Friday, July 3, 2015


I discovered that there were a number of plays titled The Good Soldier Schweik, based on the 1923 episodic comic novel titled Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik written by the celebrated Czech author Jaroslav Hasek (1883-1923). This novel became a classic story related to surviving during World War One and has been translated into sixty languages. The character of Schweik enticed a few of the most prominent theatre persons, in the twentieth century, to adapt the novel into an innovative theatre piece.  This post is a survey and brief discussion of each production that I have found.

When I started searching for World War I plays, I wanted to read a copy in English of The Good Soldier Schweik, the version of the play associated with Erwin Piscator’s 1928 production.  Piscator (1893-1966) and his collaborators—Felix Gasbarra and Bertold Brecht—appear to be the first persons to adapt Hasek’s novel into a staged theatre piece.  The German translation of the novel had appeared the previous year and it had been favorably received; therefore, the story was known to many audience members.

Piscator was experimenting with new production ideas in order to present the character of Schweik as constantly moving through each episode.  The manner in which this production achieved Piscator’s vision became part of his innovative production style.  There are a number of descriptions relating to "Schweik" in books about Piscator’s new style of theatrical production that is known as Epic Theatre. 

The New York Times published a review on December 22, 1937 discussing a production of The Good Soldier Schweik staged by the Artef Players.  This group was an outstanding company for Yiddish Theatre whose home was the 48th Street Theatre in New York City. The Artef Players represented the highest development of the Yiddish stage in the United States. Most of their plays were spoken in Yiddish, but the “Times" review does not mention that was true of “Schweik”.  The play was dramatized by Mark Schweid, an actor, who directed this production. He adapted it from Hasek’s novel.  It was billed as comedy-satire which according to the review seemed to fall short of that description. “Schweik’s misadventures are not intended to be an amusing end in themselves but a means of showing the stupidity of military authority.”  

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in 1941, after relocating to Santa Monica, California from war torn Europe, began to write an updated version of the Schweik story. It is titled Schweik in the Second World War. This play was not staged during Brecht lifetime.

Another production of The Good Soldier Schweik was adapted from the novel by Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), an Englishman of many talents.  He and his wife, Joan Littlewood (1914-2002), created the first British production of this play.  It was originally staged at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England prior to World War Two.  Following the war in 1946, MacColl and Littlewood founded the Theatre Workshop.  This was a small struggling group that spent its time touring mostly in the north of England.  They presented a new production of “Schweik” that opened on October 25, 1955 at London’s Theatre Royal Strafford East.  It ran for a total of twenty-five performances and it was a success.  A review in “Stage” on October 25, 1955 called it “a classic and amusing indictment of militarism.”  The review praises the adaptation and the “cartoon decor”.  

Joan Littlewood was the director of “Schweik” and her reputation grew following this production.  Theatre Workshop won praise for this production at the 1955-56 Paris Theatre Festival. Littlewood’s renown as a director spread and she became highly recognized for her directorial achievements in the 1960’s as her fame increased in Europe and North America.

MacColl’s adaptation made its way to the United States in 1964.  The Bridgeport Post ran an article on February 23, 1964 announcing: “The Yale Dramatic Association is presenting for its winter production the acerbic anti-war comedy ‘The Good Soldier Schweik.’ The production is the premiere of the new version based on the play adapted by Ewan MacColl.”

Another version of the novel was adapted and staged by Robert Kalfin (1933-    ) for presentation at New York City’s Gate Theatre Off-Broadway. It opened April 8, 1963 with Irwin Corey, a popular American comedian, playing Schweik.  This appears to be Robert Kalfin’s first major directing credit in New York.  The New York Times reviewer, Paul Gardner, felt Corey had the “physique and personality for Schweik.” In Gardner’s last paragraph of the review he states: “Despite Mr. Corey’s efforts to pump life into the adaptation, a sad thing has happened to Hasek’s expressionistic novel: it has been rendered expressionless.”

The last theatre adaption of The Good Soldier Schweik, that I will list, was done by Michael John Nimchuk of Toronto, Canada. It was first staged in 1969 by the Toronto Workshop Productions and repeated in 1974.  I do not know if changes were made to the script prior to the second production.  The script was printed in 1980 by Playwrights Canada.  I have read this script and it follows the novel’s plot line for Schweik’s adventures.  I have neither information regarding the two productions nor if there have been productions resulting from the publication. 

There have been both operas and films based on Hasek’s novel. Some have reached audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. If your interest is opera, look into Robert F. Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik that was premiered by the New York City Opera during its 1957 season. In 1958 the opera was presented in Berlin and Dresden.  I have found references to eight film adaptations from 1926 to 2007.  The 1960 West German film is available on-line.

“Schweik” popularity has spanned many decades, countries, languages and types of media presentations.  I hope this post stimulates your interest to discover it in at least one of its presentational modes.     

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