Located in Berlin’s government district, less than 2.5 miles from Strausberger Platz, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm has been the home of the famous Berliner Ensemble theatre company – established by none other than Bertolt Brecht, one of Germany’s best-known 20th century poets and playwrights – since 1954. After spending the years of Hitler’s regime in exile, Brecht and his wife, the actor Helene Weigel, left Hollywood in 1947 and eventually returned to (East) Berlin at the behest of the Soviet-sponsored Cultural Association for the Democratic Renewal of Germany, which invited him to set up his own theatre company. The Berliner Ensemble, or BE for short, quickly made a name for itself with guest performances all across Europe. Today, the BE remains true to Brecht’s principles of ‘Epic Theatre’ and retains its international reputation for excellence.
The Berliner Ensemble’s Beginnings and Early Years
In 1949, Brecht established his company at Wolfgang Langhoff’s Deutsches Theater on Schumannstraße. The cast of the first production ever staged by the BE – a performance of Brecht’s own play Mother Courage and Her Children – soon came to constitute the core of the company, which chose Pablo Picasso’s White Dove as its logo. Brecht and Weigel, who felt that their company was at best tolerated at the Deutsches Theater, were keen to secure the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm as their permanent home, even if it meant displacing the theatre’s own in-house company managed by Fritz Wisten – this, after all, was the building where Brecht’s Threepenny Opera had premiered to great acclaim in 1928. Their dream finally came true in 1954, and the BE has remained on Schiffbauerdamm ever since. Weigel took on the job of artistic director, with her husband nominally serving as her employee and creative director.
Brecht primarily used the company as an opportunity to stage his own plays and worked hard to increase the BE’s international exposure with performances in France, the UK, Austria, Sweden and Italy. In August 1956, less than 2 ½ years after moving the BE to its permanent home on Schiffbauerdamm, Brecht died of a heart attack while preparing a guest performance in London. His widow continued to run the company up to her own death in 1971 and at least one of Brecht’s plays featured in the BE’s seasonal repertoire for most of that time.
The Berliner Ensemble and the East German Regime
From 1959 onwards, the Berliner Ensemble was organised along the lines of the industrial and agricultural collectives typical of Socialist East Germany, with a number of brigades focussing on different tasks, including a ‘Brigade for Theatre Theory’, a ‘Studio Brigade’ and an ‘Audience Outreach Brigade’. As early as 1953, Brecht himself had toyed with the idea of establishing brigades, although he’d never gone much further in his efforts to please the regime. His refusal to give audiences socialist heroes or role models was a constant source of irritation to the regime. Albeit reluctantly, he did agree to make changes to his libretto for the opera Die Verurteilung des Lukullus (The Condemnation of Lukullus) as requested by the officials. The Workers’ Uprising of 1953 was probably the final straw that triggered his loss of faith in the socialist system. His comments on the events of 17 June 1953 in a letter published in the official party organ Neues Deutschland were edited in such a way as to suppress his criticism of the government’s response, which resulted in Western intellectuals turning against him and made him retreat into a kind of interior exile. In the last two years of his life, he busied himself with work, personally directing two performances per year and collaborating on almost all productions directed by other BE members. He also continued writing up to his death.
The Berliner Ensemble after Brecht’s Death
After Brecht’s death, the Berliner Ensemble remained a cultural force to be reckoned with – today it is still one of the leading German-language companies in the world. Helene Weigel stayed at the helm of the company for another 15 years. She was succeeded by Ruth Berghaus, whose husband Paul Dessau had written the music for many of Brecht’s plays, including Mother Courage and her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Berghaus’s attempts to introduce experimental theatre to the Berliner Ensemble met with resistance from audiences as well as from within the company, causing her to step down in 1977 after six years as artistic director. Her successor Manfred Wekwerth, who ran the company until 1991, strictly toed the party line and has been suspected of working as an informer for the East German intelligence service, aka the Stasi, although he has always denied this.
Between 1991 and 1999, the BE went through a number of management changes. The board of five directors appointed by the Berlin Senate in the wake of German reunification broke up in 1995, leaving Heiner Müller in sole charge of the company (now privatised, though heavily subsidised by the municipal government) until his death later the same year.
The Berliner Ensemble since 1999
In 1999, Claus Peymann, the former director of the Vienna Burgtheater, was appointed as the BE’s new artistic director. The self-styled ‘fang tooth in the heart of the government district’ ran the company for a total of 18 years, during which time the BE’s productions became increasingly politicised. Peymann recently retired from the post shortly after his 80th birthday. Even before he took over as the new artistic director, Peymann’s successor Oliver Reese achieved a coup by bringing in Frank Castorf, the long-time artistic director of the Volksbühne and leading practitioner of ‘postdramatic’ theatre, to stage one Berliner Ensemble production per year. While the Volksbühne, originally created as a ‘workers’ theatre’, seems set on a course for diminishing significance with a repertory primarily comprised of light entertainment, another exciting chapter in the history of the Berliner Ensemble is only just beginning.