In the early 20th century, German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht emerged as a pioneer of formally innovative and politically committed theatre. The Berliner Ensemble, founded in 1949 by Brecht and Helene Weigel, established a company of actors, writers and other practitioners committed to developing ‘epic theatre’.
Before the Berliner Ensemble made their first, influential visit to London in 1956, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop had decided to stage Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1941). Planned for performance in July 1955, this was to be the first authorised British production of the acclaimed play.
Ultimately, the production was fraught with problems. This collection of telegrams and letters, exchanged between Gerry Raffles (Theatre Workshop’s General Manager), members of the Berliner Ensemble (including Brecht, writer and dramaturge Elisabeth Hauptmann and Carl Weber) and Oscar Lewenstein (who presented the production and brokered the agreement), reveals the troubled history surrounding it.
What difficulties did Theatre Workshop encounter with their production of Mother Courage?
After initial confusion about performance rights, Theatre Workshop entered into a series of delays, uncertainties and negotiations. Before he authorised the production, Brecht ‘[had] to know a few things’ (f. 20r). His conditions were that he would personally approve the leading actress, the director and the translation. If Theatre Workshop’s ‘trial’ performance at a Devon festival was a success, Brecht would consider extending the production to Theatre Workshop’s ‘home’ at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Theatre Workshop proposed that, ‘we think the only English actress capable of playing Mother Courage is Joan Littlewood herself’ – as she was ‘everywhere hailed as one of the best producers in this country’, Theatre Workshop also proposed Littlewood as director (f. 22r). Unsurprisingly, Littlewood’s dual role was exceptionally demanding. Soon, Raffles and Brecht agreed on a further condition: Carl Weber, a directing assistant from the Berliner Ensemble, would travel to London to assist the production.
As the performance drew closer, the letters and telegrams reveal escalating clashes of opinion – and personalities. In spite of, or perhaps because of, what they held in common – namely their innovative approach to theatre practice and left-wing political ideology – each company held strong, conflicting ideas on how to stage Mother Courage.
On 20 June 1955, Weber sent a letter to Littlewood (ff. 63r–65r) – with copies also sent to Hauptmann, Brecht and Oscar Lowenstein – detailing the problems that had developed during rehearsals (including the fact that Littlewood had excluded Weber from attending them). He states: ‘To me it has been clear that you resented what you regarded as “interference” of Brecht or the Berliner Ensemble’ (f. 63r). In spite of their disputes, Weber praised Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, writing, ‘your group is one of the best I have ever seen’ (f. 64r). In reply, Raffles threatened to sue for slander (4 July 1955, not digitised here).
Did the production go ahead?
Before Littlewood received Weber’s letter, however, Raffles wrote to Brecht declaring that Joan would no longer be playing the lead part. A flurry of heated letters followed, with Brecht issuing an ultimatum on 22 June: ‘dass Sie selbst die COURAGE spielten, war die Bedingung für unseren Aufführungsvertrag und ich kann davon unter keinen Umständen abgehen’ (‘That you play Mother Courage was the condition of our contract and I cannot abandon this condition under any circumstance’) (ff. 67r–68r). The whole production was at risk.
On 5 July, Raffles reported to Brecht that their production of Mother Courage had gone ahead – with Littlewood in the lead role. After the delays, Raffles testified that Littlewood had had just three days to prepare: ‘The result was, inevitably, a performance on Thursday crippled by nerves’ (f. 76r). It was poorly received. At the end of his letter, Raffles asked if their production could be extended to Stratford East. This collection does not contain a reply from Brecht. We do know, however, that the production did not run. In spite of their difficult experiences Brechtian ideas continued to shape Theatre Workshop’s approach – notably for Oh What a Lovely War (1963).
It was to be Samuel Beckett, rather than Brecht, who sent shockwaves through British theatre in 1955. Just a month later after Theatre Workshop's performance of Mother Courage, Waiting for Godot premiered in London.