Monday, November 1, 2010


Charlie, René, and Polo Andreu-Rivels (c.1925)

Is there an internet encyclopedia dedicated specifically to the circus? Why, yes, there is!

Most useful is a Short History of the Circus, which includes this information about German circuses between the wars:
In Europe, the traveling circus and menagerie reached its peak between the two World Wars, especially in Germany, where the flamboyant traveling enterprises of Krone, Sarrasani and Hagenbeck dominated the market.
The site seems to be a work-in-progress, and hopefully they'll develop those links to particular German circuses in the near future.

Also interesting is the page on famed Spanish clown Charlie Rivel, who was a major star throughout Europe between the World Wars. He was quite successful in Germany during the Nazi regime, which leads to this interesting passage from the wiki's author:
After the Nazis seized power in Germany, and even during World War II itself, Charlie remained one of the biggest draws in the top German variety theaters: Wintergarten, Apollo, Scala, and Plaza. In Berlin, he starred in a movie directed by Wolfgang Staudte, Akrobat Schööön! (which was Charlie's catch phrase in the Little Bridge entrée). The film was released in 1943, and it revealed Charlie as a genuine screen talent. In later years, a telegram that Charlie had sent to Hitler for his birthday in 1942 would became the subject of wild speculations. Like many traveling performers little acquainted with international politics, Charlie had been dangerously naïve.

The Andreu-Rivels (top: René - right: Polo - left: Charie) and their children (c.1925)

Friday, October 29, 2010

More Weimar Art: 1926

This blog contains some excellent selections of works of art from Weimar Germany, complemented by concise information, poems, and other impressions. Below are a few striking portraits, which all happen to be from 1926 -- the year that Brecht produced Man Equals Man.

Rudolf Schlichter, Portrait of Bertolt Brecht

Gert Wollheim, Untitled

Georg Scholz, Self Portrait

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Karl Valentin: "The Charlie Chaplin of Germany"

Along with Charlie Chaplin, the other great performer who influenced Brecht in the 1920s was Karl Valentin. Valentin, frequently working with his partner Liesl Karlstadt, made his name as a comic cabaret performer in Munich (where you can now visit the Karl Valentin Museum). Known for his verbal wit, ironic social satire, and sense of the absurd, Valentin created a great impression on the young Brecht.

According to theater lore, when Valentin suggested to Brecht how to depict soldiers in battle, he planted the seed for Brecht's notions of Epic Theater. Walter Benjamin relates the story:
"Brecht in turn quoted the moment at which the idea of Epic Theater first came into his head. It happened at a rehearsal for the Munich production of Edward II (1924). The battle in the play is supposed to occupy the stage for three-quarters of an hour. Brecht couldn't stage-manage the soldiers, and neither could his production assistant. Finally he turned in despair to Karl Valentin, at that time one of his closest friends, who was attending the rehearsal, and asked him: 'Well, what is it? What's the truth about these soldiers? What about them?' Valentin: 'They're pale, they're scared, that's what!' The remark settled the issue, Brecht adding: 'They're tired.' Whereupon the soldiers' faces were thickly made up with chalk, and that was the day the production's style was determined."
The unrealistic, chalky whiteness of the soldiers' faces is often cited as one of Brecht's first uses of an "alienation effect."

Valentin also starred in a short silent film written by Brecht: Mysteries of a Barbershop (1923). [I haven't been able to turn up a copy of this film, but I'll keep at it...]

There are a few clips of Valentin and Karlstadt available on YouTube, but they are rather poor quality (and aren't translated), and I don't think they capture the more ironic tone of their 1920s cabaret acts. These photographs, however, may give some idea of Valentin's stage personae during those years.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

George Grosz: "Degenerate Art"

"Fit For Active Service" (1918)

Along with Otto Dix, George Grosz was a key proponent of the New Objectivity in German art.

