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Series editors: C. Balme; T. Davis; C. Cole

Transnational Theatre Histories

Series Editors
Christopher B. Balme
Institut für Theaterwissenschaft
Munich, Germany

Tracy C. Davis
Northwestern University, USA

Catherine M. Cole
College of Arts and Sciences
University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Transnational Theatre Histories illuminates vectors of cultural exchange,
migration, appropriation, and circulation that long predate the more
recent trends of neoliberal globalization. Books in the series document
and theorize the emergence of theatre, opera, dance, and performance
against backgrounds such as imperial expansion, technological develop-
ment, modernity, industrialization, colonization, diplomacy, and cultural
self-determination. Proposals are invited on topics such as:

• theatrical trade routes

• public spheres through cross-cultural contact
• the role of multi-ethnic metropolitan centers and port cities
• modernization and modernity experienced in transnational contexts
• new materialism: objects moving across borders and regions
• migration and recombination of aesthetics and forms
• colonization and decolonization as transnational projects
• performance histories of cross- or inter-cultural contact
• festivals, exchanges, partnerships, collaborations, and co-productions
• diplomacy, state and extra-governmental involvement, support, or
• historical perspectives on capital, finance, and administration
• processes of linguistic and institutional translation
• translocality, glocality, transregional and omnilocal vectors
• developing new forms of collaborative authorship

More information about this series at

Christopher B. Balme  •  Berenika Szymanski-Düll

Globalization and
the Cold War
Christopher B. Balme Berenika Szymanski-Düll
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
Munich, Germany Munich, Germany

Transnational Theatre Histories

ISBN 978-3-319-48083-1    ISBN 978-3-319-48084-8 (eBook)
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8

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Cover illustration: Rosina’s first appearance in Act I of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia,

1974, Bayerische Staatsoper.
Photo: Sabine Toepffer

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 1 Introduction 1
Christopher B. Balme and Berenika Szymanski-Düll

Part I  Shifting Borders: Tours and Touring 23

  2 A Cold War Battleground: Catfish Row versus the Nevsky

Prospekt 25
Charlotte M. Canning

  3 Spirituals, Serfs, and Soviets: Paul Robeson and 

International Race Policy in the Soviet
Union at the Start of the Cold War 45
Christopher Silsby

  4 The Politics of an International Reputation:

The Berliner Ensemble as a GDR Theatre on Tour 59
David Barnett

  5 ‘A tour to the West could bring a lot of 

trouble…’—The Mazowsze State Folk Song and 
Dance Ensemble during the First Period of the Cold War 73
Berenika Szymanski-Düll
vi   Contents

  6 Song and Dance Ensembles in Central European Militaries:

The Spread, Transformation and Retreat of a
Soviet Model 87
Václav Šmidrkal

  7 Theatre, Propaganda and the Cold War: Peter Brook’s

Midsummer Night’s Dream in Eastern Europe (1972) 107
Zoltán Imre

Part II  Institutions and Institutional Imbrications 131

  8 MI5 Surveillance of British Cold War Theatre 133

James Smith

  9 Creating an International Community during

the Cold War 151
Hanna Korsberg

10 The Cultural Cold War on the Home Front:

The Political Role of Theatres in Communist
Kraków and Leipzig 165
Kyrill Kunakhovich

Part III  Acting, Artists and Art Between the Battlefronts 187

11 Years of Compromise and Political Servility—Kantor

and Grotowski during the Cold War 189
Karolina Prykowska Michalak

12 ‘A Memorable French-Romanian Evening’: Nationalism

and the Cold War at the Theatre of Nations Festival 207
Ioana Szeman
Contents   vii

13 An Eastern Bloc Cultural Figure? Brecht’s

Reception by Young Left-wingers in Greece in the 1970s 223
Nikolaos Papadogiannis

14 Acting on the Cold War: Imperialist Strategies,

Stanislavsky, and Brecht in German Actor
Training after 1945 239
Anja Klöck

15 Checkpoint Music Drama 259

Sebastian Stauss

Part IV  Postcolonial Perspectives 271

16 Whose Side Are You On? Cold War Trajectories

in Eritrean Drama Practice, 1970s to Early 1990s 273
Christine Matzke

17 ‘How close is Angola to us?’ Peter Weiss’s

Play Song of the Lusitanian Bogeyman in the 
Shadow of the Cold War 293
Rikard Hoogland

18 Manila and the World Dance Space:

Nationalism and Globalization in Cold War
Philippines and South East Asia 307
meLê yamomo and Basilio E. Villaruz


Notes on Contributors

Christopher  B. Balme holds the Chair in Theatre Studies at LMU

Munich. His current research interests focus on the legacy of modernism
in the globalization of the arts; theatre and the public sphere; and the
relationship between media and performance. He is director of the Global
Theatre Histories project (www.global-theatre-histories.org).
David Barnett  is Professor of Theatre at the University of York. He is the
author of A History of the Berliner Ensemble (2015), Brecht in Practice:
Theatre, Theory and Performance (2014), Rainer Werner Fassbinder and
the German Theatre (2005) and a monograph on Heiner Müller (1998).
He has written several articles and essays on German-, English-language,
political and postdramatic theatre.
Charlotte M. Canning  is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor in
Drama in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas
at Austin, Texas, USA. She is the author of On the Performance Front: US
Theatre and Internationalism (2015). She has also written Feminist
Theaters in the USA: Staging Women’s Experience (1995) and The Most
American Thing in America: Circuit Chautauqua as Performance (2005).
Rikard  Hoogland  is Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at Stockholm
University. He has published in peer-reviewed journals (Perepeti and the
Nordic Journal of Culture Policy) and in anthologies published by Rodopi,
Cambridge Scholars, Ohlms, Palgrave and Cambridge University Press.
Currently he is part of a research project about Swedish stage art in the
period 1880–1925 financed by the Swedish Research Foundation.

x   Notes on Contributors

Zoltán Imre  received his PhD from Queen Mary College, University of

London (2005), and is currently a Reader at the Department of Comparative
Literature and Culture, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. His publica-
tions include Theatre and Theatricality (2003), Staging Theatre—Theories,
Histories, and Alternatives (2009) and Staging the Nation—The Changing
Concept of the Hungarian National Theatre from 1837 until Today (2013).
Anja Klöck  is Professor of Drama at the University of Music and Theatre
“Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” in Leipzig, Germany. She has published
widely on early twentieth century avant-garde theatre, theatre and politics,
theatre and mediality, and the history and theory of acting and actor train-
ing. She is currently preparing a book on the politics of actor training
programmes in Germany (1945–1990).
Hanna  Korsberg  is Professor of Theatre Research at the University of
Helsinki. Her research interests include the relationship between theatre
and politics in Finland, a topic which she has studied in two monographs.
She is also the author of several articles on theatre history, historiography
and performance analysis. Currently, she is the vice president of the
International Federation of Theatre Research.
Kyrill Kunakhovich  is Assistant Professor of History at the University of
Virginia. He was previously a Mellon Faculty Fellow in Global Studies at
the College of William & Mary, USA and a postdoctoral fellow in the
Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard. He is completing a book manu-
script entitled Culture for the People: Art and Politics in Communist Poland
and East Germany.
Christine  Matzke teaches Anglophone literature and theatre at the
University of Bayreuth. Her recent publications include the co-edited
African Theatre 14: Contemporary Women (2015, with Yvette Hutchison
and Jane Plastow), an overview of Hamlet in Africa (2014), and a chapter
on a South Sudanese production of Cymbeline (2013). She specializes in
Eritrean theatre arts and cultural production.
Nikolaos  Papadogiannis  is a Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary
History at the School of History and Archaeology, Bangor University. He
obtained his PhD in 2010 from the University of Cambridge. He is the
author of Militant around the Clock? Left-wing Youth Politics, Leisure and
Sexuality in Post-dictatorship Greece, 1974–1981 (2015).
Karolina Prykowska-Michalak  is Associate Professor in the Department
of Drama and Theatre of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the
Notes on Contributors   xi

University of Łódź, Poland. She is the author of several books and articles
about the relations between Polish and German theatre in history and the
present. Currently she is working on a book about theatrical organization
systems in Europe, with a focus on theatre systems in post-Soviet
Christopher  Silsby  is a Doctoral Candidate in theatre at the CUNY
Graduate Center, where his work centres on the intersection of Soviet,
African American and musical theatres. For the Martin E. Segal Theatre
Center, he has served as editorial assistant and production editor on nine
books, including Czech Plays (2009) and Playwrights before the Fall:
Eastern European Drama in Times of Revolution (2010). He has worked
in multiple capacities at the journal Slavic and East European Performance,
as assistant editor, managing editor and editorial advisor.
Václav  Šmidrkal earned his PhD in Modern History at the Charles
University in Prague in 2014 for a dissertation about transnational history
of military musical institutions in socialist Czechoslovakia, East Germany
and Poland. Currently, he is assistant professor of contemporary Central
European history at the Charles University in Prague and project researcher
at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
James Smith  is a Reader in English Studies at Durham University, where
he has particular research and teaching interests in topics such as surveil-
lance and censorship of modern literature and culture. His most recent
book was British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930–1960 (2013).
Sebastian  Stauss  is Lecturer in Theatre Studies at LMU Munich. He
completed his degrees in theatre studies, English and German literature,
and his doctoral thesis was published in 2010 (Between Narcissism and
Self-Hate: The Representation of the Aestheticist Artist in the Theater of the
Turn of the 20th Century and the Inter-World-War Period). He is also
author of various articles on opera and aspects of operatic performance
history of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
Ioana Szeman  is a Principal Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance
Studies at the University of Roehampton, London. Her ethnographic
research focuses on how Roma express citizenship and belonging and uses
performance paradigms to discuss the politics of recognition that Roma
face in Romania and across the EU.  Her current project addresses the
xii   Notes on Contributors

relationship between theatre and diplomacy during the Communist period

in Romania.
Berenika  Szymanski-Düll is Lecturer in Theatre Studies at LMU
Munich, Germany. In her dissertation, she outlined the theatricality of the
Polish resistance movements in the 1980s. Her current research interests
include international touring theatre in the nineteenth century, theatre
and migration, and performance art in Eastern Europe during the Cold
War. She is an associate of the research project Global Theatre Histories
Basilio Esteban S. Villaruz  is a choreographer, choreologist, critic and
dance historian. He founded the dance degree programme at the University
of the Philippines, where he is professor emeritus. Mr Villaruz is the editor
of several periodicals and books, and has been a critic/columnist for sev-
eral national daily newspapers in the Philippines.
meLê yamomo  is Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies at the University
of Amsterdam. He holds a PhD in theatre studies and musicology from
LMU Munich. As a theatre-maker and sound designer/composer, he has
worked with several theatre and production companies in south-east Asia.
He was an Exchange Artist Fellow at the Korean National Arts Council
and the Korean National Theatre and an artist-in-residence at the CASA
San Miguel in the Philippines.
List of Abbreviations

AAN Archiwum Akt Nowych, Warsaw

APK Archiwum Państwowe w Krakowie
ASEAN Association of Southeast Asian Nations
ASP Archiwum Sił Powietrznych, Nowy Dwór
AUS VN Armádní umělecký soubor Víta Nejedlého
BArch Bundesarchiv
BArch-DDR Bundesarchiv, Abteilung Deutsche Demokratische
Republik, Berlin-Lichterfelde
BArch-MA Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, Freiburg im Breisgau
BayHStA Bayrisches Hauptstaatsarchiv
BE Berliner Ensemble
BC British Council
BEA Berliner-Ensemble-Archiv
BYFC British Youth Festival Committee
CCP Cultural Center of the Philippines
CCT Central Cultural Troupe
CIA Central Intelligence Agency
DTI German Theatre Institute
ELF Eritrean Liberation Front
EPLF Eritrean People’s Liberation Front
FRG Federal Republic of Germany
GDR German Democratic Republic

xiv   List of Abbreviations

HMT Leipzig Archive Hochschule für Musik und Theater ‘Felix

Mendelssohn Bartholdy’ Leipzig, Archiv
HUAC House Un-American Activities Committee
IATC International Association of Theatre Critics
IFTR International Federation for Theatre Research
IPN Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Warsaw
ITI International Theatre Institute
KKE The Communist Party of Greece
KNE Communist Youth of Greece
LAB Landesarchiv Berlin
MI5 Military Intelligence, Section 5
PASOK Panhellenic Socialist Movement
PPR Polish Worker’s Party
PPS Polish Socialist Party
PZPR Polish United Workers’ Party
RF Rigas Feraios
RSC Royal Shakespeare Company
SAPMO Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und
Massenorganisationen der DDR
SCAC State Committee for Arts and Culture
SED Socialist Unity Party
SStAL Sächsisches Staatsarchiv Leipzig
STL Leipzig City Theatres
StVuR Stadtverordnetenversammlung und Rat der
Stadt Leipzig
TfD Theatre for Development
TRI/OSU Robert Breen Collection, Jerome Lawrence and
Robert E.  Lee Theatre Research Institute, The
Ohio State University
UN United Nations
UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific, and
Cultural Organization
USIA United States Information Agency
USIS United States Information Service
USSR Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
VÚA-VHA Vojenský ústřední archiv-Vojenský historický
archiv, Praha
VUS JN Vojenský umelecký súbor Jána Nálepku
List of Figures

Fig. 6.1 The classic three-level stage with choir, orchestra and
dancers in a show by the Slovak VUS JN on the occasion
of the 35th anniversary of the Communist Party in 1956 94
Fig. 6.2 ‘Lysistratiáda’: A musical theatre show from 1968 based
on Aristophanes’s anti-war comedy ‘Lysistrata’ by the
VUS JN as a result of its reform efforts in the 1960s 98
Fig. 14.1 Order no. 230 of the Chief of Administration
of the Soviet Military Administration of Thuringia
of 28 October 1947, C, II. 3, T 302/1.3, HMT
Leipzig Archive 240
Fig. 14.2 German translation of order no. 230 of the Chief of
Administration of the Soviet Military
Administration of Thuringia of 28 October 1947),
C, II. 3, T 302/1.2, HMT Leipzig Archive 241
Fig. 15.1 Rosina’s first appearance in Act I of Rossini’s
Il barbiere di Siviglia, 1974, Bayerische Staatsoper.
Photo: Sabine Toepffer 263
Fig. 17.1 Yvonne Lundeqvist, Isa Quensel, Monica Nielsen,
Nils Eklund, Björn Gustafson, and Allan Edwall in
Song of the Lusitanian Bogeyman. Photo:
Sven-Åke Persson, Sandrews, Musikverket 298



Christopher B. Balme and Berenika Szymanski-Düll

It is a curious paradox that the most significant geopolitical development

of the postwar period—the Cold War—has brought forth so little research
into the role theatrical culture played in this global conflict. This dearth of
scholarly interest is especially remarkable in light of the fact that Cold War
confrontation and competition, although primarily military and ideological,
always had a pronounced cultural component. At the end of the 1950s an
international exhibition took place in Moscow at which Americans proudly
demonstrated their kitchens, among other technological advancements.
Vice-President Richard Nixon was present and an argument ensued between
him and Nikita Khrushchev, who pronounced that a kitchen had nothing to
do with culture. Khrushchev was claiming the higher ground and, in those
days at least, rightly so. Norman Stone comments on this episode in his ‘per-
sonal history’ of the Cold War, The Atlantic and its Enemies: ‘there was no
question about it: Soviet high culture was far richer than American’.1
Perhaps this obvious cultural supremacy on the part of Soviet Union
is one reason there has been so little research into the mutual imbri-
cations of Cold War politics and theatre. Explicit engagement with
the concept of the Cold War in theatre and performance studies is a

C.B. Balme (*) • B. Szymanski-Düll

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

© The Author(s) 2017 1

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_1

r­elatively recent phenomenon. The earliest attempt to contextual-

ize theatre and the Cold War is probably John Elsom’s study, Cold
War Theatre (1992), which outlines a history of postwar theatre with
a strong emphasis on institutional structures in the UK.  Its publica-
tion immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain did not, however,
immediately generate comparable studies from other countries. Over
a decade later, Bruce McConachie’s American Theater in the Culture
of the Cold War: Producing and Contesting Containment, 1947–1962
(2005) addressed the question from a US perspective by examining the
central metaphor of ‘containment’ to reread canonical Broadway plays
and musicals, and remained the only other book-length study on the
topic. Charlotte Canning’s study, On the Performance Front: US Theatre
and Internationalism (2015) is closer to the current volume in that it
engages specifically with international and transnational questions albeit
from an exclusively US perspective. Both these books, although they lie
ten years apart, point to a growing interest in reassessing the impact of
the Cold War in cultural as well as political terms.2 The vastly improved
access to archives on both sides of the former Iron Curtain and else-
where is one of the prerequisites for this historiographical revision.
The Cold War was seen by the actors themselves as an arena of cul-
tural rivalry, as the Nixon/ Khrushchev exchange reveals; this a subject is
extensively discussed in David Caute’s The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for
Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War (2003) which includes a broad
discussion involving other art forms as well as theatre.3 This wider con-
text is now framed by the emergence of a new post-millennial discipline
termed ‘Cold War Studies’ which can be roughly defined as an interdisci-
plinary inquiry into the Cold War beyond the previous studies, somewhat
limited to the fields of political science and diplomacy.4 This discipline
also comprises a cultural wing, which includes literature and the arts. In
a survey of the subject Patrick Major und Rana Mitter argue for the need
‘to take culture seriously as a category […] rather than as an afterthought
to the analysis of high politics’.5
Since the Cold War affected almost the whole globe, the problem for
researchers has been on the one hand to isolate those wider geopolitical
currents that may have impacted on theatre and performance and on the
other hand to develop methodologies that clarify them. On the level of
individual directors, dramatists and performances these connections may
be tenuous or even non-existent and attempts to ‘read’ the Cold War into

them would in many instances result in allegorizations that may illuminate

the scholar more than the performance. Theatre and performance studies
dispose today, however, of a much broader set of theories and methodolo-
gies that enable a more complex research paradigm. This book and the
introduction to it outline a number of those categories which are leading
to a profound reassessment of the Cold War and theatre.
This volume aims to examine Cold War theatrical tensions by present-
ing a range of current scholarship on the topic from scholars from a dozen
countries. They represent in turn a variety of perspectives, methodolo-
gies and theatrical genres including not only the usual suspects, Bertolt
Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, but also documentary theatre,
opera production and Polish folk-dancing. The contributions demonstrate
that there was much more at stake and a much larger investment of ide-
ological and economic capital than a simple dichotomy between home
appliances and Bolshoi might suggest. Culture, and theatrical culture in
particular with its high degree of representational power, was recognized
as an important medium in the ideological struggles that characterize this
epoch. Most importantly, the volume explores how theatre can be recon-
ceptualized in terms of transnational or even global processes which, it will
be argued, were an integral part of Cold War rivalries.

Conceptual Framework: From National

to Transnational and Global History

Recent developments towards global and transnational history provide the

historiographical framework of the volume. It is therefore necessary to ask
under what conditions, criteria and concepts we can conceptualize theatre
history, in the context of the Cold War, as having been transnational or
even global. Distinctions between global and transnational history need to
be made. Following Kiran Klaus Patel we can distinguish between these
competing concepts in the following way:

Fruitful is a definition according to which in transnational constellations

the nation continues to play an essential role. Transnational history encom-
passes therefore all that which is located beyond (and sometimes inside) the
national but which continues to be defined by the latter. […] World and
global history can be described as those forms of historiography in which
nation-state entities do not play a decisive role.6

The actual practice of ‘transnational’ history shows that it incorporates many

established tools and methods into a new ‘umbrella perspective’ rather than
establishing a specific methodology sui generis. These tools include, accord-
ing to the authors of a recent discussion of transnational historiography:

historical comparison, (cultural) transfers, connections, circulations, entan-

gled or shared history as well as a modern form of international history.
All of these tools or perspectives stress the importance of the interaction
and circulation of ideas, peoples, institutions or technologies across state
or national boundaries and thus the entanglement and mutual influence of
states, societies or cultures.7

Global history would refer to a specific spatial framework, a particularly

large one, the analysis of which would require a transnational perspective.
By the same token transnational perspectives can be applied to smaller
areas such as regions where processes of circulation and entanglement can
be observed particularly acutely.
While the Cold War was itself undoubtedly a global phenomenon, in
as much as it affected directly or indirectly most corners of the globe, the
research perspective taken by most of the contributors to this volume are,
to be more exact, transnational, as they examine specific nations in situa-
tions of exchange with other national entities. Not all contributions can,
however, be fitted into the transnational paradigm and the volume’s struc-
ture attempts to reflect the multipolarity of the phenomenon.
A transnational approach obviously has disciplinary repercussions.
Inevitably, there will be a tension between the container of a nation-state
and all its affiliated institutions, histories and cultural forms on the one
hand, and a global or transnational approach on the other. We are now
better aware of the disciplinary implications of such nationally oriented
perspectives. While it may be normal, even trendy, to critique such per-
spectives and demand their transcendence, in academic practice it is not
so easy. Theatre departments tend to focus, logically, on developments
within their own cities and/or nations, while archives are collated and
assembled according to local or national imperatives, but seldom transna-
tional ones. Theatre studies’ privileging of local contingencies rather than
global perspectives is not just due to our focus on the here and now of per-
formance; although obviously this has a large role to play, such privileging
derives also from how our archives are organized, which influence in turn
the knowledge we value and produce.

In globalization studies, however, it is quite usual to follow a combined

global/local approach, in Arjun Appadurai’s phrase, ‘the production of
locality.’8 We can ask: how did the Cold War affect your village, or rather
the theatre in your village? More realistically we would suggest perhaps
the capital city with its metonymical claims to represent the whole nation:
New York, London, Paris and so on. A variation of this approach can in fact
be found in Bruce McConachie’s study American Theater in the Culture of
the Cold War: Producing and Contesting Containment, where McConachie
links the geopolitical strategy of ‘containment’ (stopping the spread of
Communism) with the cognitive metaphor of ‘containment’ proposed by
Lakoff and Johnson as a way of separating inside and outside, us from them.
McConachie’s synecdochal claims—certain Broadway productions stand in
for American theatre and indeed the nation itself—is one way to link the
global with the local; but it also has its limitations, not the least being the
application of a cognitive model designed to explain human behaviour to
the analysis of specific productions.
It may seem hubristic to even want to discuss theatre in the context of
a global political phenomenon such as the Cold War. Does not theatre
privilege the local and specific rather than the global and the general?
In the case of theatre history, what might the ‘alleged worldwide com-
monalities’9 be that a global-historical perspective seems to demand? This
apparently insoluble tension has created an aporia which has positioned
theatre studies between a methodologically induced focus on less and less
and the quite obvious existence of world-changing, global developments
such as colonialism and imperialism in the nineteenth and the Cold War in
the twentieth century which appear, however, to be too unspecific to be
included in theatrical analysis.
The essays in this volume fit into several broad areas of emphasis with
which to frame the study of theatrical globalization against the background
of the Cold War. Across the wide range of countries, cultures and theatri-
cal genres represented here—the latter spanning from folklore dance to
opera—one main thread connects most papers. Theatre is credited with
possessing a high level of representative potential. In our current age of
electronic media and its concomitant marginalization of theatre, it is almost
gratifying to look back at a bygone age and observe that governments and
their institutions, such as the CIA, once took the performing arts very
seriously: theatres, groups and even individual artists could stand in for a
country, an ideology, a way of life—capitalist or Communist—both posi-
tively and negatively. From this perspective the Cold War may be seen as

the last flowering of a global accord that theatre is important—artistically

and politically—and that it stood for much more than the two or three
hours’ traffic of the stage.

Shifting Borders: Tours and Touring

On the most fundamental level, global and transnational history is invari-

ably concerned with what Dominic Sachsenmaier has termed ‘border-
crossing perspectives.’10 It is very evident from the papers gathered in
Part I, ‘Shifting Borders: Tours and Touring’, that the spatial movement
across borders is a distinguishing factor, but a somewhat paradoxical one,
in light of the impermeability inherent in the Cold War: the Iron Curtain,
the Berlin Wall, restrictive visa policies and so forth. We can observe a
curious counter-tendency on the part of culture generally and theatre in
particular to counteract the stasis and impenetrability of the various blocs.
State-sponsored tours on both sides of the ideological divide functioned
to transnationalize theatre to a remarkable extent. Theatre became mobile
to a high degree for the first time under the auspices of state sponsorship.
Although the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an expan-
sion of touring, this was primarily commercial in orientation. The spread
of a particular aesthetic programme or ideological formation was a by-­
product rather than a primary aim of a company such as the Ballets Russes,
to cite perhaps the most famous example of pre-Second World War the-
atrical touring. In the context of the Cold War, we see ideas and prac-
tices being disseminated via touring and print media: Brecht, Grotowski
and Brook are the most prominent examples of border-crossing theatrical
artists who represented in turn concepts that literally spread around the
globe by means of books as much as experience of live performances: epic
theatre, holy and immediate theatre.
While the performances of the Berliner Ensemble and Peter Brook
were certainly seen by tens of thousands of spectators, the same cannot
be said of Jerzy Grotowski, whose productions outside Poland were only
presented at a few festivals.11 Of far greater transnational impact was his
book Towards a Poor Theatre (1968), edited by Eugenio Barba and Odin
Teatret, which circulated in several translations around the world and
became something of a ‘sacred’ text for the alternative theatre movement.
The same function can be accorded to Peter Brook’s The Empty Space
(1968), which expounded a modernist philosophy of theatre dedicated to
media specificity. Both directors, in this period of their work at least, were

working with a concept of theatre reduced to its basic essentials, which

resonated in countries and cultures as distant as South African townships
and New Zealand’s alternative theatre scene.12 Neither has been exten-
sively discussed within a framework defined by Cold War tensions.
The same cannot be said of Brecht, whose openly Marxist sympathies
formed the basis of his own work and placed it in the middle of Cold
War antagonisms. His importance to politically committed theatre-­makers
around the globe, especially in developing countries, is undeniable.
Brecht’s international reception is not in itself a new question and has
been the subject of various essay collections surveying the transformation
of his work in various cultural contexts.13 In this volume David Barnett
devotes his article to Brecht and the highly successful (and controver-
sial) tours by the Berliner Ensemble (BE). By examining its first tours he
explores not only how the company was involved in international politics
early on but also the paradoxical relationship between the BE and the
East German ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), both of which,
despite all differences, benefited from each other: Whereas the former,
although specializing in dialectic theatre, did not seek to make theatre
directly critical of the regime which hosted the ensemble, the latter did not
want to harm one of the GDR’s best cultural exports.
Zoltán Imre focuses on Peter Brook and his legendary production of
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which toured Eastern Europe
in the 1970s. Shakespeare played an energizing role in the culture wars.
As Dennis Kennedy puts it, ‘Shakespeare was a cultural Marshall Plan’,
meaning that his universality could be co-opted to communicate Western,
mainly American, values.14 However, in his article Imre exemplifies how
the Midsummer Night’s Dream production, and therefore by extension
theatre, despite political differences, could still function as a locus of inter-
cultural encounter.
Touring activities in the Soviet Union are dealt with in the articles by
Charlotte Canning and Christopher Silsby. Both the Everyman Opera
Company’s Porgy and Bess tour—the first major US theatrical tour after the
‘thaw’ occasioned by Stalin’s death—and the opera singer and actor Paul
Robeson’s tours to the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1950 foregrounded
the race question: for the USA as a demonstration of the growing equality of
African Americans, for the Soviets as proof of the exact opposite.
Going beyond the Soviet Union Berenika Szymanski-Düll and Václav
Šmidrkal discuss how folkloric performance was employed on the east-
ern side of the Iron Curtain as an instrument to disseminate Communist

i­deology, in this case the song and dance traditions of the ‘people’,
­understood as uncontaminated rural peasant life. Although such touring
groups were initially designed to promulgate an ideological message within
the socialist sphere of influence, they gradually gained an audience in the
West as well and provided direct inspiration for the establishment of similar
folkloric dance troupes worldwide.

Institutional Imbrications and Epistemic

The Cold War period saw an unprecedented expansion of public funding
of the arts, especially the performing arts. Already in the 1950s President
Eisenhower had established a special fund to support the performing
arts as a weapon in the Cold War. The so-called Emergency Fund for
International Affairs channelled public money into a cultural export pro-
gramme, which sent dance companies to Latin America and jazz musi-
cians to the Soviet Union.15 Only recently has the full extent of the CIA’s
involvement in cultural matters become apparent. Via various founda-
tions and fronts the CIA made a significant contribution to the funding of
Western arts organizations so that, as Frances Stonor Saunders notes, ‘the
CIA was in effect acting as America’s Ministry of Culture.’16 The CIA was,
however, only one of a multitude of actors involved in negotiating the fos-
tering and dissemination of theatre against the background of a veritable
explosion of theatrical exchanges, in which the state assumed a major if
not always directly acknowledged role. For instance, on the basis of secret
government files that were made available recently James Smith examines
in this volume the important role that MI5 played in monitoring Britain’s
theatre industry during the Cold War. In his article he focuses on ‘suspi-
cious’, i.e. left-wing theatre artists, in this case Joan Littlewood and the
Theatre Workshop, who conducted many successful international tours
behind the Iron Curtain and came to be viewed by MI5 as a ‘Communist-­
controlled theatre company’ that represented the threat of Soviet-bloc
interference into British cultural life.
Although the argument for public funding of the arts, and theatre in
particular, well predates the Cold War, a strong case can be made that the
almost universal agreement amongst Western governments that theatre,
at least certain forms of it, should receive state support was no doubt
accelerated by Cold War competition. Throughout the Eastern bloc there
existed a large network of state-funded theatres. Elsom calculates that ‘the

Soviet Union had, at one count, 625 subsidized theatres, a third of them
for operetta.’17 Although among Western countries only West Germany
could even begin to compete with such numbers, a move towards some
kind of public funding took place. France expanded after 1960 its network
of public theatres or maisons de la culture, Italy established a small number
of municipal theatres, teatri stabili, the most famous of which was and
remains Giorgio Strehler’s Piccolo Teatro in Milan. Even Great Britain,
the home of commercial theatre, formally established—albeit with great
reluctance—two flagship public theatres, the Royal Shakespeare Company
and the National Theatre. In the Netherlands, we also find the establish-
ment of a state-subsidized repertory system.
The actual implementation of such policies cannot be simply adduced
to Cold War rivalries, however. In Germany, for example, the campaign
to make theatre the responsibility of municipalities and the public purse
goes back to the early decades of the twentieth century and was part and
parcel of social democratic labour reform. Ironically, however, it was the
Nazis who finally created the generously funded system of municipal
and state theatres which this country still enjoys today. So in a divided
Germany, there was no or little ideological dissent on a systemic level:
both Germanys retained and financed an arrangement inherited from the
Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.18
Institutional rivalries manifested themselves more clearly on aesthetic
questions and the degree to which a particular theatre represented one
or the other ideological system. This is nowhere more apparent than in
the controversies surrounding the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s (see
Barnett in this volume), which as a subsidized ensemble theatre of high
artistic quality provided palpable proof of the Communist system’s cultural
superiority. At the same time performances of Brecht’s plays were banned
in West Germany in the 1950s and MI5 went to great lengths to prevent
or disrupt the Ensemble’s tours to Great Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
As James Smith has argued: ‘the issue of the Berliner Ensemble caused
debates at the highest levels of Whitehall, directly leading to a small but
significant shift in British and NATO policy regarding East Germany.’19
Theatre did matter in the Cold War.
Since Eastern bloc theatres were comparatively well funded, their inter-
nal problems lay more in the ideological than the economic realm. In his
study of cultural policy in Leipzig and Kraków from the end of the Second
World War to the early 1970s, Kyrill Kunakhovich argues that the ideolog-
ical struggles of the cultural Cold War were conducted not only between

two opposing fronts but also within the system itself: the most intense
struggles took place on the home front, as local institutions manoeuvred
within the structures of those policies which both fostered and critiqued
the ‘bourgeois’ art form of theatre.
A more direct illustration of a theatrical Cold War can be seen in Hanna
Korsberg’s examination of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), which
was founded in Prague in 1948 as an ‘international’ organization designed
to bridge the already emerging geopolitical divide. By examining the 8th
Congress held in Helsinki in 1959 and Eugène Ionesco’s divisive keynote
address, she demonstrates that ITI, despite its stated goal of transcending
ideological differences thanks to the ‘common language’ of theatrical art,
was by no means immune to political instrumentalization.
Beyond the example in this case study, the ITI is also significant for its
role in fostering a transnational, even global discussion of theatre in the
Cold War; it could achieve this because of its function as the most visible
representative of new forms of international cooperation amongst theatre
artists, critics and scholars. For these forms of collaboration historians have
applied the term ‘epistemic communities’. Epistemic communities refer to
networks of knowledge-based experts who advise policymakers and govern-
ments, usually on questions of scientific and technical complexity.20 They
have a high degree of international organization, usually taking the form of
professional associations, conferences, expositions and learned publications,
frameworks which seldom remain restricted to a single country. For this rea-
son epistemic communities have become a favoured object of transnational
historiography of the postwar period.21
It could be argued that an epistemic community devoted to promot-
ing theatre as a medium of cultural development took on concrete insti-
tutional form in the postwar period. Its ideological formation goes back
even further, however, to the international, multi-sited movement known
as ­theatrical modernism. The idea that theatre is an art form and hence
of high cultural value provided the ideological basis of the community,
albeit by no means in an organized form. Its ‘prehistory’, to give only
two examples, may be located in internationally distributed theatrical
periodicals such as The Mask (edited by Edward Gordon Craig) or in the
international theatre expositions of the 1920s held in Vienna, Paris and
New  York (to name only the most prominent) where common artistic
values were displayed and discussed. They may also be found in the new
international organizations such as the Société Universelle du Théâtre,
founded in 1926, or in the amateur realm, La Comité International

pour les Théâtres Populaires and the British Drama League which had
by 1950 branches in dozens of English-speaking countries. Permanent
institutional form emerges, as mentioned, in 1948 with the founding of
the International Theatre Institute (ITI), the International Association
of Theatre Critics (IATC) in 1956 and the International Federation for
Theatre Research (IFTR) in 1957, all of which initially had close ties with
each other through their affiliation with UNESCO. An important feature
of these organizations is that they emphatically sought to bridge the East–
West divide. Although there has been little historiographical work done
on them, they appear to form different facets of a theatrical epistemic
community that could bridge ideological divides if only by insisting on a
putative aesthetic dimension to theatre, which transcended politics.22

Acting, Artists and Art between the Battlefronts

The relationship between the artist and the state belongs to the more
familiar topics in the Cold War context. It is well known that playwrights
such as Brecht had a ‘complicated’ relationship with state authorities in
East Berlin. Much less well known however is the role taken by such con-
tested writers in ‘battleground’ states like Greece, which were caught up
in internecine conflicts between extreme right- and left-wing positions.
In his paper Nikolaos Papadogiannis argues that far from being cultur-
ally ‘Americanized’, a significant segment of Greek left-wing youth in the
1970s experienced a grass-roots and selective ‘Sovietization’, which also
manifested itself in the domain of theatre. Also less well known are posi-
tions taken by directors such as Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski,
who in the West were seen to be largely above politics by virtue of their
artistic programmes: imagistic avant-garde for the former, and spiritual,
quasi-religious ‘research’ for the latter. Yet Kantor had a close ‘working
relationship’ with the Polish Communist Party, and Grotowski remained
a member of it for over two decades, as Karolina Prykowska-Michalak dis-
cusses in her article. Ioanna Szeman points to the somewhat paradoxical
situation in Romania, where renowned directors such as Lucien Pintilie
and Liviu Ciulei were able to obtain permission to work in the West
although they were unable to direct in their home country. By focusing
on the 1969 tour to the Theatre of Nations Paris festival by the Bulandra
Theatre from Bucharest she shows, furthermore, how theatre could be
used to reflect the regime’s ambition to project an image of Romania as a
nation independent of the Soviet Union.

Actor training was also caught up in ideological divisions, especially

in a divided Germany. In the discourses on actor training programmes
licensed during the postwar years, actors and actresses appear as an ideal-
ized medium of ‘truth’ for the (re)building of a German democratic soci-
ety. However, depending on the occupation zone in which a school was
located and on the trajectories of the people teaching there, this ‘truth’
was bound by different ideological parameters. Anja Klöck explores the
problematic status of Bertolt Brecht in GDR acting programmes and offi-
cial discourses in the 1950s and examines the struggle of the leaders of
the SED to resolve, after the international success of Brecht’s Berliner
Ensemble, the apparent contradiction between Stanislavsky’s and Brecht’s
approaches to acting in the early 1960s.23
The diffusion of Stanislavsky’s ‘method’—although its first transplanta-
tion to the USA predates the Second World War—is closely imbricated in
Cold War alliances. The more surprising aspect of this story is how it took
root in Asia, especially China. It is surprising because Asian performance
cultures proceed from quite different principles, mainly exhaustive physi-
cal training regimes that often begin in childhood. But perhaps it is not so
surprising in the light of Soviet-Chinese relations in the immediate post-
war period. Realist theatre, or rather socialist-realist theatre, the ortho-
dox Soviet approach to the arts, was adopted by the Communist Chinese
state founded in 1949. Modernization was one of the watchwords of the
Revolution and initially China received direct support from the Soviet
Union. The Central Academy of Drama in Beijing was founded in 1950
and while it continued to train performers in the traditional forms, mod-
ern drama, both foreign and home-grown, received equal if not more
attention. In the early 1950s the Soviet Union sent several ‘experts’ to
China to assist in establishing an acting school on Stanislavskian princi-
ples at both the Central Academy of Drama and its branch in Shanghai.24
They were dispensed with after Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the
late 1950s but the long-term impact of Stanislavsky on acting in China
is undeniable.
Even the putatively ‘apolitical’ realm of opera, and in particular opera
production, became caught up in ideological debates, as Sebastian Stauss
shows, using the example of directors from Eastern bloc countries such as
Götz Friedrich, Harry Kupfer and Ruth Berghaus (East Germany) who
embarked on successful careers in the West.25 Their style and performance
aesthetics were constantly critiqued because of their perceived political
implications. Conservative circles amongst Western audiences attacked

productions such as Friedrich’s Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival of

1972 or Berghaus’s Barber of Seville at the Bavarian State Opera in 1974
as propagating socialist realism. On the other hand, August Everding’s
production of the Ring tetralogy at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki in 1988–9 was
regarded as a major diplomatic (rather than aesthetic) achievement.

Postcolonial Perspectives
Another aim of this volume is to begin to map theatre in the Cold War
beyond the main ‘battlefields’ of the USA and the Soviet Union, Western
and Eastern Europe. As there were very few countries in the world between
the 1950s and the 1980s not affected by Cold War rivalries, it is neces-
sary to ask how for example certain countries in Asia, or on the African
continent were involved in and interconnected by these rivalries and con-
testations. It is not our intention to argue for a ‘Third World’ perspective
but rather to uncover a range of little known and highly diverse theatrical
‘entanglements’ within the framework of Cold War tensions.
Although there now exists a rich body of research into postcolonial and
intercultural theatre, the term ‘postcolonial theatre’ has been critiqued
in recent years.26 Major challenges have been formulated by exponents
themselves.27 These have also emerged via new paradigms such as that
proposed by Erika Fischer-Lichte, whose concept of ‘interweaving’ poses
a challenge to the implicit binaries inherent in any notion of intercul-
tural theatre, which is by definition predicated on a concept of discrete
cultures.28 This work has meant that scholars are now working in a more
nuanced field sensitive to multiple hybridities and multipolar movements
of performance practices. Despite the many studies of individual artists
and countries, there is still, however, a dearth of research into the p
­ owerful
transnationally operating forces, political, economic as well as artistic, that
motored the rapid development of postcolonial theatre.
Although most postcolonial countries were involved directly or indi-
rectly in Cold War rivalries, often as proxy states, this aspect of con-
temporary political history has received little attention in the study of
postcolonial theatre. Yet the flow of funds and knowledge into theatre in
the Cold War period was largely an outcome of this larger geopolitical cli-
mate. Cold War rivalry had a decisive influence on the initial rapid devel-
opment of theatrical activity and even institutions.29 As countries were
released into independence in the 1950s and 1960s, they shifted their
dependencies and reliance on direct colonial tutelage to new networks of

aid from either East or West, or even both; direct support through founda-
tions such as those of Ford and Rockefeller, but also via new international
organizations such as UNESCO produced a remarkable efflorescence of
theatrical activity. In the mid-1950s British colonial administrators began
planning a National Theatre for Uganda to coincide with independence
for the new African nation. Between 1957 and 1967 the Rockefeller
Foundation provided the major source of funding for Derek Walcott’s
Trinidad Theatre Company, a subvention that was not forthcoming from
the Trinidad and Tobago government. In 1962 Rockefeller also provided
$200,000 to the University of Ibadan in Nigeria for the ‘development
of the drama program’.30 These selected examples, and there are many
more, document a significant change in the way theatre was understood,
funded, organized and disseminated in the postwar period, especially in
newly emerging nations. Large sums of money from both governmental
and non-governmental sources were invested in establishing new theatri-
cal institutions where either they had not previously existed or had been
largely commercial operations.
Future research needs to investigate the ‘cultural’, and more partic-
ularly, the theatrical dimension of this period of international history.
Recent research on specific regions has begun to recognize the impor-
tance of culture in the Cold War conflict. From a South East Asian per-
spective, historian Tony Day notes how ‘independent nation-states arrived
at specific aesthetic and cultural solutions to their specific cultural dilem-
mas that antedated, outlasted, and never became entirely aligned with the
ideologies of either bloc’.31 An under-researched area is the— broadly
speaking—‘Communist’ contribution to the cultural struggle for the
Third World; during this period Eastern Europe began to export its ver-
sion of art theatre, encapsulated, as we have seen, by the two antonymic
names of Stanislavsky (for an approach to professional acting training)
and Brecht (for an anti-naturalistic approach to playwriting and mise en
scène). In the postcolonial context both figures can be understood as
‘mediators’ in actor networks, i.e. as nodes around which networks of self-­
styled ‘experts’ formed and mediated the transmission and transforma-
tion of knowledge in specific cultural environments. The implementation
of something as complex as a professional theatre system and practice ex
ovo, the situation pertaining in many decolonizing states, required a high
degree of transnational information exchange as well as the movement of
capital, both economic and human; in short all those phenomena that we
associate today with globalization.

A key, yet still largely under-researched role in the emergence of theatre

in postcolonial countries was played by the interconnected imperatives of
modernization and developmentalism on the one hand and Western, espe-
cially US, philanthropy on the other. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,
a series of meta-theories were proposed and implemented that sought to
accelerate the progress of newly decolonized nations. Books such as Walt
Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-communist Manifesto
(1960) with its famous five stages progressing from traditional societies
to ‘mass consumption’, or Paul Rosenstein-Rodan’s (1957) notion of the
‘big push for development’, gained dominance through a unique combi-
nation of academic research, the efforts of policy-generating think tanks
such as the MIT-based CENIS (Centre for International Studies) and
their proximity to political power.32 The aim was to formulate a powerful
alternative to Communist ideas that had considerable traction with non-
aligned nations. The US-based initiatives were also partially influenced by
older colonialist policies as practised by the major empires such as those of
Great Britain and France.
Closely allied to modernization theory was the school of ‘developmen-
talism’, which sought to categorize and describe problems of Third World
‘development’ in comparatist, often highly abstract categories. Exponents
included the sociologist Edward Shils and the early work of the anthro-
pologist Clifford Geertz (manifested most clearly in their jointly edited
collection Old Societies and New States: The Quest for Modernity in Africa
and Asia, 1963). Despite growing critiques from left and right of its prob-
lematic teleological implications, which have been renewed in recent years
through globalization debates, the term ‘development’ became institu-
tionalized and found its way into countless international organizations
and initiatives aimed at supporting the Third World, ranging from the
many development banks to the Theatre for Development (TfD): the lat-
ter can be regarded as the theatrical wing of developmentalist thinking.33
An integral part of this discussion was the countermovement to modern-
ization known as dependency theory, promulgated by many Third World
economists, political scientists, intellectuals and artists.34 Dependency
theory argued that rather than simply following the path or ‘stages of
growth’ advocated by modernization exponents, Third World countries
needed to, on the contrary, free themselves from their extrication in the
structures of world capital established in the nineteenth century. Building
on earlier Marxist analyses of imperialist exploitation of the Third World,
these theorists demonstrated that modern underdevelopment was a direct

result of Western, capitalist-driven neo-imperialism that reinforced the

­division between centre and periphery. Rather than imitating and adopt-
ing Western institutions, ‘developing’ countries needed to rediscover
existing indigenous forms and reinvigorate these for the contemporary
world. Like their opponents, their frame of reference remained, however,
resolutely the nation-state, so that the cultural theory emanating from
this work tended to operate within the new, colonially derived national-
ist coordinates: discussions of ‘Nigerian’ and ‘Indian’ theatre proliferated
whereas studies of Yoruba or Marathi performance tended to either be
relegated to performance ethnography or to take on a synecdochal func-
tion (where Yoruba stood for Nigeria).35
On the one hand, theatre was seen in terms of its representative func-
tion as a localized cultural form manifested in various plans for ‘national
theatres’, and thus adaptable to new claims to nationhood; on the other,
we can observe internationalist attempts to ‘move’ it around the globe,
coordinated by networks such as ITI, which organized festivals to show-
case new dramatists and ‘decolonized’ theatrical cultures and established
branch offices to coordinate the exchanges. In both cases we can speak
of a global phenomenon in as much as ‘theatre’ was increasingly seen as
a necessary part of an emerging nation’s cultural infrastructure and the
new international organizations and initiatives provided the networks to
facilitate the showcasing of that infrastructure ‘abroad’, as a new cultural
space replete with prestige and symbolic capital.
In the 1950s and 1960s private American foundations, especially those
of Rockefeller and Ford, expended considerable sums of money and pro-
vided expertise and advice to developing countries in the area of theatre.
In this period culture was on the agenda of international development
thinking. The Rockefeller Foundation alone was involved in funding
­theatrical activity in sixteen ‘developing’ countries and provided assistance
ranging from study trips for individuals to large-scale institutional funding
(especially in Nigeria and Chile). Preliminary research based on the analy-
sis of the annual reports of the Rockefeller Foundation reveal patterns of
assistance that extend throughout the developing world but which reveal a
particular emphasis on West Africa, with Nigeria being the second-largest
recipient of theatre-related funding after the USA itself.36 Although there
exists extensive literature on the dramatic output of postcolonial drama-
tists such as Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott, their transnational institu-
tional affiliations have received less attention.37 Yet both writers, at the
beginning of their careers, were deemed by the Rockefeller Foundation in

consultation with critics and academics as having potential to contribute

to the ‘development of drama’ in their respective countries. They were
aided by research and fact-finding trips by the Foundation which aimed to
see and experience best practice in the USA or Europe, and which were
part of systematic programmes seeking to foster cultural knowledge and
practice in new nations.
In the present volume we have only begun to survey the extremely rich
and complex field of transnational postcolonial theatre history. Christine
Matzke deals in her article with the political conflicts in the Horn of Africa
and in particular the Eritrean War of Independence from Ethiopia against
the background of the Cold War. She shows that as a result of the shift-
ing alliances of Ethiopia, which switched allegiance from the USA to the
Soviet Union, the Eritrean independence movements found themselves
in a dilemma. Now they were fighting against a Marxist-Leninist state
with which they shared ideological common ground, and this in turn had
direct consequences for the development of theatrical and dramatic prac-
tice. Dramatic writing provided a means to transcend the fixed dichoto-
mies of the Cold War and by integrating a diverse range of traditions an
autochthonous Eritrean theatre practice emerged.
In their contribution, meLê yamomo and Basilio E. Villaruz sketch the
development of dance in the Philippines in the twentieth century against
the background of two parallel processes: on one hand, the search for a
new national culture as part of the country’s emergent nationalism, and
on the other, the global cultural influences affecting the country during
the Cold War as a result of US and Soviet rivalry. They demonstrate that
the country’s capital, Manila, became an important city within a global
network of dance exchanges and tours during which was not only visited
by many important artists from both sides of the Iron Curtain, but which
gave its local artists the opportunity to travel and train abroad.
The ‘Third World’ could also come to Europe, as Rikard Hoogland
shows in his study of the Song of the Lusitanian Bogeyman by German dra-
matist Peter Weiss, author of the internationally acclaimed Marat/Sade and
The Investigation. The play, which deals with Portuguese colonialism in its
African colonies, was premiered in Stockholm in 1967 where it created a
major controversy revolving around Weiss’s position as a German Marxist
author with connections to East Germany and Sweden’s putative neutrality.
The actual issues Weiss attempted to portray by unconventional theatrical
means, colonial exploitation in Angola and Mozambique, became side-
lined in favour of these ‘larger’ and—from a European perspective—more

i­mportant geopolitical questions. This marginalization of the play’s actual

political issues is symptomatic of the general neglect of postcolonial theatri-
cal cultures by the Cold War perspective.
We are conscious that this volume represents only a cross section of
possible research agendas within the wider field of the theatrical Cold
War. If we return to the Nixon–Khrushchev debate mentioned at the
beginning of this introduction, we can see that there was much more
at stake than a simple dichotomy between US kitchens and Soviet bal-
let. Not only was the US government channelling money and expertise
directly into high culture through the CIA and various front organiza-
tions, it was also acting indirectly through globally operating philan-
thropic foundations such as those of Ford and Rockefeller. The Soviet
Union was also active on a global scale, funding theatrical activity
throughout the Third World and its many proxy states. There remains
much to be done, especially in understanding the influence of so-called
‘experts’, the movement of skilled workers, artists and advisors whose
task was to help implement the new medium in cultures and contexts
where it was still regarded as foreign. Perhaps working within a para-
digm defined by the founders of ITI, who saw theatre as a medium for
bridging or dissolving the political antagonisms of real politics, theatre
research has often avoided direct engagement with the issues outlined
here. It is our hope that this volume will serve as a point of departure for
future research that can map theatre in the Cold War beyond the main
‘battlefields’ of the USA and the Soviet Union, Western and Eastern
Europe, and investigate the transnationally operating forces, political,
economic and artistic, that enabled a high degree of transnational infor-
mation exchange within a world that was officially separated into sup-
posedly mutually impermeable spheres.

1. Norman Stone, The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A Personal History of the
Cold War (London: Allen Lane, 2010), 176.
2. See John Elsom, Cold War Theatre (London: Routledge, 1992); Bruce
McConachie, American Theater in the Culture of the Cold War: Producing
and Contesting Containment, 1947–1962 (Iowa City: University of Iowa
Press, 2005); Charlotte Canning, On the Performance Front: US Theatre
and Internationalism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
3. David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy
during the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

4. See for example Richard H. Immerman and Petra Goedde (eds), The Oxford
Handbook of the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). The
volume is particularly sensitive to the regional and transnational variants of
the conflict.
5. Patrick Major and Rana Mitter, ‘East is East and West is West? Towards a
Comparative Socio-cultural History of the Cold War’, in Across the Blocs:
Cold War Cultural and Social History, ed. Rana Mitter and Patrick Major
(London/Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2004), 1–22, here 1.
6. Kiran Klaus Patel, ‘Überlegungen zu einer transnationalen Geschichte’, in
Weltgeschichte. Basistexte, ed. Jürgen Osterhammel (Stuttgart: Franz
Steiner, 2008), 67–89, here 74 and 76. Translation Christopher Balme.
7. Bernhard Struck, Kate Ferris and Jacques Revel, ‘Introduction: Space and
Scale in Transnational History’, The International History Review 33.4
(2011), 573–584, here 573–574.
8. Arjun Appadurai, ‘How Histories Make Geographies: Circulation and Context
in a Global Perspective’, Transcultural Studies 1 (2010), 5–13, here 12.
9. Dominic Sachsenmaier, Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and
Approaches in a Connected World (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2011), 7.
10. Ibid., 1.
11. Grotowski’s Theatre Laboratory did of course tour, even though the actual
number of spectators was quite small. The more ­important guest perfor-
mances included Théâtre des Nations in Paris 1968; New York 1969; West
Berlin 1970.
12. The far-reaching impact of this philosophy on the basis of written texts is
well illustrated by an anecdote related by South African actor Percy Mtwa,
one of the co-creators of the legendary township play, Woza Albert!: ‘When
we were still compiling the material (for Woza Albert!) we were thinking of
making it a cast of six. But somewhere we came across that book of Jerzy
Grotowski called Towards a Poor Theatre. He said a lot that inspired us. We
read that book and studied it intensively and later we got another book by
Peter Brook. We read these books and studied them.’ Percy Mtwa, ‘I’ve
Been an Entertainer throughout My Life’, interview with Eckhard
Breitinger, Matatu: Zeitschrift für afrikanische Kultur und Gesellschaft 3/4
(1988), 160–175, here 170. In New Zealand, alternative theatre and film
director Paul Maunder established a ‘Grotowski-inspired’ theatre group
named The Theatre of the Eighth Day in the 1980s; see Diana Looser,
Remaking Pacific Pasts: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary
Theater from Oceania (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014), 55.
13. See for example, Anthony Tatlow and Tak-Wai Wong (eds), Brecht and
East Asian Theatre: The Proceedings of a Conference on Brecht in East Asian
Theatre (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 1982).

14. Dennis Kennedy, ‘Shakespeare and the Cold War’, in The Spectator and the
Spectacle: Audiences in Modernity and Postmodernity (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2009), 75–93, here 81.
15. Both dance and jazz music have been studied already. Naima Prevots,
Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War (Hanover, NH:
Wesleyan University Press, 1998) examines how dance companies such as
Martha Graham, the New York City Ballet and Jose Limon were harnessed
for diplomatic purposes. Penny Von Eschen explores the same question for
popular music in Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the
Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004).
16. Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural
Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999), 129.
17. John Elsom, Cold War Theatre (London: Routledge, 1992), 144.
18. In 1933 many municipal theatres in Germany were still privately managed:
by 1939 all had been ‘communalized’, i.e. they were directly funded by the
state or municipality.
19. James Smith, ‘Brecht, the Berliner Ensemble, and the British Government’,
New Theatre Quarterly 22.4 (2006), 307–323, here 308.
20. The term was coined by the scholar of international relations, Peter

M.  Haas, in a programmatic article: ‘Epistemic Communities and
International Policy Coordination’, International Organization 46
(1992), 1–35.
21. See for example, Patricia Clavin, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary
European History 14 (2005), 421–439; and Emily Rosenberg, ‘Transnational
Currents in a Shrinking World’, in A World Connecting 1870–1945, ed.
Emily S. Rosenberg (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press,
2012), 815–989. Rosenberg refers explicitly to ‘transnational epistemic
communities’ within the wider concept of ‘circuits of expertise’ which
began to form at the end of the nineteenth century; here 919.
22. For a discussion of ITI in the context of the internationalization of US
theatre, see Charlotte Canning, On the Performance Front: US Theatre and
Internationalism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
23. For a discussion of method acting and the Cold War in the US context, see
Bruce McConachie, ‘Method Acting and the Cold War’, Theatre Survey
41.4 (2000), 47–68.
24. For a detailed discussion of Boris Kulnev’s teaching of the Stanislavsky sys-
tem in China in the 1950s, see Jingzhi Fang, Durch Austausch entsteht
Identität: der Einfluss des Stanislawski-Systems auf die realistischen
Inszenierungen am Volkskunsttheater Beijing der 1950–60er Jahre. Doctoral
Dissertation, LMU Munich, http://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/18467/2/
Fang_Jingzhi.pdf, accessed 15 March 2016.

