- The Piscator Notebook by Judith Malina
The legacy of Erwin Piscator is inextricably linked to, and generally overshadowed by, the career of his disciple Bertolt Brecht. Unlike Brecht, who copiously documented both his theory and practice, Piscator spent his energies making theatre rather than theorizing it. Outside of his sadly out-of-print Political Theatre, he mainly left behind the ephemera associated with productions. Although eclipsed by Brecht, Piscator remains the evolutionary link between expressionism, Dada, epic theatre, and docudrama; he is also a touchstone for socially committed theatre, experimental theatre, and the incorporation of available technology into the structure of performance, fusing “staging innovations and political relevance” [End Page 316] (7). As the Brecht quotation that opens this volume suggests, Piscator “is possibly the greatest theatre man of all time” (1).
Attending Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research in 1945, Living Theatre cofounder Judith Malina saw another side of him: the teacher. Although Piscator believed his real mission was as a stage director and characterized his role at the workshop as “an interim achievement” (11), he was instrumental in inspiring generations of theatre practitioners. As Malina points out, “the difficulty in discussing Piscator’s influence on modern theatre is that it is so diffused, so universal, that the dramaturgical theories and dramatic forms are hard to isolate” (167). Her memories and reflections work to rectify this.
Part 1 provides an overview of Piscator’s work prior to his emigration to New York in 1939 and general observations on the workshop. Here, Malina comments on how encounters with Piscator helped develop the socially committed careers of Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Rod Steiger, and others. Some of these connections are apt, while others are a stretch, but most detail the intense political and social beliefs that Piscator held (and in a postwar climate largely masked) that nevertheless influenced so many of his students.
Part 2 offers Malina’s notebook, a day-to-day exploration of her training at the workshop from February to April 1945. She crafts a dialectic that moves between the enamored perceptions of an eager, young theatre student, complete with all the questions, objections, passions, and insecurities of someone at the dawn of her career, and the reflections of an artist who has spent a lifetime building on those experiences. Accordingly, the book is as much about Malina as it is about Piscator. As Richard Schechner notes in the introduction, “what Piscator taught—or, rather, to be more accurate, transmitted—to Judith Malina is the subject of the book you are about to read” (xvii).
While these sections do not present a comprehensive analysis of Piscator’s work (readers would be better served by John Willet’s The Theatre of Erwin Piscator or C. D. Innes’s Erwin Piscator’s Political Theatre for this purpose), they do examine the training program that he assembled. As in many contemporary programs, students at the workshop explored text, acting, stagecraft, history, and criticism, supplemented by scene work, rehearsals, and performances. Although Piscator’s ideal of “objective acting,” presented as “an aesthetic political position” that acknowledges the role of the spectator (150), may seem at odds with the Stanislavskian training offered at the workshop, “it was important to him that the teachers in his school introduced us to many different disciplines” (ibid.). As Malina notes, “Piscator’s didactic theory held that it was necessary to be trained in all classical, academic, and traditional theatrical forms in order to bring forth the new” (123).
Offering familiar post-adolescent observations, Malina details frustrations with her voice teacher (“the work is all practice and no theory” ), a growing awareness of history and craft, struggles with assignments, and the idealistic conviction of art over commerce. It is in the moments when Malina recounts Piscator’s lectures on directing and acting, however, that she reveals the most passionate and committed elements. In her notes from a lecture on political theatre, she describes what could easily be the foundational manifesto of the Living Theatre: “There are those who say we need not separate art and life...