These photographs from the Tynan Archive show scenes from the 1964 Berliner Ensemble production of Bertolt Brecht’s (1898–1956) adaptation of Coriolanus from the 1950s, directed by Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert. The striking scenery and costumes were designed by Karl von Appen, based on the ideas of Brecht and Caspar Neher. The production toured to the National Theatre at the Old Vic in London in August 1965.
Brecht was a playwright and director who had lived in exile from his native Germany from 1933 to 1948. He was a Marxist who developed a theory and practice known as epic theatre. Brecht saw this theatre as a vehicle with which to provoke political debate and action. His ‘alienation’ techniques were intended to remind the audience of the artificiality of the theatrical form and thus shock them into making connections to the real world instead of focusing on emotional responses to the play’s characters. This theory was strongly influenced by Erich Engel’s anti-heroic production of Coriolanus in 1925, which Brecht had collaborated on.
Brecht’s adaptation dates from around 1952–53 when the rise and fall of Hitler was still in the minds of the public. Brecht was aware that Shakespeare had written the play for a class-based society, whereas the German playwright was adapting the work for a socialist state. Thus he rewrote the play trying to challenge the supremacy of the patricians and show the plebeians and their tribunes in a better light. He turns the attention away from the story of the individual, and refocuses it on the social struggles of the common people, for example closing the play with discussions in the senate rather than with Coriolanus’s murder. In Brecht’s version it is in fact Coriolanus’s individualism and his belief that he is indispensable that is the cause of his downfall.
In c. 1953–54, Brecht also wrote a critical dialogue, ‘Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus’, which stages a conversation between some actors on interpreting the first scene of the play in the context of epic theatre, and the theories of Marx and Mao.
Brecht left the work unrehearsed and unfinished at his death, and in 1964 his adaptation was in turn adapted by the directors Wekwerth and Tenschert who largely returned to Shakespeare’s original and centred their play on the concept that Coriolanus was valuable to Rome, but that the cost to society was too high.