25. See also Václav Kašlik (from Prague) or the later-exiled Yuri Lyubimov
(from Moscow) to name just two other prominent figures.
26. On intercultural theatre, see Erika Fischer-Lichte, Josephine Riley and
Michael Gissenwehrer (eds), The Dramatic Touch of Difference: Theatre, Own
and Foreign (Tuebingen: G. Narr, 1990); and Patrice Pavis, Theatre at the
Crossroads of Culture (London; New York: Routledge, 1992). On postcolo-
nial theatre, the s­ tandard works include Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins,
Post-­colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics (London; New  York:
Routledge, 1996); Brian Crow and Chris Banfield, An Introduction to Post-
colonial Theatre (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996);
and Christopher Balme, Decolonizing the Stage: Theatrical Syncretism and
Post-colonial Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).
27. See Helen Gilbert and Jacqueline Lo, ‘Towards a Topography of Cross-
cultural Theatre Praxis’, The Drama Review 46.3 (2002), 31–53.
28. Erika Fischer-Lichte, ‘Interweaving Cultures in Performance: Theatre in a
Globalizing World’, Theatre Research International 35.3 (October 2010),
29. South Asian scholar Mark Berger argues in this vein by emphasizing the
continuity between Cold War modernization and ‘the civilising mission
that animated imperial expansion … while giving more weight to the trans-
formative character of decolonisation and the Cold War.’ Mark T. Berger,
‘Decolonisation, Modernisation and Nation-building: Political
Development Theory and the Appeal of Communism in Southeast Asia,
1945–1975’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.3 (2003), 421–448,
here 422.
30. See The Rockefellar Foundation Annual Report, 1962 (New York:
Rockefeller Foundation, 1962), 208.
31. Tony Day, ‘Cultures at War in Cold War Southeast Asia: An Introduction’,
in Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast
Asia, ed. Tony Day and M.H.T.  Liem (Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program
Publication, Cornell University, 2010), 1–20, here 2.
32. See Walt Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-­
Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1960); and Paul Rosenstein-
Rodan, Notes on the Theory of the ‘Big Push’ (Cambridge, MA: Center for
International Studies, MIT, 1957).
33. On ‘modernization’ and ‘developmentalism’, see in particular David

C.  Engerman et  al. (eds), Staging Growth: Modernization, Development,
and the Global Cold War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,
2003); and Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in
Cold War America, New Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural
History (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

34. For a critical review of dependency theory, see Tony Smith, ‘Requiem or
New Agenda for Third World Studies?’, World Politics 37 (1985), 532–561.
35. In the dependency school can be placed also, if sometimes avant la lettre,
the various pan-African or pan-Asian initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s,
which had a chequered ideological career, oscillating between regionalist,
nationalist and internationalist discourses.
36. For India, the Ford Foundation’s field office attained considerable influ-
ence on Indian development policy, although its involvement in theatrical
activity remains largely unresearched. For an initial survey, see Leela
Gandhi, Arts and Culture: From Heritage to Folklore. The Ford Foundation
1952–2002 (New Delhi: The Ford Foundation, 2002).
37. On the Rockefeller Foundation’s support of Walcott, see Bruce King,
Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama: “Not only a Playwright but a
Company.” The Trinidad Theatre Workshop 1959–1993 (Oxford; New York:
Clarendon Press, 1995); and Christopher Balme, ‘Failed Stages:
Postcolonial Public Spheres and the Search for a Caribbean Theatre’, in
The Politics of Interweaving Performance Cultures: Beyond Postcolonialism,
ed. Erika Fischer-Lichte et al. (London: Routledge, 2014), 239–257; on
Wole Soyinka and the Rockefeller Foundation, see Bernd Lindfors, Early
Soyinka (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2008).

Shifting Borders: Tours and Touring


A Cold War Battleground: Catfish Row

versus the Nevsky Prospekt

Charlotte M. Canning

Five months after covering the first performance by a US theatre company

in the Soviet Union, Ira Wolfert asserted in The Nation, a progressive
weekly of politics and culture, that: ‘For the last four years [the company]
has been functioning as a kind of guided missile in the cold war.’1 Such
comparisons were historically recent as the first guided missile had made
its debut only 12  years earlier in 1944, used on England by Germany.2
The term entered the Anglophone lexicon in 1945, so Wolfert’s 1956
analogy referred to current and developing technology. In fact, the follow-
ing year the New York Times would designate the contemporary moment
the ‘Missile Age’.3 These comparisons between the tools of hot and cold
wars—the efficacy of hard weapons (missiles, bombs, or tanks) as equiva-
lent to the impact of soft ones (live performance, fine art, or s­ cholarship)—
were rampant during the 1950s. Wolfert could be confident his readers
understood the juxtaposition as one that borrowed key aspects of guided
missiles—they were steered precisely to a target, self-propelled, and the

C.M. Canning (*)

The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

© The Author(s) 2017 25

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_2

product of the most advanced thinking and strategy—and applied those

characteristics to endeavours usually far removed from the fatal arena of
warfare, in this case, theatre.
During the Cold War state-to-state geopolitics played out through
nuclear threats; the proxy hot wars of Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan;
and brutal attempts to dominate non-aligned nations. Those same geo-
politics, however, also played out through music, dance, theatre, academic
exchanges, and commercial trade fairs. The Porgy and Bess tour produced
by the Everyman Opera Company that Wolfert counted as part of the US
weapons arsenal was covered by newspapers in both countries as though
they were reporting from the front lines of a hot war. But the two types of
war were not really that different. The hot and the cold, the military and
the cultural are often seen as discrete, but the two were imbricated, and
the geopolitics of the 1950s deployed them commensurately. Even the
negotiations that made the tour possible demonstrate this relationship.
The negotiations took close to two years, and most of that time was
spent in a delicate diplomatic dance. The Soviets did not want to invite
the Everyman Opera Company only to have the USA refuse the company
permssion to travel and withdrawn their passports. The USA did not want
to be put in the position of seeming to prevent the tour, even though they
did not want to encourage it. Under Joseph Stalin’s leadership, attempts to
arrange tours had been rebuffed by both sides, and Nikita Khrushchev had
only just become party secretary as negotiations began in 1953. No one in
the West was sure what the new Soviet cultural approach would be—a con-
tinuation of Stalin’s isolationism or, possibly, a loosening of restrictions. In
addition, the State Department worried that the opera itself might further
fuel Soviet claims about conditions for African Americans in the USA. As
one internal memo put it ‘the opera presents an undignified picture of the
American colored population as being downtrodden and uneducated’.4 So
there the possibility sat, caught between both sides’ uncertainties.
The matter was raised at the July 1955 Geneva Summit of the USA,
Great Britain, France, and the USSR.  Tour discussions, however, got
mired in a larger impasse over trade and cultural exchange.5 Director
Robert Breen was undaunted and sent letters to every influential official
he could, including Khrushchev and John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of
State. Finally the USA removed its objections, but undercut the welcome
news by not offering any financial support. The tour had already had more
than its share of federal funds, officials informed the company, and to sup-
port the Soviet tour would deplete the remaining European budget.6

Breen persevered, even though there was no secure source of funding.

He sent his wife to Moscow in September 1955 to finalize the plans. Her
trip seemed to be a success, but it was not until the end of November
that Breen and producer Blevins Davis knew for sure. An official agree-
ment was reached—the Soviet government would transport the company
from Berlin to Leningrad and then around the Soviet Union. The Soviets
contracted to cover ‘all expenses connected with the preparation, the
rehearsals and the performances’.7 In addition, the Soviets would pay the
company $16,000 (half in rubles) for each week in the Soviet Union, sup-
ply an orchestra and even a ‘domesticated she-goat’.8 What remained to
be done was to perform and see what Soviet audiences would make of this
complex cultural text.
This chapter will focus on the Russian leg of the larger Soviet tour of the
Everyman Opera Company production of Porgy and Bess. The tour trav-
elled to Russia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia between 21 December 1955
and 19 February 1956. There were multiple performances in Leningrad,
Moscow, Warsaw, Stalingrad, and Prague. This tour played out against cru-
cial events in the US and the USSR. While they were onstage in Warsaw,
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s Montgomery home was bombed, and as they
performed in Stalingrad’s Wyspianski Theatre, the University of Alabama
used mob violence as an excuse to expel Autherine Lucy, the first African
American admitted to a public university in the state. A few days after the
company returned to Germany, Premier Khrushchev denounced Stalin at
the Twentieth Party Congress. Given the insistence in both countries on
the political and diplomatic significance of cultural work as part of the
larger and ongoing power struggle, it cannot be discounted that part of
the way the two nations perceived each other was through the context of
productions like Porgy and Bess.
Working from Wolfert’s analogy, I will argue that every party invested
in the tour was guiding the missile of performance to a target particular
to their interests. The show’s producers wanted to make an argument that
the USA needed a national theatre culture and that theatre had an impor-
tant role to play in national identity. The US government hoped to dem-
onstrate that Soviet claims about race were fallacious and that theirs was
a country of freedom and opportunity. The USSR wanted to portray its
country as open and advanced, as well as being a superior society where all
races were free to pursue their dreams. Finally, the performers, thrilled to
be travelling the world, desired to assert their agency as citizens and offer
their nuanced and varied depictions of life in the USA. An examination

of these sometimes competing, sometimes coordinated aspirations will

document the ways in which live performance both participated in and
resisted the foreign policies nation-states wanted it to support.
In 1952 Breen and Davis founded the Everyman Opera Company to
produce a revival of Porgy and Bess. The production toured the world
for 201  weeks. The initial performance was at the Texas State Fair
Auditorium in Dallas on 9 June 1952 and the final one at the Theatre
Carré in Amsterdam on 3 June 1956. It appeared in 29 countries and on
four continents. Wherever it performed it was met with great enthusi-
asm—from the sophisticated opera audiences of La Fenice and La Scala,
to the jazz enthusiasts of Paris and Berlin, to the populations of colour
in Cairo and Montevideo, understandably sceptical of US racial equality
claims. Everywhere the company went it was hailed as uniquely American,
and seen as a positive example of US culture and creativity. The touring
production is credited with ensuring the musical’s place as an American
classic, something its original production had failed to do.9 The show’s
popularity and production quality alone, however, cannot account for the
significant role the tour played in the Cold War.
Post-World War II the Soviets focused on cultural diplomacy far more
thoroughly than their Allied counterparts. This was a long-standing
Bolshevik strategy which they had pursued since the early 1920s as a way
to legitimate the fledgling nation. As Khrushchev’s biographer Taubman
wrote: ‘The Bolsheviks were supposed to become a cultural as well as a
political vanguard’ and ‘given their determination to control intellectual
life, Soviet leaders paid particular attention to culture.’10 Conversely, the
USA paid scant attention to cultural arenas, and its cultural officers had
little or no institutional influence.11 Evidence was increasing in the ten
years following World War II, however, that attending to these matters,
particularly the arts, could influence public opinion and attitudes toward
the USA. Historian Nigel Gould-Davies observed:

In the early Cold War (1946–1953), each side sought to penetrate the oth-
er’s cultural polity while denying access to its own […]. In the post-Stalin
period (1953–1964), both sides came to accept a role for cultural relations,
and while unilateral methods of influence continued to be used, those regu-
lated by mutual agreement became increasingly significant.12

The Porgy and Bess visit came just as matters had begun to shift on both
sides, Soviet and US.

For the Soviets, the shift was made possible by Stalin’s death in March
1953. Before that, Stalin had supported a harsh domestic cultural policy,
‘Zhdanovshchina’, named after its author and Stalin’s ‘chief ideologist’
Andrei Zhdanov, which offered the choice to ‘align with the regime’s
policies or perish’, as historian Vladislav Zubok concisely noted.13 The
demand for conformity that started at the end of World War II came as
Stalin ‘deliberately and effectively cut’ the USSR ‘off from cultural con-
tact’ with the West.14 But the post-Stalin approach was to be different.
At the four-power summit in Geneva, Switzerland in mid-July 1955, the
French, British, and US governments presented a plan for cultural diplo-
macy to the Soviet representatives. Nothing was decided but an ‘era of
Soviet-American cultural negotiations began’ that would bear fruit two
years later with the so-called Lacey-Zarubin Agreement of 1958, which
opened many more opportunities for exchange.15
Porgy and Bess could not have arrived in the Soviet Union at a more
propitious moment, as Zubok observed: ‘In 1955–56 artists, art exhi-
bitions, performers, and just plain tourists rushed into a previously her-
metically closed Soviet society.’16 The Gershwin piece was not the first
production from a capitalist country to tour the USSR; that honour
went to the Comédie française who, in April 1954, presented a produc-
tion of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in the Vahktangov Theatre.
Khrushchev’s son called it a ‘diplomatic act’,17 and Georgy Malenkov,
then premier, went backstage to congratulate the cast.18 In November
1955 Peter Brook was able to bring his production of Hamlet, with Paul
Scofield in the title role, to the Vahktangov as well.19 This production
thrilled Soviet audiences, particularly theatre practitioners.20 This was not
surprising as Russians were hungry for innovative art and were searching
‘for a fresh style and individualized self-expression […] in the sphere of
the arts’.21
On the US side, the goal of cultural diplomacy was clear. By mid-1956
it would be described as to foster ‘greater individual freedom’, ‘freedom
of thought’, and ‘stimulate desire for consumer goods’.22 But it would
take time for everyone in the US government to agree that cultural diplo-
macy could achieve those ends. Frustrated with informal efforts supported
by unofficial funds, President Eisenhower requested $5 million in 1954
to support and stimulate US participation in international cultural activi-
ties. He declared the money was ‘to demonstrate the dedication of the
United States to peace and human well-being [and] to offset worldwide
Communist propaganda that the United States has no culture and that

its industrial production is oriented toward war’.23 A chief beneficiary of

the so-called ‘Emergency Fund’ was the Porgy and Bess tour. Eisenhower
had cited the production as evidence of the efficacy of cultural work for
furthering US goals. Its Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern legs
were all funded by the US government. That these areas of the world con-
tained the majority of non-aligned and non-white countries was no coin-
cidence. That this particular production of Porgy and Bess would in turn
influence government policy, and later enjoyed government fiscal support,
may be seen as having been a certainty from the start.
Porgy and Bess was successful primarily because the USA’s Cold War
cultural diplomacy efforts relied disproportionately on African American
artists. The dance programme was dominated by Alvin Ailey, and State
Department monies helped keep that company solvent. In music, jazz
reigned supreme and Louis Armstrong became virtuously synonymous
with the State Department’s programme. Robert Breen asserted that
when he toured Europe in 1949 and 1950, ‘wherever [we] went [we]
heard people in the streets, restaurants, etc., whistling airs from Porgy and
Bess. [It] seemed to be universally known and universally loved’.24 This was
the US culture with which the world was most intrigued. A fascination
with African American artists and with US domestic concerns, coupled
with world events at that time, made the tour of Porgy and Bess a site
where the ideas and struggles of the historical moment could constellate.
At the end of the Second World War the USA found itself with a
challenge to its national identity. Historian Mary Dudziak described: ‘If
other nations, and particularly non-white peoples, were to have faith in
democracy, the United States would need to reassure them that American
democracy was not synonymous with white supremacy.’25 White suprem-
acy and democracy had historically been coeval, and US national identity
had been produced by this relationship. Now the USA wanted to argue for
democracy as a resistance to intolerance, particularly racism and colonial-
ism. Triumph in the Cold War depended on that refutation because US
foreign policy posed two potential futures: freedom under democracy or
slavery under communism.
Such rhetoric had emerged in the previous presidential administration.
In his final presidential address, Truman had bluntly cautioned: ‘Theirs is a
godless system, a system of slavery.’26 Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural address,
given five days after Truman’s warning, compared the USA and Soviet
Union: ‘freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark’.27 The
year Porgy and Bess went to the USSR, Eisenhower (1955) repeated his

theme: ‘Either man is the creature whom the Psalmist described as “a little
lower than the angels;” […] or man is a soulless animated machine to be
enslaved, used and consumed by the state for its own glorification.’28 This
characterization was even written into the top-secret elaboration of con-
tainment, known as NSC-68. In that foundational document, intended as
much as a ‘manifesto’,29 as a statement of policy, the Cold War is defined as
a ‘polarization of power which now inescapably confronts the slave society
with the free’.30 In this stunning reversal, the USA, a slave state for almost
the first century of its existence and contemporaneously an apartheid one,
is officially designated an exemplar of ‘the marvelous diversity, the deep
tolerance, the lawfulness of the free society’.31 The white governing elite
saw no contradictions in sending African Americans abroad to testify to
US racial harmony, and the Soviet government saw a productive opening
to focus on the USA’s weak spot.
Porgy and Bess was not the first text by white authors that purported
to capture the essence of African-American culture and experience. White
artists have long legitimated their representations of African Americans
through the trappings of social science—declaring that they were merely
reproducing observed behaviours and practices—and Porgy and Bess is no
exception. Breen worked within this genealogy by insisting on the speci-
ficity of his production’s details. A Polish critic described the opening:
‘children are playing. One woman prepares a scanty supper for her hus-
band. Another is knitting a jumper […]. Between a husband and wife [a]
small quarrel over two or three cents she is missing from her wages […].
Men who have returned from their work are playing dice’.32 Breen did not
passively wait for the critics and audiences to ‘get it’; instead he worked
actively to influence the reception of the production and the tour.
Breen was not the only party invested in the tour’s reception, how-
ever. Multiple potential meanings had been freighted onto the tour by all
the stakeholders. Breen wanted to establish the USA as a theatre culture
for both foreign and domestic audiences. The USA wanted to contradict
the USSR because, as Representative Frank Thompson argued they ‘find
it extremely easy to spread […] lies that we are gum-chewing, insensi-
tive, materialistic barbarians’.33 The Soviets understood, as foreign rela-
tions scholar Cora Sol Goldstein argued, that ‘all aspects of culture were
intrinsically political and could serve as a vehicle of propaganda, either
direct […] or the indirect’ and this included the arts.34 Juxtaposing these
multiple agendas meant that no one was quite sure what the tour would
come to mean in either nation.

Breen and Davis did all they could to construct those potential
meanings. They had not worked for years only to have the tour be an
artistic or diplomatic disaster. The two men carefully chose those who
would report from the front lines. One such reporter was Pulitzer Prize-
winning journalist Ira Wolfert who wrote for the highly conservative and
anti-communist Reader’s Digest, then available in the Americas, Europe,
Northern Africa, and parts of Asia. Also along (and paid for by the tour)
was Leonard Lyons, a syndicated gossip columnist whose column was
available in over 100 papers in the USA.35 Both Wolfert and Lyons fulfilled
Breen and Davis’s greatest expectations and filed glowing reports of the
significance of the tour and the positive impression the production made
on its Soviet audiences.
Also present by invitation and fully funded was Truman Capote, at this
point best known for his novels Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The
Grass Harp (1951). Capote had long been interested in reinventing him-
self as a journalist. What he had in mind, however was not conventional
reportage because, as his biographer Gerald Clarke notes,

Truman was not interested in writing an account of a historic event; indeed,

he was probably constitutionally incapable of such a portentous undertaking
[…]. [H]e realized that in Breen’s history-making enterprise there was also
material ideally suited to his comedic talents[, and it] was in that spirit of
mischief that he observed his fellow travellers.36

Capote parodied Breen’s earnest intentions, constructed the African-­

American cast through tropes recognizable from minstrelsy, and ‘took
substantial liberties for the sake of lively reading, sometimes changing the
order of events, and occasionally bringing separated episodes together […]
even invent[ing] a whole scene’.37 His New Yorker article ‘The Muses Are
Heard’ (also the title of his book) would not be published until October
1956 so it had no immediate impact on the tour’s reception. Ultimately,
Breen and Davis would go to great lengths to disavow the book.
Capote’s presence, juxtaposed with the ways in which he represented
the tour’s participants, reveals another element of the Cold War narrative
Breen, Davis, Capote, and others were constructing and were constructed
within. Capote’s work left a sour taste in the mouths of the company.
One actor wrote: ‘[S]ince Capote thought we were all “Uncle Toms”, we
had our own name for him: “Little Eva”’.38 The company’s nickname for
Capote does not simply recall the germinal nineteenth-century US novel

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its legacy for US culture and politics. The actors
believed that Capote portrayed them as obsequious and subservient to
white authority, as popular representations of the character Uncle Tom
claimed. In turn they sought (at least as one actor claimed) to portray him
through the same literary touchstone. But for him they chose the angelic,
loving, blonde, white female child Evangeline St Clair (nicknamed Little
Eva). In this choice they reveal the ways in which the moral panic around
sexuality haunted the Cold War as perniciously as did racial politics.
As early as 1947 questions had been raised about the fitness of gay
and lesbian citizens for public service. While Senator Joseph McCarthy
(R-WI) may have been censured by his colleagues in the Senate the year
before Porgy and Bess arrived in Russia, the loyalty and security systems
he helped develop would remain in place until the 1970s. McCarthy may
be best known for his reckless and unsubstantiated accusations about
alleged communists in the USA; it is less well known that his tactics were
also aimed at gay and lesbian civil servants. Three-quarters of the letters
McCarthy received from voters across the nation expressed panic, not
at communism, but at what one newspaper euphemized as ‘sex deprav-
ity’ and ‘nasty moral habits’.39 Historian David K. Johnson observes that
‘even a rumor of homosexuality was often considered a graver transgres-
sion in 1950s America than an admission of former membership in the
Communist party’.40 By labelling Capote ‘Little Eva’ the anonymous actor
tapped into the pervasive belief that the persecution of homosexuals was
legitimate, even as other forms of discrimination were being protested in
the streets and courtrooms.
This kind of heteronormative discourse was most visibly on display dur-
ing the Moscow stop on the tour. Helen Thigpen (Serena) and Earl Jackson
(Sportin’ Life) had become engaged a few months earlier and had decided
they would get married in Moscow. Capote has Jackson noting that such
an event was ‘bound to be a big story […]. That’s front page. That’s TV’.41
Much of the dialogue Capote attributes to Jackson and Thigpen does
sound like a caricature of the kind of slang attributed to African-American
musicians in the 1950s, but despite his mockery of Jackson’s predictions,
it was a big story. The wedding was reported in multiple newspapers across
the USA and was included in Soviet reporting as well. The couple were
married in the Moscow Baptist Evangelical Church (after a civil ceremony
at the registrar’s office the previous day); 2500 people crammed into the
church and several thousand more were outside waiting to catch a glimpse
of the wedding party.42 Interestingly, although no press foregrounded

this, the wedding party was not segregated: the African-American bride
was given away by the white company manager, Robert Dustin, and the
African-American groom was supported by his white best man, Breen’s
production assistant Warner Watson. What caught the press’s attention
in the USA, however, was not race, but sexuality. As Jet Magazine (1956)
noted, the minister, Reverend Alexei N.  Karpov, ‘kissed Jackson on the
lips after the ceremony’.43 Despite the fact that this had been explained as
a Russian custom (the minister then shook hands with the bride), a Texas
newspaper described the moment: ‘Jackson grinned broadly and rolled his
eyes as the pastor then leaned over and planted a smack on his lips’.44 The
newspaper uses minstrel tropes to characterize Jackson’s response, but it is
also clear that the kiss is more the object of its discomfort, the use of the
more informal ‘smack’, with its overtones of sex and aggression, rather
than ‘kiss’ thinly veils a disgust at two men kissing.
Capote did not find a culture in the Soviet Union any more hospitable
than the one he had left at home. Capote’s biographer notes that an offi-
cial of the Ministry of Culture commented disgustedly, ‘Ve have them
like that in the Soviet Union, but ve hide them’.45 Hide them they did.
Homosexuality had been decriminalized after the revolution but Stalin
had it recriminalized in 1933.46 Gay men (more so than lesbians) were
sent to the Gulag by the thousands, and even when the penal codes were
revised in the late 1950s to reflect Khrushchev’s liberalization, sodomy
remained as harshly punished as ever.47 Capote’s presence in the Soviet
Union was not without some risk, although as an internationally respected
author he was unlikely to face much official sanction (he addressed, in fact,
the Soviet Union of Writers in Moscow). The fact that both the journalist
and the actors, each of whom was in his or her own way resisting the nor-
mative and oppressive narratives being scripted for them, took refuge in
those narratives to depict each other demonstrates the power such tropes
held both within the USA and abroad.
Just as Capote and the Porgy and Bess company were using mainstream
tropes of race and sexuality to construct one another, the US government
constructed for them a Soviet Union that suited its purposes. Officials
briefing the cast did all they could to influence the ways in which the
members of the tour would experience the Soviet Union. As Joseph
James (Jake) remembers: ‘When we went to Berlin, we were called into a
­meeting by the State Department, and we were shown an anti-Soviet pro-
paganda film which was so absurdly ridiculous—it was such a caricature
that we said, well now look, there isn’t anybody on earth that behaves that

way.’48 More typically, company members tended to be less vocal about

politics. Despite this, they were all very much aware of how dominant
white powers were using the cast to their own ends. Coreania Hayman
Carter (ensemble) remembers the State Department warning as more
mild. ‘Because […] you were […] behind the Iron Curtain, you could
only say a few things. “Don’t say this, and don’t say that.” […] But we
were briefed not to say a lot of things about segregation and that sort of
thing in our country’.49 The official transcript of the briefing prepared by
the State Department supports James and Carter’s memories of being told
to downplay the racial situation in the USA. When asked how they should
answer questions about race the officials briefing the cast were emphatic.
‘Don’t answer them; we are on a cultural mission’.50
Most stunning is the briefing’s attempt to reposition the US apartheid
state as a race-neutral one. Through an erasure of realities for African-­
American citizens, the State Department reminded the cast that there are
‘48 states which vary, but no federal statutes concerning discrimination or
segregation—point out progress and accomplishments in many fields the
problem is of no interest to the Soviets—their motive is condemnation of the
US’.51 It is breathtaking that the federal government would hide behind a
minor technicality. The claim that there were ‘no federal statutes’ mandat-
ing discrimination ignored centuries of federal collusion to maintain white
supremacy through juridical and vigilante means. In the context of the
Cold War, however, where, as historian Thomas Borstelmann points out,
the ‘Soviet government and its allies […] delighted in publicizing news of
American racial discrimination and persecution’, the federal government
had no choice but to allow the tour to depart and hope for the best.52
All sides wanted a publicity coup, and the public Soviet response was
very positive. At one of the many banquets held to celebrate the produc-
tion, the official from the Ministry of Culture who oversaw the tour trum-
peted: ‘There is a well-known saying “where the cannons speak, muses are
silent.” Soviet people treat the problem from a different angle, “where
muses speak, cannons should be silent”’.53 Nikolai Savchenko used this at
every gathering to the point where it became a company joke, but there
is a subtle implication that the Soviets are the ones promoting art, while
another, unnamed entity supports ‘cannons’ more than art.
The Soviets produced a 22-minute newsreel, ‘American Actors in
Moscow’, that stands as another example of subtle Soviet points about
their position on the intertwined issues of race and art. Throughout the
documentary there are multiple scenes of white Soviets eating, laughing,

and dancing with their African-American guests. The film showed the
USSR going to great lengths to accommodate their guests. The Soviets
sponsored a Christmas party for the company in Leningrad on 25
December, even though the Russian Christmas was not until 7 January.
At a Moscow Christmas party the film records a Russian girl giving a child
from the cast her Young Pioneer scarf. ‘Something to remember their
young Soviet friends by’, the narrator cheered.54 Whether the Soviets
intended their representations of accommodation and integration to con-
trast with what was possible in the USA I do not know. I can say neverthe-
less that the film is striking in its emphasis on the pleasure the actors found
in their visit and the open welcome they received from their hosts.
Local newspaper reviews largely echoed this approach. Many of them
offered serious analysis of the music and singing, which they found impres-
sive. None condemned the opera; few even made outright comparisons to
the Soviet system.55 V. Bogdanoff-Berezovski was the exception when he
opined in the Evening Leningrad: ‘We, the Soviet spectators, realize the
corrosive effect of the capitalistic system on the consciousness, the mental-
ity and the moral outlook of a people oppressed by poverty.’56 Others, like
U. Kovalyev, do note the conditions within the play, but leave the compari-
son to the reader. ‘The action takes place in the sordid Negro quarter of
a seaport town. Onstage—portions of dilapidated houses crammed full of
down-trodden Negroes […].’57 Still others simply focused on the prodi-
gious abilities onstage, noting the ways the production ‘testifies to the high
talent of the Negro people’.58 No reviewer lost sight of the larger mission
of the tour: cultural diplomacy. The reviewer for Izvestia reminded readers
that the event was intended to work in two directions: ‘We must remember
that this is the first visit to the Soviet Union of American artists which gives
us a chance to form an idea about the opera culture in the United States,
and gives them a chance to find out more about the cultural achievements
of the Soviet Union’.59 Like Savchenko, this critic puts the emphasis on the
Soviet contribution to this cultural exchange. His voice is neutral about
the USA—the production allows the Soviets to ‘form an idea’ about US
culture—but it allows the latter to appreciate ‘the cultural achievements of
the Soviet Union’. For this critic anyway, the exchange benefitted the USA
whilst ultimately working to the Soviets’ advantage.
State Department officials would have been furious if they had known
that the Soviet Union would solicit support from the African-American
citizen the federal government most despised. ‘Wishing a Happy New
Year to the Soviet people from the bottom of his heart, the o ­ utstanding

artist and worker from the United States, Paul Robeson, sent warm
comments […] to his countrymen […] in the […] American opera now
in the Soviet Union’, a Moscow paper trumpeted. Quoting Robeson, the
paper continued, ‘I know […] that they are proud of the heroic struggle
of their people […] defending equality and human dignity in Mississippi
and South Carolina where the events of the opera take place’.60 The tim-
ing of this message was no coincidence.
‘When we got to Russia we would have radios in our hotel rooms,
and all you could hear was Paul Robeson’s voice. They would play all of
his records, and they’d come to you and ask if we knew Paul Robeson’,
one performer noted.61 The most visible African-American supporter of
the USSR, Robeson paid dearly for his politics, as the Kremlin was well
aware. The State Department had long denied Robeson a passport (he
could not leave the USA between 1950 and 1958), and had told one
court it believed Robeson to be a ‘diplomatic embarrassment’ and ‘dan-
gerous’ because ‘during concert tours of foreign countries he repeatedly
criticized conditions of Negroes in the United States’.62 Constantly pillo-
ried in the white press, Robeson’s consistent support of the Soviet Union
and insistence that Communists had always supported African Americans’
civil rights contradicted the message the USA wanted to send as it courted
Third World countries. Events like these (both Robeson’s message and the
tour), Borstelmann stresses, ‘offered an irresistible opportunity to respond
to American publicity about repression of individual liberties in the Soviet
bloc’.63 The USA made no rebuttal to the Robeson message; given their
history of sending African Americans out to counter Robeson’s charges,
perhaps they thought the tour was doing that effectively.64
The significance of this moment can also be found in the ways in
which performers took matters into their own hands, despite government
attempts to impose interpretations on their work and identities. In her
2004 study of US cultural diplomacy and jazz, Penny Von Eschen argues
that artists used these tours without being completely coopted by oppres-
sive power structures:

Musicians were not simply tools or followers of [US] policy. In the most
fundamental sense, they were cultural translators who inspired the vision
and shaped its contours, constituting themselves as international ambassa-
dors by taking on the contradictions of Cold War internationalism. They
called for increased government support for the arts; they spoke freely about

their struggles for civil rights; and they challenged the State Department’s
priorities. They asserted their right to ‘play for the people.’65

The Porgy and Bess company asserted this right no less than did Dizzy
Gillespie or Duke Ellington. Not long after their arrival in Leningrad, the
cast found themselves in the hotel supper room where a local jazz band
played desultorily for an empty dance floor. Life reported what happened
next: ‘the American visitors took over the room and staged a historic jam
session that lasted well into the night’.66 Earl Jackson commented, ‘people
were screaming all over the joint’.67 This ecstatic release may not have
been what Breen, the State Department, or the Soviets intended, but it
demonstrates that these performers would follow official dictates when
it pleased them. They would ‘play for the people’ when the opportunity
presented itself.
Concluding with such an uncomplicated depiction of resistance and
pleasure suggests an unwarranted optimism about artist or African-­
American agency, although we cannot consider theatre and the Cold War
without the categories of resistance and pleasure. Concomitant with this
illustration of resistance, pleasure, and agency is live performance as a form
of coercive engagement, or as Ira Wolfert put it, as ‘a guided missile’.
Archibald MacLeish articulated a common belief when he declared in
1947: ‘There are no longer physical defenses against the weapons of war-
fare. There are only the defenses of the human spirit.’68 His famous pro-
nouncement mystifies, however, the ways in which the Cold War exploited
that belief. Von Eschen asserts that the

view that culture was decisive in winning the Cold War assumes an illusory
separateness of the categories ‘culture’ and ‘militarism’ […]. Not only were
artists deployed in proximity to covert and overt military campaigns; but …
this separation of the cultural from the military ignores the extent to which
the awesome material influence of the United States in the post-1945 era
was dependent on the domination of cultural resources.69

States deeply implicated in the intrigues of global modernization, a violent

and rapacious enterprise, could weaponize any resource. The USA was not
alone in this: the Soviet Union, China, Great Britain, and other nations
willingly enlisted their artists as combatants.
Wolfert supports his claim to the missile status of Porgy and Bess by
quoting General Dale O. Smith’s warm approval of the tour. The General

‘saw its impact on his command area […] and wrote, “I intend to recom-
mend that the entire company be decorated” by our government.’70 That
a high-ranking military officer comfortably understood the tour in military
terms demonstrates how widely accepted the imbrication of culture and
militarism was. With the tour as a missile—Smith’s reference to ‘impact’,
a forceful collision with its target—and the artists as soldiers, commended
by an officer for medals—the Porgy and Bess performances in the Soviet
Union in December to January 1955–6 were indeed at the front lines.
In this battle, however, it is almost impossible to delineate the victors
and vanquished. Lillian Hayman (Strawberry Woman) reflected in a 1987
interview: ‘I never thought I ever would have been that important to my
country. At that time it made us feel real—it made me feel wonderful […].
I think we were quite representative of our country.’71 That an African-
American citizen could imagine herself as representing and representative
of the USA is significant, given that within the borders of her country she
was legally denied access to many public areas and services, and always a
potential target of violent domestic terrorism. But her refusal to cede the
USA to white supremacy is an example of why the tour is an ideal site
to examine how the ideas and struggles of the historical moment con-
stellated. What can be found in this constellation of events, experiences,
politics, and intentions, this battleground, however, exemplifies as much
the limits, as the assertion, of global dominance by any state or individual
actors who wield missiles of any kind.

1. Ira Wolfert, ‘Ambassadors at Large’, The Nation, 9 May 1956.
2. George M.  Siouris, Missile Guidance and Control Systems (New York:
Springer, 2004), 3.
3. Hanson W.  Baldwin, ‘A Military Policy for the Missile Age’, New York
Times Magazine, 3 November 1957, 13–14.
4. David Monod, ‘Disguise, Containment, and the Porgy and Bess Revival of
1952–1956’, Journal of American Studies 35.2 (2001), 275–312, here 296.
5. Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American
Classic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 208.
6. Ibid., 211.
7. Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess, 217. In Leningrad the com-
pany performed in the Palace of Culture and in Moscow at the Stanislavsky
Nemrovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre.

8. Ibid. Estimates put the full cost to the Soviets at $150,000, almost $1.3
million in 2012 US dollars.
9. See Allan Woll, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), chapter 10,
particularly page 174.
10. William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man, His Era (London: Free Press,
2003), 55 and 306.
11. Rebecca Boehling, ‘The Role of Culture in American Relations with
Europe: The Case of the United States’s Occupation of Germany’,
Diplomatic History 23.1 (Winter 1999), 57–69, here 59.
12. Nigel Gould-Davies, ‘The Logic of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy’, Diplomatic
History 27.2 (April 2003), 193–214, here 212–213.
13. Vladislav Zubok, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 13. The phrase ‘chief ide-
ologist’ comes from Kees Boterbloem, The Life and Times of Andrei
Zhdanov (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 1.
14. Gould-Davies, ‘The Logic of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy’, 197.
15. Ibid., 207.
16. Zubok, Zhivago’s Children, 88.
17. Gould-Davies, ‘The Logic of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy’, 204.
18. Ibid., and David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural
Supremacy during the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 78.
19. Welles Hangen, ‘Moscow Cheers British “Hamlet”’, New York Times, 24
November 1955, 40.
20. Anatolij Smeliansky, The Russian Theatre After Stalin (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999), 7.
21. Zubok, Zhivago’s Children, 59.
22. ‘Statement of Policy on East-West Exchange’, NSC-5607, 29 June 1956,
png, accessed 12 September 2012.
23. As quoted in Naima Prevots, Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and
the Cold War (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 11.
24. ‘Outline of Pre-Production Phase of PORGY AND BESS’, 22 April 1953,
1, Company Press Release, TRI/OSU.
25. Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American
Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 39.
26. Harry S.  Truman, final presidential address, 15 January 1953, http://
www.gilderlehrman.org/collections/4bc9f fab-32d6-­4 650-98e3-
3Dall%26sortby%3Ds301001610%26items_per_page%3D20, accessed 15
March 2016.

27. Dwight D. Eisenhower, ‘Inaugural Address’, 20 January 1953, http://www.

presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9600, accessed 15 March 2016.
28. Dwight D.  Eisenhower, ‘State of the Union’, 6 January 1955, http://
www.vlib.us/amdocs/texts/dde1955.htm, accessed 15 March 2016.
29. Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan,
and the History of the Cold War (New York: Henry Holt, 2009), 112.
30. ‘NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security’,
14 April 1950, http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/nsc-68/nsc68-1.
htm, accessed 15 March 2016.
31. Ibid.
32. Ziegler quoted in Monod, ‘Disguise, Containment, and the Porgy and
Bess Revival’, 286.
33. Frank Thompson, Jr. ‘Are the Communists Right in Calling Us Cultural
Barbarians?’, Music Journal, July–August 1955, 5.
34. Cora Sol Goldstein, ‘Before the CIA: American Actions in the German
Fine Arts (1946–1949)’, Diplomatic History 29.5 (November 2005),
747–778, here 747.
35. The tour paid for all of Lyons’s ‘transportation and room and board while
he is with the company’. Robert Breen, ‘General Memorandum on
Additional Personnel to Wilva Breen’, 4 December 1955, TRI/OSU. ‘Mr.
Lyons, however, did not like to think of himself as a gossip columnist, point-
ing out that he rarely printed […] items that reflected unflatteringly on the
notable whose names were his grist.’ Alden Whitman, ‘Leonard Lyons Dies;
Columnist for 40 Years’, New York Times, 8 October 1976, 94.
36. Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1988), 290–291.
37. Clarke, Capote, 294.
38. NW, ‘Post Mortem’, nt, nd, np. TRI/OSU.
39. David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: Cold War Persecution of Gays and
Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2004), 19.
40. Ibid., 169.
41. Truman Capote, The Muses are Heard (New York: Vintage Books,
1956), 38.
42. ‘A Social Note from Moscow’, Life, 6 February 1956, 47.
43. ‘Moscow Mariage’, Jet Magazine, 2 February 1956.
44. ‘Moscow Agog: “Porgy and Bess” Pair in Colorful Wedding’, Victoria
[Texas] Advocate, 18 January 1956, 1.
45. Clarke, Capote, 292.
46. Dagmar Herzog, Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth Century History
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 75. This law was not

repealed until 1993, Jill J. Barshay, ‘Russia’s Gay Men Step Out of Soviet-
Era Shadows’, New York Times, 10 February 1993, A3.
47. Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation
of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2001), 258.
48. Alan Woods, ‘Interview with Joseph James’, 13 December 1987, TRI/
49. Alan Woods, ‘Interview with Coreania Hayman Carter’, 16 December,
1987, TRI/OSU.
50. ‘Company Briefing on USSR’, US Department of State, Berlin, Tatiana
Palast, 17 December 1955, TRI/OSU.
51. Ibid.
52. Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race
Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
2001), 75.
53. ‘Speech of Mr. N.P. Savchenko to Porgy and Bess Company’, Leningrad,
31 December 1955, translator unknown, TRI/OSU.
54. I. Kopalin, dir., American Actors in Moscow, transl. Inna Caron (Moscow:
Central Red Flag Order Studio of Documentary Films, 1956). There do
not seem to have been any such documentaries made about the visit of the
Comédie Française or Peter Brook’s Hamlet.
55. Many critics did, however, react negatively to what they perceived as an
excessive eroticism. U. Kovalyev noted with displeasure: ‘The astounding
erotic coloring of some of the dancing scenes is unpleasant’ (U. Kovalyev,
Leningrad Smena, 29 December 1955). His distaste was typical of the crit-
ics in both Leningrad and Moscow.
56. V. Bogdanoff-Berezovski, Evening Leningrad, 29 December 1955.
57. Kovalyev, Leningrad Smena.
58. Ibid.
59. B.  Zagoursky, ‘Porgy and Bess—Visit of Everyman Opera Company to
USSR’, Moscow Izvestia, 25 January 1955, TRI/OSU.
60. L.  Baratov, ‘Porgy and Bess’, Evening Moscow, 12 January 1956, TRI/
61. Alan Woods, ‘Interview with Coreania Hayman Carter’, 16 December
1987, TRI/OSU.
62. Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography (New York: New Press,
1989), 434.
63. Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line, 75.
64. Not only did the Department of State send out speakers, artists, and other
public figures they believed might represent the story of race in the USA in
a positive light, but they also featured successful individuals in official pub-
lications. The United States Information Agency (USIA, from 1953–1999

the arm of the US government that oversaw public diplomacy) did a fea-
ture in a 1952 publication on Edith Sampson, a US delegate to the United
Nations. In it she is quoted as saying ‘I think of myself first as an American
and second as a Negro’ and the ‘Communists […] have misled many peo-
ple about minority groups in the United States.’ Her story emphasizes
progress and opportunity, advantages available to her because she resides
in the greatest nation on earth. Government officials believed that stories
about people like Sampson were the best way to deal with international
questions of race—don’t deal directly with the accusations, but offer
narratives that contradict the charges of nationwide racism and oppression;
Michael L.  Krenn, Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State
Departement, 1945–1969 (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 40–41.
65. Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the
Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 252.
66. ‘They Don’t Sound Like Khrushchev: Russians Lionize “Porgy” Cast’,
Life, 9 January 1956, 19.
67. Ibid.
68. Archibald MacLeish, ‘Museums and World Peace’, Magazine of Art 40.1
(January 1947), 32.
69. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World, 254.
70. Wolfert, ‘Ambassadors At Large’, 428.
71. Alan Woods, ‘Interview with Lillian Hayman’, 16 December 1987, TRI/

Spirituals, Serfs, and Soviets: Paul Robeson

and International Race Policy in the Soviet
Union at the Start of the Cold War

Christopher Silsby

In 1934, Paul Robeson was considered a popular American performer

living abroad in London. Over the course of the next 15 years as the Cold
War commenced, Robeson would transform from a figure of broad US
acclaim to the object of CIA, FBI, State Department, and Congressional
anti-communist investigations, leading to the revocation of the artist’s
passport in 1950. The source of these investigations was the perceived
threat of Robeson’s growing political activism. I will first look at the
official policies of the Soviet Union regarding race, and then turn to the
development of Robeson’s use of racialised, transnational performance in
his visits in 1934, 1936, and 1949. Robeson’s reception in the Soviet
Union was heavily influenced by the Communist Party’s ‘Black Belt’
­theory of ­internationalism, a propaganda technique attempting to identify
an oppressed African American nation within the US South as similar to
the ethnic nations in Imperial Russia. These three visits trace a trajec-
tory from public agreement with the official, stated Soviet policy on race
to a performance of nuanced disagreement with the later, more blatant,

C. Silsby (*)
Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, NY, USA

© The Author(s) 2017 45

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_3
46   C. SILSBY

Stalinist enactment of Soviet xenophobic racism during the Cold War.

These three visits reveal the simultaneous implementation of the Soviet
‘Black Belt’ theory and, to repurpose a phrase from Alan Rice, Robeson’s
‘strategic Sovietphilia’.1

Minorities in the Soviet Union

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union promoted the cultures of ‘national minori-
ties’—such as the Uzbeks, Yakuts, and Tazhiks—in an attempt to undo
the Russian Imperial policies that had stripped these cultures of self-­
identity in the name of allegiance to the Empire, as well as to put a positive
intercultural face on Soviet propaganda. On his 1934 trip, Robeson spent
much time with his official host, Soviet director and film-maker Sergei
Eisenstein. In a discussion with Robeson, ‘Eisenstein said he disliked the
unfair implications of inferiority which the term “primitive” conveyed—
which was why, he explained, the Soviets had preferred to use the phrase
“national minorities”’.2 Eventually, protection of national minorities was
written into the 1936 ‘Stalin’ Soviet Constitution; it became official policy
that racism could not exist in the Soviet Union. Paul Robeson singles out
his admiration of the Soviet Constitution for the law, which would pun-
ish the ‘propagation’ of the idea that people are not equal.3 Therefore, in
Robeson’s formulation, the Soviet Union outlawed not only the act, but
also the thought, of discrimination.
Official Soviet pronouncements and propaganda emphasised a lack of
distinction between ‘brown-skinned’ Central and Eastern Soviets and white
European Soviets.4 However, such totalising colour blindness both inverts
the ‘identity problem’ of Russia—which suffers from national anxiety over
its identity as neither Asian nor European—and praises the Soviet Union
for one of its cultural paranoias. Cultural colour blindness also ignores
a peculiar linguistic trait of the Russian language. According to Barbara
Keys, ‘the Russian word chernyi (black), for example, was often used to
refer to non-Slavic peoples such as Chechens, while Africans and blacks
were called afrikantsy (Africans) or negry (Negroes), but there was no cat-
egory corresponding to “white”’.5 If ‘white’ did not exist as a l­inguistic
category, the total erasure of racial identity only existed for Slavs, whereas
everyone else could be coded as ‘other’ by any various racialised categories.
Even though the official policy of anti-racism in the Soviet Union was
not a part of the constitution until 1936, the basis of such a national

policy could be seen in Lenin’s and Stalin’s 1913 writings. In Marxism

and the National Question, Stalin rejected the nineteenth-century con-
cept of ‘nation’ that depended on a shared racial identity.6 In place of
the racial requirement, Stalin emphasised the necessity of shared loca-
tion, language, mindset, and—of course, since he was providing a Marxist
In a letter written to Pravda in 1951, Robeson directly cites Lenin as
drawing a connection between African American slaves and the Russian
serfs: Lenin writes in 1913:

There is a striking similarity between the economic position of the American

Negroes and that of the former landlord peasants of the central agricultural
region of Russia. What is the economic foundation of which this beauti-
ful superstructure now rests? The foundation of the typically Russian, truly
Russian otrabotki, i.e. share-cropping system.7

According to Lenin’s purely Marxist analysis, the connection between

Americans and Russians is entirely economic. As in the USA, eman-
cipation in Russia did not arrive until the early 1860s, but the effects
of enslavement continued to haunt the socio-economic position of for-
mer serfs until the revolution. Since all concerns for a Leninist-Marxist
interpretation necessarily flow from the economic, the shared position of
formerly enslaved agrarian peoples is the most fundamental of possible
parallels. The Comintern used Lenin’s connection between serfs and
slaves to suggest that ‘American Communists should oppose the Tsarist-­
like American imperialists who oppress the “peasant” black nation living
within its borders’.8 This was the heart of the ‘Black Belt’ theory of inter-
nationalism, linking the African-American experience to the suffering of
Soviet ‘national minorities’ under the tsarist regime.
Robeson, however, saw the connection between African Americans and
Russians as one that ran much deeper than the shared economic position
outlined by Lenin:

When I sing the ‘Spirituals’ and work songs of the Negro people to
Soviet audiences, I feel that a tremendous bond of sympathy and mutual
­understanding unites us. The Russian folksongs and those of the Soviet
National Republics, which were formerly tsarist colonies, bear a close rela-
tionship to folksongs of the Negro people. In each instance these songs
were born out of the misery and suffering, exploitation and oppression of
the people.9
48   C. SILSBY

For Robeson, suffering became the legitimising experience that tied Soviet
and Negro artistic expression. As Kate Baldwin writes, Robeson came to
view ‘“suffering” as fundamental to a certain kind of knowledge’.10 A his-
tory of extended physical and psychic pain that extended beyond mere
economics, and that was systematically exerted on the Russian serf and
American slave, became a means of transferring the memory of enslavement.
Conversely, in both countries, bodily pain was transferred to music,
and then used as a means of combating oppression. Even before his travels
to the Soviet Union, Robeson was aware of musical analogues between
Russian and Negro songs, and emphasised the importance of cultural
experience to the type of music produced:

The Russians have experienced many of the same things the American
Negroes have experienced. They were both serfs and in the music there is
the same note of melancholy, touched with mysticism. I have heard most of
the great Russian singers on the gramophone and have occasionally found
whole phrases that could be matched in Negro melodies.11

Robeson’s views on folk art coincided with the resurgence of folk culture in
the Soviet Union under Stalin. The Soviet interest in folk culture was not
a dispassionate anthropological exercise, but a ‘politicized folk adaptation’
used to educate the whole Union in the various national music, dance, and
art forms.12 This Soviet interest in folk culture was to be the point most often
used by Robeson to connect his work to the history of the Soviet Union.

The 1934 Trip

In 1934, Robeson made his initial trip to the Soviet Union. Paul Robeson’s
son claims of his father that this visit ‘marked the beginning of the public
expression of his private political views’; a fact either unknown even to the
artist himself, or intentionally obscured in his public pronouncements, in
which Robeson ‘cast his [1934] visit as an exclusively cultural one. He was
going as an artist, rather than as a political figure’.13 At this point, Robeson
could still distinguish, at least in public, between artist and political activ-
ist. In three years’ time, he would loudly deny the possibility of such a divi-
sion between art and activism. However, since Robeson, a performer, was
constantly aware of the power of public display, he may have been con-
sciously affecting the distance between artist and political activist. But, if
we take Robeson at his public word that he had no intention of politicising

this trip, the same cannot be said of his host country, since the Soviet
Union was carefully crafting a global image as a country free of racism.
During this visit, Robeson’s views of race came closest to the official policy
of the Soviet Union.
Robeson arrived in the Soviet Union on the verge of the deepest
repressions of the Stalinist era. The first Conference of the Union of
Soviet Writers, which outlined the socialist realist aesthetic that was to
be enforced as the official artistic movement, was held in 1934; the year
also saw the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the only potential challenger to
Stalin’s authority.
Prior to Robeson’s 1934 visit, none of his records were officially avail-
able in the Soviet Union, and the single radio broadcast of Robeson’s
‘Steal Away’ provoked controversy because the song had overtly religious
lyrics.14 Therefore, on this initial trip, Robeson was known less for his
music and more for his renown in the rest of the world. He was consid-
ered an important foreign visitor because of his high cultural position in
Western Europe and the USA.
Even though Robeson did not sing on an official concert tour dur-
ing the 1934 visit, he did perform. Using a tactic later perfected in the
USA during his tours of union halls and factories during the 1940s and
1950s, Robeson gave impromptu a cappella concerts for the House of
Cinema Workers, the bus drivers of the Moscow Foreign Workers’ Club
garage, and factory workers at a ball-bearing plant in Leningrad.15 Even in
these spontaneous performances, Robeson’s choice of repertoire revealed
a concern with internationalism and resistance to hierarchical valuations of
art. These unplanned concerts for workers included Russian and English,
opera and folk songs, an aria from Boris Godunov and ‘“Ol’ Man River”,
which he introduced to them as a song of protest’.16 The juxtaposition
of the high art of Mussorgsky’s opera alongside the American commer-
cial musical and the low art of folk songs and workers’ songs levelled all
cultural value hierarchies; Robeson was singing not to a paying audience
who were restricted in assigned seats within a concert hall, but to people
at their site of labour. While not as drastic as Robeson’s 1937 ­rewriting of
Hammerstein’s lyrics to emphasise a positive political struggle, the impact
of reframing a musical theatre number as a protest song similarly decou-
ples the song from its original source in order to claim authorial control.
Robeson could establish a new political meaning for this song to an audi-
ence unaware of its original context in the troubled history of Broadway,
minstrelsy, and African-American performers.
50   C. SILSBY

In an article explaining why he brought his son to Moscow, Robeson

remembers a Russian children’s theatre performance from the 1934 trip. A
black African child loses his favourite monkey to the capitalist ship labelled
USA, while a Soviet ship helps him to retrieve his friend and become a
Young Pioneer. Robeson claims that the children in the audience at this
performance hugged and greeted him with such love and compassion, that
one child would not let go of his hand throughout the second act. The
reception caused him to realise that his own son could grow up and be
accepted among these open-hearted Soviet Young Pioneers-in-training.17
Robeson does not name the performance, but it was Natalia Sats’s The
Negro Boy and the Monkey.18 The performance itself is not examined by
Robeson in his reminiscences, except with the most superficial of propagan-
distic readings that the Soviet Union is the true friend of Africans. Robeson
focuses instead on the reaction of the children in the audience to his presence
in the auditorium. Robeson recounts a similar anecdote about walking by a
playground and being called ‘black Grandfather Frost’ while little children
hugged his leg and wouldn’t let go because they ‘hadn’t been taught to fear
black men’.19 In both examples, however, a live black man is treated with love
and kindness by Russian children, who nevertheless misrecognise him as a
fictional figure, or symbol: either equivalent to the pitiable African boy who
loses his monkey or the kindly Slavic version of Santa Claus.

