In November, walking through Berlin on my first morning in the city, I unexpectedly came across the Berliner Ensemble. I had a strong response to the building, feeling, although I had stumbled across it by accident, that I had made some kind of pilgrimage to the theatre.
I unfolded a bit of this encounter as part of MY READING DID THIS TO ME, my talk at the Flat Time House in December. The building evoked vividly the experience of reading Brecht’s plays and journals, as well as the black and white photographs of Brecht’s rehearsals in the Ensemble – particularly one of Helene Weigel as Mother Courage. Also, the Theatremachine texts of Heiner Mueller, a later inhabitant of the theatre.
The space of those black and white rehearsal photos – not that findable on the internet, but available in the many books edited and translated by John Willett – suggested further spaces of working and possibility.
For a while I thought my excitement at these images and texts was about the possibility of working in theatre. But, actually, my own response has been about translating that possibility and space into other fields of activity… into writing, reading, teaching, ????. Seeing the Berliner Ensemble building that morning in November made that very clear.
Still thinking through all this, I came across Kenneth Tynan’s description of a similar discovery of the Berliner Ensemble building. The following text is extracted from Tynan’s SUMMING-UP: 1959, which appeared in Kenneth Tynan, Tynan On Theatre (Pelican Books, 1964).
It also appears here as an intervention of this sense of theatre and rehearsal into ideas of art and writing.
KENNETH TYNAN: I have paid many visits to Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in the five years since it took up residence at the Theater am Schiff bauerdamm, but whenever I approach the place, I still feel a frisson of expectation, an anticipatory lift, that no other theater evokes. Western taxis charge double to go East, since they are unlikely to pick up a returning fare, but the trip is worth it: the arrow-straight drive up to the grandiose, bullet-chipped pillars of the Brandenberg Gate; the perfunctory salutes of the guards on both sides of the frontier; the short sally past the skinny trees and bland neo-classical façades of Unter den Linden (surely the emptiest of the world’s great streets), and the left turn that leads you across the meagre, oily stream of the Spree and into the square-cum-parking-lot where the theatre stands, with a circular neon sign – ‘BERLINER ENSEMBLE’ – revolving on its roof like a sluggish weather vane. You enter an unimposing foyer, present your ticket, buy a superbly designed programme, and take your seat in an auditorium that is encrusted with gilt cupids and cushioned in plush. When the curtain, adorned with its Picasso dove, goes up, one is usually shocked, so abrupt is the contrast between the baroque prettiness of the house and the chaste, stripped beauty of what one sees on the expanses, relatively enormous, of the stage. No attempt is made at realistic illusion. Instead of being absorbed by a slice of life, we are sitting in a theatre while a group of actors tell us a story that happened some time ago. By means of songs, and captions projected on to a screen, Brecht explains what conclusions he draws from the tale, but he wants us to quarrel with him – to argue that this scene not have ended as it did, or that this character might have behaved otherwise. He detested the reverence of most theatre audiences, much preferring the detached, critical expertise that he noted in spectators at sporting events. Theatrical trickery, such as lighting and scene changes, should not, he felt, be concealed from the customer. In his own words,
… don’t show him too much
But show something. And let him observe
That this is not magic but
Work, my friends.
Always, as a director, he told his actors that the mere act of passing through a stage door did not make them separate, sanctified creatures cut off from the mass of humanity – hence his practice, which is still followed to som extent by the Ensemble, of allowing outsiders to wander into rehearsals, as long as they keep quiet. He abhorred the idea that the production of plays is a secret, holy business, like the murmur of some rare hothouse plant. If actors can spend their spare time watching ditchdiggers, he said, why shouldn’t ditchdiggers watch actors? Initially, the Ensemble actors were embarrassed by this open-door policy; later, however, they realized how much it had helped them to shed inhibitions. A cast that has rehearsed for weeks before strangers is unlikely to dread an opening night.
I arrived at the theatre this year during a rehearsal, and one that was loaded with nostalgia. The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s first decisive success, was being prepared for revival on the same stage that had seen its première thirty-one years earlier, with the same director in charge – Erich Engel, now looking gaunt and unwell, despite the jaunty cock-sureness of his beret. As I entered, somebody was singing ‘Mack the Knife’ with the tinny, nasal, vibrato that one remembers from the old Telefunken records. Engel and two young assistants interrupted from time to time, talking with the easy, probing frankness that comes of no haste, no pressure, no need to worry about publicity, deadlines, or out-of-town reviews. I noticed that Mr Peachum, a part usually given to a rubicand butterball, was being played by Norbert Christian, a slim soft-eyed actor in his thirties. Brecht, I reflected, would have liked that; he always detested physical type-casting. In Brecht’s theatre it is what people do, not what they feel or how they look, that counts. Action takes precedence over emotion, fact over fantasy. ‘Die Wahrheit ist Konkret’ (‘Truth is concrete’) was Brecht’s favourite maxim; for him there could be no such thing as abstract truth. Someone once asked him what the purpose of a good play ought to be. He answered by describing a photograph he had seen in a magazine, a double-page spread of Tokyo after the earthquake. Amid the devastation, one building remained upright. The caption consisted of two words: ‘Steel Stood’. That, said Brecht, was the purpose of drama – to teach us how to survive.
The rehearsal continued, the patient denuding process that would ultimately achieve that naked simplicity and directness on which the Ensemble prides itself. To encourage the players to look at themselves objectively, a large mirror had been placed in the footlights, and throughout the session photographs were taking pictures of everything that happened, providing a visual record that would afterwards be used to point out to the actors just where, and how, they had gone wrong. One of the most impressive women alive had meanwhile come to sit beside me – Helene Weigel, Brecht’s widow, who has directed the Ensemble since its inception ten years ago and plays several of the leading roles. At sixty, she has a lean, nut-brown face that suggests, with its high cheekbones, shrewdy hooded eyes, and total absence of make-up, a certain kind of Spanish peasant matriarch; her whole manner implies a long life of commanding and comforting, of which she clearly regrets not an instant. Her warmth is adventurous, her honesty contagious, and her sophistication extreme, and that is the best I can do to sum up a woman who would, I think, be proud to be called worldly, since a scolding, tenacious affection for the world is the main article of her faith. The Weigel – to adopt the German manner of referring to an actress – has no real counterpart in the American theatre; in appearance, and in dedication, she resembles Martha Graham, but a Martha Graham altogether earthier and more mischevious than the one Americans know. At the end of the rehearsal we exchanged gifts and greetings. I got a scarf, designed by Picasso in the company’s honour; a book about the ensembles seminal production, Mother Courage; a photographic dossier comparing the performance of Charles Laughton and Ernst Busch in the title role of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo; and – unexpectedly – a complicated game of the do-it-yourself variety, invented by Mozart to teach children how to compose country dances by throwing dice. The Weigel, alas, got only a cigarette lighter. Talking about the state of the company, she said, ‘When Brecht died, I was afraid this place might become a museum.’ Her fears have turned out to be unjustified. It is true that the Ensemble mostly performs Brecht plays, but the plays are acted and directed by people steeped in the Brecht spirit. Throughout the theatre his ghost is alive and muscular. (251-2)