Plays

Mary Stuart (trans. Poulton)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart is one of the great works of German literature. A grand historical drama, it tells the story of the personal struggle between two extraordinary women – one French, one English – both captive to the demands of sovereignty and both caught in a tumult of political and religious intrigue. Which of them is the rightful Queen of England: Mary Stuart or Elizabeth Tudor?

Intertwined with this rivalry is a vicious struggle between Lord Burghley and the Earl of Leicester, both of whom feel a loyalty to their queen, while Leicester also harbours a secret passion for Mary.

Mary Stuart, written in 1800 by Friedrich Schiller, and produced by Goethe at Weimer, was translated by Mike Poulton for a production that premiered at Clwyd Theatr Cymru on 7 May 2009.

The Measures Taken

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Measures Taken is a didactic parable showing how dedication to an idealist cause sometimes does not leave room for a response to individual suffering. Four ‘Agitators’ describe how they were forced to kill a ‘Young Comrade’ because of his susceptibility to pity and compromise.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

The Measures Taken was first produced in 1930, in Grosses Schauspielhaus, Berlin.

The Mentor

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Benjamin Rubin is a cantankerous old writer, whisky aficionado and pedant, still basking in the reflected glory of long-ago success. Martin Wegner is a rising young literary star, heralded as ‘the voice of his generation’.

When Martin is given the opportunity to develop his new play under the mentorship of his idol, the writers meet in a dilapidated art-nouveau villa somewhere in the German countryside. Two massive egos are set on a collision course in this comedy about art and artists and the legacy of fame.

Christopher Hampton’s translation of The Mentor by Daniel Kehlmann premiered at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, in April 2017.

The Messingkauf Dialogues

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written between 1939 and 1942 The Messingkauf Dialogues are among the most concise, witty and light-hearted of all Brecht’s theoretical discussions of theatre. In Brecht’s words they constitute a ‘four-sided conversation about a new way of making theatre’ and provide the blueprint for Brecht’s radical aesthetic of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Actor who seeks admiration; the Actress interested in politics; the Dramaturg (or literary advisor) hoping for a new lease of life for theatre; these three argue with the Philosopher who wants to exploit their talent for imitation for his own purposes. The result is a lively and sharp debate about the place of art in society.

This text is translated by John Willett.

Mother Courage and Her Children (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht's classic play is here presented with ample scholarly material to aid in the study of this great work.

A chronicle play of the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, the remarkable Mother Courage follows the armies back and forth across Europe, selling provisions and liquor to both sides from her canteen wagon. As the action of the play progresses, between the years 1624 and 1646, she remains indomitable in her profiteering, refusing to part with her wagon and her livelihood even as she loses her each of her three children to the conflict. The play demonstrates poignantly that those trying to profit from a war cannot escape its costs.

The play is one of the most celebrated examples of Epic Theatre and of Brecht's use of alienation effect to focus attention on the issues of the play, over and above the individual characters. First performed in Switzerland in 1941, it is regarded as one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century and one of the great anti-war plays of all time.

This version is translated by John Willett.

Mother Courage and Her Children (trans. Hare)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A chronicle play of the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, the remarkable Mother Courage follows the armies back and forth across Europe, selling provisions and liquor to both sides from her canteen wagon. As the action of the play progresses, between the years 1624 and 1646, she remains indomitable in her profiteering, refusing to part with her wagon and her livelihood even as she loses her each of her three children to the conflict. The play demonstrates poignantly that those trying to profit from a war cannot escape its costs.

The play is one of the most celebrated examples of Epic Theatre and of Brecht's use of alienation effect to focus attention on the issues of the play, over and above the individual characters. First performed in Switzerland in 1941, it is regarded as one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century and one of the great anti-war plays of all time.

This version is translated by John Willett.

Mr Puntila and His Man Matti

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written in 1940 during Brecht’s brief exile in Finland, Puntila is one of his greatest creations – to be ranked as a character alongside Galileo and Mother Courage. A hard-drinking Finnish landowner, Puntila suffers from a divided personality – when drunk he is human and humane; when sober, surly and self-centred.

Oscillating unsteadily between these two poles, Puntila plays havoc with his workmen, his women, his daughter’s marital arrangements and the loyalty of his sardonic chauffeur, Matti.

Mr Puntila and his Man Matti contains some of the best comedy Brecht wrote for the theatre. It was first staged in Zurich in 1948 and a year later was the first production of the newly formed Berliner Ensemble.

This translation by John Willett is accompanied by Brecht’s own notes and relevant texts, as well as an extensive introduction and commentary by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, editors of Brecht’s collected plays in English.

The Nest

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

The Nest is a translation by Conor McPherson of Franz Xaver Kroetz's 1975 play, Das Nest, about a young couple expecting a baby, and the moral and environmental cost of their materialistic nesting instincts. The Nest was first performed at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on 1 October 2016, before transferring to the Young Vic, London, on 28 October, in a co-production by the Lyric and the Young Vic.