The 1936 Tour

Robeson returned to the Soviet Union for an official concert tour in 1936.
While the 1934 visit occurred following Kirov’s assassination, this concert
tour began only two months after the first Stalinist show trial, which had
begun in August. Thus, Robeson launched his singing career in the Soviet
Union during a period of heightened sensitivity to the potential terror of
the government’s whims.
The director and film-maker Sergei Eisenstein was under particular
scrutiny for his attempts to make films that were banned by the ­authorities.
Therefore, he had to be careful when praising Robeson, so as not to
appear a supporter of foreigners above the Soviet Union. Eisenstein, as
the man who first invited Robeson to the Soviet Union, had much to lose
if the tour was not a success. Of particular interest to potential denouncers
would be Robeson’s use of religion in his spirituals.
Under Stalin, religion in the Soviet Union faced a particular form of
double identity. While freedom of religion was officially protected, even

by Stalin’s 1936 constitution, overt religious displays were criticised and

denounced in the media or violently repressed. Therefore, Eisenstein’s
attempted to recast Robeson’s spirituals as class-based folk songs played on
this double nature, in much the same way that Robeson had recast ‘Ol’ Man
River’ as a protest song. In the Soviet press, Eisenstein defended Robeson’s
choice to include spirituals in his concerts, calling attention to the ‘class con-
tent in the folk tradition of Negro songs’.20 Eisenstein’s review of Robeson’s
spirituals avoided ‘the patronizing tone, the endless harangues over the
artistic merit’ that was present in Western reviews of Robeson’s concerts.21
Rather, Eisenstein used a tactic of exposing the double-consciousness inher-
ent in these songs at the risk of conflating all spirituals into atheistic songs
of coded rebellion. Audience members could openly appreciate the songs
of struggle while privately listening for the religious meanings, in an almost
direct inverse of the coding used on plantations in the USA where the songs
were allowed precisely because of their religious overtones.
The structure of Robeson’s Russian concerts was similar to his con-
certs in America. A Russian reviewer described it as ‘[drawn] from Negro
folk songs, worker songs of democratic America, ancient folk songs of
France and England, Russian musical classics and works of contemporary
Soviet composers. … [interspersed with] short but instructive commen-
tary which immediately defines the progressive civic trend of the song’.22
For Soviet reviewers like Solodobnikov and Eisenstein, the context and
educational aspect of the concert was just as important as the music, if not
more so, in justifying this foreign performer’s visit to the country.
Using a formulation similar to Robeson’s own view that Russian and
African-American music shared a common history in embodied suffering,
the strenuous physical work of Robeson’s performing is highlighted by the
reviewer. This connection further justified Robeson to the Soviets as a fel-
low labourer, but also showed a fascination with the muscular black male
body under stress similar to American viewings of the black male body:

[In the song ‘Waterboy’,] Robeson accompanies the conclusion of a verse

with a gesture which seems to express the unbearable burden of forced
labor. The artist’s face is distorted with suffering, his hands tremble; they
are in no condition to do any more heavy work.23

The review, of course, only ties this ‘burden of forced labor’ to the American
context of slavery and Russian serfdom, but not to the then-­current con-
text of Stalinist gulags. The danger of rebellion coming from such condi-
tions is safely contained either by historical or geographic distance.
52   C. SILSBY

In 1937, following the concert tour, Robeson attended a gala perfor-

mance of Uzbek opera at the Moscow Bolshoi Opera House—with Stalin
himself in the audience. Writing for the Left Review, Robeson summarised
the opera as about Uzbek women struggling for freedom from the ‘dou-
ble yoke’ of Islam and Russian serfdom (that is, from religion and impe-
rialism). He explained differences between the treatment of ‘explained
differences’ in the USA and the Soviet Union, stating that:

[in the United States,] indigenous cultures exist mainly as museum pieces,
reflecting in no way contemporary social reality … [or are] destroyed or
allowed to decay, [while] the great masses are flung upon the mercy of alien
forms, which in the final analysis benefit the few who share the privileged
position with the foreign rulers. … But apparently, here in the Soviet Union,
there was no such contradiction. Before me was a theatre of a coloured
people of the East, which had created opera in its own form—a form which
must have served this people for centuries. But it was filled with the sub-
stance of their present-day life.24

For Robeson, the content of the opera—the overthrow of religious and

imperial oppression—matched the form of the opera—a traditional Uzbek
cultural expression. This was not merely a stultifying ‘tolerance’ of indig-
enous culture, rather it was the flourishing of Uzbek culture within the
protections afforded by the Soviet system. In opposition to the treatment
of minorities in the rest of the world, Robeson saw that under Soviet rule,
the Uzbeks ‘were not being told that their language and culture were
“either dead or too primitive to develop” and had to give way before the
“superior” utility of alien forms’.25 The concept of ‘progress’ demanded of
all by the Soviet Union was not restricted to an assimilation into a single
racialised culture. Soviet culture in the 1930s was to be, as resolved by the
1934 First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers, a culture which embraced
the multiple nationalities within its borders toward a shared political goal.
Robeson credited Stalin with the multiple-nation policy that allowed
these types of cultural art to exist. Referencing the leader’s presence in the
theatre that night, Robeson writes:

[…] in a box on the right—standing and applauding the audience and the
artists on the stage—stood the great Stalin. […] Here, a people, quite com-
parable to some of the tribal folk of China—quite comparable to the proud
Yoruba or Basuto of West & East Africa—but now their lives flowering anew
under the Socialist way of life—20 years matured under the guidance of
Lenin and Stalin.

And in this whole area of the development of national minorities of their

relation to the great Russians—Stalin had played and was playing the most
important role.26
Robeson, for all of his praise of Stalin in this passage, was not blind to
the realities of the purges occurring at the time. Robeson was aware of
the increasing disconnect between the official policy of the Soviet Union
and the dangers of Stalin’s growing nationalistic practices. When Robeson
decided, on this tour, to leave his son in Moscow to be educated, he
did so ‘with maximum publicity’ in order to avoid the problems of other
Americans whose children would be kept by Soviet authorities as a means
of guaranteeing the parents’ allegiance to the Soviet Union.27 Perhaps
most telling of his complicated relationship with Stalin is Robeson’s final
trip before the revocation of his passport by the US State Department.

The 1949 Visit

By 1949, the largest of the purges had already been performed, and Soviet
policy was beginning to turn against ‘Zionists’, ostensibly a term used
to denounce Jews who placed foreign governments above the Soviet
Union, but in actuality a term used to politically justify any anti-Semitic
The Soviet Union’s official racial policy of the past was beginning to
crumble, and not only against Jews. When Robeson was asked to speak
at the gala commemorating the sesquicentennial of Alexander Pushkin’s
birth, the Soviet government specifically informed Robeson that ‘comrade
Stalin has pointed out that Pushkin should be referred to as a Russian
poet’, rather than referencing the poet’s African heritage.28 Despite the
fact that Pushkin’s own ethnic history was erased from all speeches given
at the celebration, the ‘published proceedings of the sesquicentennial
repeatedly refer[red] to Jim Crow and lynchings in the United States’.29
For official Soviet policy, the way to counter racism of the kind found in
the USA was to ignore the subject at home, to forcibly deny by omission
any attempt to raise the complexities of these issues, and redirect all efforts
toward depicting the horrors of the American system. The policy was not
an attempt to correct the problems of racism, but rather to use race as one
prong of attack in the larger propaganda assault on the USA.
Robeson’s view of race was neither the ‘melting pot’ of American lib-
eralism, nor the erasure of difference of the Soviet policy line. According
to Mihailovic:
54   C. SILSBY

Robeson change[d] the lyrics of the song ‘Native Land’ [by Dunaevsky]
to reflect his own cultural ideology. Rather than the erasure of differ-
ence implied by the lyrics ‘for us there is neither black nor light-skinned’,
Robeson rewrote the line to emphasize a multi-cultural view: ‘Side by side,
the black, the white, the yellow.’30

As shown in his rewriting of Dunaevsky’s ‘Native Land’, Robeson was not

averse to subtly challenging the Soviet mentality within the country’s own
borders. However, on this 1949 trip, the stakes were much higher for such
a musical challenge to authority.
Robeson had many Jewish friends living in Russia in the 1930s, most
famously the actor Solomon Mikhoels and the poet Itzik Feffer, who were
both persecuted under the new ‘anti-Zionist’ purges. Mikhoels had been
killed by the secret police before Robeson’s arrival, and Feffer was only
allowed out of a secret prison to meet with Robeson because the American
had made multiple inquiries with authorities. In their brief meeting,
Feffer communicated on two levels. Verbally, the poet carried on a banal
­conversation, assuring Robeson that life in the Soviet Union was wonder-
ful—in order to satisfy any bugged recording devices in Robeson’s hotel
room. Simultaneously, Feffer visually communicated using hand gestures
and written notes to inform Robeson of his imprisonment and Mikhoels’s
murder.31 The conversation led Robeson to add an encore to his concert
on his final night in the Soviet Union.
At the end of an otherwise standard concert of the type given on
his previous tour, Robeson dedicated the Yiddish ‘Song of the Warsaw
Ghetto Rebellion’ to Mikhoels and Feffer, specifically calling on ‘the deep
cultural ties’ he felt with both Jewish and Soviet culture—overtly placing
this song in the same tradition as his Negro spirituals/Russian folk song
­formulation, while covertly protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews and
signalling his distance from Stalin. Martin Duberman sees this gesture as
‘all that [Robeson] could have done without directly threatening Feffer’s
life’.32 Robeson’s son goes further to say that this gesture ‘temporarily
“rehabilitated” Feffer’, since ‘anyone allowed to visit an honored guest
such as Paul Robeson could not at the same time be an “enemy of the peo-
ple”’.33 Mihailovic, however, dismisses the interpretation by Duberman
and Robeson, Jr that the inclusion of the Yiddish song was a political swipe
at the Stalinist regime, instead merely calling it a song of solidarity.34 The
very act of using a Yiddish ‘song of solidarity’ during a time of the Soviet
Union’s internal fragmentations and turning against fractions of society

makes Robeson’s choice of an encore a political swipe. The American per-

former—sympathetic to the Soviet cause—had begun to subtly oppose
Stalin’s policies. This is a nuanced and double-coded political critique that
attempts to correct the course of the ship of state, rather than capsize the
Stalin regime through revolt. The tactic worked temporarily, and Feffer’s
life was spared for three years, at the end of which period Robeson would
be stranded in his home country and unable to return to the Soviet Union
due to the anti-communist policies of the Red Scare.

Robeson’s Shift of Counter-discourse

Kate Baldwin claims in her analysis of African-American intellectuals in

the Soviet Union that ‘the frame of the Soviet Union alters the black
Atlantic model’, and that Robeson’s time in the Soviet Union ‘prefig-
ured the transnationalist thrust of the counter-discourse Gilroy maps in
black Atlantic expressive cultures’.35 African-American lines of flight to
and from the Soviet Union do not retrace the historical forced migra-
tions. In contrast to Europe’s troubled colonial and exoticising dual lens,
Russia and the Soviet Union never held colonies on the African continent.
The ‘counter-discourse’ voiced by the travels of African Americans in the
Soviet Union is initially a discourse based on seemingly similar histories of
oppression, enslavement, and the promise of equality.
These three visits from 1934 to 1949 trace a decisive change in
Robeson’s public pronouncements of his ‘counter-discourse’ political ide-
ology. Robeson started in 1934 as an artist who was attempting to find a
way to integrate his public art with his personal politics. By 1937, he had
embraced the pro-Soviet and anti-fascist stance, typified by his famous
quote that ‘the artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery.
I have made my choice. I had no alternative’.36 He completed this set of
visits with a final concert in 1949 that covertly questioned Stalin’s actions,
­displaying a hesitancy to blindly accept the party line.

1. Rice’s term, ‘strategic Anglophilia’, implies a deliberate omission of guilt in
the slave trade in order to highlight similarities between African-American
US culture and the British Isles (Alan Rice, Radical Narratives of the Black
Atlantic (London: Continuum, 2003), 172–187). A similar conscious
omission can be seen in Robeson’s statements made in the Soviet Union.
56   C. SILSBY

2. Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography (New York: Ballantine

Books, 1989), 187.
3. Paul Robeson, Soviet Worker, Paul Robeson Papers, 1937b, Box 19,
Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard
4. For example, see Lily Golden, ‘Black People in the Soviet Union’, New
World Review, September–October 1975, 16–21, Paul and Eslanda
Robeson Collection, Box 158–1 Folder 13, Manuscript Division,
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
5. Barbara Keys, ‘An African-American Worker in Stalin’s Soviet Union: Race
and the Soviet Experiment in International Perspective’, Historian 71.1
(2009), 31–54, here 37.
6. Anthony Dawahare, Nationalism, Marxism, and African American
Literature between the Wars: A New Pandora’s Box (Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 2003), 74.
7. Paul Robeson, ‘Negro in America’, Pravda, May 1951, Folder ‘Writings
by’ 1951, Paul Robeson Papers, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn
Research Center, Howard University, 7.
8. Dawahare, Nationalism, Marxism, and African American Literature, 79.
9. Robeson, Soviet Worker.
10. Kate Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading
Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922–1963 (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2002), 226.
11. Robeson as quoted in Sheila Tully Boyle and Andrew Bunie, Paul Robeson:
The Years of Promise and Achievement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts
Press, 2001), 303.
12. Richard Stites, Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since
1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 78–79.
13. Paul Jr. Robeson, Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939 (New
York: Wiley, 2001), 217.
14. Boyle and Bunie, Paul Robeson, 307.
15. Ibid., 316.
16. Paul Robeson, Jr, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey,
1898–1939 (New York: Wiley, 2001), 221.
17. Paul Robeson, ‘Why I Left My Son in Moscow’, Russia Today, February
1938, Paul Robeson Papers, Box 19, Manuscript Division, Moorland-
Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
18. Boyle and Bunie, Paul Robeson, 310.
19. Paul Robeson, Jr, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey,
1898–1939 (New York: Wiley, 2001), 221.
20. Ibid., 280.
21. Boyle et al., Paul Robeson, 363.

22. A. Solodobnikov, ‘Paul Robeson, Artist and Fighter’, [no date], Paul and
Eslanda Robeson Collection, Box 158–6, Russian Letters, Folder 2,
Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard
23. Ibid.
24. Paul Robeson, “National Cultures and the Soviet Union”, Left Review,
November (1937a), 577, Paul Robeson Papers, Box 19, Manuscript
Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
25. Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989),
26. Paul Robeson, [Stalin, remembrances of], [no date], Paul Robeson Papers,
Box 20, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center,
Howard University.
27. Duberman, Paul Robeson, 207.
28. Robeson, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, 152.
29. Alexandar Mihailovic, ‘“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’: Paul
Robeson and the 1949 Pushkin Jubilee’, in Under the Sky of My Africa:
Alexander Pushkin and Blackness, ed. Catharine T. Nepomnyashchy, Nicole
Svobodny, and Ludmilla A. Trigos (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University
Press, 2006), 302–331, here 310–311.
30. Ibid., 312.
31. Duberman, Paul Robeson, 153).
32. Ibid., 353.
33. Robeson, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, 154.
34. Mihailovic, ‘“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”’, 318.
35. Kate Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line, 9 and 216–217.
36. Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 52.

The Politics of an International Reputation:

The Berliner Ensemble as a GDR Theatre
on Tour

David Barnett

The Importance of Touring to the Young Berliner

From its inception, Brecht envisaged the Berliner Ensemble (BE) as a
theatre that toured. In a document submitted to the Socialist Unity Party
(SED) in early 1949, he hoped that the company would develop ‘a real-
istic, new mode of acting’ in its first year and would then, in its second,
produce ‘Modell productions with which it can tour Germany’.1 Before
the BE was a month old, it had already performed in Brunswick and
Cologne in what had recently become the Federal Republic of Germany
(FRG). The theatre’s manager in Cologne had invited Brecht to bring
his company to that city and he declared ‘that Germany had to remain

This work was supported by a British Academy Research Development Award and
an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship (AH/I003961/1).

D. Barnett (*)
University of York, York, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 59

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_4

intellectually and culturally unified’.2 As is already evident, the BE’s first

tour was undertaken in the context of the Cold War: at a time when the
division of Germany was not yet a certainty, Brecht’s name and the quality
associated with his theatre were being deployed as a means to push a pan-­
German agenda, something that the SED also supported.
By the summer of the following year, West German officials were
quickly becoming wary of the BE and sought means to prevent it touring
the FRG. At this time, the company was actively offering tours to West
German theatres rather than being invited, and the BE in particular was
discussed at a conference of the FRG’s culture committees in Munich on
19 and 20 June 1950. While they concluded that there was no legal basis
for a ban on the company touring the West, they believed exclusion could
be enforced informally ‘by different means’.3 The BE, in contradistinction
to any other GDR theatre, was considered ‘an explicitly SED institution
[…] that had the aim of infiltrating cultural life with the politics of the
East via the theatre’.4 The FRG’s stratagem was successful: tours to the-
atres in Hamburg, Munich, and Brecht’s home town of Augsburg were
all declined when the local authorities applied pressure.5 Indeed, having
toured six cities in the FRG before the conference, the BE was not to
return there until a tour of North Germany in 1958. This eight-year hia-
tus marks the distance between the BE’s establishment in the GDR as an
innovative company and its rise to international prominence in the mid-­
1950s. By that time, West German theatres were actively courting the BE.
Back in 1949, the SED had strongly supported the founding of the BE
despite both practical and political obstacles that stood in its way, and was
keen to use it internationally almost from the off. By November 1949 the
Party suggested a tour to Bulgaria,6 although this did not actually take
place. The BE ventured to Vienna in September 1950, where it played at
the Neue Scala, a theatre founded by returning left-wing émigrés. Thus,
while this was technically a foreign tour, the BE was actually playing to an
audience that both agreed with its politics and understood its language.
This was not the case, however, in September 1951, when the Italian
government, under the conservative prime minister Gaspari, refused to
grant the BE entrance visas to perform at the Venice Biennale.7 BE actor
Regine Lutz noted in a letter home to her parents that the West German
government had applied pressure to the Italians,8 something that is not
beyond the realm of possibility, given the behaviour of the FRG’s cul-
tural functionaries in 1950. Already, then, the BE found its touring plans
inflected by the tensions of the Cold War.

The first trip beyond the German-speaking world was to an historically

delicate destination: Poland. The BE toured Warsaw, Kraków, and Łodz
in December 1952 and was the first German troupe to play the country
since World War II.  The programme itself was carefully constructed:
Mother Courage and her Children spoke to the horrors of war and
offered a distinctly unheroic picture of a German woman who does not
question militarism and consequently suffers at its hands. This produc-
tion was presented with Brecht’s The Mother, which, in its 1951 produc-
tion, portrayed the processes involved in developing class consciousness
in sympathetic terms. Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug completed
the line-up with an historicised comedy that satirised bourgeois justice.
The tour acknowledged cultural sensitivities while contextualising them
within a broadly leftist frame—the disaster of war was not inevitable,
and a developed political consciousness could foster the quest for peace.
The very act of taking an actively left-wing German theatre company to
the country the Nazis invaded in 1939 was designed to build cultural
bridges between the two nations that were politically aligned by their
socialist governments.
The BE’s first tours reflect how the company was involved in inter-
national politics early. Its trips to the FRG and Poland used culture as a
way of establishing links that were either non-existent or nascent. This
was achieved at least in part through the nature of the BE’s work itself.
Brecht as artistic director was committed to making theatre that clearly
articulated dialectical contradictions and engaged everyone on stage, not
just the leading actors, in a commitment to ensemble work. His thorough
rehearsal methods delivered high-quality productions of great clarity that
differed from more standard theatre fare. The SED could thus be reason-
ably certain that it was dispatching work that would be well received rather
than producing well-meaning mediocrity.
This support for excellence already says something important about
the distinction the Party made between the BE’s status as a GDR theatre
and as a GDR theatre on tour. As of 1951, the SED had launched its cam-
paign against formalism in the arts and the BE was to become its prime
target domestically. However, it was prepared to allow the company to
take a production that had been explicitly criticised in connection with
formalism, The Mother,9 on tour to Poland. This double standard reflects
how the Party’s aesthetic dogma could stop at its own borders in order
to capitalise on the praise that high-quality, innovative theatre could reap
from foreign audiences.

The Breakthrough Years

Early touring was a relatively low-key affair. While the trip to Poland, for
example, was politically valuable to both the SED and the BE, it did little
to generate a great deal of interest from further afield. However, the BE’s
reputation was growing at home as it pioneered new ways of making the-
atre and it took advantage of the cultural thaw that followed the uprising
in the GDR of 17 June 1953 to venture forth to the capitalist West.
A tour of Paris in summer of 1954 marked a change of gear on both
the BE’s and the SED’s part. The BE, which had finally moved into a
theatre building of its own in March 1954, found that it had its own
workshop and set about constructing a portable revolving stage specially
manufactured for the Paris tour.10 This was to ensure that Mother Courage
could be performed in a version that was as close as possible to the one to
which spectators flocked in Berlin. The SED was also keen to promote the
company that it had harassed and attacked earlier that decade. By 1954,
the Party made sure that the tour was well funded with lots of expensive
foreign currency.11 The combined efforts of company and Party paid off,
and the BE was able to present Courage in all its splendour, together with
The Broken Jug, although it was the former that garnered the most enthu-
siastic plaudits.
The Parisian audience was already familiar with Mother Courage from a
production directed by Jean Vilar, the founder of the Festival d’Avignon
and the Théâtre National Populaire. However, one reviewer wrote that
while he did not want to denigrate Vilar’s achievements, the BE’s produc-
tion was far superior.12 The only major paper to find fault with the pro-
duction was the conservative Le Figaro13 although this seemed thoroughly
out of step with the public’s reception at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.
Indeed, so popular was the BE that it returned the following June with
The Caucasian Chalk Circle to even greater adulation: this time the same
reviewer at Le Figaro wished that the BE had stayed longer.14
Brecht had been sharply criticised in the West for supporting the SED
in a part-published letter to Walter Ulbricht, the de facto head of state, on
17 June 1953.15 In a letter written to his old friend Lion Feuchtwanger
after the second Paris tour, Brecht noted that ‘since Paris there’s no real
danger in staging a play of mine in Western Europe’.16 He considered
himself vindicated; his belief in letting the theatre do the talking instead
of fulminating himself in public had paid off. The BE’s tours had rehabili-
tated Brecht the playwright in the international arena. In the same letter

he noted that Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, and George Devine of the
English Stage Company had spoken to him during their tour of Berlin and
were very keen to bring the BE to England.
The plan was quickly realised and the BE were guests at London’s
Palace Theatre for a three-week residency from 27 August–15 September
1956. The BE’s repertoire reflects its confidence in that, in addition to its
two Paris hits, Courage and the Chalk Circle, it included its adaptation of
George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer as Trumpets and Drums. The
British critics mixed appreciation for the new possibilities of theatre with a
scepticism towards what they understood to be Brecht’s theoretical ambi-
tions at times.17 The experiment with Trumpets was not entirely successful
due to the language barrier; its comedy was more difficult to apprehend
for speakers of English.
The success of the international tours established the BE as a pioneer
of a new approach to melding theatre and politics. Its reputation abroad
would rarely desert the company despite regular crises at home from the
late 1960s onward that very much dented its standing with GDR audi-
ences. Two aspects account for this asymmetry. First, the BE pursued its
Brechtian legacy with almost religious zeal. That meant that the primacy
of a dialectical interpretation of reality pervaded the work and that situa-
tions rather than characters provided the starting point for theatrical reali-
sation. The company therefore approached and honed its particular take
on the business of stage production over many years. Second, such dis-
tinctiveness was then thrown into relief abroad where approaches like this
were virtually unheard of. Brecht had declared, in a much-quoted tagline
to the BE’s book Theaterarbeit: ‘we have to develop two art-forms: the
art of acting and the art of spectating’.18 In this, Brecht acknowledged
that an audience could not simply appreciate the new theatre he sought to
introduce, but had to learn how to read and understand it over time. The
BE’s reception abroad reflects this sentiment in that spectators were rarely
used to the BE’s theatrical work, and so it appeared fresh and engaging on
foreign soil however tired it may have been in the GDR.

Negotiating the Travel Ban after the Wall

One of the BE’s great attractions to the SED was that the company was
regularly invited to perform in what it considered politically important
countries. Laura Bradley writes that the BE’s ability to tour the West meant
that it was able to go to places that the GDR’s diplomats could not.19

The many countries that hosted the company wanted to see innovative
and high-quality theatre, something that made the BE the GDR’s most
prestigious cultural export—none of its other theatres could compete with
the sustained attractiveness of the BE’s approach. This status worked very
much to the BE’s advantage for a fairly obvious reason: it made SED
interference more difficult because the company now had a properly inter-
national profile and the support of important friends abroad.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that the BE had some kind of
fool’s licence to do whatever it fancied either at home or abroad. The SED
still financed the bulk of each tour’s haulage and logistics costs, which were
not insubstantial, and, in addition, the relationship between company and
Party was not particularly hostile. Indeed, the BE spontaneously cancelled
a performance in the West German town of Marl to mark the death of
Wilhelm Pieck in 1960.20 He was the GDR’s first and only president and
had supported the BE, especially during the GDR’s more Stalinist period
in the early 1950s. But even in the BE’s act of solidarity, the personal
combined with the political. On the one hand, Helene Weigel was indeed
good friends with the late president. On the other, such a gesture was a
public one and would have a positive effect on the BE’s relationship with
the SED by publicly tying the company to the GDR.
What developed, for the most part, was a mutually advantageous rela-
tionship in which the SED provided due support in order to bask in the
reflected glory of a successful tour. It could claim that the BE flourished as
a result of its own cultural policies, while the BE furthered its own reputa-
tion as a purveyor of high-quality, politically dynamic theatre. The BE’s
status as the GDR’s most successful touring theatre meant that it could call
on the SED when it encountered problems abroad. An interesting example
of the way in which the SED came to the BE’s assistance can be seen in an
incident brought about by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
The BE was virtually forced to stay behind the Iron Curtain as a GDR
theatre between 1961 and 1965 because the West Berlin ‘Travel Board’,
administered by the three Western Allies, refused entrance visas to GDR
artists as a direct response to the erection of the Wall. National govern-
ments, of course, also had the power to deny entry, yet an abandoned
tour to England in 1963 actually brought about a climbdown from the
British government on this policy.21 Against the backdrop of weaken-
ing government resolve, the National Theatre in London invited the BE
to London in January 1964. By this time, the issue of visas for GDR
­artists had become suitably contentious, however, this plan to perform in

London was later scuppered by the Travel Board. Yet behind the scenes a
further intrigue was being played out. Kenneth Tynan had warned Weigel
that a Polish troupe would be bringing a production of Brecht’s Arturo
Ui to London in May 1964.22 This plan was in fact already known to
the Ministry of Culture; Deputy Minister Kurt Bork feared that a Polish
Ui would make the need for a home-grown GDR production superflu-
ous and thus undermine the GDR’s struggle against travel restrictions.23
Weigel was also aware of the tour and wrote to the Viennese-born direc-
tor of the Polish Ui, Erwin Axer, someone whom she and Brecht had met
on the tour of Poland in 1952.24 She noted both that he had not sought
permission to take the production to London and, more importantly, that
it was tactical for London to develop a hunger for Brecht that only the
BE could satisfy. This blatant statement of self-interest concluded with a
plea for Axer’s solidarity in all things with the GDR.25 The director replied
that he had applied for the rights and that he considered he was very
much acting in Brecht’s interests.26 Yet despite the Polish governmen-
tal support,27 Bork told Weigel later that year that it was the Ministry
of Culture’s intervention that prevented the tour.28 Axer’s response was
never to direct Brecht again.
The incident shows that the BE could align its position with that of
the GDR authorities when it served its interest, how resolute the GDR
authorities were in fighting the travel ban, and how far they were prepared
to go in negotiations to secure the primacy of the BE as a GDR theatre

The International Dimension as Constant Presence

The SED was almost always concerned about the ways in which its cul-
tural policies would be received in the international arena when consider-
ing decisions about the BE. Even before it had been constituted, officials
latched on to Brecht’s promise to attract émigré actors and directors. Kurt
Bork, for example, was keen to stress the importance of keeping Brecht
in Berlin, not only for the calibre of his work but for ‘its extraordinary
propaganda value’.29 Berlin councillor Max Kreuziger added a comment
to Bork’s, noting that Brecht’s ability to attract a number of prominent
actors to Berlin was important to offset those leaving for the West. From
the outset, then, functionaries explicitly linked Brecht’s significance to his
usefulness, and this was a usefulness whose context ran beyond the Soviet
Zone’s borders.

Similarly, when the Central Committee decided not to move the

BE into the building with which it is now associated, the Theater am
Schiffbauerdamm, Wilhelm Girnus, himself an SED loyalist, argued to
Walter Ulbricht that ‘in view of the international ramifications’ it would
be ‘untenable’ to deny Brecht his own theatre in the long run.30 Girnus
was thus primarily contemplating problems from abroad if the decision to
bar Brecht from the Schiffbauerdamm were made public. This argument
would accompany other major decisions, and also failures to act on the
SED’s part, such as when it became evident that the BE’s decline of the late
1960s was intimately connected to Helene Weigel’s leadership. The head of
the SED’s District Leadership in Berlin, Paul Verner, proposed forcing her
out, but Alexander Abusch registered grave doubts about associating her
impending seventieth birthday with public quarrels. Kurt Hager, the most
senior figure in GDR cultural policy, warned against an ‘international scan-
dal’, and Minister of Culture Klaus Gysi reminded the cabal that Weigel
still held all the rights to Brecht.31 In short, the SED had been paralysed by
Weigel’s profile, which had been concretely established through her work
with the BE at home and abroad, and her legal position with respect to the
GDR’s most marketable cultural commodity, the works of Bertolt Brecht.
Weigel stayed on as the head of the BE until she died in 1971.
She was succeeded by Ruth Berghaus, whose short tenure from 1971–77
included one tour in particular that is worthy of note. The first major tour
under Berghaus’s leadership took place in 1972, although it had been pre-
pared in 1970. August Everding had invited the BE to perform together
with ‘theatre from the whole world’ at the Olympics in Munich.32 Weigel
contacted both the Ministry and the Municipal Authority for Greater
Berlin to ask their opinion, as was always the case. Weigel considered the
invitation ‘very important’ but the Minister told her that the question of
accepting was ‘still completely open’.33 This curious response says much
about the SED’s indecision in such matters at that time: one might have
assumed that the Olympics, as an event in which capitalist and socialist
countries participated side by side, would have presented no great prob-
lem at all regarding attendance, yet the Party clearly demarcated the sym-
bolic value of the cultural from the sporting sphere, where things were
wholly unambiguous.
Werner Hecht, the head of the Dramaturgy Department, wrote in
early 1972 with respect to the official programme: ‘this is not about a
tour of West Germany, on the contrary, it’s a tour on the occasion of
a major international sporting event’.34 The importance of getting the

text right reflected the BE’s and the GDR’s attempts to navigate the
symbolism that surrounded the Games. Munich was the first German
city to host the Games after the infamous Berlin Olympics of 1936. The
GDR thus wanted to disassociate itself from a sense of shared respon-
sibility for the historical catastrophe because it saw itself as the inheri-
tor of Germany’s progressive, not reactionary traditions. On the other
hand, the GDR and the FRG found themselves at the start of a process
of détente. The SED thus had to be careful not to alienate the FRG at
one of the first major occasions in which the two states would be on
show together.
Once the tour was over, the SED was certainly pleased with the BE and
the way it had presented itself in Munich. Minister Gysi wrote to Berghaus
that he had been told ‘that you have run your tour with great prudence,
commitment and discipline. With this you have made a valuable contribu-
tion to raising the GDR’s prestige along with our excellent sportsmen and
women’.35 To the Minister, the line between asserting the GDR’s cultural
independence and not instigating inter-German tension had been expertly
negotiated, and Berghaus had thus proved herself as a responsible leader
in the early years of her tenure.
Berghaus was ousted from the BE in 1977 and replaced by Manfred
Wekwerth. Wekwerth certainly took the BE beyond Europe, yet his greatest
achievement echoed that of its first major international tour. He led the BE
to Israel in 1989, the first time a GDR theatre company had played there.
Touring Israel brought with it similar historical associations to those that
had marked the BE’s tour to Poland in 1952. The trip betokened a symbolic
rapprochement with the German past and the forging of international links
through culture rather than diplomacy. Indeed, Israel had still not recog-
nised the GDR and so the tour, as in the pre-détente era, represented the
opening of communication that may have helped bring about a normalisa-
tion of relations in due course. On the surface, the GDR was highly critical
of Israel’s positions and actions in the Middle East, and this led its Jewish
citizens to criticise one-sidedness in its media.36 A change in mood can be
detected in an article Wekwerth published in the SED’s newspaper Neues
Deutschland after the successful tour. He noted that their performances of
Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo) had shown the power of reason in a land of
contradictions.37 His more conciliatory tone did not mark a new beginning,
however: the GDR imploded after the opening of the Wall in November

Concluding Remarks on a Lop-sided, Symbiotic

When considering the work of theatre companies, one tends to think
about how they rehearse and produce work for a domestic audience, and
perhaps dismiss touring as an appendage to these activities. For many
companies, this is, of course, true. Yet the Berliner Ensemble was, from its
foundation onwards, an unusual company that presented its international
credentials and potential before it had even been founded. Brecht’s desire
to rethink the very fundamentals of theatre, from issues of performance
to the structures of the institution itself, meant that the BE would offer
audiences a very different experience in its auditoria than in other theatres.
Coupled to this was Brecht’s commitment to social change, something
that mostly found favour with the SED. The combination of innovation,
high quality, and partisan politics meant that once the SED had finally
understood the value of the BE in the mid-1950s, the company became
its flagship theatrical and indeed cultural export. The BE’s focus on taking
a dialectical approach to the fictional worlds it staged put enough distance
between its productions and the Party line to allow for a more complex
reception of the BE’s work in the West than for it merely to be dismissed
as ‘communist propaganda’. All the same, the SED could take the credit
for running a state that allowed such art to flourish.
For the SED, the BE was a visiting card from the GDR with gilt edges.
The BE’s distinctive approach to making theatre meant that it would rep-
resent something unusual abroad, however conventional its fare was con-
sidered at home. Thus, even during a fairly stagnant period domestically
in the 1980s, the BE found itself greeted with fanfare and adulation while
on tour. In other words, the SED had little to worry about in terms of
the BE’s reception abroad. In addition, defections were virtually unheard
of, something that made the BE all the more attractive in the SED’s eyes.
The BE’s three leaders in its GDR period were all supporters of the
State and were able to work productively with the SED for the most part.
They might not have agreed with all its agencies’ decisions, but broadly
supported its policies and its politics. They also very much appreciated
the role touring played in the health of the BE and, at times, in their own
fortunes. Both Berghaus in 1976 and Wekwerth in 1991 cited success-
ful tours in their defence before they were forced out of office.38 In both
cases, their reputation overseas did not enhance their arguments because
domestic pressure was too great.

The role of touring in the BE’s history is difficult to evaluate due to the
different values it held for the BE itself, its leadership, and the SED. The
examples given above confirm that the BE’s reputation was a source of
prestige, but at times it was also a millstone for the Party, because the
increased international profile conferred more power upon the BE as an
institution at home. That said, the BE could not be said to have exploited
this position, rather, it appreciated the way that such success allowed it to
maintain a good relationship with the SED. Both sides benefitted while
neither actually asked too much of the other. However, the SED was the
ultimate arbiter—it financed the BE and had the power to accept or reject
touring arrangements. Yet, with such a reliable company, it did not pro-
voke fights and sought a practicable working relationship. The BE and
SED were thus fairly comfortable bedfellows because the BE did not seek
to make theatre critical of the regime, and the SED did not want to dam-
age a very marketable cultural export.

1. [Bertolt Brecht], ‘Theaterprojekt B.’, undated, C Rep 120 1504, LAB. All
translations from the German are mine unless otherwise acknowledged.
2. Herbert Maisch, ‘Mutter Courage kommt nach Westdeutschland’,
Norddeutsches Echo, 3 September 1949.
3. [Unclear signature] to Councillor May, 24 June 1950, B Rep 014 3148, LAB.
4. Draft letter to the FRG’s Ministers of Education, [sent for approval on 27
July 1950], B Rep 014 3148, LAB.
5. Senator Landahl to Councillor May, 3 August 1950, LAB, B Rep 014
3148 and [Unclear signature] to Councillor May, 16 October 1950, B Rep
014 3148, LAB.
6. [Untitled], 15 November 1949, pp. 44, DR 2/8237, BArch.
7. ‘Mutter Courage nicht in Venedig’, Informationen Deutsches Friedenskomitee
29 (1951), 43–44.
8. Regine Lutz to her parents, 30 September 1951, uncatalogued Lutz file
‘Briefe ab Feb. 51 bis Nov. 1954’, Bertolt-Brecht-Archiv.
9. Fred Oelssner in Hans Lauter, Der Kampf gegen den Formalismus in Kunst
und Literatur, für eine fortschrittliche deutsche Kultur (Berlin: Dietz,
1951), 51.
10. Wolfgang Bömelburg, Hobellied für Bertolt Brecht. Ein Theatertischler
erzählt (Berlin: Eulenspiegel, 1997), 48–49.
11. Abusch as quoted in ‘Notat zu Gespräch mit Alexander Abusch am
31.1.79’, undated, FH 15, Helene-Weigel-Archiv.

12. Guy Leclerc, ‘Paris a Fait un Accueil Triumphal aux Acteurs Berlinois de
Mère Courage’, L’Humanité, 1 June 1954.
13. Jean-Jacques Gautier, ‘Au Festival de Paris Mère Courage de Bertolt
Brecht’, Le Figaro, 1 June 1954.
14. Jean-Jacques Gautier, ‘L’Allemagne de l’est présente: Le Cercle de Craie
Caucasien’, Le Figaro, 22 June 1955.
15. Bertolt Brecht, Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, ed.
Werner Hecht, et al., vol. 30 (Berlin and Frankfurt: Aufbau and Suhrkamp,
1998), 378; transl. Bertolt Brecht, Letters 1913–1956, ed. John Willett
(London: Methuen, 1990), 515–516.
16. Brecht, Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, vol. 30,
378; transl. Brecht, Letters, 549.
17. For example, John Barber, ‘The Extraordinary Leading Lady who Startled
London Last Night’, Daily Express, 28 August 1956.
18. Bertolt Brecht, Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe,
vol. 23 (Berlin and Frankfurt: Aufbau and Suhrkamp, 1993), 191.
19. Laura Bradley, Cooperation and Conflict: GDR Theatre Censorship
1961–1989 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3.
20. Siegfried Wagner to Alfred Kurella, 13 September 1960, DY 30/IV
2/2.026/67, BArch.
21. James Smith, ‘Brecht, the Berliner Ensemble, and the British Government’,
New Theatre Quarterly 22.4 (2006), 307–323, 316–320.
22. Kenneth Tynan to Helene Weigel, 22 January 1964, DC 20/7718, BArch.
23. Baum, Aktennotiz, 8 January 1964, DC 20/7716, BArch.
24. Werner Hecht, Brecht Chronik (Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp, 1997),
25. Helene Weigel to Erwin Axer, 16 January 1964, DC 20/7716, BArch.
26. Erwin Axer to Helene Weigel, 5 February 1964, DC 20/7716, BArch.
27. Herbert Krolikowski, Aktennotiz, 21 January 1964, pp. 4, DC 20/7716,
28. Kurt Bork to Helene Weigel, 21 October 1964, DR 1/8688, BArch.
29. Kurt Bork to Councillor Kreuziger, 13 January 1949, C Rep 120 1529,
30. Wilhelm Girnus to W.  Ulbricht, 27 July 1953, SAPMO, DY 30/IV
2/2.026/40, BArch.
31. Ergänzendes Protokoll zur Beratung über die Berliner Theatersituation am
23 Oktober 1969 bei Genosse Kurt Hager, pp. 5, SAPMO, DY 30/IV A
2/2.024/30, BArch.
32. August Everding to Helene Weigel, 14 April 1970, File ‘Tourneen
[unnumbered]’, BEA.
33. Klaus Gysi to Helene Weigel, 28 April 1970, File ‘Tourneen [unnum-
bered]’, BEA and [Helene Weigel] to Klaus Gysi, 24 April 1970, File
‘Tourneen [unnumbered]’, BEA.

34. Werner Hecht, Notiz, 14 January 1972, pp.  2, p.  1, File ‘Tourneen
[unnumbered]’, BEA.
35. Klaus Gysi to Ruth Berghaus, 22 September 1972, File ‘Tourneen
[unnumbered]’, BEA.
36. Angelika Timm, ‘Ein ambivalentes Verhältnis. Juden in der DDR und der
Staat Israel’, in Zwischen Kultur und Politik. Juden in der DDR, ed. Moshe
Zuckermann (Goettingen: Wallstein, 2003), 17–33, 32.
37. Manfred Wekwerth, ‘Sieg der Vernunft—Sieg der Vernünftigen’, Neues
Deutschland, 20 June 1989.
38. Ruth Berghaus to Kurt Hager, 24 September 1976, SAPMO, DY/IV B
2/2.024/79, BArch and Manfred Wekwerth, Stellungnahme zu dem
‘Theatergutachten’, 11 April 1991, Akademie der Künste, ‘BE Int. A-Z’,

‘A tour to the West could bring a lot

of trouble…’—The Mazowsze State Folk
Song and Dance Ensemble during the First
Period of the Cold War

Berenika Szymanski-Düll

The Cold War was—as David Caute states—not only a traditional ­political
and military confrontation between the Western and the Eastern blocs but
also an ideological and cultural contest: ‘The cultural cold war was shaped
by the new primacy of ideology; […] and not least, by the ­astonishing
global ascendancy of printing presses, of film, radio, and television, not
overlooking the proliferation of theatres and concert halls open to the
broad public, particularly in the USSR.’1 To this end, both sides exploited
the arts as political weapons. Institutions and organizations were formed
whose purpose it was to position their own cultural system above the
other. Their major aim was to present and popularize artists successfully
working in the particular system as outstanding accomplishments of
their home states. Arts and culture, thus, served as a representation
of a certain political position. These representations proliferated and
circulated quickly, achieving a global presence on a large scale. In this

B. Szymanski-Düll (*)
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

© The Author(s) 2017 73

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_5

context, the USSR transformed folk dancing into an ideologically charged

art that— due to the Soviet Union’s imperial structure and its range of
geopolitical ­influence2—was also adapted by the satellite states to their
own national circumstances. Founded in 1948, the Mazowsze3 Polish
State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble can be seen as a typical product of
such Soviet cultural policies during the Cold War period.
In the following article I aim to analyse one example of the aforemen-
tioned socialist model of centralized governance within the cultural sector
by focusing on this Polish ensemble which, even though world renowned,
has unfortunately been neglected in the academic landscape to this day.
Accordingly, I will focus on the late 1940s and the 1950s, the years fol-
lowing the founding of Mazowsze, which coincided with the building
phase of socialist Poland. Even in this early phase, the ensemble toured
extensively. Between 1950 and 1960, Mazowsze visited 17 countries and
performed in 117 different cities.4 This time span also corresponds to the
first period of the Cold War, which according to Gould-Davies can be
divided into two phases with respect to cultural politics:

In the early Cold War (1946–1953), each side sought to penetrate the oth-
er’s cultural polity while denying access to its own. […] In the post-Stalin
period (1953–1964), both sides came to accept a role for cultural relations,
and while unilateral methods of influence continued to be used, those regu-
lated by mutual agreement became increasingly significant.5

Looking at Mazowsze’s touring activities in the 1950s, these different

phases become evident. Before 1954, the ensemble was only active in the
territories of their allied countries with the intent of strengthening their
‘socialist friendships’. Only after 1954 were the tours expanded to western
countries in order to represent and to popularize the cultural achieve-
ments of the ‘new’ Poland.
On the basis of secret state documents of the Ministry of Culture and
Art, which were only made accessible to the public after 1989 and are
kept in the Archiwum Akt Nowych in Warsaw, I will show that in these
two phases Mazowsze served as a twofold metonymic ­ representation.
On the one hand, it represented the overarching Soviet idea, and on the
other hand it represented the ‘new’ Poland. My article is divided into
two sections. First, I will give a historic overview of communistic folklore
tradition and the founding of Mazowsze, and second, I will analyse the
ensemble’s touring activities during the first two phases of the Cold War

as described by Gould-Davies. I hope to elucidate how the first tour to

the West in particular was an exceptional challenge for the political elites.

A New Cultural and Folklore Tradition

After the Second World War, the People’s Republic of Poland, as part of
the communist system, was oriented towards the politics of the USSR in
almost all aspects of everyday life. The same holds true for Polish ­culture,
as becomes evident in a letter from Wiesław Sobiejarski, the director of
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the Secretary of Propaganda, Jerzy
Albrecht, in which he expresses the necessity of Soviet support in the fight
for a ‘new’ Polish culture: ‘The state of play in our fight for a new ­culture
can be described as one connected to difficulties. In addition to getting
to know the cultural achievements of the Soviet Union, especially at the
beginning, we are dependent on its aid in solving our problems.’6 In this
context, schoolbooks, novels, plays, libretti and so on were sent from the
USSR to Poland and there was an intensive exchange of information and
ideas between teachers, professors, journalists, artists and sportsmen.7 In
the light of this, Mazowsze cannot but be considered a result of this emu-
lation of USSR culture. One can even state that, without the Soviet folk
ensemble Pyatnitsky, Mazowsze would never have come into existence.
Pyatnitsky, a choir initially consisting of artists with a mainly peasant and
proletarian background, toured throughout Poland in 1948 and inspired
the Vice Secretary for Art and Culture, Włodzimierz Sokorski, to the
extent that he decided to create a similar ensemble for Poland.8 However,
it was not only Sokorski’s admiration of the Pyatnitsky State Choir that
facilitated the founding of Mazowsze. The creation of the Polish folklore
ensemble should rather be understood as a result of an impulse coming
from the Soviet Union, which knew how to use folk art in an ideologi-
cal manner. As can be read in many documents of the time, the message
behind the rise of folk art was obviously that the USSR gave their rural
population the unique opportunity to carry on its folk traditions, which
had been suppressed by tsarist forces for many years:

The ‘silly songs’, ‘naive games and stories’ and ‘devilish dances’ that were
uncomfortable for the ruling classes because of their truthfulness with
respect to the representation of national life were banished from the pub-
lic. […] Although the Russian people themselves were burdened with the
yoke of tsarism and of feudal lords, the fate of the non-Russian peoples, the

Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Buryat-Mongols and

others was far more difficult. They lived under a double suppression, on the
one hand by the ruling classes of their nation, and on the other hand by the
exploitation of the tsarist governor. […] All these robbers were trying to
eradicate the folk culture.9

Furthermore, for the USSR, this advancement of folk dance and folk
songs was undoubtedly an ideological exploitation of folkloristic art that
was to represent the Soviet Union not only as the liberator of the once
oppressed social classes, but also as the patron of their creative power:
‘Led by the party of Lenin and Stalin the peoples of the Soviet Union
received unprecedented opportunities, hitherto unknown in the history
of mankind, to develop their culture, and created a folk art that truly
inspired them.’10
In this context and, in addition to the Pyatnitsky State Choir men-
tioned above, the State Ensemble of Folk Dances of the Peoples of the
Soviet Union, primarily known as the Moiseyev Dance Company, played
a pioneering role in popularizing folk art and its ideological message. By
order of the Soviet authorities, the dancer Igor Moiseyev (1906–2007)
founded the ensemble in 1937. Even though brochures and playbills of
the ensemble speak to his attempt to (re-)create an authentic aesthetic by
mentioning, for example, the choreographers’ fieldwork, Moiseyev him-
self instead envisioned promotion of traditional folk art: ‘I don’t agree
with the position that one isn’t to add anything to certain folk dances.
It is […] precisely the calling of the choreographer to use the motives
given to us by the people so that new forms suitable for the people can
develop.’11 He merged elements of folklore with nineteenth-century clas-
sical ballet and created choreographies with spectacular movements. In
doing so, he highly stylized folk dance, thereby turning it into a new art
form and creating a new dance genre.12 With the help of other chore-
ographers, Moiseyev’s model was implemented throughout the Soviet
Union. Furthermore, towards the end of the 1940s and at the beginning
of the 1950s, all satellite states were ordered to found professional, semi-­
professional or amateur folk ensembles like the Pyatnitsky State Choir or
the Moiseyev Dance Company. In addition, they were encouraged to lend
their own national character to the art form, since each nation had its own
traditional songs and dances, which had to be fostered. All of these newly
founded folklore ensembles were funded by the state; the best amongst
them—like for instance Mazowsze—were even sent on tours around the
world. As a consequence, the folk genre became a global phenomenon.13

Under these conditions, folkloristic performance gradually became

s­ ynonymous not only with the Soviet system but also with the i­ndividual
nations of the satellite states. Concerning such phenomena of self-
and imposed theatrical representation, Christopher Balme speaks of
­‘performance as metonymy of culture’.14 He understands metonymical
forms of representation first and foremost in the sense of the figure of the
synecdoche in which a part stands for the whole. Balme states:

As a figure of speech, metonymy is suspended in an interesting paradox

between connotations of authenticity on the one hand and incompleteness
on the other. Viewed in this context, metonymy as a trope of cultural dis-
course carries with it more than just the signature of abbreviation typical
of most figures of speech. It has inscribed in it already a discursive strategy
symptomatic of colonial discourse: the penchant to circumscribe and con-
tain. […] The whole tradition of folkloristic performance, which begins in
the nineteenth century in Europe […], is framed within the metonymic
notion that performance(s) can stand in for the culture as a whole.15

Along the lines of metonymy, it can be stated that the newly created folk
art in socialist Eastern Europe represented both the overarching Soviet
idea of folk art and the culture of each of the ‘new’ socialist countries.
Below I will illustrate to what extent this is applicable to Mazowsze.

The Birth of Mazowsze

The People’s Republic of Poland was one of the first satellite states to form
a folklore ensemble based on the Soviet model. On 8 November 1948, the
Ministry of Art and Culture decided by decree to establish the Mazowsze
State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble. Its purpose was formulated one
year later, namely to provide a select number of boys and girls from peasant
or proletarian families with an artistic education in the traditional dancing
and singing of the Masovian region in order to maintain folk tradition.
This task was given to the composer Tadeusz Sygietyński who had already
travelled around Polish villages to collect folk songs, before the outbreak of
the Second World War.16 In order to find good candidates for Mazowsze,
Sygietyński toured throughout rural Poland for months and organized
auditions which drew large crowds because the young people were prom-
ised not only musical training, but also a school education, free accom-
modation, food, clothing and medical care.17 After the Second World War,
these were good enough reasons for parents to let their ­children leave

home. Sygietyński picked the 63 most promising talents—the youngest

was only 11 years old, the oldest 22. According to Kazimierz Korcelli, all
of them had a background the party favoured: ‘65 per cent of the children
were farmers’ children, 30 per cent were from working class families and
five per cent were children of craftsmen from rural areas.’18
In 1949, Sygietyński and his team began to work in Karolin, a village
near Warsaw. In the morning, the students went to school and in the after-
noon and evening they had lessons in singing and dancing, theory of har-
mony and notation. Furthermore, every child had to learn how to play
an instrument. Meanwhile, the mass media promoted Mazowsze in an
ideological fashion, stressing the unique possibilities that the communist
system was granting its poorest children so that they could become the
‘new generation of artists of a new Poland’.19 Statements like the following
were commonplace at the time: ‘In a system of capitalism, these children
would have no chance and would lead the tragic life of a Janko musician.
Now, however, they have all the possibilities to develop their talents: They
have a school, a home, instruments and excellent teachers.’20 The refer-
ence to Janko the Musician can be found frequently within the reception of
Mazowsze in Poland in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is a short story
from 1879 written by the Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz that
focuses on a poor peasant child named Janko who is gifted with great musi-
cal talent but due to his poverty does not own an instrument. Fascinated by
the fiddle of a nearby manor, he succumbs to the temptation to touch the
fiddle and is sentenced to flagellation. Ultimately, he dies from his wounds.
Thus, the comparison between members of the Mazowsze ensemble and
Janko had a clear political message: in the People’s Republic of Poland all
children with promising talent would be promoted regardless of their ori-
gin or the financial means of their parents. Such reports not only ensured
the popularity of the ensemble, but also resulted in more and more young
people applying to Mazowsze. Some of the rejected candidates even tried to
get accepted into the company by contacting members of the Party leader-
ship. A letter to the Secretary General, Bolesław Bierut, reads for instance:

Esteemed friend Bolesław Bierut! […] I really want to be part of the ensem-
ble because it would be a pity to waste such big talent as I have. Dear Mr
Bierut, I believe that you will understand me and that you will write to
Mazowsze and tell them to accept my sister and me as members of the
ensemble. […] I ask you to confirm my acceptance for the ensemble as
soon as possible, as I can hardly wait to be part of it. Dear Mr Bierut, I have
attached a stamp for your answer letter.21

After two years of work, the Ministry of Art and Culture decided that
the young ensemble was ready to perform in public for the first time,
even though the artistic director objected. The Ministry also interfered
in the selection of the programme and ordered that one song about the
Six-Year Plan and at least one song of praise for Stalin had to be included
in the repertory. In addition, some core pieces were taken out of the pro-
gramme because the ministry decided they were not folkloristic enough.22
Sygietyński fought against these changes but eventually had to give in.
On 6 November 1950, the first performance took place in the Teatr
Polski in Warsaw during the festivities of the October Revolution. The
show was such a huge success that the Ministry decided to send Mazowsze
on tour not only in Poland, but also abroad to represent the new Polish
nation and to consolidate the friendship between socialist countries.

