Berliner Ensemble: Bertolt Brecht territory
Berliner Ensemble is Bertolt Brecht territory. If you are into Meckie Messer playing with his knives and whores Berliner Ensemble is the place to be. Brechts’ old ‘Mutter Courage’ and her little kids roam the stage. And one of the scariest dictators are played by star actor Martin Wuttke in ‘der Aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui’.
Berliner Ensemble’s history
The theatre on Schiffbauerdamm celebrates more than a century of plays. But it wasn’t till 1949 that playwright Bertolt Brecht and his wife and actress Helene Weigel created Berliner Ensemble. Brecht wanted his own stage for his plays. His famous work Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) was already staged here in the twenties. Brecht had liked that so much he wanted his own theatre group in this building. But it took a while before the frivolous theatre on Schiffbauerdamm in the heart of Berlin Mitte could be used. During the Second World War the old theatre was bombed to pieces and Brecht and his actors took refuge in Deutsches Theater, for the time being.
In 1954 the theatre on Schiffbauerdamm opened its doors again. The audience could admire the frivolous curtains, ceiling and decor while they watched the new plays. Bertolt Brecht did not enjoy being the director of Berliner Ensemble for a very long time. He only directed one play at the new theatre at Schiffbauerdamm: Der Kaukasisches Kreidekreis. He was still busy with preparations for his play Leben des Galilei when he died in 1956. His wife Helene Weigel took over and led Berliner Ensemble until her own death in 1971.
No matter how hot or cold it is, there is always a bronze man outside, watching Berliner Ensemble. It is Bertolt Brecht, the man who created Berliner Ensemble. If you want to understand the theatre, you will have to know Bertolt Brecht first.
Who was this man with his round glasses, sitting on his chair in front of his beloved theatre? It seems a difficult question, but the answer is easy. Bertolt Brecht was a revolutionary playwright. In many ways.
His plays are nearly always political, anti-establishment and discussing the morals of people. Bertolt Brecht felt the urge to do so, probably because he got hit in the face many times by the political situation he was in. He grew up in Germany during the time World War one was full on. Brecht hated the way young men were treated like ‘canon meat’. His play ‘Mann ist Mann’ is a very good example of this. The play shows how soldiers are easily replaced by others, like they are numbers in a bloody show. Der Aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui shows how a dictator that resembles Hitler, rises. Bertolt Brecht knew exactly how dangerous dictators were . He fled to Denmark and the United States during the Second World War. His books and plays were burned in Germany during this war. He didn’t come back to Berlin until 1949.
Brecht always stressed in his plays how important-and difficult- it is to stay true to your own morals. Baal, one of his first plays, tells the tale of a young man who wants to stay as wild as possible. Nearly like an animal. As a spectator, you sympathize with Baals fight for freedom and feel sad when he ruins his own life. It discusses the morals of people. Baal is not only crushed by his own wild needs, but also by the people around him that try to let him lead a ‘normal’ life.
This motive is also clear in his famous play Dreigroschenoper, or ‘Threepenny opera’, a coproduction with musician Kurt Weil. The main character Macky Messer, based on the cold hearted London killer that murdered his victims with a knife.
Macky Messer in Dreigroschenoper is a true villain who likes to play with his knives. But this villain is also a true charmer. The women love him and the police want to be his friends. It is very questionable who is the biggest villain: Mack the knife or Beggar king Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum.
Peachum has a daughter who is so much in love with Macky Messer she wants to mary him. Peachum, who forces the beggars in his town to beg for him, desperately wants his daughter to forget about Macky Messer.
So much he wants to have Macky Messer hanged. No matter if he has done anything wrong or not. In the end, Macky Messer is saved by Bertolt Brecht. With the rope around his neck, he is found not guilty.
And he sings his song: ‘wovon lebt der mensch’
Wovon Lebt der Mensch
Ihr Herrn, die ihr uns lehrt, wie man brav leben,
Und Sünd und Missetat vermeiden kann,
Zuerst müsst ihr uns was zu fressen geben,
Dann könnt ihr reden, damit fängt es an.
