Erwin Piscator

Photograph: Erwin Piscator, director
Erwin Piscator: Portrait photograph, 1930, Photographer: unknown
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Erwin Piscator

In Rußland wurde mir der Todesstoß versetzt – (indirekte Folgen Hitlers). Künstlerische und politische Ohnmacht. Frankreich – trotz Namen – 2 Jahre Null! ...Amerika: kein Landen möglich! Die Bedingungen waren unmöglich, auch meine pers[önliche]Unfähigkeit mich anzupassen! 14 Jahre Todeskampf. Deutschland ab [19]51 – ...tot... Aber es dauerte noch 5 Jahre bis zum definitiven Ende. Dantons Tod wurde verspätet der Meine.

[Russia dealt me a deadly blow – (indirect consequences of Hitler). Artistic and political impotence. France – despite the name – 2 years of nothing! ...America: impossible to touch down! The conditions were impossible, even with my pers[onal]inability to conform! 14 years of mortal combat. Germany from [19]51 onwards – ...dead... But it took 5 more years to reach a definitive end. Danton's death became my own. (ed. trans.)]

Erwin Piscator, Tagebuch Nr. 16, 1956

Bornon 17 December 1893 in Ulm, Germany
Diedon 30 March 1966 in Starnberg, Germany
ExileSoviet Union, France, United States of America
RemigrationFederal Republic of Germany
ProfessionTheater director, Film director

As a producer in the theatres of Berlin, Erwin Piscator made intensive use of materials. He used large iron structures, projected films or motorised bridges. At the Piscator Stage, the venue he founded in 1927, he also tried to politically activate his audience according to the principle of epic theatre. The theatre was intended as an arena for the class struggle.

In 1931, the director travelled to the Soviet Union to make a film. When Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich in 1933, Piscator, whose avant-garde art was unpopular with the Nazis, was both unable and had no desire to return to Germany. The committed Communist remained in the Soviet Union until 1936. Costly, large-format productions – like those he had made in Berlin – were not easy to implement in exile. Sobered by Stalinism and disappointed by the lack of production opportunities available to him as an emigrant, Piscator moved to France.

After Piscator was also unable to build upon his successes from the Weimar period in France, he emigrated to the USA in 1938. There he hoped to finally find the recognition he wanted and to found an influential acting school. However, his political conception of theatre aroused mistrust. Like his colleague Hanns Eisler, he was also summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951. This was a further disappointment for Piscator which triggered his return to Germany directly after receiving the summons. After initial difficulties he regained his position as a successful director and contributed significantly to processing the Nazi past through the medium of theatre. He produced plays that dealt with the responsibility of the individual within a dictatorship, such as the documentary-based play The Investigation by Peter Weiss, which premiered in several German cities in 1965 and took the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt as its subject.

Selected works:
Storm Tide (Sturmflut, production, 1926)
Hoppla, Were Alive! (Hoppla, wir leben, production, 1927)
Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise, production, 1952)
War and Peace (Krieg und Frieden, production, 1955)
Refugee Conversations (Flüchtlingsgespräche, production, 1962)

Further reading:
Kirfel-Lenk, Thea: Erwin Piscator im Exil in den USA 1939-1951. Eine Darstellung seiner antifaschistischen Theaterarbeit am Dramatic Workshop der New School for Social Research. Berlin: Henschel 1984
Piscator, Erwin: Das politische Theater. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt 1979