Saturday, June 4, 2016

LIBERATION by BERTA LASK




Berta Lask (1878-1967) is a playwright who wrote major successes for the German stage during the years of 1924-27, which like herself, are forgotten today. She was discovered by English readers in the late 1990’s when War Plays By Women: An International Anthology was published with Lask’s play Liberation, translated by Agn├ęs Cardinal. Liberation had been produced in Berlin during the 1925 theatre season by Erwin Piscator (1893-1966). The play is noteworthy since it was written in the Epic Theatre style before Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) created the theory defining the style. Lask was easy to omit from theatre history since she was a woman and an ardent supporter of the German Communist Party. She possessed an unwavering dedication to the party ideals. Her political plays apparently went beyond the level of acceptability because after 1927 her plays were no longer staged.

Liberation is divided into a number of short sections titled “Tableau” rather than conventional acts and scenes. It commences with a Prologue that has a woman pushing her way from the back of the house and through the theatre towards the stage. She does not want to see the usual play about women.  The Theatre Director assures her that they are staging “a piece for the women workers here, a piece of reality taken from life.” 

The play is divided into Sixteen Tableaux. Lask envisioned it as an evolving portrait of the conditions German and Russian women endured, in their respective countries, during the years of 1914 to 1920.   The first and second tableaux show the beginning of World War One (1914) and its immediate effect on women. The first tableau is set in a Russian village. The peasants learn that war has been declared. The village’s men are immediately conscripted for army service. The second tableau is in a German town as the soldiers leave for the front.

 The next three tableaux are set in the year 1916 and they demonstrate the hardships that the women of Russia and Germany are enduring at home. Each tableau demonstrates that severe food shortages are causing starvation. This cluster of scenes also portray women being poorly treated by the government. The whisper of a revolution is also circulating in these two countries.

A short Interlude follows where the Woman from the Prologue is not satisfied with the play since there has not been “a word about the Russian Revolution.”  The Theatre Director assures her they are coming to that topic now.  The Sixth Tableau is a Russian soldier’s wife working for the revolution in St. Petersburg.  The woman is Darja, a young Russian peasant, who appeared in the first tableaux.  It is the night of 7 November 1917 that became known as the “Night of the Bolsheviks” when the Communist movement won its first major victory. 
    
Tableaux seven, eight and nine are set in Hamburg, Germany where women with Communist beliefs are trying to repeat what the Russian Communists did and stop Germans from participating in the war effort. Tableau seven takes place in January, 1918 while eight is set in a Hamburg Jail on November 6, 1918 when the comrades were freed from prison. The specific dates relate to the actual historic events. 

Tableaux ten and eleven take place in 1918 as the Red Guard are trying to stop the capitalist war. Tableau twelve is set at a textile factory in Russia where nothing is working properly until Darja solves the problem. She is promoted to the position titled the Red Manager of the factory. There is once again a shift to Germany in Tableaux thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. The city is Berlin and the date is January 14, 1919 for Tableau thirteen. The communist group named the Spartacist League, who started the revolution in Germany, flee from Berlin. Tableau fourteen takes place on January 15th, when it is reported that the Spartacist League has been defeated and order is being restored. Tableau fifteen is that same evening and set in a room in the Hotel Eden.  Several Officers from the sharp shooters division of the Cavalry Guard celebrate their victory over the Spartacist League and its dead leaders.

The last Interlude brings the Theatre Director on stage to tell his audience that “we can’t put on stage everything that happened in those years.”  He concludes his speech with “One last time the curtain will rise to show you how working women the world over continue the struggle.”

The Sixteenth Tableau is set at the World Congress of Communists Women in Moscow. Lask does not give a date for this scene, but the Communist Women’s International was launched in Moscow during the month of April, 1920. This final scene of the play represents women from around the world becoming a strong and demanding voice in the new society. The scene ends with all the women singing the “Internationale”. This song was originally written in nineteenth century France. Following the Russian Revolution, it was adopted by the Soviet Union as its first national anthem. The “Internationale” was replaced as the Russian national anthem in the 1940’s; however, it remained the official song of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Liberation has more than sixty characters listed to appear during the course of the action. It was a highly experimental script that required a new production style.  Liberation provided Erwin Piscator with an opportunity to continue developing a new type of theatre experience for his audiences.  My next post will discuss the production of this play and its reception.

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