The play opens in a flat belonging to parents-to-be, Kurt and Martha. Kurt spends long, arduous days working as a lorry-driver, while the heavily pregnant Martha puts in extra hours for a market research company so that they can afford all the new things they need for their baby. When Kurt’s boss offers him a chance to make some easy money with a mysterious side job, he rashly accepts, only to discover too late that he has caused an environmental catastrophe – one that has deeply personal consequences for Kurt and his new-born son.

The premiere production was directed by Ian Rickson and designed by Alyson Cummins, with an original score composed by PJ Harvey. The cast was Caoilfhionn Dunne as Martha and Laurence Kinlan as Kurt.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Modern Classics)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a savage satire in blank verse on the rise of Hitler, wittily transposed into a small-time gangster’s takeover of Chicago’s greengrocery trade. The seam of black comedy which runs through this political parable does not lessen the sharpness of its accusation; the unpleasantness of the pseudo-dictator Ui, one of Brecht’s most intense creations, is hardly a revelation, but Brecht points to the resistibility of his rise, and on the society that permitted it.

The names he gives to Ui’s henchmen mirror those of their Nazi counterparts, and the ominous pattern of events by which Ui takes control of the Cauliflower Trust is mapped by explanatory notices onto the real historical events in Germany, ensuring the play never strays far from its terrible inspiration. The play was not staged in Brecht’s lifetime, and although he intended it for an American audience, the first production was at Stuttgart in 1958.

Using a wide range of parody and pastiche – from Al Capone to Shakespeare’s Richard III and Goethe’s Faust – Brecht creates a hilariously comic and darkly condemnatory allegory which warns of the persistence of fascism. This version is translated by Ralph Manheim.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Student Editions)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a savage satire in blank verse on the rise of Hitler, wittily transposed into a small-time gangster’s takeover of Chicago’s greengrocery trade. The seam of black comedy which runs through this political parable does not lessen the sharpness of its accusation; the unpleasantness of the pseudo-dictator Ui, one of Brecht’s most intense creations, is hardly a revelation, but Brecht points to the resistibility of his rise, and on the society that permitted it.

The names he gives to Ui’s henchmen mirror those of their Nazi counterparts, and the ominous pattern of events by which Ui takes control of the Cauliflower Trust is mapped by explanatory notices onto the real historical events in Germany, ensuring the play never strays far from its terrible inspiration. The play was not staged in Brecht’s lifetime, and although he intended it for an American audience, the first production was at Stuttgart in 1958.

Using a wide range of parody and pastiche – from Al Capone to Shakespeare’s Richard III and Goethe’s Faust – Brecht creates a hilariously comic and darkly condemnatory allegory which warns of the persistence of fascism. This version is translated by Ralph Manheim.

It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that Germany developed a dramatic literature to rival those of France, Spain or England. Until then the German speaking lands were divided into more than 300 independent states and were struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War of the previous century. Rulers who took an interest in theatre tended to import Italian opera or French drama. Drama in German consisted of vernacular farces and the Haupt-und-Staats-Aktionen, bombastic historical dramas of little theatrical or literary merit. The development of German theatre was encouraged by the Englische Komödianten, groups of English actors who toured with versions of plays popular in England at the time, performing when and where they could to a popular audience.

The first attempts at improving the German drama were undertaken in the 1730s by Gottsched, whose translations of texts from French and English were performed by the theatre company of Karoline Neuber, who also symbolically staged a banning of the popular comic character Hanswurst from the stage.

The art critic and dramatist Lessing’s disappointment with the quality of plays produced at the new National Theatre in Hamburg, where he was employed in the late 1760s as Dramaturg, led him to write the Hamburgische Dramaturgie (Hamburg Dramaturgy), in which he suggested that Shakespeare would provide a better model for German writers to copy than French dramatists. Influenced by his studies of Aristotle and contemporary English drama, he also wrote three plays as examples for German playwrights to follow.

The writers of the explosive, but short-lived Sturm und Drang movement developed Lessing’s ideas and added a powerful new emotional charge to their plays. Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen and Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers) broke new ground by drawing inspiration from Shakespeare, German history but above all nature. These works, along with the poetry of the movement, infused with natural imagery and driven by sentiment, would later serve as a major inspiration for the poets of the European Romantic movement.

Goethe and Schiller, the principal dramatists of the Sturm und Drang, then rejected the lack of discipline of the movement and developed the more refined and considered style of writing and acting known as Weimar Classicism. Schiller in particular wrote a series of history plays, including Don Carlos and Maria Stuart (Mary Stuart), which have formed the basis of the national repertoire ever since, and which established Germany as the leading theatre nation in Europe at the start of the nineteenth century. Goethe’s two-part poetic masterpiece Faust, only completed shortly before his death, has continued to challenge scholars and theatre directors alike since its publication. These works were inspired by Schiller’s Idealism and the conviction that the theatre should be a force for moral improvement. This concept inspires the high regard in which theatre is held in Germany and the generous level of public subsidy, which it has enjoyed ever since.