From the Figge Art Museum website:
World War I instilled in Grosz a hatred of the Prussian military establishment, which he attacked mercilessly in his work. The most well known of his satirical drawings is "Fit for Active Service," in which a fat, complacent doctor pronounces a skeleton fit for duty. His disgust with his countrymen caused him to anglicize his name (adding an 'e' to Georg) in 1917. Immediately after the war, Grosz became a leader in the German Dada movement, which brought him much success and international recognition. His work in the 1920s and 1930s ruthlessly denounced a decaying German society and his despair of the political situation in Germany. His relentless political views resulted in several prosecutions for obscenity and blasphemy, the confiscation of his drawings, and his inclusion in Hitler's Entarte Kunst (degenerate art) exhibition in 1937 in Munich. In 1933, Grosz came to the U.S. to take up a teaching post at the Art Students League in New York. He taught there until 1955. In later years, Grosz painted romantic landscapes and still-lifes attempting to overcome his reputation as a brilliant satirist. He died shortly after his return to Germany in 1959.
"Lovesick" (1916)

"Beauty, Thee Will I Praise" (1919)

"Grey Day" (1921)

"The Pillars of Society" (1926)

"The Agitator" (1928)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Man's A Man = Man Is Man (1962-1963)

According to the Internet Off-Broadway Database, off-Broadway produced TWO different versions of Man Equals Man in the 1962-1963 season. It seems that both of them were quite successful, running from September to February/March, and an actor in each production received an Obie Award for Distinguished Performance.

A Man's A Man
New Repertory Theatre
Directed by John Hancock
John Hefferman as Galy Gay
Olympia Dukakis as Widow Begbick*
* = 1963 Obie Award for Distinguished Performance

Man Is Man
The Living Theatre
Directed by Julian Beck
Joseph Chaikin as Galy Gay*
Judith Malina as Widow Begbick
* = 1963 Obie Award for Distinguished Performance

Olympia Dukakis has had a long career as an actress on both stage and screen, winning the 1987 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Moonstruck.

The Living Theatre, founded by Julian Beck and Judith Malina (pictured below), is one of the most important counter-cultural theater troupes in American history. Their politics and their aesthetics were deeply influenced by both Brecht and Artaud. To learn more about their long and dramatic career (barricade the theater! arrests! exile!), I recommend the excellent documentary, Signals Through the Flames.

Joseph Chaikin (pictured below) was a brilliant director who founded The Open Theater, a highly influential experimental theater that drew inspiration from the "poor theater" of Grotowski.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Otto Dix: "Der Krieg" (1924)

Otto Dix was one of the most striking and influential artists of Weimar Germany, a key proponent of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit). In 1924, just two years before the premiere of Brecht's Man Equals Man, Dix produced "Der Krieg," a cycle of 51 prints depicting the horrors of war.

Much like Brecht's work in the 1920s, Dix's prints are at once gritty and ironic, depicting his subjects both critically and sympathetically.

The National Gallery of Australia has excellent information on "Der Krieg," as well as access to individual prints. I've included a few images below.

"Roll Call of the Returning Troops"
... depicting a scene not dissimilar from the one in Brecht's play

"Canteen in Haplincourt"

"Frontline Soldier in Brussels"

Monday, October 18, 2010

Peter Lorre as Galy Gay (1931)

Peter Lorre, who would star in films ranging from Fritz Lang's M and the "Mr. Moto" series to Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, played Galy Gay in the 1931 Berlin production of Man Equals Man.

Lorre as Galy Gay is second from the left. The production was designed by Brecht's frequent collaborator, Caspar Neher.

In discussing Lorre's relationship with Brecht, biographer Stephen D. Youngkin says:
Lorre saw Brecht as one of the two most important writers in the 20th century, the other being James Joyce. This was the pivotal relationship in his life. He not only referred to Brecht as his best friend, but as himself as one of Brecht's actors. Without understanding Brecht, you can't understand Lorre. Some people have found Brechtian elements in Lorre's acting style. Well, I guess you can find anything if you look hard enough. It's a chicken and the egg argument.

When I first interviewed Brecht scholar Eric Bentley, I naturally asked about Brecht's influence on Lorre. He told me it was actually the other way around, that Brecht saw actors he liked, things they were doing – in Lorre's case, the clashing of opposite characteristics, doing two things at once – and formed those aspects into a new style of acting. Lorre was just doing what he had always been doing. It was an incredibly adaptable form. The same style could easily be plugged into different holes and given a new name, a new theoretical label. So, in a sense, Lorre's performances were Brechtian by default, before we – or he – knew the use of the word.

Pop Culture Reference: Peter Lorre's distinctive look and vocal style are still imitated more than 40 years after his death. "The Maggot" in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a direct impersonation of Lorre.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Charlie Chaplin: Shoulder Arms (1918)

Brecht was deeply influenced by Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest clowns in cinema. Below are links to "Shoulder Arms" (1918), starring Chaplin as a misfit soldier in the army during the Great War.

The film is about 45 minutes long, available in five sections on YouTube or through the Internet Archive.