Erwin Piscator and the Dramatic Workshop

Erwin Piscator at the Piscator-Bühne in 1932
Erwin Piscator at Piscator-Bühne in 1932 
Maria Ley and Erwin Piscator in Germany, 1939
Maria Ley and Erwin Piscator in Germany, 1939
Erwin Piscator and his Dramatic Workshop Players in his garden at Yonkers
Erwin Piscator with his Dramatic Workshop Players in Yonkers, circa 1940s

In 1920s Berlin, Erwin Piscator developed bold new theatrical methods to transmit political messages. Celebrated for innovating the epic theatre style, he employed expansive visual imagery and theatrical machinery to magnify the clash of social forces in revolutionary times in order to appeal strongly to the German working class. He used films and newsreels and many optical, acoustical, and mechanical devices, such as loudspeakers, flashing lights, sirens, and revolving sets, to amplify the immediacy of events and grip the audience.

Piscator ventured away from Germany during the Nazi era, directing his only film in Russia in 1934, Vostaniye rybakov (The Revolt of the Fishermen). In Paris in 1936, Piscator met and married Maria Ley, an Austrian Jewish dancer and actress studying literature at the Sorbonne. Fleeing Hitler's SS, they moved to Manhattan in 1939, founding the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. Piscator headed the Dramatic Workshop until 1951, when he left the United States due to political pressure during the McCarthy era. Many Dramatic Workshop students went on to become stars of theater and film, including Beatrice Arthur, Shelley Winters, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Elaine Stritch, Tony Curtis, Tony Randall, Maureen Stapleton, and Harry Belafonte. Speakers hosted by the Dramatic Workshop included Paul Muni, Sinclair Lewis, Paul Robeson, and Bertolt Brecht.

Returning to West Germany in 1951, Piscator became director of West Berlin’s Volksbühne. His productions included examinations of the inaction of Pope Pius XII during the Third Reich and of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Following Piscator's death in 1966, his wife worked as a teacher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale during the 1970s.

The artistry of Broadway scenic designer Mordecai Gorelik was influenced by both Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, who appropriated the term epic theatre for his very different but equally avant garde method of transmitting political messages. Adapting aspects of oriental theater, Brecht employed non-linear storylines, stylized speech, songs deviating sharply from dialog, and exposed machinery and lighting, reminding the audience that they were in a theater and thus prioritizing message over experience.

The Erwin Piscator papers, 1930-1971, document Piscator's work during the periods 1936-1951 when he was in France and the United States and 1962-1966 when he was in Germany. The collection features correspondence to and from Erwin Piscator, manuscripts by Erwin and Maria Piscator and other authors, play and production manuscripts, records of various kinds, and photographs. Piscator's papers shed light on the problems and main figures of international theater. His diaries begin in 1912 and end in 1917 when he served as a soldier in the trenches of Flanders.

The Erwin Piscator Vertical File Manuscript, 1915-1918, 1914, 1916, contains cards and letters written by Piscator to Svend Noldan during his military duty in World War I from 1915 to 1918, negatives of Piscator's apartment in 1914, and a photograph from the front lines dated April 26, 1916.


Works by and about Erwin Piscator

Piscator, Erwin. 1970. Political theatre, 1920-1966. [London]: [Arts Council of Great Britain].

Piscator, Erwin, and Hugh Rorrison. 1978. The political theatre. New York: Avon Books.

Willett, John. 1979. The theatre of Erwin Piscator. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Connelly, Stacey Jones. 1991. Forgotten debts: Erwin Piscator and the epic theatre.

Probst, Gerhard F. 1991. Erwin Piscator and the American theatre. New York: P. Lang.

Malina, Judith. 2012. The Piscator notebook. London: Routledge.