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date: 24 September 2023

Piscator, Erwin

The Companion to Theatre and Performance

Piscator, Erwin 


German director who, together with *Brecht, developed *epic theatre. Piscator is credited with inventing *documentary drama, the political *revue, and many scenic devices. Drafted into the German Front Theatre in 1915, like many others Piscator was disillusioned and radicalized by the destruction and propaganda of the war, as well as by the complicity of capitalist industry, the art establishment, and the Church. In 1918 he joined the Berlin *dadaists in several leftist events, then founded the Proletarian Theatre (1920–1), producing plays by *Gorky and *satirical *agitprop works such as Russia's Day (1920), which combined projections and posters of documentary material, narration, songs, and actors playing cartoon-like stereotypes, devices he would later identify as epic.

In 1924 Piscator was invited by the Berlin *Volksbühne to direct Fahnen (Flags) and the Rowdy Red Revue. In Spite of Everything (1925) regularly filled the 3,500 seats at the Grosses Schauspielhaus, re-enacting historical events from 1914 to the 1919 crushing of the Spartakus Revolution, using film footage from the national archives and other epic devices. Piscator's international reputation was made with four productions in 1927–8 at the new Piscatorbühne: Hoppla, Wir Leben! (Hoppla, We're Alive!), Rasputin, Boom, and Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik. The last was adapted from Jaroslav Hašek's Czech novel: Brecht helped write the script and George Grosz's animated cartoons, life-size *puppets, and cut-out set pieces appeared with live actors on the conveyor-belt stage. Piscator's The Political Theatre (1929) outlines his theory of epic theatre and the discoveries made in practice.

He fled Germany in 1931, first to Russia, then Paris, and in 1938 to New York, where he founded the Dramatic Workshop in the New School for Social Research, and taught, most notably, Tennessee *Williams and Judith *Malina. Although Brecht offered him a position at the *Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin after the war, Piscator instead moved to West Germany in 1951, where he first worked freelance and then became *artistic director of the West Berlin Freie Volksbühne in 1962. He mounted a courageous version of The Merchant of Venice the next year that looked forthrightly at Germany's responsibility for the Jewish Holocaust, and highly influential productions in the documentary epic style, including the premières of *Hochhuth's The Representative (1963), Heinar *Kippardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964), and *Weiss's The Investigation (1965). Piscator's work also inspired a new generation of political directors, including *Stein, *Littlewood, *Mnouchkine, *Strehler, and *Boal.

Sarah Bryant-Bertail