On Tour
The first challenge on a foreign stage was the tour to the Soviet Union in
May 1951. Even though the Soviet audiences cheered at the concerts—even
Stalin is said to have been among the spectators—the Soviet mass media
criticized the performances. The lyrics met with particular disapproval.
They were said to allow too much space for romantic topics and therefore
could not possibly treat the socialist reality in an appropriate manner.
The reason for this was that the artistic quality of the ensemble was more
relevant to Sygietyński than its involvement with communist ideas. Most
importantly, he was determined to come as close to the original Polish folk
traditions as possible even though he was aware that his art consequently
had to appear highly stylized. His goal was to retain und convey a certain
mode of authenticity. Since the original dances and lyrics talked mostly
about love rather than realist socialism or collective farming, unlike
other leading folk artists he was reluctant to rework the traditional pieces
thematically. His colleagues were far less afraid to toe the political line and
created a variety of new choreographies and songs that corresponded to
Soviet ideology. However, due to Soviet criticism and pressure from the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sygietyński was forced to show his ‘goodwill’
if he wanted to keep his leadership position. Thus, he added some songs
and dances requested by the Party for the upcoming guest appearances
in the GDR, China, Romania and Bulgaria. As the following article
from the newspaper Neues Deutschland from 21 July 1951 shows, some
countries, like the German Democratic Republic, welcomed this kind of

programming. The article does not focus so much on the folkloristic parts
of the show but instead highlights those describing the new way of life in
the People’s Republic of Poland:

In addition to the old folk songs and dances, the young artists introduced
us to songs about the new way of life in their home country. The infectious
melody of the ‘Song of the Six-Year Plan’ was met with a jubilant echo by
the Berlin Werktage, as its chorus—‘Fulfil the plan!’—was like an encourag-
ing cheer for their own work.23

Other socialist states Mazowsze travelled to were still not satisfied with the
extent to which the programme had been changed. During subsequent
performances in those countries, Mazowsze continually had to face criti-
cism. In 1954, for example, a report by the Polish ambassador in Bulgaria
still read:

Even though the singing and dancing found acclaim, there were critical
remarks concerning the songs’ lyrics. It was maintained that the Polish vil-
lage, that had to suffer under the pressure of the big land owners, later
participated in the fight for liberation and is now striking new paths, surely
has songs that are about this fight with the big land owners and the occupy-
ing forces and about the new life in a Polish village today. This however, is
quite rare in Mazowsze’s programme; a big part of the programme is about
intrigues, being in love and so on.24

The ambassador explains this reaction by pointing to the programmes of

Bulgarian folk ensembles that visualize the new life in Bulgarian villages
through song and dance. They portray, for example, the ploughing of the
fields, the joyous harvest and the peaceful community. Another report
by the director of the department for mass propaganda shows even more
clearly that Bulgarian journalists criticized the ensemble for not being
political enough at a time in which they felt that political statements were
needed in order to ensure the education of a new people. They could not
understand why Mazowsze refused to act on the criticism first voiced in
the Soviet Union in 1951.25
In this respect, it also has to be noted that along with Mazowsze’s
programme, the attitudes of its members were equally criticized. While
criticism of the former was mainly expressed by the foreign mass media,
that of the latter came from Polish diplomats within the satellite states:

‘The moral-political level of the ensemble leaves a lot to be desired.’26

The demonstration of this lack of political conviction reached its climax
when members of the ensemble first started to defect. It is important to
note that artists, especially dancers and opera singers, fleeing the Eastern
bloc while touring in the West posed the biggest risk of cultural exchange.
This is why the artists had to submit to rigid supervision during their
tours.27 The first escapes, however, did not occur during a tour in the
West but during a stay in an allied country. In 1951, two dancers fled
the group while touring in East Berlin (GDR) before the Wall had been
erected. From the numerous reports covering this incident, we know
that the two defecting artists, Mieczysław Dzierżanowski and Tadeusz
Bednarski, made use of the fact that they were located just five metres
away from the French Zone. After jumping out of the window, dressed
in grey coats, they fled to the other zone. Although the true reasons
for the defection are obvious, they are never discussed in the records.
Instead we find a lot of speculation such as: ‘Both Dzierżanowski and
Bednarski did not show their intention to defect. In my opinion, the
reason is evident: On the one hand it is possible that outsiders persuaded
them, on the other hand the erroneous belief in their talent played a cru-
cial role.’28 For understandable reasons, there is no trace of this incident
in the press material of the Mazowsze tour in the GDR. The Polish press
also refrained from reporting on it. When 21-year-old Mazowsze mem-
ber Riszard Gabryel fled the group during a US tour in 1971, however,
the American press covered it. The Chicago Tribune from 26 May 1971,
for instance, contained the headline: ‘Polish Dancer Flees Troupe; Asks
US Political Asylum.’29
Hence, it is not surprising that the diplomats were worried about a
lack of political conviction, especially when planning a tour to France
in October 1954 after Stalin’s death had made an increase in cultural
exchange between the two hostile nations possible again. One report reads:
‘With this political consciousness the ensemble cannot be sent to Western
countries, where you won’t find such a supervision as in the countries of
our Soviet partners. A tour to the West could bring a lot of trouble to
the ensemble and leave a wrong impression of Poland’s cultural status.’30
Alarmed by the young people’s lack of interest in communist ideas, the
diplomats strongly advised the Ministry to expand the ensemble’s political
education. The Ministry took the accusations seriously and gave an order
that political education was to be added to the schedule of Mazowsze. In

order not to be forced to cancel the planned tour to France, a 28-hour

teaching plan was put together. This plan can be broken down into the
following topics:

1. France as an imperialistic power.

2. The struggle of French proletarians for peace and the right to live.
3. The tradition of friendship between Poland and France.
4. The political attitude of a Polish ensemble abroad.31

The Ministry explained the aim of such a procedure as follows:

The political education before the tour should leave no doubt to the mem-
bers of the ensemble of how big of a responsibility lies on the shoulders
of each individual serving as a representative of the People’s Republic of
Poland in a capitalist country and how much of an effort it is to prepare a
high quality performance for France.32

The meaning of the word ‘performance’, however, exceeded the mean-

ing of the simple word ‘concert’. In the eyes of the authorities, Mazowsze
were not only singers and dancers on a stage, but also representatives
of a certain political agenda. They were to deliver perfect public per-
formances as ambassadors of the new Poland and thus of communism
and anti-fascism. A letter to the Secretary of the General Association of
Friendship between Poland and France, written by selected members of
Mazowsze immediately after the Paris Accords of 1954, elucidates these

We were proud and happy to perform our songs and dances for the French
audiences and to show both the wealth of our folk culture and the achieve-
ments of our beloved home country. […]
Today, when the Paris Accords are going to rebuild the Wehrmacht
under the direction of Hitler’s criminal generals, executioners of our rela-
tives and the destroyer of Poland’s and other countries’ national heritage,
we would like to ask you in the name of our deep friendship and in the name
of the peaceful coexistence of all nations to fight with us for peace […].
We believe that the French nation will join us in our protest against
attempts to rule over peace and will take part in our efforts for collective
safety […] of all nations independent of their governments’ form.33

Even though Tadeusz Sygietyński and his staff tried to fulfil the political
orders—for example, by writing letters like the one quoted above or by per-
forming politically acclaimed songs or dances—Mazowsze always considered
itself much more as an ambassador of Polish folklore art than as an ambas-
sador of communism. Beyond the Iron Curtain in particular, Mazowsze
became the flagship of Polish folklore and the favourite of Polonia. One
might even surmise that it was only possible for the ensemble to continue to
exist after the collapse of the socialist state system because its artistic directors
had only followed the political demands in the most rudimentary way while
focusing instead on high artistic quality on stage. In particular, Sygietyński’s
wife Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska, who took over the direction of Mazowsze
in 1955 after her husband’s death and who directed the ensemble until
1997, fought relentlessly for the artistic independence of Mazowsze and
developed a spectacular repertory. The programme designed by Sygietyński
consisted of three ethnographic regions. Zimińska-Sygietyńska added 39
more to it. As time went by, it became less imperative for the artists to have
specific rural or proletarian backgrounds. Instead, they were already profes-
sionally trained before they become part of the ensemble.

The Soviet elites exploited the tradition of folkloristic performance in order
to represent the achievements of the USSR and to insert certain propagan-
distic issues into such productions. This strategy included policies offering
equal opportunities in the field of arts education for economically and
educationally challenged parts of the population. It also led to a growth
of protection and attention given to rural art forms and rural popula-
tions. Especially during the Cold War, the folklore genre became famous
thanks to various touring ensembles and therefore served as a weapon for
positioning the Soviet cultural system above those of the opposing side.
Although—at first glance—the folk ensembles seemed to be very similar
to each other, they differed not only with respect to their specific national
repertoires but also with regards to how strongly they followed the spe-
cific agendas imposed by their political elites. In the case of Mazowsze, it is
clear that the ensemble—although it tried to avoid submitting to a variety
of structures as much as possible—was implemented as a product of Soviet
imitation, and thus was metonymically representative of its system and of
the achievements of a new Poland.

1. David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy dur-
ing the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1.
2. Without a doubt, Soviet-style real socialism was based on a specific geopo-
litical unit designed as cohesion of several national societies. It was a dicta-
torially structured system, wherein the global, ideological and political
dimensions of communism were predominant. Some researchers refer to
these aspects as imperial structures—primarily understood as institutional-
ized patterns of power and interaction between an autochthonous, politi-
cal sovereign elite in the centre and different but politically dependent
national elites on the periphery (see Frank Ettrich, Die andere Moderne.
Soziologische Nachrufe auf den Staatssozialismus (Berlin: Berliner Debatte,
2005), 157). In this way, the political orientation of the satellite states and
their position during the Cold War was predetermined.
3. ‘Mazowsze’ is the Polish term for the Polish region of Mazovia.
4. Tadeusz Kruk and Alojzy Sroga, Mazowsze tańczy i śpiewa (Warsaw: Iskry,
1960), 273–275.
5. Nigel Gould-Davies, ‘The Logic of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy’, Diplomatic
History 27.2 (2003), 194–214, here 212–213.
6. Wymiany kult. z ZSRR, 366 MKiSz, Pacz. 1, t.2, M.S.Z. 56/2/49,
AAN.  All translations from the Polish and the German are mine unless
otherwise acknowledged.
7. Ibid.
8. Kruk and Sroga, Mazowsze tańczy i śpiewa, 10; Mira Zimińska-­Sygietyńska,
Druga miłość mego życia (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe,
1990), 68.
9. Anneliese Müller-Hegemann, ‘Laien- und Volkskunst in der Sowjetunion’,
in Die Entwicklung der Laienkunst in der Sowjetunion, ed. Annelies Müller-
Hegemann (Berlin: Verlag Kultur und Fortschritt, 1953), 9–56, here
10. Ibid., 8.
11. Igor Moiseyev, ‘Igor Moissejew über den deutschen Volkstanz und seine
künstlerische Weiterentwicklung’, Volkskunst und Volkswahlen 10 (1954),
41–43, here 42.
12. Anthony Shay, ‘Parallel Traditions: State Folk Dance Ensembles and Folk
Dance in “The Field”’, Dance Research International 31.1 (1999), 29–56,
here 29 and 37.
13. Here, Shay divides the founding of the folk dance ensembles worldwide
into three phases: ‘The first wave of these companies began after the
Second World War. All of the nation-states of Eastern Europe and several
regional areas as well had state-sponsored companies […]. The second

wave of companies began in other areas of the world such as the Philippines
and Mexico in the 1950s. A third wave of companies, such as those of
Turkey and Iran, began in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s, many indi-
viduals […] in the United States and Western Europe founded private
companies in emulation of the spectacle and success of these extremely
popular dance ensembles’ (ibid., 37).
14. Christopher B.  Balme, Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-
Cultural Encounter in the South Seas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2007), 97.
15. Ibid.
16. Zimińska-Sygietyńska, Druga miłość mego życia, 38 ff.
17. Ibid., 112.
18. Kazimierz Korcelli, ‘W poszukiwaniu czasu nie straconego. Rzecz o pow-
staniu “Mazowsza”’, 5, without signature, Archiwum Mazowsza, Karolin.
19. Mazowsze, film clip, without title and signature, Archiwum Mazowsza,
20. Ibid.
21. Państwowy Zespół Ludowy Pieśni i Tańca ‚Mazowsze’ w Karolinie.
[Prośby o przyjęcie, zawiadomienia o eliminacje], 366 MKiSz, 1955–57 r.
/ 3221, 15, AAN.
22. Zimińska-Sygietyńska, Druga miłość mego życia, 132–134.
23. ‘Boten der Freundschaft aus Polen’, Neues Deutschland, 21 July 1951.
24. Sprawozdanie z pobytu Panstwowego Zespolu Piesńi i Tańca ‚Mazowsze’,
366 MKiSz / Pacz. 3, t. 2, 163, AAN.
25. Notatka z pobytu Zespołu‚ Mazowsze’ w B.R.L, 366 MKiSz / Pacz. 3, t.
2. 169–179, AAN.
26. Sprawozdanie z pobytu Panstwowego Zespolu Piesńi i Tańca ‚Mazowsze’,
366 MKiSz / Pacz. 3, t. 2, 163, AAN.
27. Some examples can be found in David Caute’s book The Dancer Defects.
28. Notatka w sprawie ucieczki Mieczysława Dzierżanowskiego i Tadeusza
Bednarskiego, 366 MKiSz / Pacz. 2m t. 1, cz. II, 596, AAN.
29. ‘Polish Dancer Flees Troupe; Asks US Political Asylum’, The Chicago
Tribune, 26 May 1971.
30. Sprawozdanie z pobytu Państwowego Zespołu Pieśni i Tańca ‘Mazowsze’,
366 MKiSz/Pacz. 4, t. 2, 167, AAN.
31. Plan pracy polityczno-wyjaśniaja ̨cej poprzedzaja ̨cej wyjazd PLZPiT
‘Mazowsze’ do Francji, 366 MKiSz / Pacz. 3, t. 2, 82, AAN.
32. Ibid.
33. List do Członków Stowarzyszenia Przyjaźni Francusko-Polskiej, 366
MKiSz / Pacz. 3, t. 2, 204, AAN.

Song and Dance Ensembles in Central

European Militaries: The Spread,
Transformation and Retreat of a Soviet

Václav Šmidrkal

The world-renowned A.V. Alexandrov Soviet Army Twice Red-bannered
Academic Song and Dance Ensemble (or Alexandrov Ensemble) described
z itself in a publicity brochure from 1982 as a source of inspiration for other
military song and dance ensembles within the Soviet military, for which
the Alexandrov Ensemble represented ‘the flagship of this formidable
artistic squadron’.1 If this ‘squadron’ had also included the ensembles of
other socialist armies that followed the Soviet example after the Second
World War, we would have to refer to it as a whole ‘fleet’. The profes-
sional military song and dance ensembles quickly spread across communist
states around the world and contributed to the state-sponsored ensemble

This chapter was supported by the Charles University Research Development

Schemes (PRVOUK) P17 and by the International Visegrad Fund.

V. Šmidrkal (*)
Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Prague, Czechia

© The Author(s) 2017 87

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_6

art that was showcased as a prompt and impressive result of the ongoing
socialist cultural revolution. This chapter argues that the military song
and dance ensembles represented a transnational cultural phenomenon
that resulted from the implementation of communist cultural policies and
adoption of Soviet organisational patterns in order to symbolically high-
light the distinctive nature of the socialist military. Although the existence
of the ensembles could not be justified in military or artistic terms, their
long-term survival was ensured by the communist parties’ conviction of
their essential importance for the socialist character of the military. Thus,
the song and dance ensembles had an identity-making objective not only
in their contents but also as institutions per se in the sense of Marshall
McLuhan’s phrase, ‘The medium is the message’.2
Whereas civilian song and dance ensembles have already received some
attention from researchers,3 their military counterparts have remained
almost untouched.4 This chapter is based on my doctoral research into the
socialist military’s cultural policy in Central Europe, which I conducted
using Czech, Slovak, Polish and East German primary as well as second-
ary sources. First, it outlines the origins of inspiration for the creation of
these ensembles and briefly discusses the ambivalent character of a nomi-
nally artistic institution that was caught between political requirements
and military utilitarianism. Second, focusing on the empirical material
from the ‘northern triangle’5 of the Soviet Bloc in Central Europe, that is,
Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland, it uses these three examples
as the framework for an overview of the transnational spread, transforma-
tions and retreat of these institutions.

Military Song and Dance Ensembles: Building

on Three Older Cultural Traditions

The military song and dance ensemble was a product of the Stalinist
cultural policy of the late 1920s and 1930s, and embraced three older
cultural traditions: soldiers’ songs, folklorism and agitprop. In the case
of soldiers’ songs, the ensembles became the official authority on the
production and interpretation of this musical genre, which had always
been both a normative tool for strengthening the morale, endurance
and cohesion of the troops and a means for unrestrained reflection of
soldiers’ subjective experience. As French musicologist Thierry Bouzard
notes, while the military command usually tries to influence the pro-

duction and consumption of soldiers’ songs, their popularity cannot be

decreed and soldiers represent a semi-independent agent in this regard.6
This also applies to the communist ‘educational dictatorship’ which,
despite the wide range of coercive means it used, was not able to enforce
acceptance of dull songs from the ensemble repertoire and eliminate
‘tasteless’ songs secretly learned and sung by soldiers. To this end, folk-
loristic inspiration was believed to give ensemble productions more pop-
ular appeal. In the Stalinist understanding of the term ‘narodnost’7 as a
crucial yet unclear aesthetic quality (vaguely and negatively defined as
the opposite of cosmopolitism, bourgeois intellectualism and inauthen-
tic popular culture), the ensembles drew inspiration from folk culture.
However, they were not particularly interested in an ethnographically
accurate exploration, preservation and display of the authentic folk cul-
ture found in ‘the field’, but rather in transforming its features into a
new type of socialist popular culture. This folkloristic ‘skin’ was used as
an innovative coating for the communist agitprop contents of their per-
formances, which used artistic means of communication as a powerful
way of disseminating political ideas and mobilising the audience. These
three inspirations from the past merged into a new type of popular per-
forming arts that initially assumed, in a concealed avant-garde manner,
coalescence between the staged and lived reality.

The Triangle of Tension: Artistic Needs, Political

Requirements and Military Utilitarianism
Even though publicity materials praised the harmony between military,
political and artistic qualities, everyday life was often far from this ideal
picture. The ensembles were exposed to tensions arising from the com-
munist party as patron, the military as host and the artists as individuals
trying to assert themselves. First, although the ensembles initially had an
amateur status, they were expected to catch up with other theatrical and
musical institutions and achieve the same level of artistic performance, and
to find their own place on the artistic scene. Second, they had to follow
the requirements of ideological work in the armed forces and to edu-
cate their audience in terms of the communist party’s discourse, historical
memory and military policy. Third, they were supposed to be prepared to
resume their function as a military unit both in garrisons and under field

Artistic Needs
Artistic self-assertion in the ensembles was bound on the one hand by
prescribed aesthetics, contents and function and on the other by their staff-
ing policy. The ensembles were expected to produce an original repertoire
and to popularise it with both soldiers and civilians through public shows,
recordings or radio (and later also TV) broadcasting. To this end, ensembles
hired composers, text writers and solo singers; they commissioned works by
renowned civilian authors; and they ran writing contests. However, the cre-
ative restrictions imposed by the political requirements, the expectations of
the audience and the artistic abilities of the staff drove many authors into a
cul-de-sac. The creative staff found it extremely difficult to produce mate-
rial that indoctrinated and entertained at the same time. Even though the
military had occasional success in involving prominent civilian hit-makers
and first-class performers, such pieces did not achieve popularity. The over-
politicised and bland winning songs in competitions such as The Golden
Mace (Zlatý palcát) organised in Czechoslovakia from 1971, or those pre-
sented at the Soldier’s Song Parade (Parade des Soldatenliedes) organ-
ised as a part of the the Workers' Festival Arbeiterfestspiele in the German
Democratic Republic (GDR) could not compete with genuine pop hits. In
Poland this sort of music achieved more success through the Soldier’s Song
Festival (Festival Piosenki Zołnierskiej) 8
which took place annually from
1967 onwards and attracted more widespread popular attention. Unlike
the rather heavy-­handed military songs in Czechoslovakia and the GDR,
Polish military songs were to a greater extent freed from obviously political
content and offered haunting melodies with light-hearted texts inspired by
the soldiers’ life and interpreted by popular singers. Nevertheless, in the
1980s even here the organisers had little success in persuading established
performers to take part in this official event put on by ‘the regime’ and
instead they had to look for young ambitious talents.9
When most of the ensembles were established, in the early 1950s, they
recruited talented amateur artists from within the armed forces expect-
ing that they would be able to improve their skills to a professional level
with systematic training and intensive practice. This experiment succeeded
only in a few individual cases and the rest posed a difficult dilemma for
the management of the ensembles in the post-Stalinist era, when the
personnel policy changed and the ‘professional amateurs’ became a bur-
den. However, searching for prospective stars regardless of their class
­background or previous education was not a solution either. The attempts

to modernise the repertoire and make it more attractive for the audience
also ran into problems where professional artists were concerned. Frank
Schöbel (born 1942), the rising star of East German popular music, audi-
tioned for and was accepted into the Erich Weinert Ensemble (EWE)
of the East German National People’s Army in 1962 and later served
his 18-month period of military service there. While as a young civilian
employee he enjoyed relative freedom, and working in the military ensem-
ble did not threaten his growing popularity, during his military service he
had to wear military uniform which, in his opinion, affected his position
in the pop-music charts. Therefore, when he was expected to sing a dull
song praising military service during the Soldiers’ Song Parade that took
place in Görlitz in 1966, he refused. After he was promised by the political
officers from the Main Political Administration of the National People’s
Army that his piece would not be recorded and shown on television, he
agreed to sing the song. However, during his performance, when he
saw the camera of the Military Film Studio, he switched off the camera’s
microphone and sang only for the people in the hall. For this insubordina-
tion he was demoted from Gefreiter to Soldat, punished with two days of
confinement and had to serve as a gatekeeper until the end of his military
service.10 This example shows that the logic of stardom and the mission
of the ensemble clashed because they often operated in different markets.
Even though the ensembles occasionally employed distinct artistic person-
alities (or, in the case of Czechoslovakia and Poland, called up the gradu-
ates from artistic schools) their origins as a platform for talented amateurs
selected from the people, and the ongoing difficulty of their work on the
cusp between politics, the arts and the military instead made them a safe
haven for artistic mediocrity.

Political Requirements
In the initial period of the communist regimes, the ensembles were sup-
posed to prove that the theses of the Marxist-Leninist theory of culture
were correct. The members of the ensembles, originally a selection of
workers and peasants in uniform, were to demonstrate the possibilities
of the creative potential of the people, a potential that was untapped
under capitalism. They did not only show folk culture adapted for the
stage; their programmes also included national and world classics, show-
ing that the working class was able to make use of this domain that had
once been the preserve of the bourgeoisie. Finally, following on from

the agitprop genre, they were supposed to become the standard bearers
of the highly politically engaged new socialist culture. As a beacon for
the numerous amateur folk art groups within the military they were also
expected to instruct them, thus furthering the development of socialist
mass culture.
According to the military hierarchy, the political apparatus was the
body responsible for the supervision of the ensembles, the flawless ful-
filment of their tasks and, last but not least, for the ideological purity
and political clarity of their shows. The programming of these was
included in the category of ‘cultural enlightenment work’ that made
up one of the pillars of political work in the socialist military. Therefore
the political apparatus was entitled to require that the ensemble include
‘thought content’ (in Russian ideinost') reflecting ideological values
such as socialist patriotism, proletarian internationalism or the peace
mission of the Warsaw Pact, and devote their programmes to political
events like various state and military anniversaries, elections or other
such occasions. Although the relations between the management of
the ensembles and the political apparatus could generate conflicts, both
sides usually tried to avoid such situations by looking for a mutually
acceptable compromise.

Military Utilitarianism
‘There is no combat readiness, as we understand it, without culture and
arts’, claimed Colonel General Heinz Keßler, Commander of the Main
Political Administration, at the Cultural Conference of the National
People’s Army and the Border Troops of the GDR in 1981.11 Keßler’s
statement was based on the Marxist-Leninist military and war theory that
accentuated the importance of the ‘moral-political factor’ for victory in
a war.12 Within this ideological perspective, works of art were believed
to have an enormous power to influence people’s opinions, stances and
behaviour and were therefore referred to as ‘weapons’, symbolically com-
plementing real weapons. This theoretical assumption seemed to be con-
firmed by the Red Army’s victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (1941–45),
during which artists supported their fighting nation. Based on this verified
theory, the ensembles of the Central European militaries were required
to translate communist military discourse into effective works of art that
would motivate, mobilise, encourage and also entertain the soldiers.

Although such theories were also used to justify the existence of the
ensembles, in reality, the ensembles were not only of no military value,
but, according to ‘bourgeois’ military experts, they could even weaken
the combat force of the military because insufficiently trained conscripts
or even professional soldiers were engaged in these non-combat units.13
Moreover, the special treatment of conscripts who were allowed to carry
out their military service in the ensembles also provoked outrage among
soldiers serving in the regular units who perceived this practice as a sign
of inequity. For example, the singer Frank Schöbel, who was promoted to
Gefreiter after only one month of military service, did not want to irritate
the soldiers in the audience and therefore he took off his rank insignia
before entering the stage.14
Unlike military musicians, who were formally trained as military medi-
cal orderlies for the event of war, the military training of socialist military
ensembles was hardly worthy of mention. Even the East German military,
which was more reluctant to privilege artists, could not find a solution
for the conflict between the profession of a soldier and that of an artist.
Although no operational plan specifying the assignments of the ensembles
in the event of war has been discovered so far, according to fragments
of primary sources and oral accounts, the ensembles were supposed to
continue their artistic work adjusted to field conditions as trained during
Warsaw Pact joint manoeuvres.15
An example of a short-term deployment of an ensemble in a combat-­
like situation can be found in the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia
by five Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968. The Polish troops, stationed in
Eastern Bohemia, were visited by the Merry Squad (Wesoła Drużyna) from
the Sapper Troops and by the Silesian Military Estrada16 (Śla ̨ska Estrada
Wojskowa) from the Silesian Military District.17 The Merry Squad gave
34 concerts for the Polish and Soviet troops, for the Polish guest workers
in the local factories and also for the Czech population, in total for some
3000 viewers.18 Also the Soviet occupying forces in the Czechoslovak
territory that were legalised as the ‘Central Group of Forces’ (1968–91)
established their own song and dance ensemble as an instrument of public
relations between the Soviet troops and the local population. According
to Igor Ivanovich Raevskii (born 1937), who was the artistic leader of this
ensemble from 1968 to 1974, its work was extraordinarily successful and
it helped to restore the ruined relations between the Soviet Union and

Foundation of Ensembles ‘As Alike as Two Peas

in a Pod’

The first generation of ensembles in Central European countries was cre-

ated according to the model of a military song and dance ensemble (in
Russian ansambl’ pesni i plyaski) represented at its best by the Alexandrov
Ensemble. They typically consisted of a large male choir, a symphonic orches-
tra, a dancing group and solo singers. The performances consisted of isolated
numbers, meaning that they were more like a concert than a coherent the-
atrical production. In these programmes, selected and adapted folk dances
and songs from the ensemble’s own nation as well as befriended nations were
interposed with national and world classics and new socialist music (Fig. 6.1).
The leading ensembles of the first generation had their roots in the
Second World War, which gave them additional legitimacy and emphasised
their seniority. This was the case with the most prominent Czechoslovak
ensemble, the Vít Nejedlý Army Artistic Ensemble (Armádní umělecký
soubor Víta Nejedlého, or AUS VN) that was established within the

Fig. 6.1  The classic three-level stage with choir, orchestra and dancers in a show
by the Slovak VUS JN on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Communist
Party in 1956

Czechoslovak military unit in the Soviet Union in 1943 under the leader-
ship of the composer Vít Nejedlý (1912–45). He extended the original
music platoon to include string instruments and a male choir and prepared
the first programme, ‘To the battle, Slavs’ (Do boje, Slované), which pre-
miered in September 1943.
The beginnings of the Polish Army Central Artistic Ensemble
(Centralny Zespół Artystyczny Wojska Polskiego) also dated back to 1943
and the field camp near the village of Sel’tsy (in Polish Sielce nad Oka ̨)
in the Ryazan Oblast. With the formation of the 2nd Henryk Da ̨browski
Infantry Division, a Soviet officer of Polish origin, Teodor Ratkowski,
established a soldiers’ theatre that, unlike the rather traditional theatre of
the 1st Division, was more inspired by the song and dance ensembles he
knew from his own service in the Red Army.
Both Nejedlý and Ratkowski were enchanted by the Soviet ensembles,
but until the wave of Sovietisation in their countries in the late 1940s
the ensembles were a compromise between the inspiring Soviet model
and the national conditions. As Nejedlý wrote in an article published in
the Czechoslovak military newspaper in autumn 1944, he refused ‘plain
copying’ of the Soviet model and urged national originality.20 During the
transition years between the end of the Second World War and the estab-
lishment of a communist dictatorship, the ensembles took different forms
but were also in danger of being disbanded because they were consid-
ered to be war relics. Shortly after Konstantin Rokossovski was appointed
as minister of national defence in Poland (November 1949) and Alexej
Č epička became defence minister in Czechoslovakia (April 1950), the
ensembles were unified in strict accordance with the Soviet model.21
East German history was marked by its path from the Soviet Zone
of Occupation to the internationally acknowledged ‘other’ German state,
and from clandestine rearmament to becoming one of the most militarised
societies in Europe. The flagship of the East German ensemble squad-
ron, the Erich Weinert Ensemble, was created within the German People’s
Police in 1950 as the first ensemble of this kind in the German Democratic
Republic. Its only link to the previous war were that some of its members
had fought in the German Wehrmacht and had been captured as POWs
in the Soviet Union. One of its leading artistic personalities, the composer
Kurt Greiner-Pol (1922–78), allegedly drew the motivation for his work
from his time as a POW in the Soviet Union, which was a ‘university’ for
him. Besides hearing ideological lectures on Marxism-Leninism, he was
also given the opportunity to take part in the work of a cultural group in
the POW camp.22

The aforementioned flagships of ensemble art in the military were

soon followed by other newly established ensembles which mushroomed,
inspired by successful tours of Soviet ensembles in these countries.23
Despite the constructive zeal of this period, the new ensembles were
based on the same Soviet model as their predecessors and they had dif-
ficulties establishing their own distinctive character. As juniors they did
not enjoy an exclusive position and, in the end, they cannibalised each
other. After initial enthusiastic reactions to ensemble programmes, audi-
ences soon became tired of repetitive and imperfect shows. The ensembles
turned from an allegedly progressive art institution into ‘problem chil-
dren’. When the ‘coldest’ part of the Cold War was overcome and de-­
Stalinisation got underway, the ensembles started withdrawing from the
spotlight of cultural life.

Post-Stalinist Period: From Reforms to Ossification

Despite the different political developments and the diverse receptions

of de-Stalinisation in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland, in all
three countries it was about the mid-1950s when the necessity for a
reform of the ensembles was detected. Only a few years after the birth
of these celebrated institutions, they had become burdens, consuming
funds and decreasing in popularity. In all three cases similar symptoms of
this protracted ‘disease’ were diagnosed; the problem was partially solved
by reducing the number of ensembles, and by their differentiation and
In the aftermath of October 1956, when a far-reaching yet limited
de-Stalinisation was introduced in Poland, the military song and dance
ensembles were openly criticised, as ‘giants’ that all shared a ‘low and
bland artistic level’, and for the fact that all their programmes ‘began with
the same song and in the repertoire of almost all ensembles there were
known and hackneyed pseudo-patriotic and pseudo-internationalist num-
bers mixed with local specifics’.24 The big ensembles copying the Soviet
model were dissolved and replaced by small groups for artistic entertain-
ment consisting of a small band, solo singers and dancers; these were estab-
lished in each of Poland’s military headquarters (totalling seven groups in
the 1980s).25 The Song and Dance Ensemble of the Polish Army was
renamed the Central Artistic Ensemble of the Polish Army, and as the
main representative institution of this kind, remained distinctively bigger
than the others.26

In the GDR the number of ensembles had been tacitly reduced by

1962, and the remainder had been fully professionalised. As a meeting
at the East German Ministry of Culture in November 1956 concluded,
nine full-time ensembles, including four ensembles in the armed forces,
were too many for the GDR and reform was called for. The develop-
ment of the ensembles stagnated and they were no longer a source of
inspiration for the amateur ensembles, since some of the amateur groups
artistically surpassed the (semi-)professional ones. Therefore they lost
popularity with the population and the halls where they performed were
often half-empty or could only be filled using pressure from the party. On
top of that, their performances, with the exception of those of the Erich
Weinert Ensemble, did not differ significantly from each other. Finally,
they all cost the state budget about 13 million marks a year, which was
not reflected in the results of their work.27 It was decided that two of the
four ensembles in the armed forces should be dissolved. The execution
of this plan to reduce the number of ensembles was difficult because the
bands were not willing to cease their activities and, moreover, other insti-
tutions considered setting up their own professional groups. In a report
from early 1958 it was stated that ‘the intended creation of professional
ensembles by the Konsum,28 the HO,29 the Ministry for State Security,
the Naval Armed Forces and by other institutions was only narrowly pre-
vented’.30 First, the ensemble of the Transport Police was dissolved and
parts of it were incorporated into other armed forces ensembles. In 1962
the Hans Beimler Ensemble of the former German Border Police and the
Republic Ensemble of the German People’s Police were both dissolved
and only the Erich Weinert Ensemble remained.31 However, the latter was
also reformed as an association consisting of an orchestra, a choir, a ballet,
a ‘double quartet’ and the cabaret group The Pliers (Die Kneifzange).
Each of the components was able to work relatively independently or in
cooperation with the others.
Of the four ensembles run by the Czechoslovak People’s Army in the
first half of the 1950s, the Air Force’s Victorious Wings (Vítězná křídla)
was indirectly dissolved in 195532 when it was transformed into the
Rokoko Theatre in Prague, as was the already once reformed Military
Estrada Ensemble (Vojenský estrádní soubor), which was incorporated
into the Vít Nejedlý Army Artistic Ensemble in 1964. Whereas the reform
efforts in the Vít Nejedlý Army Artistic Ensemble were to a certain extent
hindered by its past merits and the reform process was slowed down by
internal disputes throughout the 1960s, leading to proposals to dissolve

the ensemble completely,33 the Ján Nálepka Military Artistic Ensemble

(Vojenský umelecký súbor Jána Nálepku, or VUS JN) in Bratislava made
better use of this chance, replacing the male choir with vocal groups and
positioning itself as a multitasking Slovak cultural ensemble focusing on
musical theatre and popular small drama forms. Influenced by the devel-
opments in civilian cultural life, the ensemble moved towards light enter-
tainment based on star singers and comic scenes (Fig. 6.2).
However, both the Polish October in 1956 and the Prague Spring in
1968 represented a grave danger rather than a desired opportunity for
the future of the ensembles. The only way out of the stalemate of high
costs and low outputs was a drastic reduction of the ensembles to a mini-
mum size and the replacement of their members with civilian artists. As
one cultural official of the Czechoslovak People’s Army noted in the late
1960s, Karel Gott, the prominent Czech pop singer, cost a great deal
of money as an individual artist, but, unlike the male choir of the Vít
Nejedlý Army Artistic Ensemble, Gott’s success with the audience was

Fig. 6.2  ‘Lysistratiáda’: A musical theatre show from 1968 based on

Aristophanes’s anti-war comedy ‘Lysistrata’ by the VUS JN as a result of its reform
efforts in the 1960s

worth the money.34 On the other hand, the ensembles were a sine qua non
of a socialist military, and both the Polish October and the Prague Spring
were communist reform efforts. After the retreat from the bold October
1956 reforms in Poland as well as the defeat of the Prague Spring by the
end of the 1960s, the ensembles were brought into line with the new
political discourse and its demands.
The artistic leaders tried to counterbalance the prescribed political shows
they had to stage anyway with entertaining or educative programmes where
they were freed of the most disturbing ideological undertones. While the
Polish ensembles eliminated the flamboyant Marxist-Leninist allusions
from their shows and replaced them with the home-made ideology of
‘military patriotism’ after 195635 and the Czechoslovak ensembles moved
away from the previous artistic tenets during the more liberal 1960s, the
East German ensembles demonstrated a continuous development that was
not broken by any remarkable shift in communist cultural policy. In other
words, the songs from the early 1950s that the Czechoslovak and Polish
ensembles later eliminated from their repertoires were still occasionally
played in the GDR in the 1980s. During the 1970s and 1980s the pro-
grammes of the ensembles became more and more routine. Whereas in
the early 1950s they had seemed to represent the avant-garde of socialist
culture and despite cultural reform efforts, in late socialism they became a
holdout against progress and a stronghold of traditionalism.

‘How Many Ensembles are there

in the Bundeswehr?’: The Ensembles Post-1989

After the fall of communist regimes in Central Europe in 1989, the transi-
tion era that can be also understood as a process of reorientation towards
western models challenged the future existence of the ensembles. The
military transformation inspired mostly by NATO armies did not give any
specific answer to the question of the role of military artistic ensembles.
In the working meeting of representatives of the Polish Army and the
German Bundeswehr in 1991, the Polish officers asked about the number
of ensembles in the Bundeswehr. The (West) German officers were sur-
prised by such a question and their blunt answer ‘None’ puzzled the Poles
in turn.36
A two-pronged process began. Not only was the socialist state being
transformed into a democracy with a market economy, but the militaries in
both East and West also had to react to the changing security environment,

with the end of the Cold War sealed by the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact
in 1991. The military artistic ensembles found themselves skating on thin
ice. Although many of the permanent ensemble members also hoped for
a better future commencing with the political change in 1989, they were
among those who had profited from the symbiosis with the old regime.
The former achievements of the ensembles were suddenly devalued by
the political changes. Sporadic moments of cautious social criticism, sub-
tle political innuendos or other contraband smuggled into programmes
that had gradually slipped from the control of the party could increase
the attractiveness of such shows in the context of dictatorial systems that
imposed censorship and suppression of freedom of speech, but became
redundant in the emerging liberal democracies.37
Economically, the ensembles were trapped in a vicious circle: their
costly productions did not attract a big enough audience and the state was
no longer willing to subsidise them. The military audience could no lon-
ger be easily organised by the commands, such as ‘Left turn, quick march
to the concert!’ (‘W lewo zwrot, na koncert marsz!’)38 or ‘Report to cul-
ture!’ (‘Nástup na kulturu!’),39 that had previously distorted the supply–
demand relations. The commander of the House of the National People’s
Army in Zittau, Lt Col. Peter Grabecki, admitted shortly after the East
German ‘Peaceful Revolution’ that the Erich Weinert Ensemble’s shows
had  previously been, for many, like ‘a red rag to a bull’ and therefore
compulsory attendance was inevitable.40 The empty or half-empty halls
were an unpleasant but clear message from the audience to the ensembles
after 1989 that they were an unpopular hangover from the old regime that
could not probably attract viewers without the means of coercion.
In spite of occasional words of acknowledgement, the ensembles
were about to be reduced and subsequently closed down as the military
as a whole was reduced in size. Their continued existence depended on
their abilities to adapt to the new conditions and on the political will to
keep them. The Erich Weinert Ensemble, renamed the Ensemble of the
National People’s Army in early 1990, was dissolved as the Bundeswehr
Ensemble in mid-1991 when the federal government stopped its funding.
The ensemble idea did not fit into the image of the Bundeswehr that had
been built up, as a distinctively different German army giving up most of
the military pomp that had marked earlier German militarism. Similarly,
the Bundeswehr also delimited itself to the East German National
People's Army. For the unified German military it was the Big Band of the
Bundeswehr, a jazz orchestra with solo singers founded in 1971 in West

Germany that was chosen to represent the modern face of the German
armed forces. Parts of the Ensemble became independent, such as the Carl
Maria von Weber Choir, which continued to perform until 2005, or the
cabaret group The Pliers, which became a civilian institution of the same
name in Berlin and ceased its activities as late as in 2011.
In Czechoslovakia, the smallest and artistically weakest ensemble, that
of the Western Military District in Tábor, was the first one to close in
October 1991. The former Vít Nejedlý Army Artistic Ensemble in Prague
was reformed a few times but helplessness leading to a pandering attempt
to update its contents by including striptease shows on the one hand and
the founding of an exclusive highbrow Prague Philharmonia on the other
did not produce a new sustainable working platform. The ensemble was
dissolved under the name of the Artistic Studio of the Ministry of Defence
(Umělecké studio Ministerstva obrany) in 1995.
While these Czech military ensembles disappeared from the scene
mostly due to the relatively radical process of de-communisation and their
role as former prominent institutions of the highly politicised socialist
culture and of the unpopular socialist army, independent Slovakia took
another approach. Slovak society did not feel the urgent need to come to
terms with its communist past after 1989, for the communist period in
Slovakia had meant rapid social and economic development, and the com-
munist regime was more integrative, creating only a small group of dis-
sidents.41 After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the former Ján
Nálepka Military Artistic Ensemble continued its work under the name of
the Army Artistic Ensemble (Armádny umelecký súbor) until 2005 when
conscription was cancelled in Slovakia and its armed forces became com-
pletely professional. The dissolution of the Czechoslovak federation and
its army also led to the split of the semi-professional army-based folklore
ensemble Jánošík in Brno. While the Czech ensemble was renamed the
Ondráš Military Folklore Ensemble (Vojenský umělecký soubor Ondráš)
and has remained in Brno until today,42 the Slovak Army re-established the
Jánošík Military Folklore Ensemble (Vojenský umelecký súbor Jánošík)
in Zvolen and ran it until 2011, when it was dissolved due to cuts in the
military budget.
The Polish army, which had already had to economise in the 1980s
and gradually terminated the activities of all smaller ensembles during
the 1990s, is the only one in the region that has maintained its ensem-
ble to this day, the Representative Artistic Ensemble of the Polish Army
(Reprezentacyjny Zespół Artystyczny Wojska Polskiego). Its Soviet origins,

which had been stressed by communists, retreated into the background as

it took up the older tradition of soldiers’ theatres and representation of
Polish military traditions on the stage.43

The military artistic ensembles were created by the socialist dictatorships
as a specific answer to the need to maintain morale in the mass armies of
conscripts and to present the ethos of the socialist military, which previ-
ous cultural institutions such as military bands could not fully accomplish.
Originally they were established in the Soviet Union and spread to East-­
Central Europe through local agents in the 1940s and early 1950s. The
ensembles represented part of the socialist army’s character, distinctively
different from that of the capitalist militaries of the past and present, and
therefore their existence in general could not have been openly contested
before 1989. Despite the intrinsic tension between their artistic, military
and political functions, their ups and downs were not diametrically differ-
ent from those of civilian ensemble art and therefore they were a specific
part of the national artistic scene in socialist states.
Of all the military ensembles in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and
Poland before 1989, only one ensemble in the Polish Army, justified by
rich Polish traditions in military music and theatre, and one in the Czech
Army, which is rather a curiosity because it is a purely folklore ensemble,
have survived. At different stages along the common route that these three
armies took, from the status of a Warsaw Pact mass army to NATO pro-
fessional troops, the ensembles were perceived both as a heritage of their
countries’ former dependence on the Soviet Union and as an obsolete and
redundant anachronism from socialist times. It was not only practical mat-
ters, such as lack of finances or the ongoing revolution in military affairs in
the post-Cold War era, but also the changing identity of the military that,
in most cases, did not allow these institutions to be reformed and kept
for long. Whereas the Russian Army currently administrates 12 profes-
sional artistic ensembles44 and in other post-Soviet states, such as Ukraine,
Belarus or Kazakhstan, the artistic ensembles of the armed forces also
demonstrate continuity with the Soviet period, there was a strong political
need to break away from the pre-1989 past in Central European countries
and demonstrate their geopolitical ‘return to Europe’ by implementing
thorough institutional changes. No matter how differently the respective
armies dealt with the ensemble legacy after 1989, in all of them the former

song and dance ensembles had been a phase-out model of a military artis-
tic institution that had lost most of its justification for existence in the
new political and security order. The Central European military song and
dance ensembles were, after all, mere local copies of the Soviet ‘flagship’,
the Alexandrov Ensemble, which unlike them proved to be viable under
different political regimes. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the
Alexandrov Ensemble survived and in Putin’s Russia it became a success-
ful instrument of Russian soft power again, setting sail to new spectacular
sell-outs as well as controversies over its political purpose.

1. The Alexandrov Ensemble, Dvazhdy Krasnoznamennyi ordena Krasnoi
Zvezdy ansambl’ pesni i plyaski Sovetskoi Armii imeni A.V.  Alexandrova
(Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Muzyka, 1982), 60.
2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (London: Sphere Books,
1967), 15.
3. Anthony Shay, Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Companies,
Representation and Power (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002);
and Hanna Walsdorf, Bewegte Propaganda: Politische Instrumentalisierung
von Volkstanz in den deutschen Diktaturen (Wuerzburg: Königshausen &
Neumann, 2010).
4. Matthias Rogg, Armee des Volkes? Militär und Gesellschaft in der DDR
(Berlin: Ch. Links, 2008), 167–169.
5. Beate Ihme-Tuchel, Das “nördliche Dreieck”: Die Beziehungen zwischen der
DDR, der Tschechoslowakei und Polen in den Jahren 1954 bis 1962 (Cologne:
Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1994).
6. Thierry Bouzard, Histoire du chant militaire français, de la monarchie à
nos jours (Paris: Grancher, 2005), 25.
7. Frank J. Miller, Folklore for Stalin: Russian Folklore and Pseudofolklore of the
Stalin Era (London: Sharpe, 1990), x–xi.
8. From 1967–68 the festival took place in Połczyn Zdrój and in 1969 it was
moved to Kołobrzeg, which became a synonym for the festival. From 1969
on Połczyn Zdrój hosted the festival of military artistic ensembles. Karolina
Bittner, Piosenka w służbie propagandy. Festiwal Piosenki Żołnierskiej w
Kołobrzegu 1968–1989 (Poznan: IPN, 2015).
9. ‘Ocena XXII Festiwalu Piosenki Żołnierskiej (1988) “Kołobrzeg 88”’,
30 August 1988, Gd 593/258, k. 400, IPN Warszawa.
10. Frank Schöbel, Frank und frei (Berlin: Aufbau-Taschenbuch-­ Verlag,
2000), 120–125.

11. Heinz Keßler, ‘Mit sozialistischer Kultur und Kunst—für hohe

Gefechtsbereitschaft!’, im klub, Supplement No. 3 (1981), 5–16, here 8.
12. Mikhail Gavrilovich Zhuravkov (ed.), Moral’no-politicheskiy faktor v sovre-
mennoy voyne (Moscow: Voennoe Izdat. Ministerstva oborony Soyuza
SSR, 1958); and Wasilij Daniłowicz Sokołowski (ed.), Strategia wojenna
(Warsaw: Wydawnictwo MON, 1964), 48–55.
13. Zřízení roty AUS, Vyjádření hl. št./1. odd., 21 September 1945,
f. MNO, r. 1946, k. č. 50, VÚA-VHA.
14. Schöbel, Frank und frei, 102–103.
15. Václav Šmidrkal, ‘Correspondence with Eugen Kusenda, former com-
mander of the VUS JN (1977–1981)’, 30 August 2009 and Václav
Šmidrkal, ‘Interview with Jan Opatrný, former commander of Artistic
Ensemble of the Western Military District (1976–1986) and of the AUS VN
(1986–1990)’, Prague, 7 February 2012; Materiály z konference CÚV a
stranického aktivu kulturně uměleckých složek, Výň atek ze zprávy CÚV na
konferenci celoútvarového výboru kulturně uměleckých složek, 13, 1963,
f. MNO, r. 1963, k. č. 139, VÚA-VHA.
16. The technical term estrada, used in most Slavic languages, stands for a
popular entertainment genre for the small stage which roughly corre-
sponds to vaudeville or variety. However, in the socialist sense, besides
entertainment it was also supposed to educate its audience.
17. Zdzisław Janoś, ‘Praca kulturalno-oświatowa w polu. Część II: Działalność
kulturalno-oświatowa w jednostkach Wojska Polskiego stacjonuja ̨cych cza-
sowo w CSRS’, Kultura i Oświata w Wojsku Polskim 2 (1970), 39–47, here
18. ‘Kronika Zespołu Estradowego Służby Inżynieryjno-Budowlanej “Wesoła
Drużyna” (1967–1969)’, sygn. 8809/91/36, [no date] 91–92, ASP.
19. Petra Procházková, ‘Č eši a Alexandrovci’, Pátek Lidových novin 21 (2012),
14–21, 18.
20. Vít Nejedlý, ‘Vojenské umělecké soubory’, in Kritiky a stati o hudbě
(1934–1944), ed, Jaroslav Jiránek (Praha: Svaz československých skladatelů,
1956), 136–138, here 137.
21. Czyżewski, Centralny Zespół , 36 and Andrzej Lechowski, Placówki kultur-
alne Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie 1945–1949 (Warsaw: Neriton, 2007),
22. ‘Künstler und Soldat’, im klub 12 (1969), 8.
23. For Soviet soft power in early post-war Poland see Patryk Babiracki, Soviet
Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire,
1943–1957 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
24. Mieczysław Brzezicki, ‘Istotny problem—“małe formy” sceniczne’,
Kultura i Oświata w Wojsku, I.2 (April–June 1958), 10–16, here 11.

25. The Border Troops: ‘The Border’ (Granica); The Warsaw Military District:
‘The Assault’ (Desant); The Air Defence: ‘Radar’; The Silesian Military
District: ‘The Silesian Military Estrada’ (Śla ̨ska Estrada Wojskowa); The
Air Force: ‘The Squad’ (Eskadra); The Pomeranian Military District: ‘The
Black Berets’ (Czarne Berety); The Navy: ‘The Fleet’ (Flotylla); ‘I. Ocena
przegla ̨du programów zespołów estradowych okręgów wojskowych
(RSZ)’,1985, BU 2327/180, 59–60, IPN Warszawa and ‘Ramowy plan
koncertów’, Kultura i Oświata w Wojsku Polskim 1 (1987), 128.
26. Marian Czyżewski, Centralny Zespół Artystyczny Wojska Polskiego (Warsaw:
Wydawnictwo MON, 1982), 52.
27. ‘Notizen einer Beratung bei dem Ministerium für Kultur über die Arbeit
der hauptberuflichen Ensembles’, 29 November 1956, DO 1/27251,
7–8, BArch-DDR.
28. ‘Konsum’ or ‘Konsumgennossenschaften’ were the consumer cooperatives
in East Germany.
29. The abbreviation HO stood for the Handelsorganisation (Trading
Organisation), a state-run retail business in East Germany.
30. ‘Die bisherige Entwicklung und die Perspektiven der hauptberuflichen
Volkskunst-Ensembles’, 14 January 1958, VA-P-01/041,185, BArch-MA.
31. ‘Plan der Maßnahmen zur Auflösung des „Hans-Beimler-­Ensembles”’, 10
October 1961, VA-P-01/204, 358–360, BArch-MA and ‘Auflösung des
Republikensembles der Deutsche Volkspolizei’, 5 December 1961, DO
1/27255, BArch.
32. Otakar Brůna, ‘Křídla nejsou k zahození’, Č eskoslovenský voják 9 (1969),
33. ‘Návrhy na změny v řízení kulturně výchovné činnosti centrálních kul-
turních a uměleckých složek’, 30, 1966, f. MNO, r. 1966, k. č. 54
34. ‘Opatření k realizaci snížení počtů v Armádním uměleckém souboru Víta
Nejedlého’, 2, 1970, f. MNO, r. 1970, k. č. 52, VÚA-VHA.
35. Łukasz Polniak, Patriotyzm wojskowy w PRL w latach 1956–1970 (Warsaw:
Trio, 2011).
36. Piotr Kłudka, ‘Mrok nad wojskowa ̨ estrada ̨’, Wojsko i Wychowanie 2.8
(1991):75–78, here 75.
37. Ibid., 76.
38. Ibid., 77.
39. This practice is depicted in the Czechoslovak feature film Bylo nás deset (dir.
Antonín Kachlík, Czechoslovakia 1963).
40. Reinhard Witteck, ‘Schlüsselübergabe?’, Die Volksarmee 11 (1990), 12.
41. Juraj Marušiak, ‘The Normalisation Regime and its Impact on Slovak
Domestic Policy after 1970’, Europe-Asia Studies 60.10 (2008),

42. VUS Ondráš, http://www.vusondras.cz, accessed 3 December 2015.

43. Stanisław Piekarski, Z frontu na scenę: tradycje Zespołu Artystycznego
Wojska Polskiego (Warsaw: Reprezentacyjne Zespół Artystyczny WP,
44. Ansambli, Ministerstvo oborony Rossiiskoi Federacii, http://sc.mil.ru/
social/culture/ensembles.htm, accessed 30 December 2016.

Theatre, Propaganda and the Cold War:

Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
in Eastern Europe (1972)

Zoltán Imre

Sitting between the First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and a Vice-­
President of the Council of State for Cultural and Socialist Education in
the official box at the Opera House for the gala premiere of the Royal
Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
on 23 October and watching those adroit fairies prepare Bottom for his
night of love with Titania, I began to get an uneasy feeling that things
were not going well as I observed their consternation and embarrassment
at the erotic miming before us. This impression was confirmed by their
almost ­monosyllabic comments at my reception during the interval. ‘Très
intéressant’ said Gliga, but then words failed him; ‘très piquant’ said [Ion]

This essay is based on an earlier article by the author in Hungarian: Zoltán Imre,
‘Szentivánéji álmok: Peter Brook kelet-európai turnéja a hidegháború idején’ (A
Midsummer Night’s Dreams: Peter Brook’s Tour of Eastern Europe during the
Cold War), Irodalomtörténet 45(95) 1 (2014), 90–113.

Z. Imre (*)
Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary

© The Author(s) 2017 107

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_7
108   Z. IMRE

Blad—a more apposite comment on the scene than perhaps intended, but
even this faint praise clearly left other thoughts unexpressed. […] [O]
n the following day my Cultural Attaché and later the manager of the
Company were called to a 21/2-hour meeting with ARIA, the Romanian
State impresarios, to hear their ‘suggestions’ for the modification of the
‘phallic Bottom’ episode; but the manager insisted that he had no power
to alter Peter Brook’s masterpiece in any way at all and this particular
scene in fact remained unaltered during the remainder of the run.1
On 31 October 1972, the British Ambassador to Romania, D.R.  Ashe
sent his strictly confidential report to the head of the East European and
Soviet Department, J.L. Bullard at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(FCO), London. His report referring to the abovementioned ‘uneasy feel-
ing’ and ‘suggestions’ was written a few days after the Royal Shakespeare
Company (RSC) had completed its tour of Romania between 22 and
28 October 1972. Though Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer
Night’s Dream was originally premiered on 27 August 1970 at Stratford-­
upon-­Avon, in 1972 it was chosen by the British Council (BC) for an
East European tour, and the company performed it in Belgrade, Budapest,
Bucharest, Sofia, Zagreb and Warsaw.2
By that time, the RSC had already completed an American tour, and
the following year, in 1973, they took the production on a world tour.
Within three years, it travelled nearly the entire world, playing a total of
535 performances in 36 cities, and it ‘accreted to itself the polished veneer
that reveals and conceals a prestige “event”’.3 As a result, Brook’s Dream
transcended borders in a time and a world in which borders were closely
watched and controlled.
The article focuses on the RSC’s East European tour and investigates
the role theatre and theatre touring played during the Cold War. Reading
the critics’ reviews, the Eastern European authorities’ (secret) reports and
the ongoing correspondence between British officials in East European
capitals and London, the article maps the different perceptions that
Brook, the British officials, the East European authorities and audiences
had. Analysing these perceptions, the article argues that theatre was inter/
cross-cultural4 even in the harsh political, ideological and social circum-
stances of the Cold War; and that the visit of the RSC was regarded as a
complex sociocultural and political event on both sides of the Wall.
In the early 1970s, Soviet-type restoration took place in the region,
backed by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine: reform-communist party
officials were removed from office and their reforms were reversed.

In  Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu introduced his July thesis (1971), and
established a totalitarian regime and his personality cult. At the same time,
however, international talks about normalisation between the two blocs
continued, and cultural exchanges played a crucial role. Both Western and
Eastern governmental support for the arts was at least in part designed as
(counter-)propaganda intended for the other side, which aimed to sup-
port either bourgeois notions of freedom or a socialist type of reform soci-
ety. As a result, from the 1960s onwards, both in the East and the West,
arts councils, working closely with their foreign offices, were locked in a
cultural arms race. Though the political situation between the blocs was
still very fragile, cultural exchanges between eastern socialist and western
capitalist states became more frequent. The RSC’s visit to Eastern Europe
in 1972 was also the result of the international cultural-political opening.

