Agitprop Nostalgia: Judith Malina’s “Piscator Notebook” Book Launch

A slide used at the book launch event
A slide used at the book launch event

At the May 10 book launch for her new The Piscator Notebook, Judith Malina, co-founder and artistic director of The Living Theatre, told a charming story about her origins.

Her mother had wanted-fervently-to be an actress before marrying and giving up the opportunity for a career outside the home; this was 1920s Germany, after all, and her husband was a Rabbi. Her dream, in particular, was to be an actress directed by the great Erwin Piscator, a leading force in political theater in Berlin. Malina’s parents decided then that they would have a daughter who would act for Piscator, as a surrogate for her mother. This decision worked out well for them: An ocean and a World War away, in New York in 1945, Judith, still a teenager, entered Piscator’s theater program at The New School.

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Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) was a seminal figure in the development of left-wing political theater in Berlin between the wars and in New York in the 1940s. In the ’50s, he returned to West Berlin and became the Director of the Freien Volksb√ºhne from 1963 until his death in 1966.

Piscator was at the center of it all. He joined the Berlin Dada circle after WWI. He worked with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to design a (too ambitious/expensive to be built) “Total Theater” where he could have realized his avant-garde vision for what he called “Epic Theater.” He wanted his productions to emphasize political awareness rather than the sentimental aspects of theater, and he embraced technology like immersive projections. His pupil Bertolt Brecht popularized the concept of “Epic Theater,” but he got it from Piscator. Malina explained that Brecht is more famous than Piscator because he left behind his scripts. Piscator was a director, so his work was ephemeral.

In addition to Malina, Piscator’s students in New York included such bold-faced names as Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, Bea Arthur, and Harry Belafonte, among many more.

At the book launch event, not incidentally at the very same New School, the lives and work of Piscator and Malina were celebrated by readings from the book, an interview with Malina, reminiscences of Piscator and The Dramatic Workshop by George Bartenieff, Jack Garfein, and Louise Kerz Hirschfeld Cullman. There was a performance of a brief excerpt from History of the World, a play by Malina that ran at The Living Theatre earlier this year. Kristin Skye Hoffmann presented a crowd-pleasing biographical introduction to Piscator.

At the center of Malina’s book are transcripts of her detailed notes, taken during Piscator’s lessons. She knew as soon as she began at The New School that her teacher was extraordinary. The rest of the book covers Piscator’s life before and after his time teaching in New York and a final section on what Malina referred to as his influence on all theater and all art.