Saturday, June 11, 2016


Berta Lask was born in Wadowice, Galicia (the city became part of Poland after WWI.)  She moved to Berlin in 1901 following her marriage to Louis Jacobson, a physician. During the early years of her marriage, she had four children. She also wrote poetry from 1910 to 1920. Two collections of her poetry were published after World War One. She rapidly gained recognition as an Expressionist poet.

Her concern with political issues was awakened as she became active in the women’s movement. She expanded her political interests and became increasingly radical following the 1917 October Revolution in Leningrad and the 1918 November Revolution in Berlin. She began to write plays as a result of wanting to convert German workers to socialism.  She firmly believed that workers and women could build better lives under this social order. 
Lask started writing plays around 1919 prior to joining the recently established German Communist Party.  1923 marked both her formal commitment to the Party and her first major stage success titled The Dead Are Calling.  This dramatic poem pertains to the death of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, both leaders in the Spartacist League. These are the same individuals that Lask featured in several of the Liberation tableaux. The Dead Are Calling (Die Toten rufen) received more than thirty performances in venues throughout Berlin.

When Berta Lask wrote Liberation (Die Befreiung) in 1924, she was experimenting with ideas that expanded beyond Expressionism. She was testing new ways of telling the story while attempt to stir audiences to political action. This emerging theatrical style became labelled Agitprop Theatre. Agitprop is a fusion of intellectual propaganda and emotional agitation.  Its aim is to stir audience members to action once they leave the theatre through being informed of real events. They have been exposed to a possible solution to their misery and are hopefully motivated to utilize it.

Agitprop theatre was performed by Workers’ Theatre groups who were usually amateur ensembles. Erwin Piscator created one of the earliest groups of this type in Berlin.  Liberation was written using the basics of the Agitprop style, but it embellished the written style and pushed the production values into a new style of staging that was of interest to Piscator.  Erwin Piscator wanted to stage Liberation during the 1925 theatre season.

Piscator cast this play from his Workers’ Acting Group and he used Berlin’s Central-Theater (1865-1945) to stage it. He had managed this theatre during the 1922-1923 season, but he merely leased it for Liberation. This old theatre seated about 1,000 persons. Piscator was rapidly establishing himself as an innovative and significant professional director at this time.

Liberation suited Piscator’s purpose for theatre since he wanted to awaken the audiences’ consciousness by theatrically presenting recent political events and forwarding a bit of the ideology that supported the movement. He wanted his audiences to gain a new awareness of the political situation so they would willingly become involved with the Party once they left the theatre. Lask’s script closely follows some of the events relating to the Russian and German revolutions. She demonstrates how these movements changed the lives of ordinary citizens, with a special emphasis on the plight of women.

She also incorporated the use of some of the newest stylistic innovations. She used the Expressionistic style of depersonalized characters, who have generic names such as woman or soldier.  Lask also incorporated a few characters who are named individuals. These characters are in stark contrast as leaders to the unnamed. Lask also utilized short rapid scenes that was becoming a feature of the Agitprop style. She developed an immediate relationship between life on stage and the audience with her Prologue: a woman located in the house of the theatre begins to question the Theatre Director about the play.  This same woman interrupts the tableaux one more time to focus the story in the direction of her interest. These are a few of the most obvious features Lask incorporated into Liberation.

Liberation also required a different presentational approach and some of these ideas she incorporated into the script. One example is Lask wanted each tableau to be introduced on stage in a manner that immediately identified the location and date of a scene.  This information may have been flashed on a screen or written on a sign that was shown to the audience. Her intent was to immediately draw the audience into each moment as if witnessing the actual event.  She was writing about relatively new political ideas as well as writing for a new style of theatre production.  Piscator, in 1925, was involved with expanding a style of theatrical production that utilized projections and new staging techniques. Staging Liberation fit perfectly into Piscator development as an innovative theatre director who would eventually be recognized as one of the creators the Epic Theatre style.

Lask continued to write political plays and while her 1926 script titled Leuna 1921 was in rehearsal, it was banned by the authorities.  Lask was repeatedly accused of treason during this period, her published plays were seized by the government and performances banned. Some scholars of Lask’s dramas believe that Leuna 1921 is her best work. As a result of Lask’s problems with the government during the 1920s, her reputation as a dramatist began to fade.

After the national socialist were voted into power in 1933, Lask spent a brief time in prison. Following her incarceration, she was allowed to emigrate to Moscow. After many years of living in various cities in the Soviet Union, Lask wanted to return to Germany. In 1953, she moved to East Berlin. In 1955, she penned a fictional autobiography titled Silence and Storm (Stille und Sturm).

I searched for evidence of her plays being presented in the United States and Great Britain. The only information I found was a notice in the Brooklyn Eagle on March 30, 1939. It was asking interested actors to be interviewed for roles in Lask’s play Torch-bearers. It was to be the “first English production at the co-operative Summer theater. . .”  I do not know if this production ever materialized.

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