The Dream—British Dreamers

The Eastern European tour of Brook’s production was not innocent of
associations with propaganda either. The tour manager, Hal Rogers5 men-
tioned in an interview that they received travel subsidies from the BC
‘only for the cities in the Eastern Bloc. In the West, we were booked by
Jan de Blieck, a commercial manager who is an expert on such tours’.6
While the Western tour was considered a commercial venture, its Eastern
counterpart was seen as a cultural-political mission. The head of the
Cultural Exchange Department at the FCO, London, E.V. Vines’s letter
to R.P. Martin, the British Ambassador in Budapest, Hungary, about the
RSC’s visit to Eastern Europe implicitly confirmed that ‘the Company’s
West-European tour will be on a commercial basis on which the Council
have no status for intervention’.7 The Eastern European tour, however,
was strongly supported by the BC (see later in detail), and therefore ‘with
the status of [BC] intervention’. In this sense, the visit of Brook’s Dream
was regarded and utilised as cultural propaganda by means of which the
British (and also the West) could demonstrate their cultural, social, and of
course political achievements.
The BC’s choice of Brook’s Dream was perfect because, on the one
hand, it was regarded not only by Vines, but also by contemporary critics
and audiences on both sides of the Wall as ‘a brilliant piece of theatre’.8
Critics from different historical circumstances, social backgrounds and
ideological frameworks praised the production’s ‘supra-national quality’9;
its ‘actuality and contemporariness’10; its ‘timeless space’11; and its ‘vital
110   Z. IMRE

sex and sexuality’.12 Thus Brook’s production represented the specific

dreams of the era: modernity, universality and timelessness. Moreover, it
was also seen as a perfect advertisement for a country where creation is
free, where personal relations are uncontrolled, and where sex(uality) is
openly discussed and exercised.
One of the most striking features of Brook’s production was the white
squash-court set designed by Sally Jacobs. It was unconventional, non-­
illusory and at odds with a play traditionally associated with mysteries
and illusions. For its contemporaries, it was evident that the production
attempted to open up possibilities, to advance progress and to ‘cancel any
suggestions of the Victorian or balletic traditions’.13 Jacobs’ set substituted
‘the sentimental fairyland with a vigorous scenography that drew its refer-
ence from the world of virtuoso performance’.14 The players, except the
mechanicals, wore colourful, baggy, satin costumes of various colours, and
used juggling and acrobatic tricks seen by Brook and Jacobs in a Chinese
circus visiting London. The forest was represented by coiled wires, the
fairies flew on trapezes, the magic flower was a spinning plate handing to
Oberon on a pole, and sometimes Puck appeared on stilts. Brook doubled
certain roles, and the production emphasised two major themes: ‘love of
theatre and love of play’.15 As a result, ‘the production relied not on the
scenic tricks of the theatre but on the athletic tricks of the performer’.16
The set, the costumes and the acting style emphasised ‘timelessness’17;
‘originality and modernity’18; and ‘dreamlike magic’.19
Locating the action in a white ‘nothingness’, Brook’s production con-
sciously avoided references to specific historical circumstances and to any
concrete political and/or social issues.20 The production seemed to be the
materialisation of Brook’s concept of empty space, explicated in his semi-
nal 1968 book of that title. Space, however, as Irit Rogoff remarked about
the illusion of transparency, ‘is never empty, since it is always embedded
in a network of social, cultural, political and other factors that determine
inclusions and exclusions’.21 As a result, the production created only the
illusion of an empty space in a period in which space was closely watched
and controlled.
The aims of promoting cultural relations and publicising Western (cul-
tural and artistic) achievements through Shakespeare took precedence,
rendering the financial situation of the Eastern tour less important than
that of its Western counterpart. In a letter sent to Ms Ildikó Gedényi, a rep-
resentative of Interkoncert, the Hungarian state impresarios, C.R. Hewer,
the representative of the British Embassy in Budapest, proposed a financial

agreement to the Hungarians. In an earlier letter, however, addressed to

the Director of the Drama and Music Department of the BC, London,
Hewer confirmed a more important aim than profit:

you may be aware of our strenuous effort to get an English Theatre Company
to Hungary and the difficulties which we have had in the past. Interkoncert’s
acceptance of the Royal Shakespeare Company is a real breakthrough and it
is imperative that the deal should be clinched immediately.22

The visit was thus seen as a ‘real breakthrough’ in cultural and even politi-
cal relations. As a result, not only the British authorities in London, but
also their Hungarian partners were eager to seize this opportunity. A few
days later, an article in The Daily News, an English-language newspaper in
Budapest, publicly announced that the RSC was going to visit the city in
October 1972.23
The RSC’s visit to Eastern Europe most of all served as a form of rela-
tionship maintenance between Britain and the Eastern Bloc. Its impor-
tance can also be seen in the fact that not only the BC, but also the FCO
closely followed its progress. The British policy was clear. The British
Ambassador to Romania, Ashe, wrote directly to J.L. Bullard, the Head of
the Eastern European and Soviet Department, FCO, London, that ‘there
is nothing to be gained from trying to push the [Romanian] Council fur-
ther than they [Romanian officials] are prepared to go. Otherwise we run
the risk of bringing about a curtailment rather than an expansion of these
exchanges’.24 As a result, the official policy of the British authorities was to
try to avoid controversy at any price.25
In order to maintain ‘the credit to Britain’,26 the BC policy avoided
direct politics and directly addressing cultural-political issues. However, it
came as a shock to BC and FCO members when they discovered Brook’s
dedication in the printed programme for the East European tour. Besides
expressing his intention for his production to be ‘a celebration of theatre:
it is a celebration of the creative community of the freed imagination,’ he
also dedicated

this performance to the memory of the Za Branou Theatre of Prague. The

dissolution of this fine company on 10 June 1972 and the curtailing of the
activity of its great director Otomar Krejča—whose Shakespeare produc-
tions are among the most remarkable of our time—is a loss to theatre, a loss
to imagination, a loss to freedom.27
112   Z. IMRE

Divadlo Za Branou (Theatre behind the Gate) was established by Otomar

Krejča in 1965 as part of the Czech off-mainstream theatre movement.28
These theatres introduced alternatives to an aesthetics rooted in modified
socialist realism and the administrative structures of the kamenná divadla
(stone theatres), ‘meaning big repertory companies marked by a rather
profuse administration of directors, deputies, and secretaries’ and ‘Party
members installed into controlling positions’.29 Performing in small audi-
toriums where spectators literally witnessed theatrical creation in progress,
mala divadla (small theatres) ‘represented nonconventional aesthetics
and political expressions’.30 As a result, ‘Czech off-mainstream theatres
assumed a leading role in shaping the political consciousness of their coun-
trymen and women’.31
The banning of Za Bránou and Krejča was part of the Soviet restoration
that took place in the early 1970s after the Prague Spring.32 The Party’s new
leader, Gustav Hušák, purged it of its liberal members, and dismissed from
public office professional and intellectual elites who had openly expressed
disagreement with the political transformation.33 As part of Hušak’s ‘nor-
malisation’, the Czech off-mainstream theatres were declared to be subver-
sive and under the influence of the decadent and bourgeois West. The ban
on cultural life and the dissolution of Divadlo Za Branou, however, soon
became known in the West, and intellectuals like Friedrich Dürrenmatt,
Arthur Miller and Ingmar Bergman protested against the decision.34
In view of the political situation in Czechoslovakia, Brook’s dedica-
tion in the programme brochure for the tour was not received with great
enthusiasm by the British authorities. Their standpoint was quite clear. In
a letter to the British Ambassador in Budapest, R.P. Martin, the Head of
the FCO’s Cultural Exchange Department in London, E.V. Vines wrote
cautiously that

we must hope that the management will be able to stick under pressure to
the line that the dedication is a personal expression of view by the director
of the production. It might be possible to draw a distinction between the
production and the performances. If any copies of this brochure find their
way to Eastern Europe, with the outside cover, it might be possible to argue
that it was only certain performances which were dedicated in this way and
that none of those in East Europe were.35

Vines firstly made a fine distinction between British authorities, the

RSC and Brook, arguing that the statement was only Brook’s personal
dedication. Then he made another, even finer distinction between the

production, in general, and its performances, in particular, arguing that

only certain performances, meaning those staged in West European cities,
were dedicated to Za Bránou and that the performances in Eastern Europe
were not. Finally, another letter from Vines to John Argles at the BC in
London, confirmed that ‘it should, therefore, be possible to contradict
any suggestions that the production as a whole, and the tour in general,
was dedicated to the Za Branou Theatre’.36 Thus there was a triple denial
from him concerning any political involvement of the BC and the FCO.
In addition to such linguistic distinctions, the British authorities intro-
duced preventive actions as well. Before the beginning of the tour, Mr
Kirby, a member of Vines’ Department, met the company ‘to brief them
on the behaviour in Eastern Europe’.37 Besides briefing the company, the
BC sent only ‘the inside of the programme, i.e. without the cover and the
dedication, to Cultural Attaches in East Europe to pass to local theatres
who will make up their own programmes from the information thus pro-
vided’.38 In this way, the FCO through the BC prevented their company
from distributing its own programme in Eastern Europe. John Argles was
the controller of the FCO’s Arts Division in London, clearly and proudly
pointed out to Vines that ‘the Royal Shakespeare Company’s programme
will not be on sale in Eastern Europe, of course’.39
The British authorities’ fear was, as was pointed out by Vines in a let-
ter to D.F.B.  Le Breton at the British Embassy, Budapest, that ‘obvi-
ously there is a risk that copies might find their way into East Europe and
that further publicity to this dedication may affect the official attitude of
Hungarian officials to the tour. The British Council have pointed out to
the management that the dedication might well lead to embarrassment
and awkward repercussions in East Europe’.40 From his letter, it is also
clear that though the management of the RSC expressed their reluctance
to withdraw the dedication, it was Brook who insisted on it. Finally, the
management agreed with him, and Vines argued that ‘if they had not
given way to him he would have jeopardised the world tour as a whole’.41
Apart from briefing the company and sending the programme without
its cover to Eastern Europe, the British authorities had ‘done what we can
to discourage Radio Free Europe making play of this story at least until
the tour has cleared Eastern Europe’.42 The reason for Vines’ fear was that
Brook’s dedication ‘ha[d] already attracted some publicity in the Daily
Telegraph, in turn picked up by Radio Free Europe’.43 Vines’ preventive
actions were guided by the fact that the RSC’s visit to Eastern Europe
was under BC sponsorship, meaning that Eastern European authorities
114   Z. IMRE

would take Brook’s dedication as the official policy of the BC and thus the
UK. He told R. P. Martin that, ‘the British Council are very concerned
lest further publicity to Mr Brook’s comments should lead to Eastern
European Governments cancelling the tour, with heavy loss to the British
Council’.44 The cancellation of the tour would also mean that relations
between the UK and Eastern European governments would again be fro-
zen for a while.
In addition to these cautious preventive measures, the British Embassies
in Eastern Europe were also instructed to monitor the visit closely. The
Director of the FCO’s East Europe Department in London, I.H. Williams,
instructed R.P. Martin in Budapest, and also other HM Missions in the
Eastern European countries, that ‘I should only add that we should like
to know at once if you or the company are faced with any difficulty or
embarrassment which could be attributed to Peter Brook’s dedication.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office letter already indicates the line to
follow if you are questioned about this’.45 Indeed reports from the cities
of Eastern Europe confirmed that the preventive actions of the BC were
not entirely successful.
The British Ambassador T.  Frank Brenchley’s report from Warsaw,
where the RSC played on 22, 23 and 24 November, to J.L. Bullard of the
FCO’s Eastern European and Soviet Department, pointed out that

Forewarned by Derek Ashe’s letter from Bucharest, the British Council

Representative, Claude Whistler, spoke earnestly to the management about
the importance of sticking to their earlier agreement not to distribute
the commemorative programme with its dedication to the suppressed Za
Branou Theatre in Prague. He was assured that there was no problem, since
they had run out of copies of the programme. This turned out to be untrue,
and the Council came across a box of the programme sitting unobtrusively
in the wings of the theatre, open, with the programmes there for the taking.
They took one, confronted the management with it, and were told that they
would be tucked away. The Council heard no more, but guess that unob-
trusive distribution may well have continued.46

RSC reported a similar case of unreasonable behaviour by the Company:

they were handing out copies here. I sent a message to the manager of
the Company saying that this could only lead to trouble and warning him
strongly against such silliness. In reply I got a message that loyalty to Peter

Brook made it impossible for him to withhold the programme altogether,

but that he would only give them to Romanians who specifically asked for
them. […] But I have little doubt that the authorities must know what was
going on.47

The FCO, however, was effective in discouraging Radio Free Europe as

they did not broadcast the story during the tour. After a few months,
however, a report by Marcus Ferrar about Romania’s theatrical troubles
mentioned that ‘members of the company did not endear themselves to
Rumanian officialdom by handing out leaflets before the first performance
saying the show was in memory of a Prague theatre, which was closed
by Czechoslovak authorities last June for political reasons. Embarrassed
Rumanian officials put a quick stop to the distribution’.48
The Romanian authorities might have noticed the programme, but so
far we have no evidence that ‘they put a quick stop to the distribution’ as
neither the reports nor the archival materials mentioned such action. What
is more interesting, however, is that in spite of the accusation of Radio
Free Europe, the members of the BC and the representatives of the British
Embassies in East European cities did indeed attempt to censor Brook’s
dedication. For them, the long-term relationship with these Eastern states
was more important than any individual case. Or rather, weakening the
Soviet Empire by ideas and image promotion using symbolic artefacts was
(thought to be) more effective than fighting for individual cases.

The Dream—East European Dreamers

In Eastern Europe, the visit by Brook’s production was considered a com-
plex and important. In Hungary, for instance, though the RSC played in
Budapest, newspapers in the countryside also published lengthy articles on
the production. Its social event-like character can also be seen in the fact that
the cultural leaders of the Hungarian socialist regime—the Prime Minister,
Jenő Fock, the Party Secretary for Education and Culture, György Aczél,
and other leading members of the Political Committee—and the British
ambassador, D.S.L. Dodson, attended the first night of the production. In
his confidential letter, Dodson later pointed out that

there were no suggestions that I should occupy any sort of official box and
in all the circumstances I decided to take a purely private party to the open-
ing night, having given an official reception for the Company on the previ-
ous day. I cannot therefore say what either Fock or Aczel may privately have
116   Z. IMRE

thought of the production. Certainly they seemed to be enjoying it and we

have heard nothing but praise of it from almost every Hungarian who was
able to get a seat.49

Dodson implicitly referred to Ashe’s previous letter from Bucharest in

which Ashe had pointed out that he was invited to the official box of the
Romanian Party members, and that he was thus able to gather the party
members’ reactions. Ashe’s letter, seen at the beginning of the article,
stated that though the Romanian audiences were enthusiastic about the
production, the authorities wanted to censor the ‘Phallic Bottom episode’
at the end of the first act. Censoring a foreign production seems strange,
but censorship was a ‘normal’ feature of the socialist states of Eastern
Europe during the Cold War.
Socialist censorship was totalitarian, but pretended to be democratic,
populist and educative. Censorship was connected to the Direction of State
Security and the Secret Police. The leaderships of the socialist states were
never unified, so different groups were always fighting for power. As a result,
socialist censorship was a strange exercise of power and negotiation, combin-
ing domination by force and cultural hegemony and manifesting itself in its
effects on or creation of cultural institutions and artefacts.50 The socialist states,
except Romania and Albania, however, constantly denied their censorship.
In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as Laura Bradley demon-
strated, ‘the euphemistic language of GDR censorship presented officials
as cultural facilitators and pedagogues, not as censors. […] Even though
plays and productions were subject to strict pre- and post-performance
controls, the GDR’s first constitution still professed the commitment to
artistic freedom’.51 Not only East German, but also other socialist leaders
and officials were anxious to preserve the appearance of democracy and
civil rights. The censors were in constant denial about their own activity.
As a result of this hypocrisy, theatre people, mostly directors and dramatists
were in a peculiar situation: ‘they suffered all the controls of censorship,
with none of the securities. Dramatists, directors and theatre managers
were held personally liable for their productions, even though they had
been filtered through unacknowledged controls’.52
In the 1970s, as the GDR and the other socialist states were seeking
international acceptance, censors were more reluctant to ban productions;
they placed greater emphasis on pre-performance discussions and preview-
ing activities, and ‘each theatre was required to submit a proposed season
of works, a “dramaturgical plan”, [with the directors’ exposés] to a cultural

committee for approval.’53 While censorship was present everywhere and

aimed to be omnipotent, it also wanted to remain invisible. ‘It wanted to
be deeply rooted in the artistic processes, down to the subconscious of the
authors. Its aim was not simply prohibition, but rather to get rid of any
alternative to official art.’54
In 1972, just a few months before Brook’s production visited the
Romanian capital, Bucharest, Ion Pintilie’s production based on Gogol’s
The Government Inspector at the Bulandra Theatre was withdrawn after
three performances. In his four-and-a-half-hour version, Pintilie omitted
the whole second act of the play, inserted dialogues from other texts, and
added a hippie-style final act of his own consisting of dancing and sing-
ing reminiscent of the musical Hair. In addition to the production being
banned, Liviu Ciulei was also sacked from his post as head of the theatre
in which Pintilie’s production was shown.
In Romania, as Liviu Maliţa55 has pointed out, ‘censorship was respon-
sible for safeguarding the ideological purity of public discourse and carry-
ing out acts of political cleansing.’ Its main role was ‘to forbid and exclude
from the public space anything that might be considered dangerous to the
regime or merely incongruous with the official doctrine and with the goals
and practices of the communist party.’56 The execution of this function
was not an easy task, however, as ‘censorship had no doctrine, just like it
had no goal of its own. It ensured that the party dogmas were faithfully
abided by, as it was one of the instruments used to consolidate the system
and to solve specific problems.’57 Its execution always depended on vari-
ous internal interests, and from the 1970s, on the international context.
The banning of Pintilie’s production and Ciulei’s sacking immediately
hit the Western media. Michael Simmons’ article in The Financial Times
(12 October 1972) about Pintilie’s production was immediately picked up
by Radio Free Europe (RFE), and broadcast the following day: ‘a cultural
row with political overtones has blown up between Romania and the Soviet
Union over the allegedly “poor taste” of a Bucharest production of […] The
Government Inspector’.58 The following day, the RFE news also stated that
Pintilie’s production had been taken off the stage after four performances,
referring to ‘Western diplomatic sources’ who said that ‘reports circulating
in Bucharest claimed the Soviet chargé d’affaires walked out of the pre-
miere[,] schocked at its anti-Soviet content’.59 Apart from the possible Soviet
furore, the report also mentioned that ‘Westerners who saw it say the pro-
duction could also have been interpreted as a pastiche of President Nicolae
Ceauşescu’s much vaunted trips to the countryside to meet the people’.60
118   Z. IMRE

At that time, Nicolae Ceauşescu was introducing a Stalinist type of

totalitarian model to Romania. His July Theses of 1971 heralded the
beginning of a ‘cultural revolution’ in Romania, launching a neo-Stalinist
offensive against cultural autonomy, reaffirming an ideological basis for
the arts that, in theory, the Party had hardly abandoned. Although pre-
sented in terms of ‘socialist humanism’, the Theses in fact marked a return
to the strict guidelines of socialist realism, and attacks on non-compliant
intellectuals. Strict ideological conformity in the humanities and social sci-
ences was demanded. Competence and aesthetics were to be replaced by
ideology; professionals were to be replaced by agitators; and culture was
once again to become an instrument for political-ideological propaganda
and hard-line measures.
The Romanian intention of censoring Brook’s production was, however,
resolved when, as Ashe reported, ‘ARIA sent us a message saying that Dimitri
Popescu, the President of the Council for Culture and Socialist Education,
and as such the supreme arbiter of ideological purity, had been most impressed
by the play on its second [night] and tacitly withdrawing their “suggestions”
[of censoring the scene]’.61 Though censorship was not enforced, the official
Romanian interpretation did not change. In the same report, Ashe described
the farewell party for the RSC on 28 October where he took

the chance to meet with Ileasa, the Director of Foreign relations in the
Council of State for Culture and Socialist Education [...] to tackle him direct
about ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and to ask him to tell me quite frankly
what the official reaction here was to it. He replied immediately that he was
very glad that I had asked him for a frank opinion and said that he would take
the opportunity to give me his ‘personal views’. But he then went straight on
to make a statement which clearly gave me much more than his own opinion.
He said that Dimitri Popescu, the President of the Council, Ion Blad, one of
his Vice-Presidents and a number of others who had seen the play had dis-
cussed it at some length and had arrived at unanimous conclusions about it. In
their opinion the production was a brilliant piece of theatre, fully bearing out
the high reputation which Peter Brook had established in the Shakespearean
field. […] But at the same time it had introduced into Romania an element
of Western sexual permissiveness and moral decadence which they found
unhealthy and which they did not wish to promote in this country.62

The official opinion condemning Western sexual permissiveness and moral

decadence was also widely publicised in the Romanian reviews of the
production. In one of the daily papers, the theatre critic Natalia Stancu

complained that though Brook’s production was a long-awaited event

after his previous tour of Romania in 1964 with King Lear, ‘we thus find
scenes on the brink of vulgarity, licentiousness and even obscenity which
weighed on the spectacle and gave it a shade of excessive naturalism. All
this has puzzled many of the spectators and armed the general impres-
sion’.63 Her negative comments were repeated by Radu Popescu, one of
the most influential Romanian theatre critics of the time, and editor-in-
chief of the review Teatru, who wrote that ‘Peter Brook’s show is not only
erotic, it is without reason licentious and sometimes even pornographic’.64
In other parts of Eastern Europe, though the general reception
was much more favourable than that in Romania, the authorities also
attempted to exercise control over the production. The British ambassa-
dor to Bulgaria, Donald Logan, for instance, wrote after the RSC visited
Sofia on 1 and 2 November 1972 that ‘the audience response to the per-
formance was enthusiastic and the official reaction was favourable’.65 In
his report, he also mentioned, however, that the Bottom scene was also a
problem for the Bulgarian officials. ‘After the first performance here, one
Bulgarian official did tell a member of this Embassy that the scene in ques-
tion would have to be cut, but the matter was not pursued’.66 In general,
however, ‘the Bulgarian audiences enjoyed the production hugely and,
though no doubt surprised at some of the explicitly erotic scenes, they
enjoyed these too and felt no inhibitions about showing their enjoyment
and amusement’.67
In Warsaw, the reception was even better than in either Bucharest or
Sofia. Frank Brenchley’s direct report from Warsaw to J.L. Bullard of the
Eastern European and Soviet Department at the FCO in London stated
that the visit was an ‘unqualified success’ and that the three performances
on 22, 23 and 24 November 1972

were accompanied by a crescendo of acclaim from the public, critics and

officials. The warm reception on the first night was succeeded by a stand-
ing ovation on the second—which was repeated on the third night with
the addition of the singing of the Ste Lat, the rather more tuneful Polish
equivalent of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, an unusual mark of enthusiasm
from a theatre audience.68

The press reviews were all enthusiastic. ‘One said, quite rightly, “we had
an unforgettable night, one of those that restores the faith in the sense
of theatre and its inexhaustible potentialities”’.69 In addition, Brenchley
120   Z. IMRE

added that the erotic scenes ‘caused no difficulties for the Polish audi-
ences, brought up as they have been on the hardly less explicit perfor-
mances of the Tomaszewski and Grotowski theatres, and the particular
scene that caused such trouble in Bucharest was greeted with a roar of
cheers and laughter’.70
From Budapest, R.P. Martin reported that the ‘public interest was very
great’, and the visit was ‘a popular and artistic success’, and received an
‘entirely favourable reaction in official and political quarters’.71 In addi-
tion he also noted ‘a long review which, rather surprisingly, appeared in
the party newspaper’ and that ‘the sexual imagery and the overtly erotic
element in the play were noted by many critics, but not in a disapprov-
ing manner’.72 Although Martin was entirely positive about the reception
of the play, there were minor concerns about the openly sexual scenes in
Budapest as well.73
Besides the East European Party officials’ suggestion of censoring cer-
tain scenes, rather strangely, there had been similar attempts by the BC as
well. After the reaction of Romanian officials became known in London,
E.V. Vines replied to D.R. Ashe in Bucharest that

when the British Council discovered that the touring company had taken
on more bawdiness than the original production, they asked the Company
to adjust it to Eastern European taste, but as your letter shows, without
apparent success.74

His action was in accordance with the official BC policy stating that ‘the
Council should be careful not to present in Romania cultural manifesta-
tions which were too avant garde for local official taste’.75
Besides being considered as a complex sociopolitical event, in Eastern
Europe the visit of a Western company was an economically viable busi-
ness as well. The performances were unquestioned box-office successes,
and tickets were also available on the black market, but they cost a for-
tune. The issuing of tickets was, however, more complex. Donald Logan
from Sofia reported to J.L. Bullard, London that ‘it is said that there were
no more than one hundred tickets on sale to the public for these three
performances (the theatre holds 1200). I can well believe this’.76 Later
he added that ‘almost all the tickets were distributed through Party and
Government organizations, no doubt, as rewards to the faithful’.77
In addition to its direct censorship and control over access, the
Hungarian socialist regime took the opportunity to instigate a debate

about Hungarian theatre. After the visit, a young Hungarian critic, Tamás
Koltai (in 1973) wrote an article with the title: ‘How Can We Play Theatre
after the Visit of the RSC?’ He praised the RSC’s production and attacked
the Hungarian theatre system. Suddenly a debate on Hungarian theatre
developed, involving major theatre critics, cultural notabilities and the-
atre directors. The cultural administration probably allowed it because
they could utilise it for their own cultural-political aims. By means of this
debate, the regime demonstrated that Hungary was an open society where
public debate was possible. The cultural leaders could use even negative
views of Hungarian theatre to control the system and any positive remarks
to defend the artists and theatre companies under attack. As a result, the
debate proved again that the Hungarian cultural sector in general, and the
theatre sector in particular, were under the strict control of the regime.
The authorities used the debate to advance the official party line in cul-
tural businesses and theatre issues as well.78

The audiences, critics and officials’ different visions confirm that the so-­
called Eastern bloc was not a totally unified sphere; instead it was vertically
and horizontally divided—within the bloc and within the individual states.
Therefore current research on the Cold War should pay more attention
‘to the specific situation in individual countries of the so called “Soviet
bloc”’.79 The reactions to Brook’s production imply that although Eastern
European states followed certain general rules, there were real differences
among them as well.
Brook’s production and other cultural, educational and economic
exchanges also indicate that the two blocs were not entirely blocked off
from one another. The Cold War was also part of a globalised world,
though with certain restrictions. Thus this conflict can be more effectively
imagined as ‘the diversification of power’.80 Though there was a funda-
mental change in the nature of the international system after World War II
because the European world was defined by the two opposing sides, within
this opposition, the international system ‘remained multidimensional’.81
The American historian, John Lewis Gaddis has reminded us that a new
Cold War history should ‘take ideas seriously’.82 When people choose,
‘they have ideas in their minds. But to understand these, we have to take
seriously what they at that time believed’.83 The end of the Cold War hap-
pened not because of military defeat or just because of an economic crash,
122   Z. IMRE

but because ‘there was a collapse of legitimacy’.84 Ideas and what people
thought of themselves, their regimes and the other side of the Wall were
crucial. A touring production was a perfect way of delivering ideas from
one camp to another and undermining official Party views. As a result, cul-
tural exchanges played an important role in spreading ideas, as the collapse
of communism was also the consequence of the contacts and exchanges
between the East and the West.
One of the main objectives of the exchanges was to maintain the rela-
tionship at any cost—even by scarifying and censoring the comments of
one’s own director. In the long run, it was a policy of extensive relaxation
and constant image management. After the entire tour, as a sort of conclu-
sion, Vines of the FCO’s Cultural Exchange Department, in his response
to Donald Logan’s letter from Sofia, wrote that ‘the main thing is that
it was a success and we are now left with the intriguing problem for the
future of finding some manifestation of equal merit and less controversy’.85
The controversy was caused—as we have already seen—by the eroti-
cism of the production, and even Vines, who was responsible for organis-
ing the tour, was not in favour of its touring version. He clearly stated
that ‘while it remains a brilliant piece of theatre, full of new insights into
a too well known play, and will continue to be successful in many parts of
the world, the style has coarsened, introducing the bawdy humour of the
music hall’.86 And for the same reasons, Vines was against the production’s
possible 1973 Moscow tour. He asked J.A. Dobbs in Moscow:

is the DREAM the right prestige production to put us back into cultural
business again in Moscow? The Ministry of Culture would not accept the
production without vetting it first—indeed we know the Soviet Embassy
checked on it when it opened in London—but there is always the risk of
success de scandale and the impact of the production diminished by contro-
versy and puritan reaction. It does not seem to me to be the right manifesta-
tion to put us back again into cultural business in the Soviet Union.87

Brook’s production and its reception also support the view that the Cold
War was as much a connection with similar values as a division. Brook’s
production and its reception also strengthen the argument that the cold
war was as much about similar values as it was about divisions. As the cen-
tral Hungarian news agency MTI announced, ‘with this work Brook could
get nearer to the universal theatrical language than at any time before’.88
Brook’s universal language was an appropriate reaction to and a perfect
metaphor in a rhetorically, politically and physically divided world.

Brook’s Dream seemed to be a universal ‘empty space’ into which

audiences from diverse backgrounds could imagine both their own special
context, and the Other as a similar being, though living in entirely differ-
ent circumstances. Moreover, in the East, the production also offered an
escape from the context of the socialist reality and emphasised that love,
theatre, the body and sexuality are the same on both sides of the Wall. As
one of the reviewers stated: ‘it is the end of the game, of the dream, we
feel sorry that though it was nice, it’s time to shake hands, and thank each
other for the pleasant moments before the cage of everyday life closes on
us again’.89

1. Letter from D.R. Ashe to J.L. Bullard, London, 31 October 1972, 34/129,
The National Archives, London.
2. As part of the same tour, the company also performed the production in
Berlin, Munich, Paris, Venice, Milan, Hamburg, Cologne and Oslo; see
‘Itinerary for the Royal Shakespeare Company’, FCO 34/149, The
National Archives, London.
3. David Selbourne, The Making of a Midsummer Night’s Dream—An Eye-
witness Account of Peter Brook’s Production from First Rehearsal to First
Night (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), 38.
4. See, for example, Patrice Pavis (ed.), The Intercultural Performance Reader
(New York and London: Routledge, 1996); Julie Holledge and Joanne
Tompkins, Women’s Intercultural Performance (London and New  York:
Routledge, 2000); Helen Gilbert and Jacqueline Lo, ‘Toward a Topography
of Cross-cultural Theatre Praxis’, The Drama Review 46.3 (2002), 31–53;
Christopher Balme, Decolonizing the Stage: Theatrical Syncretism and Post-
Colonial Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Christopher
Balme, ‘Selling the Bird: Richard Walton Tully’s The Bird of Paradise and
the Dynamics of Theatrical Commodification’, Theatre Journal 57.1
(2005), 1–20; and Richard Paul Knowles, Theatre and Interculturalism
(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
5. Hal Rogers was Company Manager, House-Father, and Stage Manager for
Brook’s production of the Dream.
6. As quoted in Glenn Loney (ed.), Peter Brook’s Production of William
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare
Company—Authorized Acting Edition (Stratford-­upon-­Avon: The Royal
Shakespeare Company and The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1974), 99.
7. Letter from E.V.  Vines to R.P.  Martin, Budapest, 4 August 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
124   Z. IMRE

8. Letter from E.V. Vines letter to J.A. Dobbs, Moscow, 13 November 1972,

BW 1/606, The National Archives, London.
9. Ronald Bryden, ‘A Drama Critic Introduces Peter Brook’, in Peter Brook’s
Production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 17.
10. Siegfried Melchinger, ‘Ein Sommernachtstraum’, Theater Heute, 10
October 1970, 8.
11. Péter Molnáar Gál, ‘Szentivánéji álom’, Népszabadság, 19 October 1972, 2.
12. Clive Barnes, ‘A Magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream”’, The New  York
Times, 24 January 1971, 8.
13. Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare—A Visual History of Twentieth-
Century Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),
14. Ibid., 184.
15. Jay L.  Halio, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2003), 58.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Barnes, ‘A Magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream”’.
19. Milton Shulman, ‘Peter Brook’s Flying Circus. A Dream of a Show’, The
Evening Standard, 11 June 1971, 4 and László Seregi, ‘Szex és cirkusz’,
Egyetemi Élet, 8 November 1972, 4.
20. And this is striking when we compare it to Robert Lepage’s intercultural
Dream Machine (Royal National Theatre, London, 1992), see Barbara
Hodgdon, ‘Looking for Mr. Shakespeare After “The Revolution”: Robert
Lepage’s Intercultural Dream Machine’, in Shakespeare, Theory, and
Perfomance, ed. James C.  Bulman (London and New  York: Routledge,
1996), 68–91; or Karin Beyer’s European Dream (Düsseldorfer
Schauspielhaus, 1994), see Janelle Reinelt, ‘Performing Europe: Identity
Formation for a “New” Europe’, in Theatre, History, and National
Identities, ed. Helka Mäkinen, Stephen E.  Wilmer and W.B.  Worthen
(Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2001), 227–256; and Richard Paul
Knowles, ‘From Dream to Machine: Peter Brook, Robert Lepage, and the
Contemporary Shakespearean Director as (Post)Modernist’, Theatre
Journal 2 (1998), e.g.189–206. In these works, the actors’ different cul-
tural, political and ideological backgrounds and their conflicts became the
most important elements.
21. Irit Rogoff, ‘Studying Visual Culture’, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed.
Nicholas Mirzoeff (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 14–26, 22.
22. Letter from C.R.  Hewerto the Director, Drama and Music Department,
British Council, London, 2 May 1972, FCO 34/149, The National
Archives, London.

23. Letter from C.R. Hewer to the Director, Drama and Music Department,
British Council, London, 5 May 1972, FCO 34/149, The National
Archives, London.
24. Letter from D.R. Asheto J.L. Bullard, London, 31 October 1972, 34/129,
The National Archives, London.
25. It was a difficult business, however. Alec Douglas-Home wrote in a general
report, entitled Cultural Policy Towards Hungary, but distributed among
the British representatives of the region, that ‘we should take care not to
push our ideas too hard for fear of Soviet reaction. Our policy has always
been to make discreet offers of help and leave it to the recipient country to
decide how much they feel they can safely accept. East Europeans are adept
at ­knowing when and how to draw the line, and our experiences with
Hungary confirm this’ (Alec Douglas-Home, Cultural Policy Towards
Hungary, 1 August 1972, FCO 34/129, The National Archives, London).
26. Letter from Donald Logan to J.L. Bullard, London, 15 November 1972,
FCO 34/149, The National Archives, London.
27. Peter Brook’s dedication in the programme of the East European Tour,
Victoria and Albert Museum, Archive and Library Reading Room, Blythe
House, London, Production File: Midsummer Night’s Dream (Brook),
28. Reduta, 1956; Divadlo na Zábrádli, 1959; Č inoherní Klub, 1965, and
29. Olga Chtiguel, ‘Without Theatre, the Czechoslovak Revolution Could Not
Have Been Won’, The Drama Review 34.3 (1990), 88–96, 89.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid.
32. See William H.  Luers, ‘Czechoslovakia: Road to Revolution’, Foreign
Affairs 69.2 (1990), 77–98, 79.
33. See for example, Kieran Williams, The Prague Spring and its Aftermath—
Czechoslovak Politics 1968–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1997) and William H.  Luers, ‘Czechoslovakia: Road to Revolution’,
Foreign Affairs 69.2 (1990), 77–98.
34. Jarka Burian, ‘Art and Relevance: The Small Theatres of Prague,
1958–1970’, Educational Theatre Journal 33.3 (1971), 229–257, 246. On
Czech theatres in that period see, for example, Burian, ‘Art and Relevance’
and Dennis C.  Beck, ‘Divadlo Husa na Provázku and the “Absence” of
Czech Community’, Theatre Journal 48.4 (1996), 419–441.
35. Letter from E.V.  Vines to R.P.  Martin, Budapest, 7 August 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
36. Letter from E.V.  Vines to John Argles, London, 2 August 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
126   Z. IMRE

37. Letter from E.V.  Vines to R.P.  Martin, Budapest, 7 August 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
38. Letter from J.D.K.  Argles to E.V.  Vines, London, 4 August 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
39. Ibid.
40. Letter from E.V.  Vines to D.F.B.  Le Breton, Budapest, 9 August 1972,
FCO 34/149, The National Archives, London.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid. Vines stated to John Argles at the BC in London that ‘I have told Tim
Williams that we have had an informal word with Radio Free Europe about
the background to all this’ (Letter from E.V. Vines to John Argles, London,
2 August 1972, The National Archives, London, FCO 34/149.).
43. Letter from E.V. Vines to D.F.B. Le Breton, Budapest, 9 August 1972. On
2 August 1972, a very brief notice appeared in The Daily Telegraph, entitled
‘Theatrical Gesture’. It referred to the fact that Brook ‘has taken an unusual
step of dedicating the tour to another theatre company. Unhappily the
dedication is to a company which no longer exists. This is the Za Branou
Theatre of Prague which, until the repressions of the Husák regime, had
been recognised not only as Czechoslovakia’s leading theatre but also as a
group of world stature. Alas, after increasing hardships, the theatre was
disbanded by government decree on June 10 this year’ (The Daily Telegraph,
44. Letter from E.V.  Vines to R.P.  Martin, Budapest, 4 August 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
45. Letter from I.H. Williams to R.P. Martin, Budapest, 11 August 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
46. Letter from T.  Frank Brenchley to J.L.  Bullard, London, 1 December
1972, London, FCO 346149, The National Archives.
47. Letter from D.R. Ashe to J.L. Bullard, London, 31 October 1972, 34/129,
The National Archives, London.
48. Marcus Ferrar, ‘Rumania’s Theatrical Troubles’, 15 February 1973, Radio
Free Europe, RL/BA FEB 15 1112/1973, Open Society Archives,
49. Letter from D.S.L. Dodson to J.L. Bullard, London, 14 November 1972,
FCO 34/149, The National Archives, London. Dodson was under the
surveillance of the Hungarian Secret Police, as he was suspected of spying
due to his rank at the British Embassy (Dodson’s file, ABTL 2.2.1.
OP. NYT. III/4. 5. /141). Unfortunately, Dodson’s file was not found.
50. Even in these societies, however, there were various tactics and strategies
used for negotiation between the censors and the censored, and to get past
the censors, such as the technique whereby ‘two or more parallel agencies
could be played against each other’ (Seth Baumrin, ‘Ketmanship in Opole:

Jerzy Grotowski and the Price of Artistic Freedom’, The Drama Review
53.4 (2009), 49–77, 63); ‘ketmanship’, namely ‘the ability of artists and
scientists to deceive the authorities’ (Baumrin, ‘Ketmanship in Opole’, 61);
‘the blind spots of censorship’, where ‘the spaces of official and personal
relationship overlapped’ (Margaret Setje-Eilers, ‘“Wochenend und
Sonnenschein”: In the Blind Spots of Censorship at the GDR’s Cultural
Authorities and the Berliner Ensemble’, Theatre Journal 61.3 (2009),
363–386, 364), and using real and/or false ‘allusions’ (Setje-Eilers,
‘“Wochenend und Sonnenschein”’, 379), and ‘the tactic of the false white
dogs’ (Dennis C. Beck, ‘Divadlo Husa na Provázku and the “Absence” of
Czech Community’, Theatre Journal 48.4 (1996), 419–441, 428).
51. Laura Bradley, ‘GDR Theatre Censorship: A System in Denial’, German
Life and Letters 59.1 (2006), 151–162, 151.
52. Ibid, 158. The Soviet Union was not different in this respect. As Valeria
D. Stelmakh points out, censorship was ‘a social system with powerful con-
trol over information and reading, restricting the public access to the
world’s various cultures’ (Valeria D. Stelmakh, ‘Reading in the Context of
Censorship in the Soviet Union’, Libraries and the Cultural Record 36.1
(2001), 143–151, here 143).
53. Beck, ‘Divadlo Husa na Provázku’, 428.
54. Liviu Maliţa, ‘Ceauşescu színházba megy’, Színház 41.5 (2009), 33–42,
55. Liviu Maliţa, ‘Literature and Red Ideology—Romanian Plays on Religious
Themes in the 1950s and 1960s’, Journal for the Study of Religions and
Ideologies 23.8 (2009), 82–106, 82.
56. Ibid., 85.
57. Ibid.
58. ‘Russians Make Scene Over Gogol in Romania’, 13 October 1972, Radio
Free Europe, 811, F-63, Open Society Archives, Budapest.
59. ‘Romanians Close Down Russian Classic’, 14 October, 1972, Radio Free
Europe, 811, F-64, Open Society Archives, Budapest.
60. Marcus Ferrar, ‘Rumania’s Theatrical Troubles’, 15 February 1973, Radio
Free Europe, RL/BA FEB 15 1112/1973, Open Society Archives,
61. Letter from D.R. Ashe to J.L. Bullard, London, 31 October 1972, 34/129,
The National Archives, London.
62. Ibid.
63. Natalia Stancu, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Scintiea, BW 1/606, The
National Archives, London.
64. Radu Popescu, ‘The Royal Shakespeare Company: The Midsummer
Night’s Dream’, Romania Libera, 20 October 1972, BW 1/606, The
National Archives, London.
128   Z. IMRE

65. Letter from Donald Logan to J.L. Bullard, London, 15 November 1972,

FCO 34/149, The National Archives, London.
66. Ibid.
67. Ibid.
68. Letter from T.  Frank Brenchley’s to J.L.  Bullard, London, 1 December
1972, FCO 346149, The National Archives, London.
69. Ibid.
70. Ibid.
71. Letter from R.P.  Martin to J.D.K.  Argles, London, 28 November 1972,
FCO 34/149, The National Archives, London.
72. Ibid.
73. G. Csapó, ‘A meztelenségről’, Ország Világ, 15 November 1972, 4.
74. Letter from E.V. Vines to D.R. Ashe, Bucharest, 20 November 1972, FCO
34/149, The National Archives, London.
75. Ibid.
76. Letter from Donald Logan toJ.L. Bullard, London, 15 November 1972,
FCO 34/149, The National Archives, London.
77. Ibid.
78. Paranoia, however, worked on both sides of the Wall. Brenchley’s report
from Warsaw shows that what was normally not suspicious could become
so under certain circumstances. ‘Much in evidence behind the scenes was a
couple of young Czechs, a boy and a girl, who appeared to be theatre
enthusiasts and about 16 years old. They had tried to see the production
earlier in the tour, at Budapest, but missed it. They popped up again in
Warsaw, and the company took them under their wing. The Council warned
the Manager against relying on their being merely what they seemed, but it
must be admitted that they really did appear to be the soul of innocence.
The girl spoke freely about her links with the Za Branou theatre in Prague,
and with its director, Otomar Krejča, and about the trials of life in
Czechoslovakia today. Some of us were still, with our suspicious mind, left
with a few lingering doubts, based mainly on the ease with which they
seemed to have been able to cross frontiers’ (Letter from T. Frank Brenchley
to J.L. Bullard, London, 1 December 1972, FCO 346149, The National
Archives, London).
79. Miloš Jůzl, ‘Music and the Totalitarian Regime in Czechoslovakia’,
International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 1 (1996),
31–51, 31.
80. John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know—Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford:
Calderon Press, 1997), 283.
81. Ibid., 284.
82. Ibid., 283.
83. Ibid., 287.

84. Ibid., 283.

85. Letter from E.V. Vines to Donald Logan, Budapest, 12 December 1972,
FCO 346149, The National Archives, London.
86. Letter from E.V. Vines to J.A. Dobbs, Moscow, 13 November 1972, BW
1/606, The National Archives, London.
87. Ibid.
88. Magyar Távirati Iroda, ‘Budapesten szerepel a Royal Shakespeare Company’,
Népszava, 17 October 1972, 2; italics: Zoltán Imre.
89. László Seregi, ‘Szex és cirkusz’, Egyetemi Élet, 8 November 1972, 4.

Institutions and Institutional


MI5 Surveillance of British Cold War


James Smith

It is well known that, for much of the twentieth century, Britain’s the-
atres were subjected to extensive and intrusive state regulation, an issue
most notably manifested in the power of the Lord Chamberlain to read
and license every new play script before its performance on the public
stage.1 However, given the Lord Chamberlain’s very overt and controver-
sial censorship presence—with powers, until their final abolition in 1968,
that focussed on maintaining ‘good manners, decorum … [and] public
peace’—2 less often have the covert political manoeuvres of the cultural
cold war seemed to play a major role in modern British theatre history.3
While there were some suspicions that individual careers were hampered
by blacklisting,4 and while there were claims that certain companies, dra-
matists, and performers were being denied visas and opportunities to tour

This chapter adapts and expands my research published in James Smith, British
Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2013), and has particularly benefited from discussions with participants at
the ‘Theatre, Globalization and the Cold War’ conference.

J. Smith (*)
Durham University, Durham, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 133

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_8
134   J. SMITH

the UK,5 the cultural climate in the UK seemed to avoid the extent of the
anti-communism seen in the USA, which famously resulted in the House
Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, public denuncia-
tions, and the blacklisting of numerous left-wing actors, writers, and direc-
tors.6 Even when suspicions of covert government cultural interference
were raised in Britain, there was little opportunity to substantiate such
claims, as the British government did not even officially admit to the exis-
tence of its intelligence services until after the cold war, with the records
of such agencies wholly exempt from public disclosure.
However, several recent developments mean that we are now in a posi-
tion to better address the question of how British theatre of the cold war
was subjected to security monitoring and interference. For one, increasing
scholarly research into the cultural cold war has established that the British
government was an active player in this clandestine sphere, founding its
own propaganda arms to contest the battle of ideas against the Soviet
Union,7 and contributing to CIA-linked ventures such as the Congress
for Cultural Freedom and its house magazine, Encounter.8 Furthermore,
recent archival releases have shown that Britain’s security and intelligence
agencies kept extensive dossiers on individuals and organisations in the
cultural world, and suggest that the theatre was viewed as a site of specific
security interest during the cold war.
Although we only have access to a limited selection of files,9 it still
allows us to perceive some of the surveillance maintained on the theatre
industry, demonstrating that MI5 and Special Branch operated a quite dis-
tinct form of state monitoring in this era. Unlike the Lord Chamberlain,
whose efforts were often focussed on the minute details of the play scripts
(famously replacing obscenities with less offensive words, or insisting on
cuts in order for a play to be licensed), MI5 had little interest in close
reading of theatrical texts, or interpreting the isolated details of a per-
formance as it appeared on the stage. Instead, the theatre was viewed as
one of the fronts on which Western and Communist-bloc governments
fought to increase their international cultural prestige, and thus a site for
MI5 and other government agencies to monitor in order to gauge the
extent to which pro-Soviet or communist-linked individuals and organ-
isations were operating and gaining influence. In monitoring this front,
surveillance files were kept on individual dramatists, actors, directors,
­composers, and theatre companies suspected of possessing communist or
Soviet links.10 Informants were recruited in the theatre industry who pro-
vided MI5 with reports on domestic and international developments at

events such as prestigious theatre festivals,11 and agents were deployed to

penetrate industry organisations that were suspected of being communist-­
controlled.12 Adaptations of works by playwrights such as Chekhov for
broadcast on the BBC were scrutinised, particularly when those involved
in the production were already suspected of holding pro-Soviet links.13
Theatre programmes were acquired and mined for information, and the
theatre review pages of national and regional newspapers were read and
filed as a matter of routine when discussing left-wing plays. Staff at embas-
sies overseas were sent to report on performances by leading Communist-­
sphere companies,14 and British intelligence agencies collaborated with the
USA in tracking ‘Unamerican American’ performers who had fallen foul
of HUAC and who were now travelling abroad.15
Towards substantiating this broad description, this chapter discusses the
surveillance MI5 maintained on Theatre Workshop. A pioneering com-
pany that emerged shortly after the Second World War, Theatre Workshop
was founded by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl (born James Miller),
two figures who were veterans of the agitprop and experimental left-wing
theatre movements of the 1930s.16 Theatre Workshop is still perhaps most
famous for its 1963 anti-war Pierrot show, Oh What a Lovely War (which
was later adapted into the 1969 film, directed by Richard Attenborough),
but it produced an important range of other work over the early cold war
period, including the development of its own works such as the Ewan
MacColl-penned Uranium 235, productions of plays by a new wave of
dramatists (such as Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Brendan
Behan’s The Hostage and The Quare Fellow), performances of seminal
works that had as yet found little currency in Britain, perhaps most notably
the British première of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children (1955),
and adaptations of classic plays by Ben Jonson and Shakespeare (to name
but a few). Just as important to Theatre Workshop’s reputation was the
fact that it conducted numerous successful international tours, including
some behind the Iron Curtain, resulting in it prominently winning inter-
national attention and praise at the 1955 Paris Festival with productions of
Arden of Faversham and Volpone, and being invited to perform in Moscow
with an adaptation of Macbeth in 1957. After 1953, the company’s perma-
nent home, the Theatre Royal in Stratford, East London, was transformed
from an almost derelict building into one of the city’s most important
theatrical destinations, and over the 1950s and 1960s numerous Theatre
Workshop productions transferred to the West End, further enhancing the
company’s prestige.
136   J. SMITH

Theatre Workshop’s successful activity was, however, conducted

alongside various running battles with British officialdom. Despite
achieving an international prestige which eclipsed that of most other the-
atrical organisations active in Britain, throughout much of its life Theatre
Workshop struggled to gain any meaningful support from governmental
funding bodies such as the British Council or Arts Council, and was con-
sequently forced to sustain its activity and travel with meagre (and some-
times non-­existent) funds. Furthermore, the company was no stranger
to the interference of government censors, being involved in numerous
clashes with the Lord Chamberlain.17 Across their careers, Littlewood
and MacColl faced a range of activity which made them suspect that
they had been marked out for attention by state authorities, including
direct police harassment of their street performances in the 1930s, sud-
den bars being placed on their employment with the BBC, and plain-
clothed police seen lurking at the back of the Theatre Royal—suspicions
that were indeed correct, as the declassification of their personal MI5
dossiers showed that individual records had been maintained on them
since the 1930s.
Theatre Workshop’s MI5 file therefore provides a crucial further
element to this picture. The opened section of the file, released to the
National Archives of the UK in 2010, covers three folders with approxi-
mately 250 pages in total, containing material ranging from 1951 until
1960.18 It therefore presents scholars with one of the most detailed sources
currently available showing covert security-intelligence surveillance of
Britain’s theatre industry, and allows a range of insights to be gained into
this hitherto little-understood interaction. First and most obviously, the
Theatre Workshop file reveals the raw extent of MI5 surveillance and the
range of methods it deployed to monitor this sphere, and thus presents
us with the means of developing an understanding of how this apparatus
actually functioned. Second, the file illuminates the specific political and
security factors that rendered Theatre Workshop an organisation worthy
of sustained security intelligence interest. Counter to what a theatre histo-
rian would perhaps expect to find, from the documents available it is evi-
dent that the exact political ideology and aesthetic innovation of Theatre
Workshop’s plays were of minor interest to the police or intelligence offi-
cers and largely passed with little comment or analysis. Instead, for MI5,
Theatre Workshop became viewed as a ‘Communist Controlled Theatre
Company’ and a site of potential communist influence in British cultural
life, and thus surveillance efforts were dedicated towards substantiating

these suspected links to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)

or one of the front groups operating in the UK. Third, MI5’s investiga-
tions shed new light on how Theatre Workshop’s international activity was
implicated in some of the broader manoeuvres of the cultural cold war, as
MI5 eavesdropped on suspected Soviet front groups as they attempted to
organise the company’s Communist-sphere tours. In what follows, I will
offer a (necessarily) brief discussion of this file in order to address these
three areas, as a way of contributing to a deeper understanding of MI5
surveillance of British theatre during the cold war.

Modes of Cold War Theatre Industry Surveillance

If Theatre Workshop’s file stands out as one of the most extensive
compiled on any left-wing cultural organisation, it is first necessary to
understand the categories of material present and how MI5 gathered its
information. What, in short, did it actually mean for a theatre company
if it was the subject of an MI5 file? One obvious but important fact to
note at the outset is an absence: nowhere in this extensive file is to be
found an actual copy of a play script performed by Theatre Workshop,
rendering it a fundamentally different document to not only those such
as a file kept by the Lord Chamberlain, but also those compiled by many
state surveillance agencies that operated abroad.19 Also notable is that
while, in raw terms, the volume of material in the file is extensive, much
of the file is far from sensational, derived from freely accessible sources
rather than clandestine operations. The file contains, for example, scores
of clippings of newspaper articles and reviews, as well as copies of the
company’s publicity material such as programmes and pamphlets. Such
documents were typically gathered by the press section of MI5 dur-
ing its routine trawls through the daily newspapers, with the clippings
entered into the Theatre Workshop file, annotated in order to mark out
names and dates of those involved with the company, and cross-refer-
ence numbers added to illustrate whether an individual or organisation
was already the subject of their own separate MI5 file. Through such a
process, MI5 had at its command a reasonably comprehensive system
mapping the activity of Theatre Workshop and the names of the key
individuals involved with it—but it also means that the most ubiquitous
forms of intelligence gathered by MI5 on Theatre Workshop were quite
public, and far from the intrusive covert surveillance one might initially
138   J. SMITH

Some of the other material to be found in the file consists of reports

written by the provincial police and submitted to MI5 for further inves-
tigations to be made. Such reports provide a ground-level view of indi-
vidual performances, containing facts such as the venue, the attendance
levels, the cost of admission, and the names of known communists present
in the theatre audience, but generally show a far-from-sophisticated sur-
veillance apparatus in action. One report, for example, contained earnest
information about the colour scheme and inscription  used on Theatre
Workshop’s Bedford furniture van—information which perhaps more illu-
minates the pedantic nature of the police investigations rather than any
revelation with implications for national security.20
But, accepting the banality of much of the file, other material does
indeed suggest a far more intrusive apparatus was in operation. For one,
the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police subjected Theatre Workshop
to more rigorous investigations,21 particularly after the company settled at
the Theatre Royal. Special Branch’s reports, issued to MI5 several times a
year, provided a detailed portrait of the organisation, not only listing such
things as the plays being performed and the names of those involved in
the company, but also details of those people’s addresses, financial circum-
stances, previous travel, and (on occasion) their sexual liaisons.22 It also
appears that Special Branch detectives attended public meetings involving
Theatre Workshop in order to record the proceedings, and there is evi-
dence to suggest that much of their information on other aspects of the
company was derived from informants with quite detailed knowledge of
the organisation.23 Furthermore, although Theatre Workshop itself never
appears to directly have had its phones tapped, premises bugged, or mail
opened as it came into the address, material concerning Theatre Workshop
did pass through other nodes that were subject to such surveillance (such
as the offices of the CPGB), leading to numerous copies of intercepted
letters and transcripts of recorded conversations finding their way into
Theatre Workshop’s file.
The Theatre Workshop file also demonstrates that MI5 maintained a
network of human informants within the British theatre industry, in addi-
tion to the informants used by Special Branch. While such sources were
not referred to by name in reports, making the exact provenance of the
information difficult to assess, there appear to have been at least three
separate individuals providing information to MI5, variously described as
being a ‘reliable’ source, a source who was ‘new and untried’ but who
could reflect ‘general opinion in theatrical circles in the country’, and

another ‘sub-source’ who was judged to have ‘a wide knowledge of mat-

ters theatrical’. The details of some of these reports are discussed in more
detail below, but here it should be noted that they did not appear to
be actual members of Theatre Workshop, their information more in the
shape of general theatrical gossip rather than specific insider information.
Therefore it is quite possible that MI5’s informants were well-placed indi-
viduals such as theatre critics or industry professionals who were providing
a much wider range of information to the intelligence services at this time.

