Erwin Piscator Biography

Erwin Piscator was born Erwin Friedrich Maximillian Piscator on 17 December 1893 in the German state of Prussia. Like Brecht, Piscator studied at Munich University. He began acting for the theatre in 1914, but was soon drafted to the front line during World War I. 

After the war, Piscator staged works at various Berlin theatres during the 1920s, first at the Volksbühne, before co-founding a company at the Comedy-Theatre, and finally his own theatre, the Piscator-Bühne. Piscator was a Marxist and quickly directed plays where he was able to stage productions in a way that supported his left wing principles about society and politics.

Erwin Piscator

His early productions consisted of expressionist stage designs. Characteristics of German expressionism in the 1910s and 20s included dark, atmospheric plays with stylised, distorted set pieces. It was the German theatre’s answer to expressionism in the visual arts flourishing throughout Europe at the time.

Piscator was the originator of the use of epic theatre techniques in practice, later to be developed further by Brecht. He was also the founder of documentary theatre, a form of theatre that uses factual events as its basis. These two combined to make Piscator the primary practitioner of political theatre, as well. Many of Piscator’s techniques in his epic theatre productions were later refined by Brecht in his own brand of epic theatre, such as the use of placards, signs, non-individualised character names, and the use of projection. 

Piscator’s staging, however, was more elaborate than Brecht’s, asking for various forms of machinery such as ramps, treadmills and conveyor belts. His stages were often complex multi-level scaffolds. Piscator utilised all available technology at the time, first projecting huge, stylised images, followed by newsreels, and then cinematic moving images in theatre productions. His was a total theatre experience.

Ultimately, Piscator used the theatre as a means for social and political change. Like Brecht, he was never formally a member of the German Communist Party, but he nevertheless used his form of theatre to sway the German working class into understanding communist principles.

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At the time Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Piscator was working in Russia. Deeming it too dangerous to return to Germany, he stayed in Russia for another three years, effectively exiled in a self-imposed political asylum. Piscator left for France in 1936, where he was married the following year with Bertolt Brecht as one of his groomsmen. 

Piscator’s use of projected image behind action

Piscator migrated to America in 1939, where he established the Dramatic Workshop in New York City a year later. Among his participants were famous Hollywood film actors Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, plus Tennessee Williams, one of the great American playwrights of all time. America’s fear of the spread of communism eventually became too intense, so Piscator returned to West Germany in 1951 where he continued to direct theatre productions.

Not as well-known as Bertolt Brecht in the West, Erwin Piscator’s legacy in the theatre is substantial. It was he who devised the concept of an epic theatre, only for Brecht to later become synonymous with its name.

An innovator of epic, documentary, and political theatre forms, plus a pioneer in the use of projection and film use in stage productions, Erwin Piscator was one of the major theatre practitioners of the 20th century.

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