Erwin Piscator

Erwin Friedrich Maximilian Piscator (17 December 1893 – 30 March 1966) was a German theatre director and producer and, along with Bertolt Brecht, the foremost exponent of epic theatre, a form that emphasizes the socio-political content of drama, rather than its emotional manipulation of the audience or the production's formal beauty.[2]

Erwin Piscator
Portrait of Piscator, c. 1927
Erwin Friedrich Max Piscator

(1893-12-17)17 December 1893
Died30 March 1966(1966-03-30) (aged 72)
OccupationTheatre director, producer
Known forFounded the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research (1940).
Notable work
The Political Theatre (1929)
StyleEpic Theatre, Documentary theatre
Spouse(s)Hildegard Jurczyk (m. 1919)[1]
Maria Ley (m. 1937)
Partner(s)Bertolt Brecht
RelativesJohannes Piscator


Youth and wartime experience

Erwin Friedrich Max Piscator was born on 17 December 1893 in the small Prussian village of Greifenstein-Ulm, the son of Carl Piscator, a merchant, and his wife Antonia Laparose.[3] His family was descended from Johannes Piscator, a Protestant theologian who produced an important translation of the Bible in 1600.[4] The family moved to the university town Marburg in 1899 where Piscator attended the Gymnasium Philippinum. In the autumn of 1913, he attended a private Munich drama school and enrolled at University of Munich to study German, philosophy and art history. Piscator also took Arthur Kutscher's famous seminar in theatre history which Bertolt Brecht was also later to attend.[5] He began his acting career in the autumn of 1914, in small unpaid roles at the Munich Court Theatre, under the directorship of Ernst von Possart. In 1896, Karl Lautenschläger had installed one of the world's first revolving stages in that theatre.[6]

During the First World War Piscator was drafted into the German army, serving in a frontline infantry unit as a Landsturm soldier from the spring of 1915 (and later as a signaller). The experience inspired a hatred of militarism and war that lasted for the rest of his life, as well as a few bitter poems, published in 1915 and 1916 in the left-wing Expressionist literary magazine Die Aktion. In summer 1917, having participated in the battles at Ypres Salient and been in hospital once, he was assigned to a newly established army theatre unit. In November 1918, when the armistice was declared, Piscator gave a speech in Hasselt at the first meeting of a revolutionary Soldiers' Council (Soviet).[6]

Early success in the Weimar Republic

In collaboration with the writer Hans José Rehfisch, he formed a theatre company in Berlin at the Comedy-Theater on Alte Jacobsstrasse, following the Volksbühne ("people's stage") concept, where in 1922–1923 they staged works by Maxim Gorky, Romain Rolland and Leo Tolstoy.[7] As stage director at the Volksbühne (1924–1927), and later as managing director at his own theatre (the Piscator-Bühne on Nollendorfplatz), 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 at the distinguished Preußisches Staatstheater in Berlin provoked widespread controversy. 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 with 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 unfinished episodic comic Czech novel The Good Soldier Schweik. The dramaturgical collective that produced this adaptation included Bertolt Brecht.[8] Brecht later described it as a "montage from the novel".[9] Leo Lania's play Konjunktur (Oil Boom) premiered in Berlin in 1928, directed by Erwin Piscator, with incidental music by Kurt Weill. Three oil companies fight over the rights to oil production in a primitive Balkan country, and in the process exploit the people and destroy the environment. Weill's songs from this play, like Die Muschel von Margate are still part of the modern repertoire of art music.[10]

In 1929 Piscator published his own work on the theory of theatre, The Political Theatre.[11] 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.[12] It was intended to provide "a definitive explanation and elucidation of the basic facts of epic, i.e. political theatre", which at that time "was still meeting with widespread rejection and misapprehension."[12] Three decades later, Piscator felt that:

International work, emigration and late productions in West Germany

In 1931, after the collapse of the third Piscator-Bühne, Piscator went to Moscow in order to make the motion picture Revolt of the Fishermen with actor Aleksei Dikiy for Mezhrabpom, the Soviet film company associated with the International Workers' Relief Organisation.[14] 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."[15] With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Piscator's stay in the Soviet Union became exile.[16] In July 1936, Piscator left the Soviet Union for France. In 1937, he married dancer Maria Ley in Paris. Bertolt Brecht was one of the groomsmen.

During his years in Berlin, 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 had run for 19 performances on Broadway in 1936. When Piscator and Ley subsequently migrated to the United States in 1939, Piscator was invited by Alvin Johnson, the founding president of The New School, to establish a theatre workshop. Among Piscator's students at this Dramatic Workshop in New York were Bea Arthur, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Ben Gazzara, Judith Malina, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, Elaine Stritch, Eli Wallach, Jack Creley and Tennessee Williams.[17]

Piscator returned to West Germany in 1951 due to McCarthy era political pressure.[18] He was appointed manager and director of the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin in 1962. To much international critical acclaim, in February 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."[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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 Germans' Nazi past and on other timely issues made Piscator the inspirer of a mnemonic and documentary theatre from 1962 on. Piscator's stage adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace[22] has been played in some 16 countries since 1955, including three productions in New York.