Mapping Communist Links

If that is the broad methodology of how MI5 surveillance was conducted,
it raises the question of what actually ‘demanded’ such a level of interest
be given to this theatre company—a company that, for much of its life,
could barely keep its finances afloat—particularly given, as stressed above,
there was little evident effort deployed towards analysing and censor-
ing the content of the actual plays. For MI5, though, Theatre Workshop
was not of interest because of the dramatic work it produced, but rather
due to the political networks the company was linked to, with a range
of personal, financial, and organisational factors raising suspicions about
whether Theatre Workshop, too, was a front being manipulated by com-
munist forces.
The earliest document in the Theatre Workshop file, a police report
dating from April 1951, demonstrates the initial political suspicions the
company provoked. Drawing attention to a performance of Uranium 235
in a local town, the police noted that the group described itself as ‘a self-­
supporting, independent theatre company’. But, despite initially having
no adverse records on any of those involved, the police evidently remained
far from convinced, particularly as the plays touted themselves as being of
‘contemporary significance’ and touched on themes such as ‘the story of
the people who throughout the ages have wanted only to live in peace, but
found themselves forever facing war’. Moreover, the police recorded that
the company had recently toured ‘Sweden and Czechoslovakia and pre-
sented plays by Moliere, Tchekov and Lorca’ [sic], with these international
liaisons evidently further elements of suspicion. The Chief Constable
therefore wrote to MI5 to report these facts, and asked ‘to hear if Theatre
Workshop is in any way connected with the Communist Party or other
organisation of interest’.24 MI5 conducted initial enquiries to trace this
hitherto unknown company, but only found that it had been known in
140   J. SMITH

the past to be associated with Glasgow Unity Theatre, meaning that ‘its
current politics are not known and the extent of its Left Wing leanings
some years ago cannot now be accurately assessed’.25 However, given that
Littlewood and MacColl (under his original name, James Miller) were
subsequently identified as the leaders of the company and were ‘known as
active Communists … chiefly concerned with producing left-wing plays’,26
further interest was mandated in order to assess the extent of those ‘Left
Wing leanings’ which Theatre Workshop was suspected to possess.
Over the coming years, as information continued to arrive for MI5’s
file, many other facts would fill out these initial suspicions, and led MI5
to the belief that Theatre Workshop did not just lean to the left, but that
it was a communist-controlled organisation operating as an ‘independent’
front. A frequent issue was Theatre Workshop’s precarious financial posi-
tion, which sparked concerns amongst police and intelligence officers that
it was actually receiving some sort of covert subsidy in order to make it
viable. For example, in July 1953 a Special Branch officer noted that their
‘finances are not in a very stable condition and they are said to be search-
ing for fresh capital’ and ‘attendances at their plays have not been large’,
leading the officer to conclude that for Theatre Workshop to have survived
‘up to the present the company must have had financial help from outside,
possibly communist, sources’.27 MI5’s human informants would also relay
industry speculation about how Theatre Workshop supported itself, with
the gossip sent to MI5 particularly focussed on the Paris Festival:

At the recent Festival in Paris, Theatre Workshop represented the British

Theatre. It is understood that, last year, the British Theatre had a much
wider representation but this year the British Council was not prepared to
help financially and theatre managers decided that little advantage or pres-
tige was to be gained by supporting the Paris Festival. Thus it was that
Theatre Workshop was the only British company appearing at this Festival;
where the money came from is not known although it is believed that a
French communist newspaper, possibly ‘L’Humanite’ paid the company’s
expenses in Paris.28

In this instance, the handling officer added a note of caution: ‘The ref-
erence to a French newspaper paying Theatre Workshop’s Paris bills is
interesting but may be no more than gossip’.29 But still, such evidence
fitted the overall profile being developed. An officer added ‘I should
think there may be some truth in the rumour’, as the company man-
aged the trip despite claiming ‘to have no financial backing whatsoever’.30

Other instances would see MI5 and police closely monitoring attempts
by Theatre Workshop to obtain grants from local councils, as well as fol-
lowing media reports on the company’s long-running battle with the Arts
Council for funds. However, despite the reams of intelligence gathered
on these matters, little in the way of ongoing financial support was ever
proven in this file, nor is there any direct evidence that MI5 intervened
with British public bodies in order to bar funding.
If this (ultimately unsubstantiated) pursuit of a money trail provided
one of the main areas of interest to security agencies, other more tangen-
tial links also came to be seen as part of a pattern of communist inter-
ference and control. The fact that so many Theatre Workshop members
already had MI5 files and known Party links was obviously a mark of con-
cern—but so too were facts such as that Sam Wanamaker (described as ‘an
American actor … [and] a communist’, and well-known to the security
establishment for being one of the blacklisted Americans) was reported by
Special Branch ‘to have described Theatre Workshop as “the most exciting
theatre group I have ever seen”’.31 Theatre Workshop’s choice of advertis-
ing venues also came under scrutiny: in May 1953 Special Branch noted it
was ‘significant’ ‘that Theatre Workshop and Unity Theatre (well-known
to Special Branch) are advertised daily in the “Amusement” column of
the Daily Worker [the Communist Party newspaper]’, leaving ‘little doubt
that Theatre Workshop has some communist connections’.32 There was
also the issue of Theatre Workshop’s apparent collaboration with organ-
isations sympathetic to countries behind the Iron Curtain. For example,
information was gained which showed that Theatre Workshop was willing
to perform for the British Hungarian Friendship Society to celebrate the
‘10th Anniversary of [the] Liberation of Hungary’,33 and that the same
friendship society was promoting Theatre Workshop’s ‘English Première
of the Midwife, a social comedy by the celebrated Hungarian playwright,
Julius Hay’.34 However, it was connections to East Germany that appear
to have attracted particular attention, with the above-mentioned human
sources specifically emphasising such East German contacts. For exam-
ple on 15 June 1955 the following brief information was gained: ‘The
General Manager of Theatre Workshop is Raffles … He is understood to
be in touch with Berthold Brecht, the German playwright, who lives in
the East Zone of Germany’.35 For a theatre historian, such information
might be a minor footnote, but for MI5 it was evidently a fact of interest,
as further reports elaborated on such links to Brecht and his theatre. Later
in June 1955, a ‘reliable’ source pointed to a new development:
142   J. SMITH

It is reported that just recently a German Communist in East Germany was

sent over to this country to ‘supervise’ Theatre Workshop’s production of
Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’.
This man’s name is Carl Weber [a later handwritten note inserts
‘Director, Berliner Ensemble Theatre, E. Berlin’].36 He is at present staying
in Hampstead with one Oscar Loewenstein, who is described as a Left-wing
impressario who backed the current Orsen Welles show [sic].
It appears that Weber’s ‘supervision’ of the Theatre Workshop produc-
tion was not welcomed by the company. He was much too German, much
too dogmatic, and even much too Communist for them. Having upset the
whole company, he has now been forbidden the theatre, and is writing the
management pained and angry letters.37

Such a dispute would perhaps indicate that Theatre Workshop was far from
an East German proxy, but this was not the end of such allegations and
concerns. A 21 January 1960 report, regarding ‘East German Cultural
Activities in UK’, noted that, besides activity such as a Handel festival
and ‘an exhibition on hygiene by the Dresden City Health Department’,
there was ‘A Brecht exhibition to be organised by the Theatre Workshop’.
The linking of Brecht performances, Handel festivals, and hygiene exhi-
bitions by Dresden health departments as security issues might seem an
incongruous match, but this activity was seen by the MI5 source as being
coordinated towards a common goal: the East Germans had ‘probably
been discouraged from sending officials to the UK and are now trying to
work through intermediaries and supporters in the UK’.38

Soviet-front Support?
It is very clear that most of the material gathered by MI5 and Special
Branch was either banal in its implications or grasping at straws in terms
of the conspiracy it constructed, with the view of Theatre Workshop as a
CPGB-controlled organ wholly implausible. But it is still evident that MI5
did uncover some material of more obvious plausibility and interest, and
this is material that sheds considerable new light on Theatre Workshop’s
operations. As noted above, much of Theatre Workshop’s reputation in
the 1950s stemmed from the accolades it won overseas, and accounts of
the company at this time constantly stress the difficulty it faced due to its
lack of typical forms of funding. For instance, reflecting on the ongoing
attempts to gain support to attend the Paris festival in the 1950s, Theatre
Workshop member Goorney’s account recalled that as ‘the British Council

refused us financial support … Theatre Workshop was the only company

in the Festival which had to rely on their own resources and the generosity
of the French organisers of the Festival’.39 The transcripts of intercepted
phone calls in the file, however, add another element to these tours, show-
ing many of the discussions that were occurring behind the scenes in order
to organise Theatre Workshop’s activity, and particularly the role certain
cultural cold war front groups played in facilitating these events.
The most significant of such material is that derived from the phone-taps
that MI5 maintained on the British Youth Festival Committee (BYFC)—
one of the seemingly independent organisations of the era whose pub-
licly declared purpose was to organise international festivals and develop
cultural understanding, but one widely (and more plausibly, in this case)
viewed within British government and intelligence circles as an influen-
tial communist-affiliated group predominantly concerned with organis-
ing pro-Soviet activity and events. It appears that members of Theatre
Workshop were in frequent consultation with officials and promoters from
the BYFC, and that the BYFC’s logistical arrangements contributed to
significant aspects of Theatre Workshop’s activity. For example, on 12
March 1955 an intercepted phone call recorded an official at the BYFC
‘sooth[ing] Ewan with the news that Nixon [a BYFC official] will have
made a decision about the cash by Wednesday. Ewan’s group have been
invited to the Paris Festival, to Berlin, and a Drama festival at Bideford.
The actors are restless and soon want to know whether or not they will
go to Budapest’—information which suggested, to MI5 at least, that it
was the support of the BYFC that might have been enabling Theatre
Workshop’s international travel.40 Such evidence of support was followed
up on 14 June 1955 when the BYFC office received a call from Nixon in
Warsaw, who relayed back that ‘Theatre Workshop will not have to pay for
their stay in Warsaw. This has not been finally arranged yet, but Malcolm
[Nixon] thinks that everything will be all right’—information that again
suggested to MI5 that it was BYFC officials who were significant factors
in attempting to support these tours.41
The phone-taps also provide significant further information concern-
ing the arrangements surrounding Theatre Workshop’s 1957 Moscow
tour. In received history, the tour was organised when Littlewood—at
that point on hiatus from the company—accepted ‘an invitation to the
World Youth Festival in Moscow, where she decided to take a play about
the “evil assumption of power” to comment on the immediate politi-
cal situation in Russia’.42 The result was a radical, stripped-back version
144   J. SMITH

of Macbeth, set in modern dress and with supernatural elements pared

down, which played in Moscow in 1957. Again, however, material in the
MI5 file shows some of the strategic discussions that occurred to ensure
this invitation. On 24 January 1957, MI5’s tap picked up Howard
Goorney calling the BYFC, expressing that he was ‘worried about the
position of Theatre Workshop’, as ‘Joan has given up all interest’, lead-
ing to fears in the BYFC that ‘the whole thing will have to be written
off ’. It was a BYFC official who advocated that Goorney approach ‘Joan
first’ rather than writing Theatre Workshop off, and emphasised that he
‘got on well in Russia, as they are the first country to ask for definite
dates and theatres’.43
As is clear, Littlewood did indeed regain interest in Theatre Workshop
with the prospect of a Moscow tour, and in the coming weeks, the BYFC
office continued to explore avenues for promoting further Theatre
Workshop activity. On 7 February 1957, Nixon informed Jack Dribben
(an official involved with a separate cultural group concerning British–
Chinese relations) ‘he has been having a discussion with Gerry about the
Theatre production they are taking to Moscow’, leading to the question
being raised as to whether ‘there is any interest among the Chinese to have
Theatre Workshop for a period for a summer season’. Detailed discussions
ensued about the political ramifications of such a tour:

Distant says the money could be raised, but he feels it wouldn’t be accept-
able. Ballets and orchestras are OK but something depending on dialogue
wouldn’t be easy to get over. Malcolm reminds him that Uranium 235 has a
tremendous political significance, and they would probably do a Shakespeare
as well. They have quite a reputation over there. Malcolm will get Gerry
Raffles to come round to Distant with facts, figures, and a concrete pro-
posal, and Distant can raise the que[stion].44

Around a week later, Malcolm did indeed call Gerry Raffles about poten-
tial Theatre Workshop tours, and provided specific directions to the man-
ager as to how the approaches to international governments should be

He should address it, not to the Ministry of Culture, but simply to the
appropriate Ministerial Department, as it varies. He can say: ‘Theatre
Workshop is open to accept a limited tour in your country from the period
before the end of May till the 2nd week of July. (for all or part of this time).
Theatre Workshop will be performing on the Continent in the summer, and

it is proposed to continue this, and thus the reason for offering you this pos-
sibility. The Company will be performing the following plays. The Company
will consist of so-many members, and the conditions could be made out
between us if this offer interests you, and if you will let us know at the soon-
est possible time, we will be able to work out the details’. Malcolm advises
not to mention prices, except verbally at this stage. […] Malcolm wants 5
copies of the letter, and he will fill in the appropriate departments. Distant
had fun with the Czechs this morning, who were very interested, and think
there is a very good chance. Malcolm will see them in Berlin, and get them
to ring Prague before he leaves.45

Such approaches, while not always successful, appeared to gain at least

some results, for on 16 May, the tap picked up a call from Malcolm to

[Malcolm said] they have got the Moscow Arts Theatre. He promised
Distant would send the technical demands by June 2nd. Malcolm suggests
Distant come and pick up the theatre plans. The Soviet Ministry of Culture
is interested in inviting Theatre Workshop after the Festival to make a tour,
also the Polish Ministry of Culture. Malcolm gave the Pole, Danielovitch,
all the details to take back to Warsaw. The Bulgarian thing is a bit tricky,
as there aren’t many English-speaking people. The Moscow Arts Theatre
wants to put on an Exhibition of Theatre Workshop in the foyer before
they go. There is a resident orchestra under the stage. Distant will come
in tomorrow. Malcolm says the Arts Theatre is going to Leningrad for a
month, so the theatre will be vacant.46

Clearly, the version of Macbeth offered was far from pro-communist pro-
paganda: indeed, Littlewood insisted the play was interpreted as an anti-­
Stalinist allegory by many of those who watched it. Equally, there is no
indication that Theatre Workshop’s political views were at all altered or
controlled by such arrangements, and whatever the suspicions of MI5
regarding the BYFC, it was entirely legal for Theatre Workshop to draw
upon its promoters to arrange such tours—one could say that the antip-
athy of British funding bodies often left Theatre Workshop with little
other choice. But what these taps do illustrate are some of the broader
­manoeuvres occurring between governments, front groups, intelligence
agencies, and cultural organisations during the cultural cold war, and the
extent to which Theatre Workshop’s prominent international activity was
shaped and facilitated by such factors.
146   J. SMITH

While the Theatre Workshop file therefore demonstrates the surprising
extent of MI5 and Special Branch surveillance of British cold war the-
atre, and the distinct concerns they held about communist penetration,
a final point perhaps needs to be made about its curiously paradoxical
nature. That is the fact that, despite all the pages of material gathered, it
is still difficult to point to any direct regulative impact this state surveil-
lance had upon Theatre Workshop’s activity. Indeed, the sheer size of the
file suggests almost the opposite to be true: unable to actually censor left-­
wing cultural output, the energy was turned towards compiling further
records instead. Of course, many questions remain unanswered: future
releases may clarify what impact (if any) such records had upon access
to British Council or Arts Council funds,47 or if further individual mem-
bers of the company (whose files have yet to be opened) were prevented
from accessing work with the BBC or other security-overseen institutions.
But as it stands, Theatre Workshop’s files suggest that MI5 and Special
Branch lurked as a pervasive, suspicious, but largely spectral presence over
Britain’s cold war theatre.

1. There have been numerous studies of theatre censorship in Britain, but
most of these primarily focus on the archives of the Lord Chamberlain. It
is particularly notable that even one of the most wide-ranging and sophis-
ticated of recent studies, Helen Freshwater’s Theatre Censorship in Britain:
Silencing, Censure and Suppression (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,
2009), only mentions in passing government security-intelligence surveil-
lance as an issue.
2. This is the wording of the Theatres Act 1843.
3. That is not to say that the cold war itself has been ignored as an area of
critical concern: John Elsom, Cold War Theatre (London: Routledge,
1992), for instance, includes detailed discussion of British topics within a
broader survey of theatre of the period, and the extensive range of British
theatre histories specifically dedicated to the ‘post-war’ era demonstrates
how the political and cultural contexts of the cold war have been seen as a
distinct new climate, if only implicitly.
4. Joan Littlewood, for instance, was barred from working at the BBC in the
Second World War, and in her autobiography would attribute this to the
fact that she had been blacklisted (Joan Littlewood, Joan’s Book: Joan

Littlewood’s Peculiar History as She Tells It (London: Minerva, 1995)). The

MI5 files of MacColl and Littlewood reveal that there were indeed nega-
tive security assessments made that seriously affected their careers with the
BBC, but also that MI5 struggled to impose any form of permanent block
on their employment.
5. This was the case with the Berliner Ensemble’s tours to Britain in the
1950s and the 1960s, when officials and ministers from the Foreign Office,
Home Office, and Cabinet debated the wider political ramifications of
allowing a state-sponsored East German company access to Britain, and
theatre critics such as Kenneth Tynan spoke out in the media when visas for
the tours were blocked or delayed (James Smith, ‘Brecht, the Berliner
Ensemble, and the British Government’, New Theatre Quarterly 22.4
(2006), 307–323).
6. There is an extensive body of literature dedicated to these topics, but for a
readable recent work see Reynold Humphries, Hollywood’s Blacklists: A
Political and Cultural History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
2008). I discuss some of the evidence for the British response to this cli-
mate in James Smith, ‘The MacDonald Discussion Group: A Communist
Conspiracy in Britain’s Cold War Film and Theatre Industry—Or MI5’s
Honey-Pot?’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 35.3 (2015),
7. The major British propaganda agency was the Foreign Office’s Information
Research Department (see Andrew Defty, Britain, America, and Anti-
Communist Propaganda, 1945–53: The Information Research Department
(London: Routledge, 2004)).
8. For one of the most prominent accounts, see Frances Stonor Saunders,
Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta,
9. As of October 2012, the total number of MI5 files available at the National
Archives of Great Britain (which is located in Kew, London) under the KV
series was just over 5000—still a minuscule fraction of those MI5 was said
to have opened during the twentieth century.
10. So far, we have access to the files on theatrical figures such as Ewan MacColl
(KV 2/2175-2176), Joan Littlewood (KV 2/2757), Hanns Eisler (KV
2/2009), Sam Wanamaker (KV 2/3106-3107), and Brendan Behan (KV
2/3181). It is clear, however, that this is only a small sample of those that
existed: from cross-references and annotations present in the released files,
it is obvious that a much broader range of left-wing individuals had specific
files dedicated to them (including most others involved in Theatre
Workshop). Whether these files will ever be released, or indeed whether
they have survived MI5’s purges, is unknown.
11. MI5’s use of human sources will be discussed later in this chapter.
148   J. SMITH

12. The clearest indication of this practice can be found in the file kept on the
‘MacDonald Discussion Group’, a left-wing study group with links to the
British Communist Party, and one that MI5 suspected was a possible vehi-
cle for luring members of London’s theatrical and film world into liaison
with the Party. The amount of information MI5 was able to gather on the
group’s activity from an unnamed source strongly suggests that MI5 had
managed to recruit one of the group’s organisers as an informant. See
Smith, ‘The MacDonald Discussion Group’.
13. Such concern was evident in the file of Wolf Mankowitz, a left-­wing writer
who was involved in various cold war cultural exchanges behind the Iron
Curtain. When Mankowitz was due to be employed by the BBC ‘on the
translation and dubbing of a film version of Chekhov’s “The Bear”’, this
history was held strongly against him by MI5, which stated: ‘Mankowitz
must be regarded as a risk to security should he have access to classified
information’; this was emphasised by the fact that ‘Mankowitz visited Russia
last year and was naturally in touch with Soviet officials in connection with
his visits and in connection with film matters’. MI5 and the BBC had their
concerns mollified when they agreed that work on a Chekhov play ‘would
not be likely to give him any access to classified Government information’.
See KV 2/3385 serial 52a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
14. This fact is evident from FO 371/124667 (National Archives of Great
Britain, London), where a British diplomat in Berlin was requested to send
reports back to London about the content and politics of Brecht’s plays.
15. This surveillance of ‘Unamerican American’ performers is shown in the
MI5 files released on Sam Wanamaker and Paul Robeson (KV 2/1829-
1830, National Archives of Great Britain, London), amongst others.
16. There has been a growing body of scholarship on Theatre Workshop in recent
years, but for the most detailed recent study, see Nadine Holdsworth, Joan
Littlewood’s Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).  See
also Ben Harker, Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl
(London: Pluto, 2007), for a detailed biography on this key figure.
17. One such instance occurred when they were successfully prosecuted for
making an unauthorised depiction of Winston Churchill during a 1957
production of Henry Chapman’s You Won’t Always be on Top—a fact evi-
dently of interest to policing and intelligence agencies, judging by the
documents on this case contained within the Theatre Workshop file.
18. The MI5 files at the National Archives normally have at least a 50-year
period of retention, meaning that it is possible that post-­1960 material on
Theatre Workshop will be released at a later date.
19. See, for example, Laura Bradley, Cooperation and Conflict: GDR Theatre
Censorship, 1961–1989 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), which
demonstrates the far more direct involvement of covert state agencies in
East Germany.

20. Manchester City Police Report, 12 February 1952. KV 2/3178 serial 5a,
National Archives of Great Britain, London.
21. Special Branch was the semi-autonomous section of the Metropolitan
Police specifically charged with surveillance of political groups and moni-
toring radicals.
22. For instance, a 1 July 1953 Special Branch report carries, amidst a much
wider investigation, the information that Isobel Collier was ‘said to be
Blanshard’s [another member of Theatre Workshop] mistress’ (KV 2/3178
serial 26a, National Archives of Great Britain, London).
23. For monitoring of public meetings see a 1 September 1953 Special Branch
report, which provides details on ‘a meeting, attended by about 140 per-
sons … at the Theatre Royal’ (KV 2/3178 serial 31a, National Archives of
Great Britain, London). Detectives, in other reports, often euphemistically
refer to having sources of ‘information’ when discussing private aspects like
the attendance, finances, and political views of the company (see for exam-
ple KV 2/3178 serial 26a, National Archives of Great Britain, London).
24. Letter from Chief Constable County Durham to MI5, 7 April 1951. KV
2/3178 serial 1a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
25. W.A.  Younger to Russell King, 19 April 1951. KV 2/3178 serial 3a,
National Archives of Great Britain, London.
26. Letter from MI5 to Chief Constable County Durham, 27 April 1951. KV
2/3178 serial 4a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
27. Special Branch Report, 1 July 1953. KV 2/3178 serial 26a, National
Archives of Great Britain, London.
28. ARTS/AS Source Report, 15 June 1955. KV 2/3179 serial 73a, National
Archives of Great Britain, London.
29. Typed comments on ARTS/AS Source Report, 15 June 1955. KV 2/3179
serial 73a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
30. Handwritten comments on ARTS/AS Source Report, 15 June 1955. KV
2/3179 serial 73a, National Archives of Great Britain, London. This last
section is damaged, rendering the full comment of the assessing officer
31. Special Branch Report, 1 July 1953. KV 2/3178 serial 26a, National
Archives of Great Britain, London.
32. Special Branch Report, 8 May 1953. KV 2/3178 serial 21a, National
Archives of Great Britain, London.
33. Extract from Minutes of Executive Committee Meeting of British
Hungarian Friendship Society, 20 January 1955. KV 2/3179 serial 48a,
National Archives of Great Britain, London.
34. Extract from British Hungarian Friendship Society leaflet, 5 April 1955.
KV 2/3179 serial 55a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
150   J. SMITH

35. ARTS/AS Source report, 15 June 1955. KV 2/3179 serial 72a, National
Archives of Great Britain, London.
36. At this point, Weber was still only an assistant director at the Ensemble.
37. MK/BJS Source Report, 23 June 1955. KV 2/3179 serial 74a, National
Archives of Great Britain, London.
38. Extract from F.4/GDL Source Report, 21 January 1960. KV 2/3180
serial 163a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
39. Howard Goorney, The Theatre Workshop Story (London: Eyre Methuen,
1981), 153.
40. Extract from telecheck on BYFC, 12 March 1955. KV 2/3179 serial 53b,
National Archives of Great Britain, London.
41. Extract from telecheck on BYFC, 14 June 1955. KV 2/3179 serial 73b,
National Archives of Great Britain, London.
42. Nadine Holdsworth, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2011), 108.
43. Extract from telecheck on BYFC, 24 January 1957. KV 2/3179 serial
107z, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
44. Extract from telecheck on BYFC, 7 February 1957. KV 2/3179 serial
108a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
45. Extract from telecheck on BYFC, 15 February 1957. KV 2/3179 serial
109a, National Archives of Great Britain, London.
46. Extract from telecheck on BYFC, 16 May 1957. KV 2/3179 serial 117z,
National Archives of Great Britain, London.
47. This has continued to be the subject of debate: see, for a recent example,
Philippa Burt, ‘Punishing the Outsiders: Theatre Workshop and the Arts
Council’, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 5.2 (2014), 119–130.

Creating an International Community

during the Cold War

Hanna Korsberg

After the Second World War, internationalism and nationalism were

­renegotiated in many countries. New international relationships were estab-
lished and, for example, the United Nations (UN) was founded by 51
countries in 1945. The purpose was to maintain international peace and
security and develop friendly relations between nations. Later that same
year 37 countries founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organisation, UNESCO. The organisation aimed to establish the
solidarity of mankind because, ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in
the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed’.1
The founding of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), like the UN,
was based on the different independent nations cooperating on an inter-
national level for mutual benefit. It was founded in the aftermath of the
Second World War by 12 countries in Prague in 1948 and one of its objec-
tives was to maintain peace: ‘The concept has its basis in the conviction that
the artists of the world speak a common language and can serve as valuable
agents in obtaining mutual understanding and good will among nations.’2
The ITI was an organisation that supported international cooperation in
the field of performing arts. In particular, it seemed to be an organisation

H. Korsberg (*)
University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

© The Author(s) 2017 151

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_9

which non-aligned countries could also join. Despite these political and
cultural attempts to create an international community, Europe especially
was soon divided between two camps. In the early phases of the Cold War
the division was mainly political, but also economic.
In this article I will discuss how theatre participated in the creation of
an international community with members from both camps during the
Cold War and, in particular, I will look closely at the Eighth Congress of
the ITI that was organised in Helsinki in 1959. It was very important for
the ITI to have members from both camps since, according to its char-
ter, the organisation was autonomous. Unlike the previous congresses, in
Helsinki there was a discussion about artistic questions in theatre. It was
launched by a keynote address by playwright Eugène Ionesco. I will also
discuss the attempts to define the theme of the Helsinki congress in 1959.
As the Cold War was a war fought on battlegrounds of rhetoric, impres-
sions and discourse, culture and the arts played an important role in the
battle for ‘hearts and minds’. Speeches, newspaper articles and interviews
about the ITI congress in 1959, together with Eugène Ionesco’s keynote
address, are examples of the rhetoric used to link theatre and internation-
alism. The concept of internationalism is much debated. In this case, the
internationalism of theatre people across the world was based on mutual
understanding and a need for the international exchange of practice and
knowledge in theatre. Those cooperating within the framework of the
ITI, especially in the 1950s, understood internationalism along the lines
of the cosmopolitanism outlined by Kwame Anthony Appiah; that is,
acknowledging a citizen who can see him/herself at home in more than
one nation-state or community.3
Since both blocs fought to increase their influence, the Cold War battle
was also conducted in the so-called non-aligned countries, and the inter-
national contacts were important for the non-aligned countries as well. To
show how a non-aligned country, balancing between the two camps, was
able to take part in international cooperation, I would like to discuss the
case of Finland. After World War II, Finland slowly returned to the interna-
tional community. It was in a very sensitive geopolitical ­position between
the two great powers. Right after the war, the preparations for the Peace
Treaty inhibited any attempts by Finland to join the i­nternational commu-
nity. For example, in order to avoid antagonizing the Soviets, Finland had
to refuse the Marshall Plan, the European rebuilding programme initiated
by the USA in 1947. After the Paris Peace Treaty in 1947, the Foreign
Ministry of Finland approached the General Secretary of the UN who set

in motion Finland’s application for membership. However, due to the

Cold War and the fear of endangering the existing balance of power in the
UN, Finland was not able to join the organisation until 1955.4 I argue that
since Finland had to remain outside of many—especially political and eco-
nomic—international alliances during the Cold War, alternative fields such
as culture and theatre in particular opened up new possibilities for interna-
tional exchange. Though Finland was not one of the founding members
of the ITI, it sent two observers to the first meeting of the organisation in
Prague in 1948. It also became an official member of the ITI in 1950. In
fact, the ITI was one of the very first international organisations Finland
could join in the post-war political climate.

The Eighth Congress of the ITI

During the period between 1948 and 1959, ITI congresses were organised
in Prague, Zurich, Paris, Oslo, The Hague, Dubrovnik and Athens. Some
of the venues were in NATO countries, one of them in a later Warsaw Pact
state, one in the Cold War socialist economy of Yugoslavia and two in the
militarily neutral Cold War capitalist societies of Switzerland and Finland.
I would argue that in hosting congresses the ITI followed the first article
of the charter of the organisation:

Since theatrical art is a universal expression of manking [sic: mankind], and

possesses the influence and power to link large groups of the world’s peoples
in the service of peace, an autonomous international organization has been
formed, which bears the name of International Theatre Institute. The pur-
pose of the Institute is to promote international exchange of knowledge and
practice in theatre arts.5

The paragraph quoted from the charter connects the purpose of the ITI
to the purpose of UNESCO. Art and theatre in particular were considered
essential to create understanding between nations and thus were consid-
ered to play a vital role in the service of peace. The latter role was viewed
as especially important during the years of the Cold War. Organising the
congress of the ITI on both sides of the Iron Curtain was certainly an
opportunity for geographical expansion and for the dissemination of
information about the organisation.
The Eighth Congress of the ITI opened in Helsinki on 1 June 1959.
The President of the ITI, Milan Bogdanović, stressed the international

importance of the organisation in his opening speech. According to him

‘nothing in fact could exist in the field of international activities that could
not prove its necessity and usefulness’.6 He also argued that theatre was
becoming an efficient international instrument and that the existence of
the ITI demonstrated that. According to Bogdanović:

It is almost possible to say that, in our days, a real International has appeared
in the field of dramatic art. Theatre is essentially a functional art and its
broad nature makes all limitations more and more difficult to support.
National frontiers are already growing too narrow for it; international space
is what it really needs. In fact, theatre uses a general language, the language
which is the living appearance of man, his voice, his gestures, all the vis-
ible expressions which make the apprehension of all facts possible even for
an audience unable to understand the words spoken on the stage. Theatre
makes acquaintances and neighbours, friends and relatives of people of all
colours. If, in our days, theatre could no more have an international activity,
it would certainly decay and diminish.7

Bogdanović’s speech can be discussed in terms of Benedict Anderson’s

concept of imagined communities. Anderson used the concept to discuss
questions related to nationalism; he argued that the formation of nations
and people’s notions of belonging to a nation, for example, were shaped
by novels, newspapers and languages.8 According to Bogdanović, theatre
was using a general language and thus creating an international commu-
nity. It was contending with forms of social and political discrimination
and with racism, and this was also declared as one objective of the ITI.9
In Helsinki, a total of 108 representatives from 33 countries gathered
together; this represented a significant increase in the number of delegates.
In Athens two years earlier, for example, there had been just 77 delegates
from 28 countries.10 Among the delegates there were theatre directors,
artists, critics and administrators. In contrast to the earlier congresses, this
was the first congress at which artistic questions were discussed. Earlier, the
focus had been only on administrative issues, like, for example, ­reducing
the number of agents between theatre directors and playwrights and help-
ing theatre groups to plan international tours. Naturally, these had been
essential questions related to the internationalisation of theatrical art. In
Helsinki, administrative issues were discussed, too, but they were accom-
panied by discussions about theatre as an art form. The subject of the
debate was ‘Avant-garde tendencies in the theatre of today.’ The keynote

address was given by the playwright Eugène Ionesco. He spoke about the
avant-garde in contemporary theatre, the relationship between dramatic
works and their audience, and writing and his world view.
I would like to argue that it is possible to draw an analogy between
choosing the avant-garde as the subject of the discussions at the ITI con-
gress and the use of a novel or newspaper to create a notion of belonging
to the same community among the participants. Avant-garde plays were
already read and performed and their authors were known in different
countries by the theatre internationalists at the end of the 1950s.

Ionesco’s Avant-garde
In Ionesco’s opinion, the main task of an author was to find the truth
and express it in his writings. For Ionesco, the avant-garde was an artistic
­phenomenon and a forerunner of culture. According to him, the avant-
garde could be defined in terms of opposition and rupture. It took an
oppositional position towards the establishment. It was a reaction against
realism, since realism was no longer capable of expressing the real world.
The relationship between the avant-garde and the real world was thus
governed by tension. According to Ionesco, the avant-garde was an
expression of criticism of the present. It was also unpopular since it was
characterised as demanding and difficult to understand. It was theatre for
a minority and if it were to become theatre for the majority, it would no
longer be avant-­garde but instead arrière-garde.11
Ionesco also discussed ontological questions of art in his opening
speech. According to him, an artwork should be original and evoke an
immediate intuition, an insight of truth. A talented artist would be able
to provide both a deeper and wider intuition than a less talented artist.
In Ionesco’s opinion, all the artist has to do is to provide an insight of
truth. An authentic truth in theatre, an artwork, will have an effect on
the audience. Realism and naturalism had helped to expand the concept
of reality and reveal new aspects of it. Symbolism and surrealism had also
expressed hidden facts. In his opinion, the avant-garde was a ­contemporary
­phenomenon which could be identified with artistic, literary theatre.12
For Ionesco, freedom was essential for the avant-garde. He placed it in
opposition to propaganda theatre, where the ideology was dominant. He
also thought that playwrights were afraid of humour, even though humour
represented one appearance of freedom. The only restrictions Ionesco
could accept were the technical limitations of the stage. Otherwise the

playwright should be completely free. The artist was not a pedagogue, nor
a demagogue. More than anything, Ionesco stressed the freedom of the
avant-garde theatre from all ideological restraints.13
Ionesco’s keynote speech was followed by a heated debate. Most of
the participants supported Ionesco, but some of them were very harsh in
their criticism of him. The reactions seemed to follow a political division
along the front line of the Cold War, since the strongest criticism came
from the representatives of the Eastern bloc: Romania (Aurel Baranga),
Bulgaria (Bojan Danovsky), Czechoslovakia (Jaroslav Pokorny) and
the USSR (A. Abalkin). The representative of the German Democratic
Republic (GDR), the intendant of the Deutsches Theater, Wolfgang
Langhoff, also criticised Ionesco. According to them, Ionesco’s plays
did not represent the ‘favourite readings of the peasants of Central
Europe’.14 The representatives of the Eastern bloc countries supported
socialist realism and the definite truth concept. Ionesco was character-
ised as a ‘chamber philosopher’ whose ideas on ideologies were con-
sidered too personal and attached to his own world view. For similar
reasons, the representatives of the Eastern bloc were critical of Samuel
Beckett as well.15
According to Aurel Baranga, a playwright and artistic director of
the National Theatre in Bucharest, playwrights should not lead the
audience into despair and loneliness as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel
Beckett were doing in their plays. Instead they should adhere to the
most important task of an author, which was teaching. Baranga believed
that Ionesco had forgotten this in his writings. Besides, he thought
that realism was not dead, but reshaped and alive. Baranga argued that
there were other avant-garde authors who were proclaiming ‘noble and
courageous ideas’, namely Federico Garcia Lorca, Bertolt Brecht and
Vladimir Mayakovski.16
Bojan Danovsky accused Ionesco of denying life and making people mis-
erable. In his reply, Ionesco argued that all representatives of the avant-­garde
belong to a minority, separate from the majority, where his critics wanted to
place all playwrights. According to Ionesco all important changes, including
political events and ideologies, had started among small minorities.17
One of the harshest critics was A. Albakin, the theatre critic of Pravda,
who argued that Ionesco was a clown and could not be taken seriously. In
his opinion, Ionesco’s opening speech had turned the whole international
congress into a circus. He did not have anything against the debate, but
Ionesco was simply not competent enough to give the keynote address.18

Albakin’s criticism seemed to be personal. It did not ­follow the state

censors’ opinion in the USSR, since, after Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s
denouncement of Stalinism in 1956, the state censors had allowed
Ionesco’s plays to be performed in theatres.19
However, Ionesco also received support from the participants. He was
especially supported by the representatives of the UK (Harold Hobson),
France (Jean-Jacques Bernard) and Belgium (van Vlanderen).20 The rep-
resentatives of Finland also supported Ionesco.21 As hosts of the congress,
the Finnish participants did not see any conflict of interest in supporting
the author and encouraging the dispute.
The avant-garde was not new to the Finnish delegates. The very
first play that can be categorised as avant-garde (and which later would
be known as absurdist drama) produced in Finland was Ionesco’s The
Lesson, which Vivica Bandler directed at the Kammarteatern at the begin-
ning of 1953. She also directed the world premiere of The New Tenant
at Lilla Teatern in 1955. Jack Witikka had directed two Samuel Beckett
plays by 1959: Waiting for Godot in 1954 and Endgame in 1957, both
at the Finnish National Theatre during Arvi Kivimaa’s period as the gen-
eral director of the theatre. Kivimaa was the chairperson of the organis-
ing committee of the ITI congress and an active agent in international
­cultural exchange.
In my opinion, Witikka and Bandler were among the most interna-
tionally oriented theatre directors in Finland in the 1950s. They both
had studied abroad, Bandler in France and Witikka in the UK. Actually,
Vivica Bandler, who was also a friend of Ionesco, tried to calm the debate
by warning the congress representatives not to take themselves too seri-
ously—otherwise it would be easy to guess the topic of Ionesco’s next
Despite the three-day-long discussions about the definition of the
avant-garde, the congress decided not to formulate any closing statements
about its nature. The secretary general of the ITI, Jean Darcante argued
that lively debate was the only closing statement the congress decided to
give.23 It seemed to be the only conclusion all the delegates could accept
since the opinions were extremely contradictory. It has been argued that
the absurd seemed, according to Arnold Aronson, ‘a logical, almost inevi-
table response to the irrationality of war’24 in Europe in the 1950s. The
discussions at the Helsinki congress in 1959 do not support this claim
unless Europe is understood as Western Europe, that is, the countries that
were aligned to the Western camp during the Cold War.

Performing Politics Between East and West

The ITI congress was much discussed in the public sphere of modern
politics. Altogether there were more than 100 articles about it in different
Finnish newspapers published all over the country. The articles described
how a community of international theatre representatives from 33 coun-
tries had gathered together in Helsinki. The newspapers provided a lot of
information about the ITI for their readers. Of particular interest is the
large number of articles about Ionesco’s keynote address and the sub-
sequent discussion. It was the very first time the avant-garde had been
extensively presented to the man on the street. Earlier, only individual
productions had been reviewed in the newspapers.
Ionesco’s keynote and the debate it caused were both summarised in
the press. In particular, it was mentioned how Ionesco’s presentation had
divided the participants along the contours of the front line of the Cold War.
Almost all the articles also mentioned that the Finnish participants had sup-
ported the Western camp. Politically the country could not be aligned and it
had to balance between the two blocs; however, in the field of culture it was
possible to lean towards the Western camp. The international theatre repre-
sentatives wanted to show that Finnish theatre was comparable to European
theatre. This had already been explicitly argued by Arvi Kivimaa some years
earlier, in 1956. According to him, the national nature of Finnish culture
had developed with the awareness of belonging to a larger European con-
text.25 It seems to me, he was referring specifically to Western Europe, but
in the political climate of 1956 this could not be argued overtly.
In 1959, the congress was also discussed in the public sphere of modern
culture. The Finnish Theatre Journal in particular wrote very extensively
about Ionesco’s keynote address.26 The ITI congress increased the aware-
ness of Ionesco’s plays and the avant-garde in general among Finnish theatre
artists and theatregoers. This seemed to be true especially right after the con-
gress in summer 1959 and in the following season 1959–60. A theatre called
Taskuteatteri performed The Bald Soprano and The Lesson in Helsinki during
the congress. During the following season Ionesco’s The Chairs was per-
formed at Intimiteatteri and Rhinoceros was staged at the Finnish National
Theatre. The New Tenant returned to the repertory of the Lilla Teatern
where it was seen together with The Lesson and a play by Boris Vian.27
Before the ITI congress, the conception of art was dominated by an idea
of popular nationalism: Finnish art was expected to present w ­ ell-­known
topics in a realistic way.28 This had also affected the reception of ­avant-garde

plays. In most of the reviews of the productions of absurdist drama the

critics had described the confused silence in the auditorium. Only a couple
of professional critics knew the plays in advance and could compare the
Finnish productions to the productions they had already seen abroad. For
example, in her review of Rhinoceros, Sole Uexküll also discussed the recep-
tion the play had received in London, Paris and Gothenburg, though she
saw Rhinoceros on stage for the first time at the Finnish National Theatre.29
Previously, all avant-garde plays had been performed at a couple of
theatres in Helsinki, but in 1960 a theatre in the Jyväskylä municipality,
Jyväskylän Huoneteatteri, also staged The Lesson.30 The ITI congress in
1959 brought about a considerable change in attitudes towards absurdist
drama in Finland. The genre had a breakthrough and its plays were per-
formed in both small and established theatres. For example, at the end
of the 1960s when Waiting for Godot returned to the repertory of the
Finnish National Theatre it was already considered a modern drama clas-
sic. According to Arvi Kivimaa, in 1954 the play had been ‘risky experi-
mental drama.’31 He was referring to the artistic risk the theatre had taken
by staging the play at a time when the avant-garde was relatively new to
most theatregoers.

The Political Importance of the ITI Congress

Besides the extensive write-ups devoted to it in the newspapers, the
importance of the congress can be seen from its use of public discourse.
The opening ceremonies were attended by several high-ranking politi-
cians, including the President of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, who was the
patron of the congress, the Speaker of the House, K.-A. Fagerholm, the
Prime Minister, V.J. Sukselainen, and the Minister of Education, Heikki
Hosia. Minister Hosia also spoke at the opening ceremonies on behalf of
the Finnish government. He stated that theatre and the network of the
ITI were an important element in maintaining old and making new inter-
national contacts:

We have received great encouragement during the last years from the expe-
rience, gained in the main through the International Institute of Theatre,
that our geographic position and our language do not form a separating
wall between us and the principal countries in the field of dramatic art, but
that there are, on the contrary, many possibilities for contacts and mutual
understanding. The fact that the VIIIth International Congress of Theatre
is organized here is a new proof thereof.32

The political value of the ITI congress can also be seen in the fact that
the state was its major financer, covering almost all the costs. The local
organiser of the congress was the Central Association of Finnish Theatre
Organizations, which was also the Finnish branch of the ITI. However,
without financial support from the state, the congress would not have
been possible. Altogether, the Ministry of Education paid more than 91 %
of the costs. This generous state support and the presence of high-ranking
politicians were typical for socialist policy. Thus Finland as a non-aligned
country used the same strategies as countries in the Eastern bloc to ensure
international cooperation.
The ITI congress thus certainly changed the attitudes towards the the-
atre of the absurd in Finland. By hosting the ITI congress in 1959 and
performing avant-garde drama, the theatre circles made a breakthrough to
the national theatre scene and participated in the negotiations of Finland’s
position between East and West in ‘No Man’s Land’, as Matti Kuusi
described the country’s geopolitical position.33 Finnish representatives of
international theatre used the ITI congress and the performance of avant-
garde plays to strategically align themselves with the Western camp. For
the Finnish government, the congress was a showcase for the success of
Finland’s international activities in attracting representatives of interna-
tional theatre from different countries, and served as publicity for both
the political and theatre sectors. A similar event in the fields of politics
or economics might not have been possible in Finland during the 1950s.
It has since been recognised that the ITI was an essential element in the
growth of experimental theatre in worldwide, in relation to off- and off-
off-Broadway artists and productions.34 In my opinion, the ITI was also
an important element earlier: in 1959 when Eugène Ionesco was invited
as keynote speaker. Ionesco was a good representative of the second-wave
modernism that had arisen in theatre and drama after World War II. At the
time it was called ­avant-­garde and only after Martin Esslin’s The Theatre
of the Absurd, which first appeared as an essay in 1960 and then as a book
in 1961, was the term ‘absurd’ adopted. Despite the conflicting reactions
to his speech, all the attendees seemed to already know Ionesco’s work. It
was reported that this new element of the congress, the discussions con-
cerning the avant-­garde, attracted a lot of attention among representatives
of international theatre all over the world.35
Regardless of the disputes at the congress, four countries wanted to join
the ITI in 1959. China and three countries from the Eastern bloc (the GDR,
Romania and the USSR) were also accepted as new members at this time.36

These new members altered the balance of power and gave the Eastern
bloc new prominence. Since the ITI was operating in connection with
UNESCO—this became official in 1962—it was important for the organisa-
tion to include countries from both blocs as its members. The ITI congress
in Helsinki in 1959 was a moment of convergence between the participants
and an important turning point in the mediation of cultural influence.

1. ‘The Constitution of UNESCO’, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/
unesco/about-us/who-we-are/history/constitution/, accessed 22 October
2. Rosamond Gilder, ‘First Congress of the International Theatre Institute’,
Department of State Bulletin 19.485 (17 October 1948), 488–489.
3. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2005), 217.
4. Jukka Nevakivi, ‘From the Continuation War to the Present, 1944–1999’,
in From Grand Duchy to a Modern State. A Political History of Finland
since 1809, ed. Osmo Jussila, Seppo Hentilä, Jukka Nevakivi (London:
Hurst & Company, 1999), 217–356, 282–284.
5. ‘The Charter of the ITI’, The Programme of the Eighth Congress of the ITI
1.-7.VI Helsinki, The Collection of Albert Saloranta, ITI VIII kongressi
H:ki 1959, The Finnish Theatre Museum Archives.
6. The Programme of the Eighth Congress of the ITI.
7. The Programme of the Eighth Congress of the ITI.
8. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and
Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991), 25 and 77.
9. The objectives of the ITI can be found, for example, on the organisation’s
webpage http://www.iti-worldwide.org, accessed 15 March 2016.
10. Central Association of the Finnish Theatre Organizations, ‘Report of the
Eighth Congress of the ITI from the Central Association of the Finnish
Theatre Organizations to the Ministry of Education’, 11 September,
Archives of the Ministry of Education, AD 1485/291, The National
Archives of Finland.
11. Eugène Ionesco, ‘Avant garde on nykyhetken kritiikki I–III’, Teatteri 12,
13, 15, 1959.
12. ‘Ei suuren yleisön teatteria eikä saisi siksi tullakaan’, Aamulehti, 4 June
1959, and Ionesco, ‘Avant garde’.
13. ‘Ei suuren yleisön teatteria’ and Ionesco ‘Avant garde on nykyhetken
14. ‘Avantgardismi kiivaitten hyökkäysten ristitulessa’, Aamulehti, 5 June

15. Ibid.
16. ‘Avantgardismia kymmenissä erilaisissa muodoissa’, Kansan Uutiset, 5
June 1959.
17. ‘Avantgardismista keskusteltiin Realistit vastustavana puolena’, Suomen
Sosialidemokraatti, 6 June 1959.
18. ‘Pravdan kriitikko teilaa Ionescon ja kiittää “Reviisoria”’, Helsingin
Sanomat, 7 June 1959.
19. Philip B. Zarrilli, Bruce McConachie, Gary Jay Williams and Carol Fisher
Sorgenfrei, Theatre Histories: An Introduction (New York and London:
Routledge, 2006), 345.
20. ‘ITI:n kongressin jälkikaikuja’, Helsingin Sanomat, 12 June 1959.
21. ‘Teatterin nuoria tuettava mielipide-eroista huolimatta’, Helsingin
Sanomat, 5 June 1959.
22. Ibid.
23. ‘ITI hyväksyi uusia jäseniä’, Uusi Suomi, 5 June 1959.
24. Arnold Aronson, ‘American Theatre in Context’, in The Cambridge History
of American Theatre. Volume III Post-World War II to the 1990s, ed. Don
B.  Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2000), 87–162, 113.
25. Arvi Kivimaa, Teatterin humanismi (Keuruu: Otava, 1972), 71.
26. For example, Teatteri 12, 13 and 15/1959. The term ‘public sphere’
(German ‘Öffentlichkeit’) (intermediary and cultural) originates from
Jürgen Habermas. Erkki Sevänen has applied it to Finnish society. Sevänen
quotes Habermas, according to whom state and civil society were sepa-
rated with the modernisation of society. This differentiation was not com-
plete and the public sphere remained as an intermediary between the state
and civil society. The main representatives of this intermediary public
sphere include the parliamentary system and the media. They are also at
the centre of the public sphere of modern politics. The public sphere of
modern culture, for its part, has been represented by such things as theatre
performances, literary publishing and the cultural press. Erkki Sevänen,
‘Ensimmäisen tasavallan poliittinen tilanne ja kirjallisen älymystön toimin-
tastrategiat’, in Älymystön jäljillä. Kirjoituksia suomalaisesta sivistyneistöstä
ja älymystöstä, ed. Pentti Karkama, Hanne Koivisto (Helsinki: Suomalaisen
Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1997), 33–63, 37 and 49.
27. Lilla Teatern advertised its repertory for the fall of 1960 under the title
‘The Modern Line’. Ionesco was going to be performed in a revue (Lilla
Teatern, 1960).
28. Erkki Sevänen, Taide instituutiona ja järjestelmänä. Modernin taide-
elämän historiallissosiologiset mallit (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden
Seura, 1998), 341.
29. Sole Uexküll, ‘Sarvikuonot valloillaan’, Helsingin Sanomat, 18 October

30. ILONA, a Finnish theatre database of performances, http://ilona.tinfo.

fi/, accessed 26 September 2014.
31. Aryi Kivimaa, Teatterin humanismi (Keuruu: Otava, 1972), 193.
32. Heikki Hosia, ‘Minister of Education Heikki Hosia’s Speech at the
Opening Ceremonies of the Eighth Congress of the ITI’, 1959, The
Collection of Albert Saloranta, The Finnish Theatre Museum Archives.
33. Eino S.Repo, ed., Toiset pidot Tornissa (Jyväskylä: Gummerus, 1954),
34. Mel Gussow, ‘Off- and Off-Off Broadway’, in The Cambridge History of
American Theatre: Volume III: Post-World War II to the 1990s, ed. Don
B.  Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2000), 196–223, 220.
35. The ITI’s report on its activities in 1958 and 1959 to UNESCO, 1959,
accessed 29 October 2014.
36. ‘ITI hyväksyi uusia jäseniä.’

The Cultural Cold War on the Home Front:

The Political Role of Theatres
in Communist Kraków and Leipzig

Kyrill Kunakhovich

In June 1962—just months after the construction of the Berlin Wall—the

head of the Leipzig City Theatres explained why his work had become
more important than ever. As director of the largest theatre in the two
Germanys, Karl Kayser (1914–95) oversaw five stages, 200 productions,
and some 1.4 million viewers a year. ‘We are a factory, which can be
described as a large factory in the theatre sector’, he told the Leipzig City
Council.1 What this factory produced was not pipes or shoes but the New
Socialist Man. ‘By means of art and culture, we can shape human actions,
thoughts, and feelings’, Kayser insisted; ‘we can accelerate the formation
of a new consciousness, preparing men to be active members of our soci-
ety and patriots of socialism’. For this process to work, though, theatre
had to orient itself at a mass audience, drawing in millions of workers
and housewives. ‘Art and culture have to become a vital need, just like
air for breathing’, argued Kayser. In fact, going to the theatre was an
essential aspect of economic construction. ‘You will not achieve success

K. Kunakhovich (*)
The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA

© The Author(s) 2017 165

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_10

in ­production or fulfil the plan without art and culture!’ he warned the
assembled City Council delegates.2
Karl Kayser’s speech reflected the significance that communist states
attached to cultural life. For government officials, art was more than a
pleasant pastime or an aesthetic experience. Above all, it was a way to
influence society: by appealing to people’s emotions, art could convey
political ideas more effectively than verbal propaganda. Thanks to this
power, art could become both an asset and a threat. Soviet bloc authorities
devoted immense time and effort to creating a distinctive ‘socialist culture’
that would raise productivity, foster patriotism, and spread a Marxist
worldview. At the same time, they constantly worried about the corrupting
impact of ‘bourgeois culture’, which reinforced capitalist oppression and
undermined communist development. The struggle between ‘socialist
culture’ and bourgeois influences was at the focus of Soviet bloc cultural
policy, but it has received relatively little attention from scholars of the
cultural Cold War. Numerous studies have explored international festivals,
foreign tours, and mass media broadcasts aimed at the ‘other side’.3 By
privileging competition abroad, however, they have tended to overlook
cultural confrontations at home. Yet socialist and bourgeois art faced each
other every day across the entire Soviet bloc. The biggest battles of the
cultural Cold War were fought on the ‘home front’.4
This chapter examines the impact of such battles by looking at the case
of theatre. As large public spaces, theatres lay at the heart of the state’s cul-
tural project. They gave officials their best opportunity to expose residents
to high culture, and therefore received the largest subsidies of any cultural
institution. As a form of live performance, they also represented a potential
risk and necessitated close supervision. This essay investigates the role that
theatres played in the cultural Cold War, and the impact this War had on
their artistic profile. It focuses on two case studies—Kraków in Poland, and
Leipzig in East Germany. Both were cities of roughly similar size, with major
universities and large working-class populations. They were also the ‘second
cities’ in their respective countries, not political capitals but renowned cul-
tural centres. Considering these two cases side by side offers an opportunity
to compare how two Soviet bloc states handled Cold War cultural competi-
tion. It also allows us to transcend local ­particularities and trace the outlines
of a transnational project—the bloc-wide quest for a ‘socialist culture’.
To trace the changing role of theatre, I explore the triangular rela-
tionship between administrators, artists, and audiences. Both Kraków
and Leipzig had two Culture Departments, one in the city government

and the other within the Party hierarchy. I use their internal records to
investigate how they formulated cultural policy and what they did to
implement it on the ground. State officials approved theatre repertoires,
distributed funding, and organised attendance. Only actors and directors,
however, could create the performances that actually appeared on stage.
To examine what these performances looked like, I focus on one lead-
ing theatre in each city—the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) in Kraków, and
the Schauspielhaus (Theatre House) in Leipzig. I analyse some of their
most significant productions while using a quantitative approach to track
the evolution of their repertoires over time. Finally, I rely on newspaper
accounts and sociological surveys to reconstruct the demographics of the
theatregoing public. Who sat in the seats had a direct impact on what
played on the stage. Theatres had to adjust their productions to viewers’
expectations and education levels; they also had to pay close attention to
box office receipts. Audiences, artists, and officials all influenced a the-
atre’s profile, and it was the interaction among these three groups that
defined communist theatre.
This paper follows the development of theatre in Kraków and Leipzig
from the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s. I divide this
period into four phases, each lasting six or seven years. During the first phase,
Reconstruction (1945–50), both the Stary Teatr and the Schauspielhaus
recreated their prewar repertoires. They performed for a predominantly
middle-class audience, even as city officials made limited efforts to attract
factory viewers. In phase two, Stalinism (1950–56), the two theatres radically
changed their ways. They began to stage didactic Soviet-bloc productions
for an organised worker public, responding to officials’ demands to create
the New Socialist Man. Under the third phase, De-Stalinisation (1957–63),
the Stary Teatr and the Schauspielhaus markedly diverged. In Leipzig, the
programme of didactic theatre only intensified; in Kraków, Soviet plays
gave way to avant-garde Western productions. A similar shift took place in
Leipzig during phase four, Consumerism (1964–70). Both the Stary Teatr
and the Schauspielhaus came to play for elite audiences while struggling
to secure attendance and funding. I argue that these transformations were
driven primarily by changes in the state’s cultural project. Most studies
of culture under communism see the state as a restrictive force, capable
only of suppressing creativity.5 This chapter, by contrast, highlights the
constructive role of state officials in cultural life. In Kraków as in Leipzig,
local administrators shaped both the art that theatres produced and the
audiences that consumed it.

