The Berliner Ensemble-Brecht´s Gift to East Berlin

Rehearsals in the Ensemble. 

Being a tour guide in Berlin and walking visitors through the must -see landmarks of the city I cannot help but notice that one of the most important parts of Berlin´s history remains underestimated and, therefore, unknown. The discussion is about the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, the worldwide known Berliner Ensemble. This is the theatre that Bertolt Brecht founded in East Berlin in 1949, after the Second World War – it was the place where he staged legendary productions such as Mother Courage and her Children, together with his wife, the actress Helene Weigel. The founding of the Berliner Ensemble and Brecht's vision of a theatre had the power to change a society and marked together the beginning of the East German theatre of the postwar era.

A glimpse of Ensemble’s History.

At first, the Berliner Ensemble played in the Deutsche Theater before moving to its permanent home in the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm on Friedrichstraße in 1954.Today, at Bertolt-Brecht Square next to the theater, the play writer and poet Brecht, sits smilingly in his chair gazing at the Spree, as a bronze statue.Brecht was born in Ausburg, in 1898 and grew to maturity as a playwright in the frenetic years of the twenties and early thirties, with plays as Man equals Man, Mahagonny and The Mother. He left Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933, eventually reaching the United States where he remained until 1947.It was during this period of exile that such masterpieces as Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle were written. Shortly after his return to Europe in 1947, he founded the Berliner Ensemble and from then until his death was mainly occupied in producing his own plays and creating what he called political theater for the public.

Brecht and Weigel 

The resplendent Theater on Schiffbauerdamm opened its doors to the people with Goethe´s "Ifigenia in Tauris". Later on, under the management of Ernst Josef Aufricht, the Haus am Schiffbauerdamm managed to create one of the greatest theatrical successes of all times; The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht with Lotte Lenya holding the part of Jenny. The premiere was a smash hit. Since that day, when the bourgeoisie of Berlin swarmed the theater, the Threepenny Opera has always been in the repertoire of the biggest theaters in the world, counting more than 10.000 shows worldwide. The reason for that phenomenal success could be Kurt Weil´s magnificent music compositions or maybe the incredibly contemporary theme of the play, written during the inter-war period, short time before the financial crash of 1929, describing a community that bears striking similarities to ours.

The Woman Behind The Man.

Although Brecht was the chief director of the Berliner Ensemble until his death in 1956, it was actually his wife, Weigel, who was its first artistic director, all the way until her death in 1971. She was a dominant personality who gained everyone´s respect. The room that was Helene Weigel’s old office overlooks the courtyard, and rumor has it that actors used to hurry across the yard, being sure to look extra-busy in case Weigel was on the lookout. Plaster casts of the Berliner Ensemble’s great actors – and its founder Brecht –are still displayed on the office wall. It was in this room that Weigel wrote many of the letters that now survive in different archives, giving us an insight into what it meant to manage the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s and 1960s and generally until the times of the Cold War. It is clear that she had no easy task: Weigel had to steer the Berliner Ensemble through the cultural, political minefield that was the early GDR. The theatre censorship, the explicit bans or attacks posed great difficulties, but what proved far more difficult where the many implicit bans, the ones that went unspoken. Sometimes by sacrificing sections of the script, or provocative endings, Weigel saved the production. Nevertheless, many plays never saw the light of day. It wasn’t that they were banned; it was that the director would suddenly be taken ill. The theatre would need renovating. Or it was being refurbished. And so on. It all happened beneath the surface. Moreover, actors who had been working in East Berlin while living in the West were put under huge pressure to decide where their loyalties – and the future course of their lives – should lie. Consequently, East Berlin´s theatre managers like Weigel, had to fill the gaps in their ensembles when some of those actors ``disappeared``. Whilst Brecht did have friends in prominent positions – including the first President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck –and he could therefore make things easier for the Ensemble, there were plenty of well-placed cultural politicians who were suspicious of him: suspicious of the fact that he had spent much of his exile in the United States, not in the Soviet Union and that he had never actually joined the Communist Party.

The Ensemble Today.

Bertolt Brecht didn´t have the chance to enjoy his own creation apart from something less than two years, as he passed away on August 14th, 1956 due to a heart attack. After his death, Weigel took on the challenge of running the Ensemble and continuing her husband´s work for 15 years. Although the title Berliner Ensemble used to refer only to the theater company, with the passing of time the name became those of the building that housed it, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, today known simply as the Ensemble.

The Berliner Ensemble 

Bertolt Brecht´s Statue. 

Although the current director manages to maintain Brecht´s legacy and spirit, the main emphasis of the organization is given to the contemporary German literature. Works of Peter Haddock, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Botho Strauss or George Tabori appears in the program without forgetting however masterpieces of Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov. Not only theater shows, but also readings and musical performances are hosted at the premises of the Ensemble. Next to the main stage the theater possesses two smaller stages; the Gardenhouse and the petite rehearsal room. The BE-cafeteria offers a big variety of delicious home cooked meals such as soups, pies and cakes and it is also a local of many actors and actresses, in case you would like to plan an ``accidental`` visit.

By Artemis Pittara

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