stirred up controversy at the distinguished Preußisches Staatstheater in Berlin. Piscator cut the text heavily and reinterpreted it as a vehicle for his political beliefs. He presented the protagonist Karl Moor as a substantially self-absorbed insurgent. As Karl's foil, Piscator made the character of Spiegelberg, often presented as a sinister figure, the voice of the working-class revolution. Spiegelberg appeared as a Trotskyist intellectual, slightly reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin in his cane and bowler hat. As he died, the audience heard "The Internationale" sung.

Piscator founded the influential, but short-lived Piscator-Bühne in Berlin in 1927. In 1928 he produced a notable adaptation of the Czech novel "The Good Soldier Schweik". As British Brecht expert John Willett put it, throughout the pre-Hitler years Piscator's "commitment to the Russian Revolution was a decisive factor in all his work." [John Willett: Introduction, in: Erwin Piscator. 1893-1966. An Exhibition by the Archiv der Akademie der Künste Berlin, in cooperation with the Goethe Institute. Ed. by Walter Huder. London 1979, p. 1-4, p.1.] In 1931, after the collapse of the third Piscator-Bühne, Piscator went to Moscow in order to make a motion picture for Mezhrabpom, the Soviet film company associated with the International Workers' Relief Organisation. [Gerhard F. Probst: Erwin Piscator and the American Theatre. New York etc.: Peter Lang, 1991, p. 7. ISBN 0-8204-1591-X ] With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Piscator's stay in the Soviet Union became political asylum. After his years in the Soviet Union, Piscator, whose exit from the USSR in 1936 "has been described as 'fugitive', had no wish to work under a Communist dictatorship again." [Christopher D. Innes: Erwin Piscator's Political Theatre: the Development of Modern German Drama. Cambridge 1972, p. 7.] In 1937 he married dancer Maria Ley in Paris. Bertolt Brecht attended their wedding.

When Piscator and Ley subsequently emigrated to the United States in 1939, Piscator was not received as a stranger. In 1936, he had already collaborated with Lena Goldschmidt on a stage adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's bestselling novel "An American Tragedy". Under the title "The Case of Clyde Griffiths" and with Lee Strasberg as director, it ran for 19 performances on Broadway. In New York City Piscator became director of the Dramatic Workshop which he founded at the New School for Social Research in 1940. Among Piscator's students at the Dramatic Workshop were Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Judith Malina, Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte, Elaine Stritch and Tennessee Williams. [Thomas George Evans: Piscator in the American Theatre. New York, 1939-1951. Wisconsin: University 1968.]

Piscator had to return to West Germany during the McCarthy era in 1951. He was appointed manager and director of the Freie Volksbühne in West-Berlin in 1962. To much international critical acclaim, Piscator premiered the controversial play "The Deputy" by Rolf Hochhuth "about Pope Pius XII and the allegedly neglected rescue of Italian Jews from Nazi gas chambers" [Gerhard F. Probst: Erwin Piscator and the American Theatre. New York etc.: Peter Lang, 1991, p. 19. ISBN 0-8204-1591-X ] in 1963. Until his death in 1966, Piscator became a major exponent of contemporary and Documentary theatre. Piscator's wife, Maria Ley, died in New York city in 1999.

Impact on theater

Piscator's contribution to theater has been described by theater historian Günther Rühle as "the boldest advance made by the German stage" during the 20th century. [Günther Rühle: Erwin Piscator: Dream and Achievenent, in: Erwin Piscator. 1893-1966. An Exhibition by the Archiv der Akademie der Künste Berlin, in cooperation with the Goethe Institute. Ed. by Walter Huder. London 1979, p. 12-19, p. 16.] Piscator's theater techniques of the 1920s such as the extensive use of picture and film projections from 1925 on as well as complex scaffold stages had an extensive influence on European and American production methods. His dramaturgy of contrasts led to sharp political satirical effects and anticipated the commentary techniques of epic theater. In the Federal Republic of Germany, Piscator's interventionist theater model experienced a late second zenith. Several productions trying to come to terms with the German's Nazi past and on other timely issues made Piscator the inspirer of a mnemonic and documentary theater from 1963 on. Piscator's stage adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel "War and Peace" has been played in some 16 countries since 1955, including three productions in New York.

Erwin Piscator Award

In the fall of 1985, an Erwin Piscator Award was inaugurated that is annually being awarded in New York, the adopted city of Piscator's second wife Maria Ley. Additionally, a Piscator Prize of Honors has been annually awarded to generous patrons of art and culture in commemoration of Maria Ley since 1996. The host of the Erwin Piscator Award is the international non-profit organisation "Elysium − between two continents" that aims at fostering artistic and academic dialogue and exchange between the USA and Europe.

Work on Broadway

* Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, "Nathan the Wise" (Belasco Theatre, 1942)


* "Revolt of the Fishermen" (Vosstaniye rybakov). Director: Erwin Piscator, Book: Georgi Grebner, Willy Döll, Producer: Michail Doller, USSR 1932-1934.



* Willett, John. 1967. "The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects." Third rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1977. ISBN 041334360X.
* ---. 1978. "Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917-1933". New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. ISBN 0306807246.
* ---. 1978. "The Theatre of Erwin Piscator: Half a Century of Politics in the Theatre". London: Methuen. ISBN 0413378101.

External links

* [ Internet Movie Database]
* [ Information on the annual Erwin Piscator Award]

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