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Erwin Piscator, circa.
1927.


Erwin Friedrich Maximilian Piscator (17 December, 1893 in Greifensteinmarker-Ulm – 30 March, 1966 in Starnbergmarker) was a Germanmarker theatre director and producer who, with Bertolt Brecht, was the foremost exponent of epic theatre, a form that emphasizes the sociopolitical content of drama, rather than its emotional manipulation of the audience or on the production's formal beauty.

Biography

Youth and wartime experience

The Volksbühne Berlin, scene of Piscator's early successes as a stage director in 1924
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. In 1913 he studied theatre history with Arthur Kutscher in his famous seminar at Munich Universitymarker (which Bertolt Brecht was also later to attend). 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.

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 participated in the First Battle of Ypresmarker and suffered at least one hospitalization, he was eventually assigned to an army theatre unit. In November 1918, when the armistice was declared, Piscator gave a speech in Hasseltmarker at the first meeting of a revolutionary Soldier's Council (soviet).

Early success in the Weimar Republic

In collaboration with the writer Hans Rehfisch, he formed a "proletarian Volksbühne" in Berlin (a rival to the Volksbühnemarker) at the Comedy-Theater on Alte Jacobsstrasse, where, in 1922-1923, they staged works by Maxim Gorky, Romain Rolland and Leo Tolstoy. As stage director at the Volksbühnemarker (1924–1927), and later as managing director at his own theatre (the Piscator-Bühnemarker on Nollendorfplatzmarker), Piscator 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 stirred up controversy at the distinguished Preußisches Staatstheatermarker 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 (though short-lived) Piscator-Bühne in Berlin in 1927. In 1928 he produced a notable adaptation of the Czechmarker novel The Good Soldier Schweik. Bertolt Brecht was part of the dramaturgical collective that produced the adaptation of the unfinished episodic comic novel, which Brecht later described as a "montage from the novel". In 1929 Piscator published his own work of theatre theory, The Political Theatre. In the preface to its 1963 edition, Piscator wrote that the book was "assembled in hectic sessions during rehearsals for The Merchant of Berlin" by Walter Mehring, which had opened on 6 September 1929 at the second Piscator-Bühne. It was intended to provide "a definitive explanation and elucidation of the basic facts of epic, i.e., political theater", which, at that time, "was still meeting with widespread rejection and misapprehension." Three decades later, Piscator felt that:

International work, emigration and late productions in West Germany

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The Freie Volksbühne Berlin, which was managed by Piscator from 1962 until his death
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. As John Willett put it, throughout the pre-Hitler years Piscator's "commitment to the Russian Revolution was a decisive factor in all his work." With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Piscator's stay in the Soviet Unionmarker 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." In 1937 he married dancer Maria Ley in Paris. Bertolt Brecht was one of the groomsmen.

In 1936, Piscator had 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 Broadwaymarker. When Piscator and Ley subsequently migrated to the United Statesmarker in 1939, Piscator was invited by Alvin Johnson, the founding president of The New School, to found a theatre Workshop. Among Piscator's students at this “Dramatic Workshop“ in New York were Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Judith Malina, Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte, Elaine Stritch and Tennessee Williams.

Piscator returned to West Germanymarker in 1951 due to McCarthy era political pressure. He was appointed manager and director of the Freie Volksbühne in West-Berlin in 1962. To much international critical acclaim, in 1963 Piscator premièred Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy, a play "about Pope Pius XII and the allegedly neglected rescue of Italian Jews from Nazi gas chambers." Until his death in 1966, Piscator was a major exponent of contemporary and documentary theatre. Piscator's wife, Maria Ley, died in New York city in 1999.

Impact on theatre

In lieu of private themes we had generalisation, in lieu of what was special the typical, in lieu of accident causality. Decorativeness gave way to constructedness, Reason was put on a par with Emotion, while sensuality was replaced by didacticism and fantasy by documentary reality.
Erwin Piscator, 1929.
Piscator's contribution to theatre has been described by theatre historian Günther Rühle as "the boldest advance made by the German stage" during the 20th century. Piscator's theatre techniques of the 1920s—such as the extensive use of still and cinematic 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 theatre. In the Federal Republic of Germany, Piscator's interventionist theatre 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 theatre 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.

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



Films

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


References

Literature

  • Connelly, Stacey Jones: Forgotten debts: Erwin Piscator and the epic theatre. Bloomington: Indiana University 1991.
  • Innes, Christopher D.: Erwin Piscator's Political Theatre: the Development of Modern German Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1972.
  • Ley-Piscator, Maria: The Piscator Experiment. The Political Theatre. New York: James H. Heineman 1967.
  • McAlpine, Sheila: Visual Aids in the Productions of the First Piscator-Bühne, 1927-28. Frankfurt, Bern, New York etc: Lang 1990.
  • Piscator, Erwin. 1929. The Political Theatre. Trans. Hugh Rorrison. London: Methuen, 1980. ISBN 0-413-33500-3.
  • Probst, Gerhard F.: Erwin Piscator and the American Theatre. New York, San Francisco, Bern etc. 1991.
  • Rorrison, Hugh: Erwin Piscator: Politics on the Stage in the Weimar Republic. Cambridge, Alexandria VA 1987.
  • Willett, John. 1967. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. Third rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1977. ISBN 0-413-34360-X.
  • ---. 1978. Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917-1933. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. ISBN 0-306-80724-6.
  • ---. 1978. The Theatre of Erwin Piscator: Half a Century of Politics in the Theatre. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-37810-1.


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