Despairing of Idealism and frustrated by the lack of response to his call for revolution in his pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Courier), the scientist Büchner, despite his lack of theatrical experience, wrote four plays, three of which survive. In Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death) he employed documentary material to depict the despair of his hero with the Revolution, and in the unfinished Woyzeck, the first play in German to depict a working class hero, he blended factual material into a visionary expression of existential angst.

In the late nineteenth century, young writers, inspired by the writings of Zola, Darwin and Marx wanted to introduce a more scientific approach to theatre writing and bring the conditions of the underprivileged to the attention of theatregoers. Die Weber (The Weavers), by Gerhart Hauptmann, caused a riot and official sanctions when it was first produced in Berlin, but within two years the plays of European Naturalism had established themselves at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

The trauma of the First World War was reflected in the ecstatic and despairing texts of Expressionism. Early plays expressed a vision of Der Neue Mensch (The new Man), rising from the purifying fire of the war. As the true horror of the war in the trenches unfolded, this idea was changed in the writing of Ernst Toller, and subsequently Erwin Piscator, into the concept of the new collective, socialist Man.

Brecht’s ideas on the theatre have been hugely influential, as have the plays written by him and his collaborators. After his huge success with The Threepenny Opera in 1928, and his work with Piscator, he engaged in theatrical experiments, the Lehrstücke (Teaching Plays), in which he tried to involve the audience in a new relationship to the stage and the subject matter of the performances. Brecht always regarded Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken) as his most important play and a model for the future development of the theatre. These experiments came to abrupt end, however, when Brecht and Piscator were forced to leave Germany as Hitler assumed power in 1933.

During the Nazi period attempts were made by the authorities to restrict performances to approved propaganda plays, but these were so unpopular that theatres were soon allowed to revert to their previous programmes.

After the war Germany was left in ruins, with many of the theatre makers in exile. In Switzerland, however, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote plays, which combined black humour and symbolism to confront the post-war world. They addressed post-war guilt in Andorra, Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Fireraisers) and Der Besuch der Alten Dame (The Visit) before moving on to consider the individual’s role in society.

On his return from exile in the USA Brecht set up his Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin. After his landmark production of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children) in 1949, he spent the next seven years directing his own texts, but also encouraging the work of young playwrights and directors. During the forty years of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) a game of cat-and-mouse was played out between playwrights and theatres and the authorities. Theatres played a particular and vital role in the GDR during this period, as well as in the demise of the regime, as they were one of the very few places where political issues could be addressed before a large audience. Playwrights such as Christoph Hein and Volker Braun offered veiled criticism of the regime, while Heiner Müller, the most innovative and outspoken playwright of the GDR, was silenced by being expelled from the Deutsche Schriftsteller-Verband (The German Writers’ Association). This meant that his work was not published, so it could not be produced in the GDR. His international reputation was secured by the staging of his texts in the West.

In the Federal Republic (West Germany), the use of documentary material for drama, which had been pioneered by Erwin Piscator before the war, was reintroduced by playwrights attempting to confront the exceptional subject matter of the Third Reich. Peter Weiss in Die Ermittlung (The Investigation) adapted testimony from the Frankfurt War Trials to present a harrowing account of conditions in Auschwitz, while Rolf Hochhuth indicted Pope Pius XII in Der Stellvertreter (The Representative) for his attitude to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. These texts, among others, were championed by Piscator at the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin.

Peter Handke caused controversy in 1966 with a staging of his Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), and cemented his reputation in 1967 with Kaspar, a study of the way in which a character is defined by the language he acquires. He, like Botho Strauss, another innovative writer whose career began in the late 1980s, has aroused controversy for the political positions he has subsequently adopted.

Franz Xaver Kroetz felt that the peasants in Brecht’s plays were too articulate and in the mid-1970s used the Volksstück form, popular before the war, in his Stallerhof and Geisterbahn (Ghost Train), to give a voice to the underclass of Germany’s Economic Miracle.

For much of the post-war period, West German theatre has been dominated by Regietheater, the theatre of directors, such as Peter Stein and Luc Bondy, who have tended to make their reputations in productions of classic texts, but who also champion new playwriting. The high level of funding of theatre and the large number of theatres in Germany continues to support the most extensive and varied programme of new playwriting and innovative production activity in Europe. From the dense and challenging theatre texts of the Nobel Prize winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jellinek, to the unique theatre of Rimini Protokoll, who use non-professional actors and their experiences to build performances described as ‘Reality Trend’, theatre makers in Germany seek to challenge the traditional limitations of drama. Theatre critics select outstanding work from more than 100 plays premièred each year for the Mülheimer Theatertage festival of new playwriting, while the Berlin Theatertreffen foregrounds the best in theatre production.

Since the Wende (the fall of the communist regimes), the cost of reunification has resulted in reductions in state subsidy to the arts, but the theatre still continues to command the respect of the population and to play a central role in the cultural life of Germany.

Tony Meech, Senior Research Fellow, University of Hull