Ihr, die ihr euren Wanst und unsre Bravheit liebt,
Das eine wisset ein für allemal,
Wie ihr es immer dreht, und wie ihr’s immer schiebt,
Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.
Erst muss es möglich sein auch armen Leuten,
Vom grossen Brotlaib sich ihr Teil zu schneiden.
In other words: don’t moralize poor, hungry people for stealing bread. First comes food, and after that morality.
Epic characters at Berliner Ensemble
This weird end of the Dreigroschenoper is also typical for Bertolt Brecht plays. His epic characters tell the public they are part of a play. Brecht does not only want to entertain his audience, he wants to teach them something as well.
His epic plays are nearly anti-theatre. His characters often have white faces and red mouths, to stress they are not normal people, but actors in a play.
Bertolt Brecht not only changed theatre, he also was a revolutionair in his ideas. When he came back to Berlin in 1949 he settled in East Berlin. Brecht was a true communist, but he didn’t keep his mouth shut to please the East German government. After the riots in 1953, he stood up for the people of Berlin who wanted a better, and free life. In a poem he wrote:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Bertolt Brecht created a lot of plays that are still performed today. Not only in Berliner Ensemble, but in many countries. If you want to know more about his life, you should definitely go to his house in the Chaussee strasse. It is now a museum and in the kitchen downstairs, they cook with recipes of his wife and co-creater of Berliner Ensemble, Helene Weigel.
His other house, in the Berlin district Weissensee is not a museum, but also worth to pay a visit. Here you won’t find schnitzels by Helene Weigel. Or books by which Bertolt Brecht was inspired.
But you will see what happens when nobody cares about an old house with an important theatre history. The plaster of the Brecht house in Weissensee is peeling off. It’s a sad thing to see this beloved piece of archicture slowly crumbling to pieces.
Since then Berliner Ensemble was led by other famous directors and playwrights, like Heiner Muller. His adaptation of Brechts’ Arturo Ui with star actor Martin Wuttke as the scary lookalike of Adolf Hitler became quite famous. It is still performed, once or twice a year.
After Heiner Muller died, Berliner Ensemble struggled how to deal with the future. Director Claus Peyman is really good at showing how good Brecht plays can be. But his actors are getting older. And no matter how good they are, some forget their lines every now and then. That is a shame, because it distracts of what they are saying (or not saying). It is also annoying that the actors stop playing after singing a song so the audience can clap their hands. They are so used to this, they pause. True: they always sing very good. But somehow it seems strange and a bit arrogant to us because this distracts as well. We would rather clap our hands for a bit longer after the play.
But still, we love to see plays by Bertolt Brecht here. They have done it for so long, they perfectly know when they need to sing rough and when to be gentle, without being kitschy.
Other plays by Berliner Ensemble we rather avoid. Maybe it was bad luck, but we have seen quite a few plays here by other play writes that were so boring and old fashioned we left during the break. So if you go here for the first time, pick a Brecht play, like Baal, Dreigroschenoper, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, or what’s on. And avoid the other works, or check Tip or Zitty magazine for their reviews on Berliner Ensemble plays.
Other Berlin theatre:
The Schaubuhne makes ancient stories bright new. They make Shakespeare spectacularly modern with glossy kings and queens with sunglasses and bling bling. But don’t expect sugar sweet stories. The actors of the Schaubuhne are not afraid to play dirty, swear a lot and dive in the mud. You will see rage, madness, blood and a lot of dirt.
The Volksbuhne is one of Berlin’s most controversial theatres. We have visited this theatre lots of times. From the outside it looks a bit industrial. The building is a big block of concrete with kitschy wooden decor inside. The inside is a bit tacky, but the plays never bored us. It is impossible to visit the Volksbuhne and not be amazed.