‘The Social Theatre’ by Erwin Piscator from The New Masses. Vol. 5 No. 2. July, 1929.

Gropuis’ designed ‘total theater’ for Piscator, 1927.
‘The Social Theatre’ by Erwin Piscator from The New Masses. Vol. 5 No. 2. July, 1929.

Our theatre was born out of the conflict over a play by Welk, Storm over Gottland (Gewitter uber Gottland ). The battle was drawn between two groups, lined up under their respective slogans: the one, “art as an expression of human greatness”; the other, “art as an instrument of social conflict.” A difference which for several years had been quietly growing sharper had arrived at the point of open crisis. A considerable part of the function of the Piscator theatre was to bring it to a focus.

It was an odd situation. In the very midst of the bourgeoisie, hailed as the fashion of the moment, financed by capital and recognized by the state, was born a theatre whose program was social revolution. For the first time in the history of the theatre, the vast and complex stage apparatus was to serve for the presentation of a world idea and the fighting will of the oppressed class.

Did our theatre have a public which agreed with this intellectual approach? Only sixteen thousand persons from the great army of the proletariat were able to give their support to the project for one season. By that very fact, our theatre was obliged — under the material conditions of capitalism — to offer its productions to the various groups of the bourgeoisie who did not understand or were hostile to its ideas. They consented to pay the high prices which I was obliged to demand only because my name had a sensational value. And that helped to support my theatre financially.

This was obviously a great drawback for us, but it should be recognized that the situation drove us to it. If instead of sixteen thousand, five times that number of proletarians had rallied around us, the project would not have been confronted with the painful alternatives of perishing or competing for the public which supports bourgeois plays.

‘Parade from The Good Soldier Sweik at the Erwin Piscator Theatre in Berlin, 1927.’

The structure of the bourgeois stage which we had at our command was inadequate for expressing the essence of a revolutionary theatre. The very form of the bourgeois stage is tumbling in ruins. Each of my productions has shown that it was not a “stage” play but a work moving toward the annihilation of a theatre form created by bourgeois society. Further, the dramatic idea developed and understood by the bourgeois order is also decaying. The revision of plays with which I have so often been charged was not due to any sadistic impulse toward the authors but to the necessity of exploring in the plays the social, economic and political aspects of the psychological questions which they raised.

Our purpose was clearly defined, but the methods were still experimental and scarcely any tangible results had been achieved when the Piscator theatre set to work. We knew very well that we must make a basically different use of the theatre from that which was current; but even assuming that we had our new concept of dramatic art, we still had no “new” plays and, above all, we lacked the necessary technique for setting up a new and revolutionary form entirely distinct from the forms of the bourgeois theatre.

Magazine cover of Das neue Frankfurt. February 1928.

These two basic deficiencies— -the lack of a new stage architecture and a new kind of play — became the starting points for the real work of our theatre, in stage production and in the making of plays.

The stage was used in four different ways in my four productions, Hoppla, Rasputin , Schweik and Konjunctur. These settings were not born “of technical phantasy, searching indefatigably for ever fresh sensations.” They were guided — however strange it may seem— by the historic materialism of Karl Marx. They were Marxian productions. Both the transparent, luminous, many-storeyed stage of Hoppla and the sphere of Rasputin were used for the purpose of setting each of the different scenes in immediate relation with the actual happenings in human society and thus lifting them toward the level of history. The technical enrichment of the stage by an independent scaffolding outside of the usual area of the puppet-show stage and, as in Rasputin , extending out even into the body of the theatre was rather incidental, even accidental.

Scene from Ernst Toller’s Hoopla at the Piscator Theatre.

Not less important was the construction of the stage in Schweik and in Konjunctur. In each, an underlying principle of force was very precisely expressed # by the moving carpet or the revolving stage or by the dramatic and dynamic constructivism.

The principle guiding our revision of plays expresses a similar approach. Since we were concerned with the condition of the class out of which this theatre had been born, we no longer wished to center the action in the personal fate of one individual, with his inner conflicts, moral and psychological. For the very function of the individual has changed: the social element in his existence should take precedence. When he steps on to the stage he brings with him his class or his whole social environment. If he is torn by conflict — whether psychological, moral, or merely physical this conflict is social. An era preoccupied with the relationships of human society and the revolutionary change of all social conditions, can only regard the individual as a social and political entity. This predominance of the social and political may tend toward caricature, but for this we are not responsible. It is inevitable when the conflicts within the present human situation are giving a political significance to every aspect of life.

‘The Good Soldier Sweik at the Erwin Piscator Theatre in Berlin, 1927, with sets & backdrop by the painter Georg Grosz.’

But the individual not only reflects his class, he is also one factor in its historic development. Not the absorbing destiny of one person alone but a course of events valid for a class, for an epoch, is the foundation of the new dramatic art. Therefore the imaginary plot gives pace to the document as the positive element, decisive and inescapable.

Besides these contributions to the shaping of a new revolutionary dramatic art, we have also to our credit the unquestioned fact that our stage has had direct political value. The critics could not long rest content with esthetic appraisals. They were obliged to take sides politically. This was exactly what we wanted.


In the face of these results which may be important in the history of the theatre, even important politically, and which were achieved in the midst of tremendous difficulties both human and material, one may fairly say that the failure of our enterprise is relatively unimportant. I do not intend to lay the blame on such external circumstances as rental, shifting of public interest, etc. … I admit without wasting words that I and my collaborators made mistakes. But one can say that quite apart from the mistakes for which the Piscator theatre itself was responsible, the project failed because the objective historic situation had not yet ripened. Perhaps we began too noisily and cut off all possibility of political or artistic compromise once we were under way. The bourgeoisie who had voluntarily endorsed the sensational nature of the project could not hold out against the steadily increasing pressure from their own journals. On the other hand, the class which really should have constituted the economic support of my theatre — I mean the working class — was not yet apparently strong enough to do this.

Our present theatre is on a healthier basis. I am glad of this, for it shows that we were on the right track. Our future work will be clear of the sensational atmosphere. I have not the slightest desire for the sensational. I wish to do thorough and solid work. Results may not appear today or even tomorrow, but I want a theatre which educates and, for this, it must be in living touch with the masses.

A revolutionary theatre without its most living element, the revolutionary public, is a contradiction which has no meaning.

The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1929/v05n02-jul-1929-New-Masses.pdf

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