Wednesday, February 21, 2018


I have mentioned Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in numerous earlier posts. It suddenly occurred to me that I needed to look at his earliest plays in order to see if I missed one relating to World War One. Drums in the Night (Trommeln in der Nacht), his second play, was written in 1918-19 while Brecht was serving in the military as a medical orderly. The drama tells the story of a German soldier who returns home from the war after he was reported missing in action.
This five-act play is set in Berlin during a single night in November, 1918. Act One begins at twilight and Act Five ends at dawn. Drums in the Night takes place when the Spartacist League—a communist faction group, led by Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919) and Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), was in conflict with the Social-Democratic Party.

Each act of this play has a title.  The reader has to be aware of the title to understand how it relates to the action of the act.   Act One is named “Africa.” It is set in Anna Balicke’s parents’ modest Berlin home. The time is a November evening. Anna’s soldier boyfriend, Andrew Kragler, had four years earlier been reported missing in action. She continues to hope he will return from Africa, but her father pushes her to become engaged to Frederick Murk, a man who stayed home during the war and became wealthy. Since Anna is pregnant with Murk’s child, she consents to the engagement. After everyone in the house leaves to go to the Piccadilly Bar to celebrate the engagement, Kragler arrives from Africa looking emaciated and dirty in his tattered uniform as well as acting nearly catatonic. His appearance reflects the mutilating effects of war.

Act Two titled “Pepper.” The action takes place in the Piccadilly Bar. There is a red moon shining in the window. The engagement party is underway when Kragler arrives. Anna is shocked to see him. The people in the bar are hostile towards Kragler, who fought to save them during the war. Kragler is forced to leave the bar.

Act Three is titled “Ride of the Valkyries.” It takes place on a road leading to the suburbs.  It is a windy night. Kragler is being pursued by Marie, a prostitute who had come to the engagement party with Murk. Eventually Anna appears as she is searching for Kragler along this road.

Act Four is titled “The Booze Dance.”  It is set in a small gin mill. Kragler recounts how he survived in Africa. He has been drinking for hours and suddenly he realizes that he agreed to be an active member of the Spartacist revolution.

Act Five titled “The Bed.” It takes place on a wooden bridge while the big red moon continues to shine on the activities of the night. Eventually Kragler turns his back on the Spartacist League’s revolution. He and Anna are reunited and they walk away together. The red moon that has shown throughout this night signifies that this story is over, but a new one for this couple begins at dawn.

The Frank Jones translation of Drums in the Night that I read follows the text published by Propylaen Verlag, Berlin, 1922. This version of the play appears in the 1966 Grove Press publication titled Bertolt Brecht-Jungle of Cities and Other Plays.

Brecht dedicated Drums in the Night to “Bie Bahnholzer 1918.”  Bie Banholzer’s last name appears to have been misspelled in the dedication.  She was one of Brecht’s female friends and the mother of Frank, his first son.

Although this is an early play by Brecht, it has elements of his emerging “alienation” style. For Drums in the Night, Brecht wanted signboards hung in the auditorium bearing pronouncements such as EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF and NO ROMANTIC GAPING. Brecht also wanted the moon to give off a more intense red glow a few seconds before each of Kragler’s entrances. The title of each act requires the reader/viewer to remain aware of it and discover how it fits into the storyline. These are just a sample of the elements Brecht used to keep the audience from becoming lost in the emotional tug of the storyline.  Instead he wanted audiences to maintain logical reasoning about the unfolding events.

Drums in the Night was first performed in Munich on September 30, 1922 at the Munich Kammerspiele. This production was directed by Otto Falckenberg (1873-1947) a supporter of new German, controversial drama. The play received its second production in Berlin at the Deutsches Theater.  The Berlin production opened on December 20, 1922 with a cast of leading actors. Falckenberg also directed this production. I have read that at least forty more productions of Drums in the Night were staged throughout Germany. 
Brecht received the 1922 Kleist Prize as the most promising playwright of that year. Herbert Ihering* (1888-1977), the leading theatre critic in Germany at this time, was an advocate for both Brecht and Drums in the Night. He was the individual who was mandated by the Kleist Foundation in 1922 to nominate a recipient for the Kleist Prize.

Brecht’s reputation was established mainly in Europe until he met Eric Bentley, British-born American critic who was born in 1916 and is currently over one hundred one years old.  They met in the 1940’s at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Eventually, Bentley became an expert on Brecht and introduced his plays to North Americans. Bentley translated some of the plays himself and for others he selected various scholars.

Once the English version of Drums in the Night was published in 1966, productions of this play began to appear in the United States. The world premiere of this play presented in English took place August 4-13, 1966 at UCLA.  It was directed by Carl M. Weber formerly of the Berliner Ensemble, the German theatre company established in 1949 by Brecht and his second wife, Helene Weigel (1900-1971).

The Barnard College Theatre Company presented the New York City premiere of Drums in the Night on March 6, 1967. The first professional theatre in the United States to present Drums in the Night was Circle in the Square located in New York City. This production opened April 27, 1967 and it ran for sixty-nine performances.

Since the late 1960s, Drums in the Night has been produced periodically over the decades.  The most notable production was staged July, 1992 at the Shaw Festival located in Niagara-On-The- Lake, Ontario, Canada.

There were also productions of this play presented in Great Britain. Drums in the Night premiered on September 2, 1969 at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. This production ran until the end of October. The story in the Birmingham Daily Post on August 19, 1969 announcing this production of the play also mentioned that Drums in the Night had previously been broadcast in Great Britain on the BBC Third Programme. This would have provided the opportunity for many persons to have listened to the play on the national radio service. 

There were numerous productions of this play during the 1970’s in major British cities other than London. These productions used a translation of Drums in the Night made by Cecil P. Taylor (1929-1981).  Taylor was a prolific Scottish playwright as well as a noted translator. 

This is an interesting play to read particularly if one is interested in Germany immediately following the end of the World War One.

*sometimes spelled Jhering.
PHOTOS:  The photo of Brecht taken in 1934. Schumacher, Ernest. Bertolt Brechts, Leben 
                        des Galilei"  Berlin: Henscheverlag, 1965.
                   Drums in the Night. Munich production 1922. Garten, H. F.  
                       Modern German Drama.  London: Methuen & Co Ltd., 1964.

1 comment:

  1. Drums in the Night directed by Jon Kellem, was presented by The Actors' Gang a Theater Company based in Los Angeles, Artistic Director Tim Robbins, in 2006