I. Reconstruction (1945–50)
On 18 January 1945 the Red Army occupied Kraków, chasing out the
last of the Nazi administrators. Three months later, Leipzig was liberated
by American forces, who quickly relinquished control to Soviet troops.
Both cities fell into Moscow’s sphere of influence, but in many ways they
offered a study in contrast. Leipzig had been badly bombed during the
war, losing some 4000 buildings and 40 % of its housing stock.6 Kraków
managed to survive the war nearly unscathed; in the first postwar years, it
offered shelter to tens of thousands of Polish refugees. Like all of Germany,
Leipzig was subordinated to a military occupation regime, which held
sway over the City Council. Kraków’s local government, conversely, main-
tained sole authority over administrative affairs. For all these differences,
both cities devoted privileged attention to their theatres. Soviet, Polish,
and German authorities all saw theatre as a way of regenerating society.
Amidst food rationing and electricity shortages, local officials promptly
rebuilt Leipzig’s ruined Schauspielhaus and took Kraków’s Stary Teatr
under municipal control. What they did not do, however, was try to influ-
ence these theatres’ artistic profile. In the early postwar years, both the
Stary Teatr and the Schauspielhaus continued to operate much as they had
before the Second World War.
Theatre returned to Leipzig in September 1945, when Georg Büchner’s
Woyzeck premiered in the auditorium of the local zoo. This was a reprisal
of a Nazi production from 1943; during the first postwar season, several
plays were recycled from the Nazi era.7 Just before Christmas, the brand-
new Schauspielhaus opened with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s
Dream. ‘In our conditions of need, we have to learn to live by the spiri-
tual and the ethical, now more than ever’, Leipzig’s socialist mayor wrote
in the programme; ‘it is spirit that makes man human, […] and it is on
this spirit that we want to build [our future].’8 In stressing spirituality
and humanism, postwar authorities sought to overcome Nazi militarism
and build a new foundation for German identity. The Schauspielhaus con-
tributed to these efforts by staging works by anti-fascist playwrights such
as Bertolt Brecht and Friedrich Wolf. With the encouragement of Soviet
occupation authorities, it also began to put on plays from the USSR,
which were seen as an important tool of denazification. In the six sea-
sons from 1945 to 1951, the Schauspielhaus premiered 16 Russian or
Soviet productions, including plays by Chekhov, Gogol, and Konstantin
Simonov.9 Yet works by ­contemporary Western authors remained just

as frequent, with 15 premieres over six years.10 These included English

­comedies, like J.B. Priestley’s Ever Since Paradise; American social dramas,
such as Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill; and even Traveller
without Luggage, a 1937 play by the French existentialist Jean Anouilh.
Soviet works thus shared the stage with new productions from the capital-
ist West, reflecting the diversity of early postwar repertoires.
The Schauspielhaus was administered directly by the Leipzig City
Council, which had also overseen its predecessor, the Altes Theater,
since 1912.11 City officials forced the theatre to dismiss members of the
Nazi party, made sure it balanced the books, and subsidised tickets for
­ordinary workers.12 They rarely intervened in repertoire decisions, how-
ever, leaving these to the theatre’s director-general. A representative
of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) explained this policy in early 1947.
‘When a considerable number of theatregoers come from the ranks of the
working class, that is already a significant achievement, no matter what
appears on stage—even if it is an entertainment play, a random entertain-
ment play that could be shown anywhere in the world’, he argued.13 To
­promote working-class attendance, city authorities organised travelling
performances and set up a season subscription. When the Schauspielhaus
debuted in December 1945, workers from 50 local factories were invited
to opening night.14 SED officials praised such measures as a significant
achievement, but organising worker audiences was in fact nothing new.
Under the Weimar Republic, more than a third of all theatregoers came in
groups, mostly sponsored by leftist political parties.15 Nazi authorities car-
ried on this practice with their programme of Strength through Joy, which
accounted for 29 % of Leipzig’s theatre attendance.16 From 1945 to 1950,
by contrast, one quarter of the Schauspielhaus’s audience came as part
of an organised group.17 Only 16 % of all viewers in this period actually
worked in a factory, while the rest—five out of six theatregoers—belonged
to the professional class.18 Theatre in Leipzig remained an elite pursuit, no
less than it had been before the Second World War.
In Kraków, the end of Nazi occupation sparked a cultural renaissance.
By autumn 1945, there were eight professional theatres operating in the
city, including the Stary Teatr—actually Poland’s oldest stage.19 The Stary
had closed its doors in 1893, when its ensemble moved to the newly built
Słowacki Theatre a few blocks away. It reopened in April 1945 under the
direction of Jerzy Bujański, an art lover and entrepreneur who ran Kraków’s
Concert Bureau in the interwar years.20 Like Leipzig officials, Bujański
stressed theatre’s role in postwar renewal. ‘There is a new reality today,

and theater, having undergone a fundamental ideological transformation

from theater-lackey of cheap public tastes to advocate for social and ethical
values, is now known as the architect of citizens’ spiritual reconstruction’,
he declared.21 Kraków’s socialist-controlled City Council agreed with this
sentiment all too much. Deeming ‘spiritual reconstruction’ too important
a task to be left in private hands, it took the Stary Teatr under municipal
control in May 1946. City officials administered the Stary jointly with
the Słowacki, but gave both theatres considerable autonomy over rep-
ertoire choices. Like Leipzig’s Schauspielhaus, the Stary Teatr put on
J.B. Priestley, Konstantin Simonov, and Jean Anouilh. It, too, performed
Soviet and Western works in equal proportion: over their first six seasons,
the Stary and the Słowacki staged 16 plays from the Soviet bloc and 17 by
authors living in the capitalist West.22 As in Germany, however, the bulk
of the repertoire was devoted to national theatre. From 1945 to 1950, 63
% of all plays at the Stary and the Słowacki were Polish—a sharp rise from
the 1934/5 season, when just 28 % of the Słowacki’s repertoire consisted
of Polish productions.23 This was communism’s main impact on Polish
theatre—not promoting Soviet works but making repertoires more Polish.
Part of the rationale for taking over the Stary Teatr was to ‘bring the-
atre closer to the world of labour’, as the governor of Kraków Province
put it in 1946.24 Like their counterparts in Leipzig, Kraków officials offered
reduced prices for workers and put on special performances for factory
groups. Yet these efforts had a limited effect: in the last quarter of 1945,
only one in six Stary Teatr tickets was sold at a discount.25 Part of the issue,
as theatre directors pointed out, was that box office receipts were needed
to stay in the black. City authorities did subsidise 18 % of the Stary’s oper-
ating budget for 1947, but this was actually less than they had covered in
the prewar era.26 Over the 1928/9 season, for instance, city funds paid for
a full third of the Słowacki Theatre’s total costs.27 Unless public subsidies
went up, theatre directors argued, they simply could not afford to offer too
many discount tickets. Another problem was that factory viewers were not
always easy to find. As long as theatre attendance remained voluntary, rela-
tively few workers were willing to spend their time and money on high cul-
ture. The net result was that Kraków’s theatres often went empty; in 1947,
the Stary Teatr forecast an average attendance rate of 55 per cent.28 This,
too, was in line with interwar era, when the Słowacki Theatre typically sold
just half its tickets.29 In the first postwar years, both Kraków’s Stary Teatr
and Leipzig’s Schauspielhaus closely resembled their prewar predecessors:
they put on profitable plays for a self-selecting audience.

II. Stalinism (1950–56)
In Poland as in the Soviet Zone of Germany, the end of the 1940s marked
the start of a new era. In December 1948, Poland’s socialist and com-
munist parties merged into the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR),
which maintained a near monopoly on political life. Nine months later,
SED leaders proclaimed the creation of an autonomous East German
state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Both countries carried
out administrative reforms designed to centralise power and eliminate
local self-rule. They also adopted new economic plans that stressed the
triad of ­nationalisation, industrialisation, and collectivisation. All these
measures aimed to advance the ‘building of socialism’, and culture, too,
was enlisted in the effort. ‘Art is a precise weapon of ideological struggle,
a way of shaping man’, Poland’s Culture Minister declared in 1952: ‘we
measure art by its effectiveness, by its ability to create a new, socialist soci-
ety’.30 Such statements subordinated artistic matters to political ends, but
they also reaffirmed art’s power and significance. As a transformative social
force, art had to be carefully controlled. This attitude conditioned cultural
policy in Kraków and Leipzig, redefining the meaning of theatre.
What affected theatres most of all was administrative centralisation. In
early 1950, Leipzig’s Schauspielhaus was incorporated into the Leipzig
City Theatres (Städtische Theater Leipzig, or STL), a conglomerate that
included an opera house, an operetta, two theatres, and a children’s stage.
All five stages were overseen by one director-general, who reported to the
Leipzig City Council; they also came under the supervision of the State
Committee for Cultural Affairs in Berlin. Set up in 1951, the Committee
not only vetted repertoires but issued programmatic guidelines for art. It
played a key role in the so-called ‘formalism campaign’, which condemned
Western ‘decadence’, promoted Socialist Realism, and criticised m ­ odernists
like Brecht. All these prescriptions were incorporated into the repertoires
of the Leipzig Schauspielhaus and its sister stage, the Kammerspiele.
From 1951 to 1953, the two theatres premiered just one work by a ­living
Western author—Bill Gates’ The Earth Remains, a social drama about
Australian farmers. By contrast, they staged 11 productions by playwrights
from the Soviet bloc, including works by Maksim Gorki and Vsevolod
Ivanov. Leipzig theatre was cut off from the contemporary West and firmly
integrated into the Soviet cultural sphere. Its most prominent productions,
though, were new works by ideologically committed East German authors.
Such plays addressed pressing social issues like gender equality, socialist

morality, and the legacy of the Second World War. In 1953/4, they made
up nearly half the repertoire, helping the Schauspielhaus keep up with
current events.
Theatre’s new repertoire reflected its new role in East German society. As
Leipzig officials pointed out, the main goal of theatre was not to entertain
viewers but to educate them. ‘[Art] should express the new social relations
of the GDR; help workers march towards peace, progressive development,
and German unity; and give them enthusiasm, courage, and optimistic con-
fidence in this struggle’, Leipzig’s City Council declared in 1950.31 To be
effective, however, theatre productions had to be easy to understand. The
Schauspielhaus expressly rejected avant-garde methods and creative inter-
pretations, choosing to focus on ‘the poet’s word’.32 Playbills helped drive
the message home, linking the action on stage to contemporary affairs.
A programme for Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid (1673) included an
article on medical advances in the GDR; the booklet for Friedrich Schiller’s
Intrigue and Love (1784) carried an attack on West German militarism.33
In a 1950 production of Sophocles’ Antigone, actors directly encouraged
viewers to vote in the upcoming elections, blurring the line between art
and life. In 1950s Leipzig, theatre was politics by other means.
The trouble with this kind of didactic theatre was that hardly anyone
wanted to see it.34 The STL’s attendance rate plummeted from 89 % dur-
ing the 1947/8 season to 58 % in 1950/1.35 As city authorities lamented,
the most ‘valuable’ productions were also the most unpopular; Antigone
played to empty seats, while romantic comedies like Dario Niccodemi’s
Dawn, Day, Night usually sold out.36 To overcome this problem, Leipzig
officials started forcing factories to purchase season tickets. By law, East
German trade unions had to devote 15 % of member dues to ‘cultural
activities’ like theatre visits.37 The STL offered them packages that ­covered
ten visits a year, spread across its five stages. Factories then distributed
these to their workers, sometimes as a reward for good performance and
sometimes as a form of discipline. From the officials’ perspective, this
arrangement killed two birds with one stone. It liberated theatres from
box office constraints, enabling them to stage ideological productions;
and it brought these productions to millions of workers, who were meant
to learn and profit from the theatre. The number of working-class the-
atregoers rose throughout the 1950s, as a result of a concerted effort
by theatre staff and city officials. Organised groups made up just 7 % of
all viewers in 1950 but more than half the audience by 1956.38 Leipzig
theatre became a fundamentally different institution than it had been after

the Second World War, or in the half-century before that. By decoupling

repertoires from profitability, Leipzig officials turned theatre into a school
for socialism.
A similar transformation began in Kraków in 1949, when both the
Stary Teatr and the Słowacki were subordinated directly to the Ministry
of Culture in Warsaw. From then on, it was the Ministry rather than the
city that allocated funds and approved repertoires. It also set attendance
targets for each theatre, forcing them to cultivate new viewers. After aver-
aging 55 % attendance in 1947, the Stary Teatr was ordered to reach 82
% in 1949.39 As in Leipzig, Kraków theatres turned to local factories for
help; they organised buses to bring workers to the theatre, and went on
the road themselves to play in warehouses and meeting halls. By 1952,
four out of five theatregoers came as part of an organised group.40 This
new audience forced the Stary to alter its artistic profile. Over its first five
postwar seasons, the theatre recruited viewers with novelty and variety,
averaging 13 premieres a year. After 1950, however, it performed the same
few productions for as many people as possible; from 1950 to 1956, the
Stary Teatr staged only six new plays per season. Many artists bemoaned
this shift as a cultural stagnation, but what it really showed was theatre’s
new function. As one official explained in 1953, ‘theatre is a serious mat-
ter, and its repertoire is nothing but a means of educating the masses’.41
To accomplish this task, the Stary Teatr began putting on a differ-
ent kind of plays. In April 1949, Polish authorities declared Socialist
Realism to be the binding ‘method’ for all theatre productions.42 The
Stary Teatr responded with plays like The Tractor and the Girl by Tadeusz
Kwiatkowski and Aleksandr Maliszewski’s Yesterday and the Day Before—
the heroic story of Warsaw’s postwar reconstruction. As in Leipzig, new
Western productions practically disappeared. In the six seasons from 1949
to 1955, the Stary Teatr put on just one play by an author living in the
West: Thirty Pieces of Silver by the American communist Howard Fast, an
account of the McCarthy-era witch hunts. Meanwhile, works from the
Soviet bloc made up a quarter of all productions over the same time frame.
They included Stonecutter Karhan’s Brigade by the Czechoslovak play-
wright Vašek Kána, a depiction of socialism in the factory that became one
of the bloc’s most widely performed plays. Such works perfectly reflected
the PZPR’s vision for theatre: ‘to show the truth of our new times and
new people, the truth of acute class conflict, the truth of the great idea
of building socialism in Poland’.43 This vision guided the Stary Teatr after
1949, but seven years later it vanished almost overnight.

III. De-Stalinisation (1957–63)
One of the main turning points in Soviet bloc culture took place in
Moscow, during the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist
Party. On 25 February 1956 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered
his ‘Secret Speech’, formally entitled ‘On the Cult of Personality and
Its Consequences’. In explicitly criticising Joseph Stalin, the speech cast
doubt on the whole trajectory of communist development. Countries
across the Soviet bloc were faced with a common dilemma: how to save
communism while admitting that much had been wrong? This shared
challenge elicited very different responses in Poland and the GDR. Polish
Prime Minister Bolesław Bierut could not overcome the shock and died in
a Moscow hospital two weeks later. For the PZPR, a crisis of faith turned
into a succession crisis; to preserve its grip on power, the Party carried
out major reforms and installed the popular Władysław Gomułka as Party
leader. In East Germany, by contrast, long-time SED head Walter Ulbricht
sought to minimise the impact of Khrushchev’s speech. He purged politi-
cal opponents, expanded the Secret Police, and renewed calls for ‘socialist
construction’. These opposing reactions produced divergent outcomes in
Kraków and Leipzig. After a decade of following the same trajectory, the
Stary Teatr and the Schauspielhaus began to go their separate ways.
In the aftermath of a popular uprising in June 1953, East Germany’s
cultural scene had experienced a kind of thaw. The unpopular State
Committee for Cultural Affairs was replaced by a Ministry of Culture,
which cultivated better relationships with artists. Theatre directors
gained more leeway to choose their own repertoires, and the Leipzig
Schauspielhaus responded by putting on more Western productions.44
Between 1954 and 1957, the STL staged works by contemporary French
writers Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, and André Birabeau. In the wake of
Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’, it even premiered two plays that dealt with
the Cult of Personality.45 Such ‘revisionism’ was precisely what Ulbricht
was afraid of, and it drove the Leipzig City Council to appoint a new
director-general—Karl Kayser, who remained in this post until the fall
of the Berlin Wall. Born in Leipzig to a Socialist Party organiser father,
Kayser was deeply committed to the communist cause. ‘I believed in the
Party, I received it from my mother’s milk’,46 he told the last session of the
SED Central Committee in November 1989. As an accomplished actor
and director, Kayser was well equipped to carry out the Party’s cultural
program. A series of conferences held in the later 1950s laid out Ulbricht’s

goals for East German culture: art was meant to improve productivity,
teach socialism, and unify society.47 These notions were not new, but their
implementation would be unprecedented. Under Kayser’s leadership, the
STL really did become ‘a large factory in the theatre sector’.
Kayser’s first step was to cleanse the repertoire of any suspect works.
‘Quality in art is an ideological question’, he announced in a 1961 edito-
rial; ‘all of our productions must be feats for socialism’.48 Kayser avoided
plays from the capitalist West, seeing them as a ‘covert manoeuvre […] to
liquidate our way [of life]’.49 What he advocated instead were works about
East German society—many of them commissioned from the half-dozen
dramatists on staff. Such productions were intended for a working-class
audience, and often dealt explicitly with factory life. One play—1963’s
Millionenschmidt—was actually written by a construction worker, Horst
Kleineidam, who based it on the experiences of his own brigade.50 This
work proved particularly unpopular with viewers, but for Kayser, that was
precisely the point. ‘Awakening new needs, teaching people to think and
act in a Party-minded way, developing new humanist feelings—these are
the tasks of theatre’, he wrote in his first Leipzig programme.51 To secure
attendance, Kayser’s staff made more than 2000 factory visits a year,
and achieved impressive results.52 In 1961, the STL sold some 93,000
season tickets for a workforce of 308,000; every performance was filled
beyond 95 % of capacity, and three-fourths of all viewers came in groups.53
Kayser’s efforts showed that socialist theatre could be commercially suc-
cessful. Leipzig boasted more theatregoers per capita than any city in the
two Germanys while exposing them to ideological productions.54
Poland also felt the signs of a cultural ‘thaw’ after Stalin’s death. In
June 1954, the Stary Teatr regained autonomy from the Słowacki, though
it remained subordinated to the Ministry of Culture. The next season,
it went on tour to Paris and performed a contemporary French play for
the first time in seven years.55 The real change, though, came only after
Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. Amid popular protests, the PZPR’s author-
ity on the ground practically evaporated. In Kraków, a self-proclaimed
Student Revolutionary Committee took power in mid-October 1956,
running its own militia and even setting up a housing commission.56
Gomułka’s accession helped restore order, but the new regime still had
to distance itself from the Stalinist era. At a cultural congress in 1958,
the Secretary of the Central Committee—Jerzy Morawski—condemned
Stalinism’s ‘imposition of a normative aesthetic and a certain doctrinar-
ism in artistic affairs’.57 From then on, he insisted, cultural policy would

revolve around the needs of the audience. ‘People have diverse ­preferences
and tastes—[differences] in their psychological structure, in what pro-
duces rest and relaxation’, Morawski argued; ‘based on a more realistic
assessment of the situation, we will carry out a policy of cultural choice—a
policy of such promotion [of culture], which will better satisfy the differ-
ent needs of the masses’.58 More choice for consumers also meant more
autonomy for cultural producers. Since art was a matter of personal taste,
it did not have to be ‘directly educational or socially useful’, as Morawski
noted.59 Both artists and audiences thus acquired new freedoms, trans-
forming the nature of theatre in Kraków.
Most immediately, the Stary Teatr gained the right to set its own rep-
ertoire. The Culture Ministry’s oversight ended in 1958, leaving the the-
atre under city administration.60 In practice, though, the director-general
simply picked his own productions—and after years of prohibitions, these
were predominantly Western.61 The Stary Teatr turned to American works
like Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Eugene O’Neill’s A
Long Day’s Journey into Night. It devoted even more attention to French
theatre, putting on avant-garde plays by Eugène Ionesco, Albert Camus,
and Jean Giraudoux. From 1957 to 1963, the theatre averaged four con-
temporary Western productions per year—more than all Polish and Soviet
bloc plays put together. This repertoire allowed actors and directors to
reconnect with Western trends, but it was not particularly popular among
viewers. In Kraków as a whole, per capita attendance fell by a quarter over
the same time frame.62 Part of the issue was that organised audiences disap-
peared entirely; having embraced the principle of cultural choice, city offi-
cials stopped bussing workers from the factories. By 1958, one study found,
the average Kraków worker went to the theatre just once in five years.63
Theatre turned into an elite space for educated viewers, but there were sim-
ply not enough of them to fill the seats. In 1953, one play’s attendance rate
of 64 % had been described by Party officials as a ‘catastrophe’; eight years
later, the Stary Teatr’s main stage averaged 62 % attendance.64 As it turned
out, freedom of choice was a double-edged sword. The Stary could put on
ambitious productions but it could not compel viewers to come.

IV. Consumerism (1964–70)
In the early 1960s, Leipzig’s Schauspielhaus and Kraków’s Stary Teatr
presented two very different models of theatre. One put on Soviet bloc
plays for millions of factory workers; the other performed Western works

in front of a shrinking intelligentsia audience. By the end of the decade,

however, the two theatres had again started to look alike, reconciled by
a shared vision of art as consumption. Consumption became a major
emphasis across the Soviet bloc during the 1960s: both Ulbricht and
Gomułka toned down rhetoric of struggle and asceticism while ramping
up production of household appliances. Increasingly, they spoke of satisfy-
ing society rather than transforming it, and their notions of culture came
to reflect this evolution. At a cultural congress in 1964, East Germany’s
Culture Minister announced that culture ‘belongs to the domain of social
consumption, […] bringing people together for many encounters and
[…] merry hours’.65 Members of the Polish Central Committee ­likewise
referred to culture as ‘a consumer good […] which serves to satisfy peo-
ple’s needs’.66 Far from being a tool of social engineering, culture became
synonymous with leisure, entertainment, and individual choice. In Poland,
as we have seen, this change happened quite abruptly in 1956. For the
GDR, however, it was a much more gradual process, which reoriented
Leipzig’s Schauspielhaus over the course of the 1960s.
Just two years after Karl Kayser called them a ‘theatre factory’, the
Leipzig City Theatres struck a new chord. ‘Some years ago, we used to
evaluate each work by asking, “Will it give the public sufficient answers
to its problems?”’, the Theatres’ chief dramatist wrote in 1965; ‘now, we
have to esteem the viewer [more] highly, […] and ask, “Will the theatre
raise questions that he doesn’t know?”’67 The new approach transformed
STL repertoires, making them more diverse and less didactic. In the five
seasons from 1959 to 1964, the STL put on 15 plays from the Soviet Bloc
and six by contemporary Western authors. Over the following five seasons,
this proportion was reversed, with 14 works by writers living in the West
and only five by playwrights from the East. The biggest shift, though, was
in the kind of plays the STL performed. Productions about workers and
factories gave way to family dramas and youth comedies. One example was
1969’s In Matters of Adam and Eve by the young East German author
Rudi Strahl, a light-hearted look at the challenges of married life. What
such plays presented were not role models but relatable characters that
could help viewers with their everyday problems. As the STL’s chief dra-
matist explained, ‘theatre cannot give the answer, but can only develop
viewers’ enjoyment, encouraging reflection and spiritual self-help’.68
In keeping with this attitude, the STL placed less emphasis on organis-
ing factory viewers. Season-ticket holders made up 70 % of the audience
in 1964 but just 52 % five years later.69 The very notion of a season ticket

changed as well: from 1968, the STL began to sell packages that covered
just three to four shows and allowed subscribers to choose the ones they
wanted.70 In many ways, this meant a return to pre-1950 practices, when
workers received special discounts but were not compelled to show up
en masse. By the late 1960s, though, workers had many more options
for spending their free time—notably television, which could be found
in three of four GDR households.71 From 1965 to 1975, attendance at
the STL declined by a full quarter, plunging the theatres into financial
trouble.72 The STL was forced to cut a sixth of its staff and put off neces-
sary renovations; two stages required special approval from the fire mar-
shal just to open for the 1970/1 season.73 While state subsidies covered
the theatres’ operational costs, they did not provide for new construction,
leaving existing buildings to decay. This was a logical consequence of the
SED’s consumerist attitude to culture. Officials spent heavily on art when
they saw it as a way of building socialism; once they came to view it as a
leisure-time activity, however, they had far less reason to invest. In Leipzig
District as a whole, funding for cultural infrastructure was 17 times higher
between 1956 and 1962 than in the subsequent six years.74 Cultural con-
sumerism made Leipzig’s Schauspielhaus more diverse and popular with
elite viewers, but it also undermined the theatre’s long-term prospects.
In Kraków, the Stary Teatr largely maintained the repertoire it had
adopted in 1956. Plays by Anouilh, Sartre, and Ionesco retained pride of
place, along with new works by Edward Albee and Peter Schaffer. Overall,
contemporary Western productions made up a third of all premieres over
the 1960s. Meanwhile, the theatre performed just one Soviet bloc play
per year, mostly as a way to appease city officials. As the Stary’s director-­
general explained, he aimed to find works that spoke to contemporary
audiences. ‘The Stary Teatr’s ambition is to […] carry on a dialogue with
its viewer’, he wrote in a 1965 programme; ‘it is precisely this dialogue,
the mutual influence of the viewer on the theatre and of the theatre on
the viewer, that gives a theatre its reason to be’.75 Many plays focused on
contemporary social issues like generational change and national identity,
often using elements of satire and the grotesque to make veiled political
allusions. One major production, The Match in the Palace by the 33-year-­
old Jarosław Abramow, told the story of an old servant who turned his
master’s abandoned palace into a museum to ‘old Poland’. ‘This is a play
about our own consciousness, about the difficulties of fitting a ­collective
term—Poland—to our private aspirations, ambitions, thoughts, [and]
dreams’, one critic observed.76

Such productions proved popular with both viewers and critics, but
they were unable to attract big crowds. Kraków’s theatre attendance per
capita fell by 40 % over the 1960s, producing the same problems as in
Leipzig.77 By the early 1970s, officials reported that just 14 out of 252
theatre stages in Kraków Province were in working order.78 True to its
name, the Stary Teatr had in fact become old; all its acclaimed produc-
tions unfolded in decrepit, dilapidated surroundings. To make ends meet,
the theatre put on variety shows like 1969’s Fair of Songs, which featured
‘well known, popular, and beloved actors singing songs by well known,
popular, and beloved composers’.79 The director-general viewed such pro-
ductions as a regrettable necessity, and complained about them bitterly.
‘As a theatre, we have simply been commercialized’, he lamented in 1971;
‘economic rigour has fundamentally overshadowed artistic criteria’.80 Yet
economic rigour and artistic freedom were two sides of the same coin.
Under Stalinism, state control had insulated the Stary Teatr from fi
­ nancial
concerns, but after 1956 one set of pressures gave way to another. As
theatre administrators discovered, independence from the state brought
dependence on the market.
The main trends of the 1960s only intensified in the next two decades.
In Leipzig, total theatre attendance continued to decline; by 1989, the
STL had just half as many viewers as in 1964.81 Material conditions also
worsened, forcing officials to shut down the Schauspielhaus’s sister stage,
the Kammerspiele, in 1978.82 Though Karl Kayser remained in charge,
the STL began to stage controversial works by younger playwrights like
Volker Braun and Ulrich Plenzdorf. The director-general himself called
for an ‘aesthetic openness’, encouraging actors and directors to move
beyond realism and develop ‘individual styles’.83 Meanwhile, Kraków’s
Stary Theatre gained international fame in the early 1970s for new
­interpretations of Polish classics. Under renowned directors like Andrzej
Wajda, the ensemble toured Europe with productions of works by Adam
Mickiewicz and Stanisław Wyspiański. As Poland’s economy deteriorated,
the Stary Teatr grew increasingly political. ‘There are almost no plays that
don’t touch on contemporary issues in a tendentious way’, city authori-
ties complained in 1984.84 In Kraków as in Leipzig, theatre staff played
an active part in popular protests in 1989. Designed to support East
European regimes, communist theatre ultimately accelerated their demise.

Both Leipzig’s Schauspielhaus and Kraków’s Stary Teatr changed

enormously over the communist era. Yet their social function was not
fundamentally different in 1989 than it had been in 1945: each theatre
sought to attract viewers by staging popular plays. Some productions were
meant to entertain, others to shock or to spur reflection. All of them,
however, aimed to please viewers, convincing them to keep buying tickets.
The notion of the theatregoer as a willing consumer is so ingrained today
that it is usually taken for granted. Even under communism, this is the
notion that guided theatre for most of the postwar period. What stands
out, though, is the brief phase of didactic theatre, which lasted about six
years in Kraków (1950 to 1956) and roughly twice as long in Leipzig
(1950 to the early 1960s). During this time, theatres treated viewers as
students to be taught, or patients to be cured; wilful consumption gave
way to enforced reception. Theatre stopped trying to satisfy popular tastes
and set out to transform them instead. The impetus for didactic theatre
came from state officials, who believed that art would help build a new
socialist society. These officials banned certain plays and censored others,
but their role was far more than restrictive: they bussed millions of work-
ers to the theatre, invested heavily in theatre infrastructure, and commis-
sioned hundreds of new plays. What Soviet bloc officials set up was an
alternative model of theatre, with a unique relationship to its viewers and
its repertoire.
Didactic theatre was a direct outgrowth of the cultural Cold War. By
regulating what theatres put on, officials sought to expose residents to
‘beneficial’ socialist plays and insulate them from ‘pernicious’ Western
influences. A single stage could reach thousands of viewers each day, teach-
ing Marxist values and promoting a patriotic worldview. This made theatre
into an important Cold War weapon: while foreign tours legitimated com-
munism in the eyes of the world, domestic performances actually con-
structed it at home. Yet theatres also carried a potential risk. By putting
on too many Western plays, communist theatres could end up benefiting
the other side. ‘Anything that does not help us, hurts us’, Karl Kayser
explained in 1958.85 For this reason, didactic theatre defined itself as the
polar opposite of theatre in the West: it was not individualist, commercial,
or classist. Once the didactic phase came to an end, however, communist
theatres themselves adopted all these traits. Both the Stary Teatr and the
Schauspielhaus came to sell seats to elite viewers by promising personal sat-
isfaction. To be sure, major differences from the West remained. State offi-
cials continued to censor repertoires, encourage working-class ­attendance,

and subsidise productions. In one key way, though, communist theatres

began to operate on the same premise as capitalist ones: they treated the
viewer as a consumer, and put on plays that audiences wanted to see.
This opened the door to Western works, which many viewers requested.
It also complicated efforts to define a socialist dramaturgy: as Western
plays became more acceptable, new socialist drama increasingly came to
look like them. Attention to popular preferences thus undermined the
distinctiveness of communist theatre. Well before the end of the Cold War,
‘socialist culture’ had ceased to offer a comprehensive alternative.

1. Kayser’s speech at the 5. Tagung der Stadtverordnetenversammlung, 7
June 1962, StVuR(1) 230, 285, Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
2. Ibid., 296.
3. See, for example, David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for
Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2005); Giles Scott-Smith and Hans Krabbendam (eds), The Cultural
Cold War in Western Europe, 1945–1960 (London: Routledge, 2004); Yale
Richmond, Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain
(University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003); Arch
Puddington, Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free
Europe and Radio Liberty (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press,
2000); and Thomas Lindenberger (ed.), Massenmedien im Kalten Krieg.
Akteure, Bilder, Resonanzen (Cologne: Böhlau, 2005).
4. Greg Castillo has also used the phrase ‘Cold War on the Home Front’,
albeit in a different context: his book explores the Cold War competition
over domestic spaces and interior design. See Greg Castillo, Cold War on
the Home Front: The Soft Power of M ­ idcentury Design (Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
5. General studies of cultural policy in the GDR include Manfred Jäger,
Kultur und Politik in der DDR, 1945–1990 (Cologne: Edition Deutschland
Archiv, 1995); and David Bathrick, The Powers of Speech: The Politics of
Culture in the GDR (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
There is no equivalent overview of Polish cultural policy; studies on
particular periods include Barbara Fijalkowska, Polityka i twórcy
(1948–1959) (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1985); and
Andrzej Krajewski, Między wspólpracą a oporem: Tworcy kultury wobec
systemu politycznego PRL (1975–1980) (Warsaw: TRIO, 2004). On theatre
policy more specifically, see Petra Stuber, Spielräume und Grenzen: Studien
zum DDR-Theater (Berlin: Ch. Links, 1998), Laura Bradley, Cooperation

and Conflict: GDR Theater Censorship, 1961–1989 (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2010); and Kazimierz Braun, A History of Polish Theater,
1939–1989: Spheres of Captivity and Freedom (Westport, CT: Greenwood
Press, 1996).
6. Birgit Horn-Kolditz, Die Nacht, als der Feuertod vom Himmel stürzte.
Leipzig, 4. Dezember 1943 (Gudenberg-Gleichen: Wartberg Verlag, 2003),
7. Manfred Pauli, Theaterimperium an der Pleisse: Studien über Leipziger
Theater zu DDR-Zeiten (Schkeuditz: Schkeuditzer Buchverlag, 2004), 23.
8. Erich Zeigner, ‘Zum Beginn!’, Theaterprogramm für Sommernachtstraum,
14 December 1945, The Programmhefte Collection of the Deutsche
Nationalbibliothek Leipzig.
9. Leipzig repertoires are compiled from Wolfgang Engel and Erika Stephan
(eds), Theater in der Übergangsgesellschaft: Schauspiel Leipzig, 1957–2007
(Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2007).
10. For the purposes of this paper, a contemporary author is defined as one
living at the time of a play’s premiere in Kraków or Leipzig, or one who
had died less than ten years before.
11. On theatre administration before the Second World War, see Thomas
Höpel, Von der Kunst- zur Kulturpolitik: Städtische Kulturpolitik in
Deutschland und Frankreich 1918–1939 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2007).
12. Thomas Höpel, “Die Kunst dem Volke”: Städtische Kulturpolitik in Leipzig
und Lyon 1945–1989 (Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2011),
chapter 1.
13. Hermann Ley speaking on 4 January 1947. Wochenend-­Kulturtagung der
SED, SED Stadtleitung, IV/5/01/051/9, SStAL.
14. Tätigskeitsbericht 1945 des Volksbildungsamtes, StVuR(1) 7972, 34,
Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
15. These statistics cover eight seasons, from 1924/5 to 1931/2. They are
compiled from Leipzig theatre programmes, Rückblick auf die Spielzeit, in
the Programmhefte Collection of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek Leipzig.
16. Ibid.
17. Kultur im Dienst des Volkes, 15 October 1950, StVuR(1) 7973, 237–244,
Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
18. Ibid.
19. Wykaz teatrów na terenie miasta Krakowa, 1 November 1945, Urza ̨d
Wojewódzki 3846, 75, ANK.
20. See Organizacja opery w sezonie 1934/5, Kr5862, ANK.
21. As quoted in Laurie Koloski, Painting Kraków Red: Politics and Culture in
Postwar Poland, 1945–1950, PhD dissertation (Stanford University, 1998),

22. Repertoires for the Stary Teatr are available on the theatre’s website:
http://stary.pl/content.php?url=page/archiwum, accessed 15 March
2016. Premieres at the Słowacki Theatre are compiled in Diana Poskuta-
Włodek, Co dzień powtarza sie gra… Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego w
Krakowie, 1893–1993 (Cracow: ARTA, 1993).
23. Interwar repertoires are compiled from programmes in Teatr Miejski 22,
24. Sprawozdanie z posiedzenia odbytego z inicjatywy Województwa w dniu
28.3.46, Urza ̨d Wojewódzki 3846, 393, ANK.
25. Sprawozdanie Teatru Starego za okres 10.-12.1945, Urza ̨d Wojewódzki
3846, 645, ANK.
26. Plan Miejskiego Teatru Starego na rok 1947, Urza ̨d Wojewódzki 3802,
25, ANK.
27. Sprawozdanie Teatru Miejskiego za rok 1928/9, Teatr Miejski 28, 1101,
28. Plan Miejskiego Teatru Starego na rok 1947, Urza ̨d Wojewódzki 3802,
25, ANK.
29. Sprawozdanie Teatru Miejskiego za rok 1928/9, Teatr Miejski 28, 1109,
30. Sprawozdanie z działalności Państwowych Teatrów Dramatycznych w
Krakowie, Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie 210, 588, ANK.
31. Arbeitsplan des III. und IV. Quartals des Amtes für Kunst und Kunstpflege,
StVuR(1) 2140, 4, Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
32. Ferdinand May, ‘Die Leipziger Bühnen und ihre neueste Entwicklung:
1950–1956’, in Leipziger Bühnen: Tradition und neues Werden, ed. Karl
Kayser (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1956), 26–31, 30.
33. Theatre programmes available in the Programmhefte Collection of the
Deutsche Nationalbibliothek Leipzig.
34. On the concept of didactic theatre, see Petra Stuber, Spielräume und
Grenzen: Studien zum DDR-Theater (Berlin: Ch. Links, 1998), 173–191.
35. Bericht über die Spielzeit 1951/2 der Städtischen Theater Leipzig,
StVuR(1) 8228, 148, Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
36. The attendance rate for Antigone was 45 %; for Dawn, Day, Night, it was
85 %, Bericht über die Spielzeit 1951/2 der Städtischen Theater Leipzig,
StVuR(1) 8228, 148, Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
37. Christoph Klessmann, Arbeiter im ‚Arbeiterstaat‘ DDR: Deutsche
Traditionen, sowjetisches Modell, westdeutsches Magnetfeld (1945 bis 1971)
(Bonn: Dietz, 2007), 289.
38. Einige statistische Zahlen über die Entwicklung auf dem Gebiet der Kultur,
6 April 1957, Bezirkstag und Rat des Bezirkes Leipzig, 2955, 24, SStAL.

39. Plan Miejskiego Starego Teatru na rok 1947, Urza ̨d Wojewódzki 3802,
25, ANK; and Plan Państwowego Teatru Słowackiego, 5 March 1949,
Urza ̨d Wojewódzki 3846, 1401, ANK.
40. Sprawozdanie z działalności Państwowych Teatrów Dramatycznych w
Krakowie, Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie 210, 617, ANK.
41. Sprawodzanie Dyrekcji Państwowych Teatrów Dramatycznych o realizacji
planu na rok 1953, Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie 210, 427, ANK.
42. Diana Poskuta-Włodek, Co dzień powtarza sie gra… Teatr im. Juliusza
Słowackiego w Krakowie, 1893–1993 (Cracow: ARTA, 1993), 185.
43. Sprawozdanie z działalności Państwowych Teatrów Dramatycznych w
Krakowie, Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie 210, 619, ANK.
44. Petra Stuber, Spielräume und Grenzen: Studien zum DDR-Theater (Berlin:
Ch. Links, 1998), 178.
45. These were John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World
and Nazim Hikmet’s Was There an Ivan Ivanovich? (translated by Alfred
Kurella as Who is Meier?).
46. Quoted in Thomas Irmer, ‘Ein letzter Kayser: Theater in Leipzig zwischen
1957 und 1989’, in Theater in der Übergangsgesellschaft: Schauspiel Leipzig,
1957–2007, ed. Wolfgang Engel and Erika Stephan (Berlin: Theater der
Zeit, 2007), 76–83, 83.
47. These included the SED’s Cultural Conference in October 1957; the Fifth
Party Congress in July 1958; and the First Bitterfeld Conference in March
48. Karl Kayser ‘Qualität in der Kunst—eine ideologische Frage’, Neues
Deutschland, 11 December 1961, 3 and Städtisches Theater Leipzig,
Vorschau der Spielzeit 1958/9, in the Programmhefte Collection of the
Deutsche Nationalbibliothek Leipzig.
49. Bericht von Karl Kayser zu Paul Fröhlich, 5.6.1965, SED Bezirksleitung
IV/A/2/9/359, SStAL.
50. The play was commissioned by the STL. Christoph Hamm, Stückanalyse
zu dem Schauspiel “Millionenschmidt” von H.  Kleineidam (Leipzig:
Zentralhaus für Kulturarbeit, 1963).
51. Städtische Theater Leipzig, Vorschau der Spielzeit 1958/9, in the
Programmhefte Collection of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek Leipzig.
52. Sitzung der Ständigen Kulturkommission, 17.3.1959, StVuR(1) 569, 56,
Stadtarchiv Leipzig; and 7. Tagung der Stadtverordnetenversammlung,
13.10.1966, StVuR(1) 255, 45, Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
53. Stadt Leipzig, Statistisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Leipzig 14 (1962).
54. Bericht der Parteileitung, 12.12.1966, SED Bezirksleitung,
IV/A/2/9/2/366/226, SStAL Leipzig.
55. Diana Poskuta-Włodek, Co dzień powtarza sie gra… Teatr im. Juliusza
Słowackiego w Krakowie, 1893–1993 (Cracow: ARTA, 1993), 194.

56. Andrzej Chwalba, Dzieje Krakowa: Kraków w latach 1945–1989 (Cracow:

Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2004), 297.
57. Jerzy Morawski, in O upowszechnienie kultury i oświaty. Materiały krajowej
narady działaczy kulturalno-oświatowych w dn. 18–19 grudnia 1958r.
(Warsaw: Ksia ̨zka i Wiedza, 1959), 18.
58. Ibid., 38–40.
59. Ibid., 88–89.
60. The handover took place on 1 October 1958. Rada Narodowa w m.
Krakowie, Dziennik Urzędowy Rady Narodowej w m. Krakowie, 1959.
61. Protokol scenograficzny obrad Sejmiku Kulturalnego w Krakowie,
3–4.12.1956. Prezydium Miejskiej Rady Narodowej w Krakowie
(1951–1960) 2575, 108, ANK.
62. Wojewódzki Urza ̨d Statystyczny w Krakowie, Rocznik statystyczny miasta
Krakowa (1965).
63. O problemach upowszechnienia kultury w miejsce Krakowie, 27 June
1960, Komitet Miejski PZPR w Krakowie 25, 178, ANK.
64. Sprawozdanie z działalności Państwowych Teatrów Dramatycznych w
Krakowie, Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie 210, 593, ANK; and
Środowisko Teatralne, 1961, Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie
1358, 87, ANK.
65. Hans Bentzien, Zweite Bitterfelder Konferenz 1964. Protokoll der von der
Ideologischen Kommission beim Politbüro des ZK der SED und dem
Ministerium für Kultur am 24. und 25. April im Kulturpalast des
Elektrochemischen Kombinats Bitterfeld abgehaltenen Konferenz ([East]
Berlin: Dietz, 1964), 55, 65.
66. Stefan Żółkiewski et  al., ‘Problemy przewidywania przyszłości a model
kultury’, Kultura i Społeczeństwo 9.4 (1969), 53.
67. Hans-Michael Richter, ‘Antworten stellen Fragen’, in Leipziger Theater
1965. Herausgegeben aus Anlass des 800jährigen Bestehens der Stadt Leipzig,
ed. Walter Bankel and Stephan Stompor (Leipzig: EA Seemann, 1965),
10–12, 11.
68. Ibid.
69. Stadt Leipzig, Statistisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Leipzig 17 and 22 (1965 and
70. Vorschau zur Saison 1968/9, in the Programmhefte collection of the
Deutsche Nationalbibliothek Leipzig.
71. Peter Hoff, ‘Zwischen Mauerbau und VIII Parteitag—Das Fernsehen in
der DDR von 1961 bis 1971’, in Geschichte des deutschen Fernsehens, ed.
Kurt Hickethier (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1998), 281–313, 285.
72. Stadt Leipzig, Statistisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Leipzig 18 (1966); and
‘Entwicklung im Zeitraum 1965–1975’, SED Bezirksleitung, IV/C/2/
9/2/686/42, SStAL.

73. Problemenkatalog der Städtischen Theater Leipzig, 14.21975, StVuR(1)

18228, 190, Stadtarchiv Leipzig; and ‘Bericht des Mitarbeiters für Kultur’,
4 December 1970, SED Stadtleitung, IV/B/5/1/215, SStAL.
74. Rat des Bezirkes der Stadt Leipzig, Analyse der materiell-­technischen Basis
der Kultureinrichtungen des Bezirkes Leipzig, SED Bezirksleitung,
IV/B/2/9/2/593, SStAL.
75. Zygmunt Hübner, ‘Nie-Boska 1965’, in Taki nam się snuje dramat…
Stary Teatr 1945–1995. Album wspomnień, ed. Dariusz Domański (Cracow:
Ati, 1997), 98–99, 98.
76. Stefan Treugutt as quoted online: http://filmpolski.pl/fp/index.
php/521601, accessed 15 March 2016.
77. Wojewódzki Urza ̨d Statystyczny w Krakowie, Rocznik statystyczny miasta
Krakowa (1961 and 1970).
78. Baza materialna kultury w regionie krakowskim i stopień jej wykorzystania,
Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie 1353, 17, ANK.
79. Maksymilian Szoc, ‘Piosenka nie zasta ̨pi teatru’, Echo Krakowa, nr 236
80. Jan Paweł Gawlik, in ‘Protokoły narad aktywu partyjnego’, 18 October
1971, Komitet Wojewódzki PZPR w Krakowie 1330, 101–106, ANK.
81. Kulturinformation und -dokumentation 38, Stadtarchiv Leipzig.
82. Manfred Pauli, Theaterimperium an der Pleisse: Studien über Leipziger
Theater zu DDR-Zeiten (Schkeuditz: Schkeuditzer Buchverlag, 2004), 97.
83. Kayser as quoted in ibid. 190.
84. Sprawa obiektowa ‘Arlekin’, Kr 08/324/1/171, IPN.
85. Zum Spielplan der STL, Spielzeit 1958/9, StVuR(1) 17277, 107,
Stadtarchiv Leipzig.

Acting, Artists and Art Between the


Years of Compromise and Political

Servility—Kantor and Grotowski during
the Cold War

Karolina Prykowska Michalak

When analysing the achievements of Polish theatre artists of the Cold War
period who were known to the global public it is impossible not to men-
tion the two most important directors of those times—Tadeusz Kantor
and Jerzy Grotowski. It should be stressed that they were not involved in
what would now be perceived as political theatre, nor were they actively
engaged in politics in the most prolific period of their creativity.1 The facts
and events described in this paper serve primarily to show the changing
circumstances in which Grotowski and Kantor were working and due to
which they achieved success on a global scale during the Cold War.
It is not the aim of this paper to compare and evaluate the artistic
biographies or creative achievements of the two directors. Disputes and
controversies regarding the supposed artistic competition between them
are beyond the scope of this study.2 However, in an attempt to present
the political and social background of the development of Polish the-
atre art, which in the said period achieved a supranational or even global

K.P. Michalak
University of Lodz, Lodz, Poland

© The Author(s) 2017 189

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_11

s­ tatus, the main stream of the paper’s narrative will focus on historical facts
that illuminate the relationships of the two artists with the communist
From today’s perspective it is interesting to present the manifold
relations between theatre and the waves of the communist regime, and
to pay particular attention to the diverse attitudes to the regime—not
only the compromise and servility indicated in the title of this paper, but
also specific strategies of ‘taming’ the authorities and using the ‘system’
to secure the best conditions for creative work. This paper does not make
clear judgements about Kantor’s and Grotowski’s attitudes to the com-
munist authorities because such judgements would have to include a num-
ber of factors which this study can only mention in passing.
Since, as has already been said, the narrative of this paper is not compar-
ative, it follows a chronological order, especially as it is crucial to illustrate
that the Cold War in Poland (1949–90) can be divided into several phases
characterised by various degrees of governmental interference in art and,
consequently, by changing relations between artists and politics as well as
a changing global perception of those relations.

Stalinism—Socialist Realism (1949–55)

The period of Stalinism was exceptionally difficult, yielded the larg-
est number of victims and resulted in severe moral loss. The doctrine of
Socialist Realism in Polish art was approved during the unification con-
gress of the Polish Worker’s Party (PPR—Polska Partia Robotnicza) and
the Polish Socialist Party (PPS—Polska Partia Socialistyczna) in December
1948. In the following years, the principles for developing socialist culture
in Poland were set out as the Party3 aimed to make art a tool of propa-
ganda that would help to create a new socialist reality. Employing such
principles, however, was not possible without making the artists aware
of their objectives. Therefore, the process of implementation of Socialist
Realism was preceded by a series of congresses for individual artistic cir-
cles.4 For the purposes of this paper, two such events will be considered:
the congress of playwrights, theatre people and theatre critics that took
place in June 1949 in Obory near Warsaw, and a meeting of artists work-
ing in the fine arts, in Nieborów in February 1949. The participants of
the congress in Obory offered general support for the idea, a standard
practice of such meetings, but the declarations of support were not really
reflected in actual artistic activities. Key administrative changes that were

important for theatrical circles, such as the nationalisation of theatres and

imposing central supervision of the state and the Party over the reper-
toire, were introduced without any consultation. According to specialist
literature,5 the dominating event of the congress in Obory was the speech
of Włodzimierz Sokorski, the deputy minister of culture, in which he pre-
sented the authorities’ expectations of the artists. Amongst the theatre
artists invited to take part in the congress there was no one willing to
oppose Sokorski and consciously criticise all forms of intervention by the
authorities in artistic creativity.
At the meeting in Nieborów, in contrast, the participants, including
Tadeusz Kantor, criticised any attempts to impose restrictions on art.
Kantor protested against restricting the development of Polish art (he had
in mind mainly avant-garde and abstract art) which, he believed, should
develop alongside European art. Neither the congress in Nieborów nor
the meeting in Obory, however, offered any clear solutions or decisions
concerning the future of Polish art. The published statements of Tadeusz
Kantor defending an artist’s individuality and supporting elitism in arts
education (which was very much against the idea of the public nature of
education promoted by the state) illustrate his attitude towards commu-
nist rule, but also towards his own life. As he said, ‘a real artist observes
with dislike and disgust how freedom and independence of art is being
stifled by the yoke of “state prestige.”’.6 Later on, Kantor and other
Kraków artists, such as Maria Jaremianka, for example, participated in sev-
eral discussions on the future direction of Polish art. He also thought
about organising a congress of artists working in the fine arts to pro-
mote modern art and he wrote to the minister of culture about this. The
ministry, however, had very specific guidelines for the implementation of
the principles of Socialist Realism. In the end, the aesthetics of Socialist
Realism was not, as initially planned, willingly accepted, but imposed by
the government. As Święcicki writes, ‘It undoubtedly affected its [socialist
realism’s] superficial reception and artistic weakness. Very quickly, as soon
as historical circumstances changed, Polish art freed itself from its limita-
tions. Kantor is definitely to be credited for this.’7
Still, it must be stressed that Kantor’s defence of Polish art against
Socialist Realism stemmed from his strong conviction that an avant-garde
artist does not follow rules. It was not, therefore, an attitude that could
have become a manifesto in a strictly political sense. Kantor was never a
member of the opposition, so his art (mainly painting in that period) was
not directly involved in fighting the regime.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the political aspect of avant-garde art was
seen mainly in its incompatibility with the official policy laid down by the
authorities (seen, for example, in theatre repertoires). The Party refused
to accept anything that did not conform to the accepted canon. Artists
who failed to comply with the official policy were withdrawn from pub-
lic spheres. Tadeusz Kantor, for example, following his public speeches
defending the freedom of art in 1950, lost his position as professor at
the Fine Arts School (Wyższa Szkoła Sztuk Plastycznych) in Kraków.8
Struggling to retain his only source of income he appealed to the dep-
uty minister Sokorski himself. Sokorski did not rescind the decision to
fire Kantor, but instead used a method that was very often employed by
the Party and was meant to encourage people’s cooperation: harassment
and persecution were followed by a pardon. Kantor, therefore, lost his
professorship, but from 1 September 1950 was employed as a full-time
stage designer in Kraków’s State Dramatic Theatres (Państwowe Teatry
Dramatyczne), Teatr Stary and Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, where he had
already worked in 1947.
At that time, Kantor was also employed as an instructor for a
community-­centre reciting group at the Regional Cultural Centre of
Trade Unions (Wojewódzki Dom Kultury Zwia ̨zków Zawodowych),
located in Palace under the Rams (Pałac pod Baranami), where he ran
a theatre course and supervised a Working-class Team. Justifying these
activities, he later explained that he had been doing them out of an
irresistible desire to influence a mass audience.9 With the Working-
class Team Kantor would put on the plays of communist playwrights,
which were often openly propagandist. In June 1949, for example,
Let the Lumberjack Wake Up by Pablo Neruda, a Chilean propo-
nent of the USSR mission, was performed in the courtyard of Pod
Baranami. The following year, the Team under Kantor’s supervision
showed the stage installation Generał Walter, commemorating General
Karol Świerczewski, a colonel in the Red Army. Kantor also presented
General Świerczewski in a gouache entitled The Legend of General
Walter (1950). In the following years, the future author of The Dead
Class also designed decorations for the metropolitan May Day marches.
In recognition of these and other achievements, he was awarded the
Gold Cross of Merit in 1954 and the Medal of the 10th Anniversary of
People’s Poland in 1955. He was also awarded a d ­ istinction from the
Committee of State Awards for his stage design work. He accepted all
these state awards.

Kantor’s biographers and experts on his work justify these cases of

cooperation with the communist authorities in economic terms: Kantor
was obliged to perform commissioned professional work in order to earn
the money to support himself. Yet, as is often stressed, those projects did
not involve any artistic compromises. Moreover, in the Stalinist period
he did not present his paintings at state exhibitions,10 which is another
example of Kantor’s uncompromising attitude to his creative style.
He himself wrote:

To describe that period a historian must be highly sensitive, able to assess

events that affected the most delicate and deepest layers of an artist’s condi-
tion and of artistic creativity. […] For me and for those few who ‘refused’,
it was a hard time. To avoid big words, we simply defended our personal
honesty. You can call it defending the freedom of thought and imagination,
or non-conformism, or awareness.11

The radical character of the period of Socialist Realism left its mark on
the biographies of many artists. Still, it was not to last long and a lot of
artists quickly managed to erase the restrictions that had inhibited their
work. It should be stressed that in the Stalinist period the terror tactics
directed at any refusal to cooperate with the authorities, or opposition
towards such cooperation, were particularly severe. It was unquestion-
ably the most difficult period as far as the international activities of Polish
artists were concerned. Tadeusz Kantor, for example, was practically cut
off from the dynamically developing international modern art during the
Stalinist period.