In 1980 a monumental sculpture by Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi was dedicated to Piscator in central London.[23] 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 United States and Europe. In 2016, a Piscator monument has been raised in his birthplace Greifenstein-Ulm.[24]

Piscator's artistic remains are held by the archive of the Academy of Arts, Berlin (since 1966) and the Southern Illinois University Carbondale (Morris Library, since 1971).[25]

Broadway Productions


  • Revolt of the Fishermen (Восстание рыбаков). Director: Erwin Piscator, Book: Georgi Grebner, Willy Döll, Producer: Mikhail Doller, USSR 1932–1934.


  • Piscator, Erwin. 1929. The Political Theatre. A History 1914–1929. Translated by Hugh Rorrison. New York: Avon, 1978. ISBN 978-0-380401-88-8 (= London: Methuen, 1980. ISBN 978-0-413335-00-5).
  • The ReGroup Theatre Company (ed.): The "Lost" Group Theatre Plays. Volume 3. The House of Connelly, Johnny Johnson, & Case of Clyde Griffiths. By Paul Green and Erwin Piscator. Prefaces by Judith Malina & William Ivey Long. New York, NY: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-484150-13-9.
  • Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Adapted for the Stage by Alfred Neumann, Erwin Piscator and Guntram Prüfer. English Adaptation by Robert David MacDonald. Preface by Bamber Gascoigne. London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1963.


  • 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. ISBN 0-8093-0458-9.
  • Malina, Judith. The Piscator Notebook. London: Routledge Chapman & Hall 2012. ISBN 0-415-60073-1.
  • McAlpine, Sheila. Visual Aids in the Productions of the First Piscator-Bühne, 1927–28. Frankfurt, Bern, New York etc.: Lang 1990.
  • 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.
  • Wannemacher, Klaus. Moving Theatre Back to the Spotlight: Erwin Piscator’s Later Stage Work. In: The Great European Stage Directors. Vol. 2. Meyerhold, Piscator, Brecht. Ed. by David Barnett. London etc.: Bloomsbury (Methuen Drama) 2018, pp. 91–129. ISBN 1-474-25411-X.
  • Willett, John. The Theatre of Erwin Piscator: Half a Century of Politics in the Theatre. London: Methuen 1978. ISBN 0-413-37810-1.


  1. (in German)
  2. Piscator, Erwin. Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge, volume 15, copyright 1991. Grolier Inc., ISBN 0-7172-5300-7
  3. Willett, John. 1978. The Theatre of Erwin Piscator: Half a Century of Politics in the Theatre. London: Methuen. pg 13.
  4. Willett (1978, 42).
  5. Willett (1978, 43)
  6. Willett (1978, 43).
  7. Willett (1978, 15–16, 46–47).
  8. Willett (1978, 90–95).
  9. See Brecht's Journal entry for 24 June 1943. Brecht claimed in his Journal entry to have written the adaptation, but Piscator contested that; the manuscript bears the names "Brecht, Gasbarra, Piscator, G. Grosz" in Brecht's handwriting (John Willett. 1978. Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917–1933. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996, 110). Brecht wrote another Schweik drama in 1943, Schweik in the Second World War.
  10. The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music's Documentation on Muschel von Margate
  11. Piscator (1929).
  12. Piscator (1929, vi).
  13. Piscator (1929, vii).
  14. Gerhard F. Probst: Erwin Piscator and the American Theatre. New York etc.: Peter Lang, 1991, p. 7. ISBN 0-8204-1591-X
  15. 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.
  16. Hermann Haarmann: Politisches Theater im Geiste der Polis. Die späte Heimkehr des Erwin Piscator. In: Freie Volksbühne Berlin 1890–1990. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Volksbühnenbewegung in Berlin. Ed. by Dietger Pforte. Berlin: Argon 1990. Pp. 195–210, p. 195.
  17. Willett (1978, 166).
  18. Alexander Stephan: Im Visier des FBI. Deutsche Exilschriftsteller in den Akten amerikanischer Geheimdienste. Stuttgart, Weimar 1995, p. 373.
  19. Gerhard F. Probst: Erwin Piscator and the American Theatre. New York etc.: Peter Lang, 1991, p. 19. ISBN 0-8204-1591-X
  20. From a speech given on 25 March 1929, and reproduced in Schriften 2 p.50; Quoted by Willett (1978, 107).
  21. Günther Rühle: Erwin Piscator: Dream and Achievement, 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.
  22. Leo Tolstoy. War and peace. Adapted for the stage by Alfred Neumann, Erwin Piscator and Guntram Prüfer. London: Macgibbon & Kee 1963.
  23. Piscator – The Making of Eduardo Paolozzi's Euston Square Sculpture. Director: Murray Grigor. Inverkeithing: Everallin 1984 (documentary film).
  24. Erwin Piscator Monument (in German), Greifenstein-Ulm website
  25. Archive Performing Art at Academy of Arts, Berlin (in German), website, Erwin Piscator Papers, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, website
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