The 60s: Gomułka’s Reign (1956–70)

The year 1955 brought hope that the conditions for developing art would
improve. During the spring session of the Art Council (Rada Kultury)
there were voices advocating the need to re-evaluate the concept of
Socialist Realism, and at the congress of the Polish Theatre and Film
Artists Association (SPATiF—Stowarzyszenie Polskich Artystów Teatru i
Filmu) there was a heated discussion about the need to reform the politics
of culture. Jan Kott, Julian Przyboś and Antoni Słonimski, among oth-
ers, critically assessed the art and ideology of the 1949–55 period.12 The
concept of a ‘thaw’, referring to the mitigation of the communist regime,
was taken from Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel The Thaw (1954), a critique of

Stalin’s regime. Political changes were initiated in 1956, when the new
First Secretary of the PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party), Władysław
Gomułka, was appointed. Still, the decade was hardly idyllic. One can-
not ignore such events as the attack of the Warsaw Pact13 troops on
Czechoslovakia, a wave of students’ strikes in 1968 and the anti-Semitic
campaign. Paradoxically, it was at that time, the time of strict political cen-
sorship, that Cricot 2 and the Theatre of 13 Rows were created. Ludwik, a
witness to such events and co-creator of the Theatre of 13 Rows, remem-
bering those times said:

The fact is that the Polish People’s Republic, the state of real socialism and
limited independence, hosted great culture of global significance. […] Of
course, it would not have been possible during the total Stalinist tyranny, but
after 1956 in Poland the autocracy was permeable and sick, it was ashamed
of itself. Apart from some moments of crisis when it tried to treat itself very
seriously, the tyranny constantly had to noisily prove its right to exist, first by
claiming its role in rebuilding the country after the war, and then by using
geopolitics, cold raison d’état without a vision of a bright future.14

Characteristically, many artists of that period used the above-mentioned

‘holes’ in the autocracy and had their own specific strategies for exploiting
the system to preserve as much of their artistic creation as possible. There
are many legends and anecdotes about how cleverly the authorities were
outwitted. These stories were sometimes used as publicity in international
relations, or were interpreted, depending on the situation, as evidence of
oppositional activity or the authorities’ restrictive policies.
During the thaw many artistic initiatives could be realised. In November
1955, the House of Artists (Dom Plastyków) in Kraków hosted an exhi-
bition of modern art, an event that is considered to mark the beginning
of an association called II Kraków Group (II Grupa Krakowska).15 At the
same time, Cricot 2 theatre was created as a joint artistic enterprise under
the auspices of the Group.16
As Kantor’s importance in artistic circles increased and his interna-
tional status developed, the security services began to take an interest
in him. When he was given a passport in 1961, ‘he was registered as
operational contact “k.o. Kant” and, according to a report by an SB17
officer, captain Janiga, he was obliged to provide assistance to the SB in
matters of interest to the authorities (specifically regarding Polish art-
ists who had emigrated).’18 Monitoring foreign influences on all kinds

of ­activities, including artistic activities, was one of the basic tasks of the
secret ­services, which is why practically every Pole going abroad was
forced to contact the SB.
Around the same time, Jerzy Grotowski began his artistic career. Ludwik
Flaszen, Grotowski’s long-time theatre partner, recalls that in 1955, after
graduating from the drama school in Kraków, Grotowski received a presti-
gious scholarship from the Moscow drama school GITIS19 and set off on
a trip to India. It should be stressed that Grotowski had learned how to
flatter the authorities and exploit the system’s naivety many years before,
during entrance exams to the Kraków drama school. According to Slowiak
and Cuesta, Grotowski in 1950 ‘during entrance exams got […] very
poor grades in practical tests, including a fail in diction. Luckily, he scored
high grades from an essay How can theatre contribute to the development of
socialism in Poland? and thanks to that he was conditionally admitted to
the acting programme.’20 This clearly illustrates the absurdities that gov-
erned the communist system.
Grotowski, however, later proved to be an outstanding student and was
awarded the GITIS scholarship. He spent one year in Moscow studying
under the supervision of Yuri Zavadsky, who not only taught the Polish
student the art of theatre directing, but also shared with him his personal
dilemma regarding cooperation with the authorities in return for mate-
rial prosperity. Zavadsky regretted the fact that he had yielded to the sys-
tem and warned Grotowski against such decisions. This incident is often
quoted in studies about Grotowski. Eugenio Barba in his Land of Ashes
and Diamonds writes as follows: ‘Forty years later in Holstebro Grotowski
refers to that incident as a turning point in his life. He recalls that […]
he saw that moment as a scene of Christ’s temptation by Satan, only à
rebours, and he kept asking himself the question […] whether he could
have endured in Poland without those words.’21
Having returned to Poland from Moscow, from 1956 onwards,
Grotowski became involved in promoting pluralist factions in youth
movements,22 publicly criticised Stalinism and was one of the founders
of the Political Centre of the Academic Left of the Union of Socialist
Youth (Polityczny Ośrodek Lewicy Akademickiej, or ZMS) established in
1957, a group of young, radically leftist intelligentsia. This faction, how-
ever, was quickly dissolved, which automatically made Grotowski leave
the ZMS. At that moment his political activism ended, and although he
still remained a member of PZPR he was never personally active again.
Kosiński in his Przewodnik writes:

When many years later, during the last meeting with a Polish audience in
Wrocław, on 3 March 1997, young people attacked Grotowski, accusing
him of having run an official theatre in a totalitarian country his response
was very sober. As I remember, he said: We could have done nothing and
lost our one and only chance, or we could try to do as much as possible in
the existing circumstances.23

From 1959 Jerzy Grotowski, together with Ludwik Flaszen, ran the
Theatre of 13 Rows in Opole. As it was not a municipal repertoire
theatre, it was not obliged to conform to the canon, and Flaszen and
Grotowski managed to negotiate special conditions with the culture
department. Their theatre was to assume the status of a ‘“professional
experimental theatre” whose aim was to work towards the creation of
a new form of theatrical arts in line with the views of its artistic direc-
tor.’24 Establishing an experimental theatre, which was still controlled
as it was partly subsided by the city council, was a national precedent.
The element of experimentation indicated that the theatre was unique
and elitist, which evidently clashed with the political doctrine advocat-
ing popularisation of art. For this reason, the authorities kept remind-
ing the theatre management about their obligations towards People’s
These obligations were usually met in a rather symbolic way, such as
by creating the Friends of the Theatre Society (Koło Przyjaciół Teatru
13 Rzędów), organising lectures and readings to prove the social value
of the theatre or establishing the so-called ‘Journalistic Platform’ that
gathered documents, literary texts and audio-visual materials. Such activ-
ities were very simple and they were presented during workers’ rallies.
In April 1961, in Kędzierzyn, for example, a Theatre Gala took place at
the Culture Centre of the ‘Azoty’ Chemical Industries Plant (Zakładowy
Dom Kultury Zakładów Przemysłu Chemicznego ‘Azoty’). It was organ-
ised by the Theatre of 13 Rows, the regional committee of the Union
of Socialist Youth (ZMS) and the Workers’ Council. In addition to a
dance party, the programme included Jerzy Grotowski’s lecture and two
productions—“Mystery Bouffe” and the famous “Shakuntalā”. In 1962,
the Theatre Prepared Workers’ Oratory, a show staged as part of the
Journalistic Platform initiative for the twentieth anniversary of the forma-
tion of the Polish Worker’s Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza). According
to the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, it is ‘the most glaring of the artistic
compromises into which the Theatre of 13 Rows was forced.’25

Here the ambivalence that characterised the strategies of the commu-

nist government is worth noting. On the surface, it was friendly towards
the experimental theatre; this was manifested, for example, in awarding
Grotowski ‘a distinction for his cultural and educational activities among
young workers’ in 196126 or in supporting his international trips.27 In
fact, however, the authorities were very critical towards his art, mainly
because it was barely understood by the majority of the rather primitive
party dignitaries.28 It should be noted that the theatre’s management con-
stantly had to struggle with the ministry of culture to obtain funds that
would make further work possible. Various endeavours29 that were some-
times interpreted as servility towards the authorities could be understood
as attempts to preserve Grotowski’s team. In the end, however, Grotowski
was forced to move the theatre to Wrocław.
Summing up the Opole period of the theatre’s activity, it must
be stressed that the Theatre of 13 Rows—and later the Laboratory
Theatre—was an institutional theatre that was supervised by the
state, which meant it was inevitably anchored in various state struc-
tures, including various party structures. Primary Party Organisations
(Podstawowe Organizacje Partyjne, the so-called POP) had operated
in theatres since the 1950s, and on 1 February 1951 an act was passed
automatically including the directors and artistic directors of all state
theatres in the Central Committee of the Party (Komitet Centralny,
PZPR).30 Grotowski as the head of the theatre dealt with all formal
issues related to its functioning, but the elusive and experimental qual-
ity of his work, as well as the increasing popularity and success of his
productions, provoked the animosity of the local authorities and of the
ministry of culture.
The mid-1960s witnessed the beginning of the increased interest of
foreign artists and theatre specialists in Grotowski’s productions and
his techniques of working with actors. Dariusz Kosiński recalls one of
‘the most spectacular legends comprising the history of the Laboratory
Theatre’,31 the so-called ‘Łódź excursion’ that took place in June 1963. At
the same time as the theatre was performing in Łódź, the Tenth Congress
of the International Theatre Institute was held in Warsaw. Encouraged
by Eugenio Barba, members of the congress travelled to Łódź, where
the Laboratory Theatre performed Doctor Faustus for them. As Kosiński
writes, this performance was called ‘the most important production of
an avant-garde theatre in the world. This crazy excursion resulted in the
Laboratory Theatre being invited to take part in the subsequent seasons

of Théâtre des Nations in Paris.’32 Until 1966, however, the ministry of

culture would not allow the theatre company to go to Paris and take
part in this international festival. Only after an invitation from Jean-Louis
Barrault, director of the Théâtre des Nations at the time, was the com-
pany allowed to go to Paris, where a world audience could watch The
Constant Prince.
On numerous occasions, Grotowksi used his international fame and
position in the theatre world to negotiate with the authorities, especially
playing on the Polish government’s concern about its positive image
abroad after the events of 1968 and the end of Gomułka’s era. Showing
the human face of communism, for example, through the development of
avant-garde art, was an element of state propaganda during the Cold War.
As far as limitations directly related to the Cold War were concerned,
Grotowski was barely involved in any political confrontation. One of the
few such cases took place in 1968, when, after the troops of the Warsaw
Pact invaded Czechoslovakia, the USA refused to grant visas to the
Laboratory Theatre members as part of the sanctions against countries
that had participated in the invasion. This decision was criticised in artistic
circles, who issued a letter to the Department of State protesting against
such practices.33 In the end, the theatre group and Grotowski came to the
USA in 1969.

The 1970s
Analysing the phenomenon of the long-term influence of the West
European avant-garde on Polish culture (until 1975), art historians stress
that in the Gierek era (the 1970s) the Polish government accepted the
aforementioned propaganda strategy of presenting a slightly different
image of a communist country in the West. Modern art was one of the
elements of that strategy as it was supposed to ‘make Western public opin-
ion believe that the Polish regime is quite liberal. Allowing Polish artists to
travel abroad was an attempt to reduce the importance of such emigration
elites as, for example, “Kultura” in Paris, in opinion forming.’34
In the 1970s Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor quite regularly and
actively participated in international artistic life. They would receive grants
and scholarships, and their teams would travel on tours to both Western
Europe and the USA.  This does not mean, however, that they were
independent from the government. The policy of international trips was
strictly monitored and art was censored because dependency on Moscow

still had to be taken into consideration. For this reason, a certain degree
of ambivalence of the authorities towards, for example, Kantor’s theatre
can be observed.
The 1969 marks the beginning of Kantor’s world fame, which resulted
in various state persecutions. In the same year Cricot 2 was invited by
the Roman Museum of Modern Art to take part in the theatre festival
Premino Roma in Rome. Afterwards, the theatre company went on tour
in Italy. Italian critics said that The Water Hen was the most inspiring event
of the festival. The Italian press highly praised the Polish production, and
a theatre magazine, Sipario, devoted a long section to Kantor. The Polish
embassy in Rome also spoke positively about the event. In contrast, the
performance of Cricot 2 in Kraków was dismissed by the Polish press in a
short report, and generally the theatre never received a lot of official press.
What is more, immediately after the team returned from Italy, the culture
department of the city of Kraków reduced the subsidy for the Kraków
Group which was financing Kantor’s team, justifying the decision by citing
a lack of prior consent for the excessive costs of the team’s trip to Italy. In
the same month the rector of Kraków Academy of Fine Arts fired Kantor
from his position as professor.
In this period there were many similar incidents of friction between
Kantor and the communist authorities. One of the most famous incidents
of the early 1970s is worth mentioning. Richard Demarko, the organ-
iser of the Edinburgh festival, wrote an official letter to the Polish min-
istry of culture inviting Cricot 2 to the festival. The ministry, completely
ignoring the existence of a non-institutional theatre (which was therefore
beyond the control of censorship and the authorities), even though it was
known all over Europe, replied to Demarko that neither Kantor’s theatre
nor Cricot 2 theatre existed in any official registers. The ministry instead
offered to send Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre, a state theatre and an
official representative of Polish theatrical art. In the end, Demarko invited
Kantor’s theatre privately, outside of the official international exchange,
and covered all expenses. Kantor repeatedly mentions this in interviews
and debates, strongly stressing that his theatre had never officially been
part of the Polish People’s Republic’s international cultural exchange,
and that Cricot 2 had never been an official or institutional theatre. The
instability of Cricot 2’s formal status, often interpreted in the West as an
example of the harassment of artists behind the Iron Curtain, was a result
of quite day-to-day considerations, such as the low budget of the Kraków
culture department. In fact, in moments of financial crisis, Kantor often

personally motioned for his theatre to be recognised and subsidised by

the state authorities. His requests were not acknowledged, however, and
Kantor’s theatre never received any subsidies.
Writing about the compromise between Grotowski and the govern-
ment in the 1970s, Kosiński states: ‘it seems that Grotowski’s […] activi-
ties were in many ways quite convenient […] for the Party. […] I think
that Grotowski was aware of it and played his game with cold calcula-
tion, thus obtaining funds that others (not only in Poland) could only
dream of.’35 Enumerating the qualities of Grotowski’s activity that could
be seen as advantageous by the authorities, Kosiński notes, for example,
the fact that Grotowski’s theatre could have been seen as the state’s ally
in the conflict with the Catholic Church. It should be remembered that
in 1967 Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński condemned the Laboratory Theatre’s
production Apocalypsis cum figuris as ‘one of the works that deprave the
Polish nation and corrupt its ethical frame in the same way as alcohol-
ism.’36 Another indication of the servile character of Grotowski’s actions
in the 1970s is the fact that he kept his distance from the events of June
1980 and the establishment of Solidarity (Solidarność).

The 1980s: The Solidarity Period

The beginning of the 1980s in Poland—with the introduction of martial
law on 13 December 1981—was a breakthrough moment in the Cold
War for many theatre artists and audiences. A few weeks after martial law
was introduced actors began boycotting radio and television. Most artists
shared the ideals of the Solidarity movement. According to the announce-
ment of the independent association of stage and screen artists, ‘A col-
laborator is a person who agrees that his/her name, face, voice or talent
be used for propagandist purposes and to justify violence. In our circles,
a collaborator is a person who appears in or makes TV productions and
films, or radio programmes and radio plays.’37 As it later turned out,
not only was a refusal to join the boycott seen as wrong, but it was also
extremely important that one supported the protesting actors or identified
with them, and belonged to the Solidarity of stage and screen actors.
Jerzy Grotowski, as his biographers stress, expected to be arrested when
martial law was declared.38 Kosiński, however, never mentions this, perhaps
believing it to be a reference employed by Slowiak and Cuesta to create
a particular image of Grotowski. The fact is that Grotowski had been a
member of the Party the whole time. He spent the first month of martial

law in Wrocław, where in the home of his theatre he organised workshops

for students who received the Ministry of Culture and Art scholarships
(sic!). The following month, with support from abroad, Grotowski went
to Holstebro in Denmark, and in August 1982 he emigrated from Poland
for good.39 Kosiński believes that Grotowski’s decision to apply for the
status of a political immigrant in the USA in July 1983 (after martial law
was lifted) was quite unfortunate. As he claims,

It was […] a tactical decision but from the Polish perspective it was rather
grotesque, taking into consideration the fact that Grotowski had rather ami-
able relations with the authorities and his work had been state funded for
many years. Political asylum was granted to a long-term member of the
Party, who never openly spoke against communism, and who was on the
whole loyal to the government.40

In 1980 Kantor’s theatre premiered Wielopole, Wielopole in Teatro

Regionale Toscano in Florence. The performance later went on a world
tour. In 1980 Kantor also decided to present his performance in the show-
room of the Gdańsk Shipyard, which proved to be a spectacular disas-
ter. The audience became so agitated that some people tried to stop the
performance, showering abuse on the director and actors for degrading
sacred national issues. Another unfortunate step that Kantor made was
his lack of support for the actors’ boycott, a decision that many still hold
against him.41 By then Kantor was immensely successful and to secure his
future career he decided that he was above all artistic boycotts. Moreover,
during martial law he accepted the Commander’s Cross of the Order
of Polonia Restituta. In the opinion of artistic circles,42 he was primar-
ily concerned with his international career, which could be jeopardised if
his passport was withheld. This is one of the reasons why he joined the
touring Theatre of the Republic (Teatr Rzeczpospolitej) created by the
communist authorities following the actors’ boycott. The objective of the
Theatre was to take the greatest Polish productions to the four corners of
the country.
Kantor was probably also fully aware of what he was doing when in
1984 he supported the opposition by performing at the peak of the Cold
War in Los Angeles at a festival organised just before the Olympic Games,
and which had been boycotted by the USSR and satellite countries.
In addition to Wielopole, The Dead Class was revived especially for the
­occasion. During the festival there were nine performances of Kantor’s

shows, and Kantor’s speeches accompanying those shows became quite

famous. American journalists wanted to make his performances part of a
political discourse, but at the very beginning at a press conference Kantor
firmly stated that he was interested neither in politics nor in sport. It was
at this time that he gave his famous explanation for why he continued to
remain in Poland: ‘I know the situation of many painters and writers who
emigrated from Poland to live and work abroad, but in my opinion an art-
ist needs a wall in front of him to bang his head against that wall. I found
such a wall in Poland.’43
It is symptomatic that in 1985 Grotowski, who emigrated in 1982,
said something very similar: ‘I work hard not to make empty speeches but
to increase the scope of liberties that I believe in; my duty is not to make
political declarations but to knock out holes in a wall.’44
Making artistically independent theatre in communist Poland may seem
an unprecedented situation. This paper has tried to show that the activities
of the artists discussed were based on a specific ability to cooperate with
the regime. Thanks to the compromises and servility mentioned in the title
of the paper, it was still possible to develop the most important Western
artistic trends of the twentieth century in Polish theatre. The question of
whether the artistic creativity of Grotowski and Kantor should be assessed
in aesthetic or moral terms is, however, a problem for another study.
Translated by Magdalena Cieślak

1. In the years 1956–57 Grotowski was a member of a faction that was in
opposition to the Polish Youth Association (Zwia ̨zek Młodzieży Polskiej—
ZMP—a communist organisation active in 1948–57, supervised by the
Party and whose purpose was the political and ideological education of
young Poles).
2. For those interested in this aspect see Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz, ‘Kantor—
Grotowski: między maglem a wiecznościa ̨’, Performer 2 (2009), http://
maglem-wiecznoscia and Zbigniew Osiński, ‘Kantor i Grotowski: dwa
teatry, dwie wizje’, Dialog 12 (1996), 144–156.
3. The Party is to be understood as the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR).
4. For instance, the Congress of the Trade Union of Polish Writers (Zwia ̨zek
Zawodowy Literatów Polskich) in Szczecin in January 1949; the congress of
playwrights, theatre people and theatre critics in Obory in June 1949; the
congress of architects in Warsaw in June 1949; the Congress of the Association

of Polish Artists and Designers (Zwia ̨zek Polskich Artystów Plastyków) in

Katowice in April 1949; the conference of composers in Łagów in August
1949; the congress of filmmakers in Wisła in November 1949.
5. See Małgorzata Jarmułowicz, Sezony błędów i wypaczeń, socrealizm w
dramacie i teatrze polskim (Gdansk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu
Gdańskiego, 2003).
6. As quoted in Pleśniarowicz, ‘Kantor—Grotowski’. Unless otherwise indi-
cated, all quotations from Polish sources were translated by Magdalena
7. Klaudiusz Święcicki, Historia w teatrze Tadeusza Kantora (Poznan:
Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2007), 161.
8. Up to 1950 there were two art schools in Kraków, until they were merged
into The Academy of Fine Arts.
9. Before the war, the Kraków Group (Grupa Krakowska) also used to orga-
nise experiments of this kind.
10. Except for two exhibitions, in 1950 and 1952, where his stage designs
were shown.
11. As quoted in Święcicki, Historia w teatrze Tadeusza Kantora, 182.
12. Marta Fik, Kultura polska po Jałcie, kronika lat 1944–1981 (Warsaw:
Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza, 1991), 283.
13. Układ Warszawski—The Warsaw Treaty Organisation of Friendship,
Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (1955–91).
14. As quoted in Tadeusz Sobolewski, ‘Trzewik Montaigne’a’, Gazeta
Wyborcza.pl, 17 January 2010, http://wyborcza.pl/duzyformat/1,12729
15. In 1930–37 there was a Kraków Group at the Academy of Fine Arts in
Kraków. It was a student artistic society whose members practised modern
art corresponding to current European trends. It was the tradition of that
society to which the Kraków Group II, established in the 1950s, referred.
16. Cricot 2 did not become a theatre under Kantor’s sole supervision until the
early 1960s.
17. SB—Służba Bezpieczeństwa—Security Service of the Ministry of Home
18. Anna Baranowa, ‘“Linia Podziału” Tadeusza Kantora—wielość interpre-
tacji’, Dekada Literacka 6 (2006), http://www.dekadaliteracka.pl/?id=4365
19. The Russian University of Theatre Arts.
20. James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta, Jerzy Grotowski, transl. Koryna Dylewska
(Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2010), 15.
21. Eugenio Barba, Ziemia popiołu i diamentów, transl. Monika Gurgul
(Wroclaw: Ośrodek Badań Twórczości Jerzego Grotowskiego i Poszukiwań
Teatralno-Kulturowych, 2001), 27–28.

22. He had been a member of the Polish Youth Association (ZMP) since 1949,
and a member of PZPR since 1956 (Dariusz Kosiński, Grotowski.
Przewodnik (Wroclaw: Ośrodek Badań Twórczości Jerzego Grotowskiego
i Poszukiwań Teatralno-Kulturowych, 2009), 48).
23. Ibid., 51.
24. ‘Kalendarium życia i działalności twórczej Jerzego Grotowskiego’ (2012)
Instytut Im. Jerzego Grotowskiego, http://www.grotowski.net/narzedziownia/
kalendaria/jerzy-grotowski, accessed 15 March 2016.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. In 1962 Jerzy Grotowski was an official member of the Polish representa-
tion at the international seminar of experimental theatres organised as part
of the Eighth World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki. In the
same year, he visited the People’s Republic of China as an official delegate
of the Ministry of Culture and Arts’ team for theatre matters (‘Kalendarium
życia i działalności twórczej Jerzego Grotowskiego’).
28. Ludwik Flaszen recalls an event related to anti-Semitic propaganda in
1968, which is a very accurate illustration of the specific logic of the com-
munist government: ‘[Grotowski] was attacked in People’s Tribune
(Trybuna Ludu) for not doing the right job for the People’s Poland, a state
that nurtured him, and for talking about how poor his theatre was, clearly
complaining that he did not have sufficient means to run the Laboratory
Theatre. And to make matters worse, he was doing it in the terrible revi-
sionist West Germany!’ (Sobolewski, ‘Trzewik Montaigne’a’.
29. As the timeline of Jerzy Grotowski’s creative work created by the Grotowski
Institute in Wrocław states, on 19 June 1964 ‘The daily newspaper Trybuna
Opolska announces on its front page that five of the Laboratory Theatre’s
actors—Rena Mirecka, Andrzej Bielski, Ryszard Cieślak, Antoni
Jahołkowski and Zygmunt Molik—have joined the Polish United Workers
Party and become members of the Primary Party Organisation at the
House of Creative Associations in Opole. According to Grotowski’s later
interpretation, this act served as a means of protecting against the dissolu-
tion of the Theatre, working on the principle that the company could be
dissolved but its Primary Party Organisation could not’ (‘Kalendarium
życia i działalności twórczej Jerzego Grotowskiego’).
30. Jarmułowicz, Sezony błędów i wypaczeń, 52.
31. Kosiński, Grotowski, 169.
32. Ibid., 169.
33. On 18 September 1968, The New York Times published a letter of protest
by the leading representatives of American theatre (such as Arthur Miller,
Edward Albee, Walter Kerr and Jerome Robbins) who objected to the

decision of the American authorities (‘Kalendarium życia i działalności

twórczej Jerzego Grotowskiego’).
34. Święcicki, Historia w teatrze Tadeusza Kantora, 231–232.
35. Kosiński, Grotowski, 297.
36. As quoted in ibid., 296.
37. Agata Zbieg, ‘Mija 30 lat od aktorskiego bojkotu radia i tv w stanie
wojennym’, dzieje.pl, http://dzieje.pl/kultura-i-sztuka/mija-­30-­lat-od-
aktorskiego-bojkotu-radia-i-tv-w-stanie-wojennym, accessed 8 August
38. Slowiak and Cuesta, Jerzy Grotowski, 63.
39. ‘Kalendarium życia i działalności twórczej Jerzego Grotowskiego’.
40. Kosiński, Grotowski, 302.
41. Baranowa, ‘“Linia Podziału” Tadeusza Kantora’.
42. Ibid.
43. Krzysztof Miklaszewski, Kantor od kuchni (Wydawnictwo ksia ̨żkowe
“Twój styl”, 2003), 230.
44. Jerzy Grotowski, ‘Tu es le fils de quelqu’un’, transl. L. Flaszen, Didaskalia
39 (2000), 11–15, here 11.

‘A Memorable French-Romanian Evening’:

Nationalism and the Cold War
at the Theatre of Nations Festival

Ioana Szeman

Setting the Scene: ‘A Memorable French-Romanian

In this paper I focus on the 1969 tour to the Theatre of Nations Paris fes-
tival by the Bulandra Theatre from Bucharest, which presented Carnival
Scenes by the nineteenth-century Romanian writer Ion Luca Caragiale,
directed by Lucian Pintilie. I show that Romanian theatres’ tours in the
West, of which the 1969 festival is but one example, reflected the com-
munist regime’s ambitions to project onto the world stage an image of
an independent nation, not a Soviet satellite, during the first decade of
Nicolae Ceauşescu’s tenure as president, before and shortly after he shifted
to an Asian-style isolated dictatorship in 1971. I focus on the 1969 Paris
tour as an example of the ambassadorial work that theatre performed for
the nation, in conjunction with other arts, as part of numerous cultural
exchanges between Romania and countries in the Eastern bloc, the West,
Asia and so on. In 1969, following Nicolae Ceauşescu’s condemnation of

I. Szeman (*)
University of Roehampton, London, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 207

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_12
208   I. SZEMAN

the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Romania enjoyed a positive image

in the West, due to its policy of non-alignment with the Soviet Union.
According to Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, ‘the transnational is
located in the local’1 as much as in movement and it could be said that
theatre productions in 1960s’ Romania reflected a transnational aspect of
theatre; that is, a shared directors’ theatre culture in continental Europe.
The state supported these tours and exercised ideological control, despite
the relative loosening of the system of surveillance that would become a lot
more repressive in the years to come, turning into an isolated cult of person-
ality-style dictatorship. I argue that, even in this period of supposed cultural
openness, the regime showed a chilling cynicism as it used cultural events
and figures as instruments to fabricate a positive world image for itself.
This chapter uses previously unexamined archival documents related
to the Theatre of Nations Festivals of 1969 and 1968—the latter was
cancelled due to the occupation of the Odeon Theatre, the festival venue,
during the May 1968 protests. Romanian theatre tours under commu-
nism have not received critical attention, and archival work on this period
in Romanian history is still fraught with numerous logistical and cul-
tural difficulties, including the absence of basic factual data on theatre
history in that period. Archival documents discovered in the Ministry of
Culture archives show a sustained correspondence between the French
and Romanian sides in 1968 and 1969, with the choice of productions
for the Bulandra tour as a particular area of disagreement. The French
organisers wished to include in the festival a production of Victims of Duty
by Romanian-born French playwright Eugène Ionesco, while Romanian
officials declined and instead suggested Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard
or Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, in addition to the already agreed-upon
production of Caragiale’s Carnival Scenes. The quote in the title of this
chapter reflects the hope of the general administrator of the Theatre of
Nations, Félix Giacomoni, that, through a compromise on both sides, the
Bulandra Theatre could send to Paris a combination of Victims of Duty
and excerpts from Rameau’s Nephew, which would create a ‘wonderful
French-Romanian’ evening.2 This vision never materialised and Victims of
Duty was not sent to Paris, due to ‘technical and internal reasons’, accord-
ing to the Romanian side.3 Archival documents reveal more questions
than answers with regard to the Romanian officials’ persistent refusal.
However, corroborating my own research at the National Archives and
the Ministry of Culture Archives with research in the Securitate archives,
it is possible to come to a sound explanation for this clash. My analysis of

the negotiations between the French and Romanian sides, including the
officials in the State Committee for Arts and Culture (SCAC) that sup-
ported the tour, shows the high stakes these cultural exchanges had gained
and the calculated nature of officials’ decisions, based on projected benefit
to the regime. The cultural figures involved in this episode include Eugène
Ionesco, Liviu Ciulei, managing director of the Bulandra Theatre, and
Lucian Pintilie, director of Carnival Scenes, both of whom had a fraught
relationship with the regime;4 and two other directors, David Esrig, for
Rameau’s Nephew, who fled Romania in 1970, and Crin Teodorescu,
director of Victims of Duty, who died in suspicious circumstances in 1970.
Pintilie’s work at the Bulandra included Carnival Scenes and The Cherry
Orchard and he was already known to Western audiences for his film work,
including his prize at Cannes in 1967 for Sunday at 6 o’clock; this interna-
tional visibility made him a desirable choice for the festival. Directors like
Pintilie and Ciulei built their careers by defying, pushing and negotiat-
ing boundaries with a regime that continued to capitalise on their work
abroad even after they were later banned in Romania. Archival documents
about the 1969 tour reveal the haunting absence of Crin Teodorescu, who
is by and large forgotten today, even though he was a prominent director
who was highly active in the International Theatre Institute (ITI). I start
with an overview of the first years of Ceauşescu’s regime and the changes
in the theatre landscape in that period, focusing on the Bulandra Theatre,
and then analyse closely the archival documents about the tours.

Nationalist Communism, Theatre and the Cold War

After acceding to power in 1965, Nicolae Ceauşescu became a popular
figure in Romania and in the Western World, due to his independent for-
eign policy, challenging the authority of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s,
he eased press censorship and ended Romania’s active participation in the
Warsaw Pact (though Romania formally remained a member). Following
his public condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Ceauşescu
gained popularity, internally and internationally, while he pursued an open
policy towards the USA and Western Europe. In May 1968, the French
president Charles de Gaulle visited Bucharest, and in July the same year
U Thant, the UN secretary general, was received by Ceauşescu. Romania
was the first communist country to recognise West Germany, the first
to join the International Monetary Fund and the first to receive a US
president. Richard Nixon’s visit to Bucharest in August 1969 shows the
210   I. SZEMAN

­prestige Ceauşescu enjoyed and the good diplomatic relations between

the two countries, which were to culminate with Romania gaining the
most favoured nation status in 1975.
In 1971 Romania became a member of the General Agreement on
Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Romania and Yugoslavia were the only East
European countries that entered into trade agreements with the European
Economic Community before the fall of the Communist bloc. Ceauşescu’s
1971 visit to North Korea, China and Vietnam spurred on the ‘cultural
revolution’ and his ‘July theses’, which marked a shift in his leadership to a
personality cult modelled on those of North Korea and China. According
to historian Serban Papacostea:

Ceauşescu was well received and for a long time he benefited from the
advantage created by his attitude in 1968, as an exponent of a nationalist
communism of Tito’s type, and some saw the possibility of dismantling the
Soviet empire through these national developments. But as he advanced in a
direction contrary to human rights regulations, in pursuit of absolute inde-
pendence and the right to do anything in the country, his image in the West
deteriorated to the creation of that large universal coalition against him.5

The 1969 tour precedes these developments and belongs to the tail end
of a period of opening and relative relaxation of the communist regime.
Following from Romania’s foreign policy, in the late 1960s the country
had cultural agreements and exchanges with numerous countries, both
socialist and non-socialist. Certain authors, including Ionesco, joined the
list of authors allowed to be staged after a period of strict Socialist Realism
in the 1950s; a production of Rhinoceros toured to Paris in 1966 specifi-
cally in connection with the regime’s plans to turn Ionesco into an ally.6
I posit that a directors’ theatre culture, shared in Romania and across
the West, facilitated the positive reception of Romanian theatres’ inter-
national tours. While the prominent role of the director was a common
feature of theatre cultures across Europe and the USA, national theatres
were, from their inception, supposed (at least in theory) to reflect and
promote specific national identities. Even though communist propaganda
inverted the associations of the West with capitalism as a negative force,
the nation itself was based on Western ideals of a bound identity. The
works of Romanian directors shown abroad reflected a ‘directors’ theatre’7
culture in Romania, a tradition that the Theatre of Nations festival fol-
lowed, while also supporting the experimental and the new.

In Romania theatre was seen as an instrument in the service of party

propaganda, and was considered less powerful than film, for example.
For these reasons, the control and censorship exercised over it could be
eschewed to a certain extent during actual performances. The repertory
of each theatre was closely scrutinised and even in the period of thaw-
ing in the 1960s, certain topics and authors were not acceptable. Before
opening, each production was subject to two viewings, one internal to
the theatre and the other an ideological viewing by a special committee.8
Katherine Verdery, in her magisterial work on cultural politics and nation-
alism in communist Romania, argues that intellectuals had to compete for
resources in a period when the state was the sole supporter of the arts and
they had to engage with the nationalist rhetoric the state promoted.9 With
very few exceptions, such as those intellectuals who openly opposed offi-
cial propaganda, all other artists created via state support and had to learn
to compromise and find less overt methods of expression. While many
Western critics read the work of Pintilie at the Theatre of Nations as clas-
sical, this work was in fact a process of negotiating with the regime away
from Socialist Realism, a process critics have called the ‘retheatricalisation
of theatre’, following the previous decade of staunch Socialist Realism.10
Ciulei’s 1956 manifesto The Theatricalisation of Theatre Painting spoke
against the stifling naturalism that came out of the doctrine of Socialist
Realism in Romanian theatre.11 Crin Teodorescu signalled a direction
in Romanian theatre that is largely forgotten today, the ‘remagicisation’
of theatre, as he argued against naturalism and bourgeois theatre using
Artaud, theories of ritual and references to Brecht.

The Anatomy of a Postponed Departure: Theatre

of Nations, 1968, First Attempt

The Theatre of Nations Festival, associated with the ITI, at which 23

countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain were represented, was a site
of confluence of theatre worlds otherwise separated by the Cold War. Set
up in 1954, the Theatre of Nations festival was supported by the French
Ministry of Cultural Affairs and hosted by the Odeon Theatre, also known
as the Theatre of France. From 1965 the festival was led by Jean-Louis
Barrault, who was sacked following the events of May 1968. In Barrault’s
vision, the Theatre of Nations Festival emanated a spirit of enlightened
universality, and sought an equal focus on classics and openness to new
212   I. SZEMAN

influences and directions in and outside the West. Barrault set up the
Centre for Intercultural Theatre studies where Peter Brook worked. As
Jean Darcante, secretary general of the ITI explains: ‘For theatre people
in the world, the Theatre of Nations is the theatre of freedom—thanks to
it, the Third World, the countries of the East, young companies were able
to express themselves freely, without commercial or political concerns.’12
However, as I show below, the Romanian tour was subsidised by the state,
and the interference of the political was highly present, including in the
choice of production.
Romania was invited to attend the 1968 Theatre of Nations festival
with one production. The correspondence related to the festival confirms
that the communist regime considered theatre a powerful ambassador for
Romania. Archival documents evidence the role of the SCAC, especially
the External Relations Department, in making ideological decisions about
the tour and in financially supporting it.

Taking into account the visibility the Theatre of Nations affords, and our
country’s achievements in the field of theatre, we propose to participate
in the 1968 festival in Paris (our country was present in 1956 with the
National I.L. Caragiale Theatre and in the 1965 season with the Comedy
Theatre). We want to specify that the participation at the Theatre of Nations
means all the costs in lei and foreign currency related to transportation and
subsistence are incurred by the participating theatre. In order to register our
country for 1968, it is necessary that comrade Beligan attend the meeting
of the Theatre of Nations Cartel with this assignment.13

Romanian actor Radu Beligan, assigned the role of missionary on behalf of

the Bulandra, was at the time director of the Bucharest National Theatre,
a member of the Cartel of the Theatre of Nations, and president of the
Romanian ITI branch. Documents show that Romania’s candidacy for
the festival through Beligan came too late, and the country was accepted
through Pintilie’s personal contacts with the festival directorate. The
Romanians were invited for one production, and five performances, and
the chosen theatre was the Bulandra, with Carnival Scenes. A letter to
SCAC from Ciulei shows the manager’s anxiety over the large number of
performances of one production, and his preference for two productions,
Carnival Scenes and The Cherry Orchard; he requested that five perfor-
mances be reduced to three, if only one production was to tour.14 A letter
dated 2 March 1968 to Lucian Pintilie from the general administrator of

the Theatre of Nations, Félix Giacomoni, emphasised that in the discus-

sion with Pintilie that led to the Bulandra Theatre being invited, only one
production had been agreed upon; Giacomoni added, in a rushed tone,
that there was no time for further negotiations, as the festival was due to
start in April, and publicity materials had already been ordered.15 Despite
Ciulei’s request, a note by Vasile Florea to the State Committee for Arts
and Culture informed the institution that the reason given by the Theatre
of Nations for accepting only one production from the Bulandra was that
the festival invited productions based on plays from the national literature
of each participating theatre. Because Romania had applied too late and
its acceptance was due to a participant withdrawing, Florea recommended
that it accept the terms and conditions of the French side, that is the
Bulandra Theatre’s participation with Carnival Scenes by I.L. Caragiale,
given the ‘importance of [our] presence in an international competi-
tion’.16 The sum of 41,700 lei was approved for the expenses and public-
ity related to the tour, excluding transport, accommodation and stipends
for cast and staff. A note dated 27 March 1968 to the External Relations
Department of SCAC solicits approval for an additional sum of 52,405
francs for accommodation and transportation in France.17 The note men-
tions that the Comedy Theatre, on its 1965 tour, had a profit of 3000
francs. The note deems justified Ciulei’s doubts over five performances
with the same production, but recommends, given the response of the
French counterpart, to go ahead with the plan.
In a letter dated 17 May 1968, the Secretary General of the ITI Jean
Darcante informed Ciulei that on the night of 15–16 May the Odeon
Theatre, the site of the Theatre of Nations festival, had been occupied
by protesters, among whom, he suggests, were very few theatre people,
with the exception of Judith Malina, Julian Beck and J.J. Lebel, but who
were ‘specialists in the art of happening’.18 Darcante enclosed copies of
his letters to the Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, and to the
National Student Union, in which he warned that the festival could not
continue in those circumstances, and asked both sides to take a stand. It
is known that the occupation was not stopped immediately and ended
with the sacking of Jean-Louis Barrault. Darcante had issued a statement
on French radio to underline the fact that the ITI did not wish to com-
ment on or be involved in the events, and because the occupation did not
target the Theatre of Nations he urged the authorities to find a solution
to allow the companies about to arrive (Tunisian, Italian, Soviet, Romanian
and Danish) to perform at the festival. The Municipal Theatre of Tunis
214   I. SZEMAN

was due to ­perform Murad III by Habib Boulares on the evening of 16

May, and had been informed of the disturbances just before boarding the
plane to Paris. In a letter dated 25 June and addressed to Beligan and
Ciulei, Darcante expressed his regrets that the Romanian company had
been unable to participate in the festival. He mentioned that, in the name
of the ITI, he had proposed to the Executive Council of the Theatre of
Nations to move the festival to another European capital, but this pro-
posal was not approved. Finally, he asked whether the Romanian party
would file for any damages.19 The SCAC decided not to file for damages
from the ITI or the Theatre of Nations, only for advance payments made
to hotels to be reimbursed.

Theatre of Nations 1969, Second Attempt

The Bulandra Theatre was invited to the 1969 festival, which reprised the
format of the cancelled 1968 one. The External Relations Department of
SCAC accepted the invitation and set out a plan to support and publicise
the tour, including sending materials to specialised media outlets in France;
and, in addition to the materials requested by the Theatre of Nations, it
planned to send a brochure in French for audience and critics alike, as well
as sets of photos from the production and headshots of the actors. It also
planned on using the Romanian Embassy in Paris and its connections to
mobilise theatre specialists and reviewers, as well as Romanian intellectual
émigrés, to support the presence of the Bulandra Theatre at the festival.
Félix Giacomoni, General Manager of the Theatre of Nations after
Barrault’s sacking, travelled to Bucharest in January 1969 to watch the
performances of Carnival Scenes and Rameau’s Nephew and during this
visit also watched other performances scheduled at the Bulandra, includ-
ing Ionesco’s Victims of Duty, directed by Crin Teodorescu, The Cherry
Orchard, directed by Pintilie and A Streetcar Named Desire directed by
Ciulei. After the visit, he highly recommended that Ionesco’s play be
included in the tour. Jean Darcante, prior to Giacomoni’s visit, had sent
a telegram to the theatre, giving his recommendation for Victims of Duty.
Exchanges between the French and Romanian officials show the Romanian
side attempting to divert French interest away from this production.
In a note to SCAC, Vasile Florea discusses the details of his encoun-
ter with Giacomoni during the latter’s visit to Bucharest.20 Giacomoni
informed Florea that his recommendations were based on the new fes-
tival guidelines, as set out by the Minister of Cultural Affairs in France.

According to Giacomoni, the festival was supposed to entertain and com-

edies were favoured over other plays. To explain his reservations about
Rameau’s Nephew, Giacomoni suggested that the French press showed
limited nationalism and did not favour the staging of French authors by
foreign companies. As Rameau’s Nephew had been staged in France in that
period, he thought that the Bulandra staging would not meet with success
among French audiences, due to its rather slow rhythm and changes to
the original text. Giacomoni advised that The Cherry Orchard would find
it hard to compete with another Chekhov production by the National
Czech Theatre under the direction of Krejca. Finally, he explained that
the previous year the Theatre of Nations Cartel had rejected The Cherry
Orchard outright from the festival because Barrault was due to stage the
same play. Giacomoni stressed that, given all these factors, Victims of Duty
would be more suitable than either the Diderot or Chekhov play.
Florea continues in the note that his response to Giacomoni was to point
out that Ionesco was a French playwright, and therefore Victims of Duty
would not be favoured by the French press, according to Giacomoni’s
logic. Giacomoni specified that Ionesco was a French-Romanian playwright
and the play had been staged a lot in France. Additionally, Giacomoni
suggested that Ionesco’s presence at the performances and press events
would greatly add to the interest in the Bulandra tour. Florea reports that
Giacomoni asked him what ‘their’ problem with Ionesco was. Florea states
that he replied that Ionesco was not the issue, and as proof he reminded
Giacomoni that Ionesco’s plays were staged in Romania; other consider-
ations, ‘internal and technical reasons’, caused the Romanian officials’ ret-
icence. Florea invoked the specific features of the Bulandra company, with
two generations of artists, two teams, ‘both of good quality’—one more
traditional, the other consisting of the younger generation; the problem,
claimed Florea, was that both the Caragiale and Ionesco productions fea-
tured the younger generation. Florea added that it would be ‘an act of
injustice’ to the ‘traditional team’ to deprive them of the chance to present
‘the fruits of a lifetime of labor on an international platform’.21 Giacomoni
suggested a compromise: one show with The Victims of Duty and excerpts
from Rameau’s Nephew. It should be said that Rameau’s Nephew included
two actors from the younger generation, while in The Cherry Orchard
there were two or three older actors, and one actress married to the
Minister of External Affairs, so Florea’s explanation did not make a lot
of sense. Florea asked Giacomoni if he would use his connections to help
organise a tour of the company to other cities, and the Theatre of Nations
216   I. SZEMAN

official set out the conditions for his assistance: the performances had to
be first presented at the festival and the chosen productions had to make
him believe in the success of the tour.22
Upon his return to Paris, Giacomoni sent a letter to the Bulandra
Theatre, thanking them for the reception and alluding to the long friend-
ship between the two nations that his visit reminded him of. He specified
that Darcante of the ITI, and the French Foreign Ministry favoured his
production choices, and reiterated their openness to the idea of a com-
bined Victims of Duty/Rameau’s Nephew performance, which would
constitute a ‘wonderful example of a French-Romanian evening.’23 He
added that Mr Ionesco was fully behind the inclusion of his play at the
festival. Alluding to the ‘technical difficulties’ invoked by the Romanians,
Giacomoni expressed his hope that technical difficulties would not pre-
vent the pairing of Victims of Duty with Rameau’s Nephew.24 However,
the idea of the ‘French-Romanian evening’ did not impress the Romanian
officials: a handwritten note on the SCAC correspondence suggests that
the Bulandra deputy director, Maxim Crişan, should have a discussion
with the theatre staff about reprising a play by E. Oproiu, a piece unre-
lated to those discussed here. As I show later, this conflict was invoked
by Florea merely as a pretext, but Florea’s note may have reminded the
SCAC official of the real conflict at the theatre.
In a letter dated April 1969, Al. Gheorghiu, who had been assigned
by Securitate to meet and win over Eugène Ionesco in France, writes to
Dumitru Popescu—one of the highest names in culture at the time, nick-
named Dumnezeu (God) and a close ally of Ceauşescu—to report that
Ionesco was surprised about the dropping of his play from the festival pro-
gramme, that the ITI and Giacomoni were keen on this play and that even
the Romanian Embassy considered it a good choice.25 A handwritten note
by Pompiliu Macovei26 on this letter betrays the official’s irritation with
Ionesco and the French officials’ insistence on Victims of Duty. He writes
to his subordinates that they should follow up and inform Giacomoni,
via Gheorghiu, that the Romanians still had three plays on offer, in addi-
tion to Carnival Scenes: Rameau’s Nephew, The Cherry Orchard and
possibly The Three Penny Opera. Macovei writes by hand that Ionesco
should be informed, ‘in a more moderately worded phrasing’, that ‘one
hopes he would not be under the impression that Romanian theatres
can only tour with his plays’, and that the production choice depended
on many factors, including the quality of the staging, of the acting, and
so on, and these factors can only be appreciated by those in charge of the

theatre.27 Vasile Florea, from the External Relations Department at SCAC,

informed the cultural relations section at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
that there was no need to give any explanation to Ionesco, since his play
had never been named as a possibility for the festival. Florea states that
Ionesco had already been informed by Bulandra deputy director Maxim
Crişan during his visit to Paris ahead of the Theatre of Nations festival that
the play had not been included in the tour because of internal and techni-
cal reasons. Florea concludes that Gheorghiu could explain the above to
Ionesco as a personal favour if he so wishes.28
There are several hypotheses one can advance to explain the Romanian
authorities’ reactions outlined above. According to Liviu Ţăranu, there
are no documents related to Eugène Ionesco in the Securitate archives for
the period 1967–77, and any existing documents were probably destroyed
because they did not present ‘operational interest’.29 The year 1969 is
the tail end of the short period when Ionesco’s plays were produced in
Romania during communism: indeed, the last production of an Ionesco
play was staged in 1969. However, during the previous few years there
were concerted efforts by the Securitate to court Ionesco and persuade
him to visit the country, all of which were unsuccessful.30 I suggest that
the 1969 Theatre of Nations festival caught the Romanian authorities in
an ‘Ionesco-indifferent’ mood. How else to describe the sarcastic tone
of Pompiliu Macovei’s handwritten note on Al. Gheorghiu’s letter to
Dumitru Popescu? His line, ‘one hopes he would not be under the impres-
sion that Romanian theatres can only tour with his plays’, alludes to the
Bucharest National Theatre’s Paris tour with Rhinoceros in 1966. From
this angle, even the staging of Ionesco’s plays in Romania was a political
move to win over the famous author, who, at the time, had not spoken
out against the regime and had been courted through a variety of messen-
gers, including Gheorghiu and Beligan. The lack of interest in Victims of
Duty could have been caused by something Ionesco said at the time. The
regime reacted swiftly to changes in the tone of the personalities it tried
to win over. Most likely, though, it appears that, because the concerted
efforts had not borne fruit and he did not respond as expected, Ionesco
was no longer a priority for the regime. At any rate, Ionesco’s name on a
production that represented Romania in France, side by side with a play by
national icon Caragiale, would never have been to the regime’s liking. In
fact, Ionesco was abandoned altogether and was not considered a national
cultural asset by the regime, despite his fame. One can also say with no
reserve that the internal reasons invoked by Romanian officials, that is,
218   I. SZEMAN

the clashes between older and newer generations at the Bulandra Theatre,
were a coded way to refer to ideological clashes within the company, and
were smoke in the eyes of the French. Although these clashes were real
and later contributed to the sacking of Ciulei, the explanation does not
make sense if one examines the cast of the productions under negotiation.
Even though The Cherry Orchard did include three older actors and one
who was married to a highly ranked politician, it was second choice to
Rameau’s Nephew, with two characters played by young actors.
As Nicolae Mandea argues in a discussion about Ionesco’s legacy in
Romania, the staging of his plays in this short period of ‘freedom’ did
not make it any less difficult to defend the productions during their run.31
Just as Ionesco was buried and was virtually unknown to the majority of
Romanians in 1989, this episode reveals a completely forgotten director,
Crin Teodorescu. Even if he was not the reason for the decision not to
send Victims of Duty on tour, archival documents point to the importance
of his work, almost entirely forgotten today due to his early death in 1970.
Two other productions directed by Crin Teodorescu toured internationally
in 1969. Teodorescu attended the 1969 ITI Congress in Budapest and in
his report to the Romanian journal Theatre he included the point he him-
self raised during the congress, arguing for a less heavy-handed selection
process for the Theatre of Nations festival and for less state interference
in the matter.32 Crin Teodorescu was condemned to five  years in prison
for homosexuality in 1959. According to Neculai C.  Munteanu, he did
time in the prisons of Vacaresti, Rahova, Jilava and White Gate until 1963.
Despite the supposed liberalism of the beginning of Ceauşescu’s reign, the
regime’s harsh stance against homosexuality persisted. Teodorescu died in
suspicious circumstances in 1970. He was found dead at home by his sis-
ter and the police called his death a ‘crime of passion’.33 These details are
largely unknown in Romania, as is Teodorescu’s work.

Romanian officials deemed the Bulandra Theatre’s participation at the
Theatre of Nations festival with Carnival Scenes a success, and the produc-
tion received generally favourable reviews in the French press, which was
not the norm among other companies at that year’s festival. The four per-
formances by the Bulandra received positive reviews in Le Monde, L’Aurore,
France-Soir and Juvenal and the French public broadcasting organisation
(ORTF) dedicated three programmes to the Bulandra tour. The production

of Caragiale’s play was read by the French press as a vaudeville and farce,
largely due to the inaccessibility of his plays to non-Romanian-speaking
audiences. While the reviewers for Le Monde and L’Aurore noted the quali-
ties of the staging and acting, as well as the similarities between Caragiale
and more famous French authors like Feydeau and Labiche, in L’Humanité
the reviewer comments that despite the ‘pleasant fête’, the performance did
nothing to ‘add to our knowledge of contemporary European theatre’, add-
ing that if the ‘Theatre of Nations is satisfied at present to be the meeting
ground of a few “classical” European theatres, […] it will soon lose its sig-
nificance’.34 The press reflected a widespread feeling that the festival was in
danger of becoming safe and had stopped pushing boundaries with the struc-
tural changes following the events of 1968. Yet an analysis of the Bulandra’s
participation shows that the Bucharest theatre could have answered these
critics with Victims of Duty by Ionesco, a production of a contemporary play
that challenged naturalism and experimented with Artaud’s legacy.
The Romanian authorities’ handling of this tour reflects the unprec-
edented and literal instrumentalisation of culture in the service of power.
The commonalities in theatre culture across the Iron Curtain facilitated
the positive reception of Romanian productions, which was also due to
the general lack of knowledge about the repression and control of the
Ceauşescu regime. In the years to come, Pintilie and Ciulei would build
their careers in the West, and, as the repression of the regime became
known, their work would be read from the angle of anti-totalitarianism.
The mystification of national history and patrimony that would become a
hallmark of the regime in later years was already visible here, as an author
of Ionesco’s reputation and international appeal, partly Romanian, and
whom the French were willing to ‘share’, is denied his ‘Romanian-ness’,
despite the fact that his work would not have been read as a lesser ver-
sion of a French playwright, as happened when critics likened Caragiale to
Labiche and Feydeau.

1. Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih (eds), Minor Transnationalism
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 5.
2. Félix Giacomoni’s letter to the Bulandra Theatre, 24 January 1969, The
Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
3. Vasile Florea, note to Pompiliu Macovei (President of the External
Relations Department, SCAC), 23 January 1969, The Archives of the
Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
220   I. SZEMAN

4. Ciulei was artistic director of the Bulandra Theatre from 1963 to 1972,
when, following Ceauşescu’s cultural revolution of 1971, which put an
end to the previous decade’s relative freedom, he was sacked after the
banning of Pintilie’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General. This was
one of the most public and aggressive bannings, announced in the national
newspaper Scînteia.
5. Serban Papacostea, ‘Şcoala de Vară Sighet, ed. VII/Totalitarismul şi
istoriografia română’, [no date], http://destinatii.liternet.ro/articol/157/
din-Romania-sub-regimul-lui-Ceausescu.html, accessed 19 August 2013,
(my translation).
6. Liviu Ţăranu, ‘Contribuţii la o biografie: Eugen Ionescu în dosarele
Securităti̧ i’, Magazin istoric 11.512 (November 2009), 15–19; Liviu
Ţăranu, ‘Contribuţii la o biografie: Eugen Ionescu în dosarele Securităti̧ i’,
Magazin istoric 12.513 (December 2009), 43–48.
7. David Bradby and David Williams, Directors’ Theatre (London: St. Martin’s
Press, 1988).
8. Liviu Maliţa (ed.), Viaţa teatrală în şi după communism (Cluj: Efes, 2006).
9. Katherine Verdery, National Ideology under Socialism: Identity and
Cultural Politics in Ceausescu’s Romania (Berkeley: UC Press, 1991).
10. Miruna Runcan, Teatralizarea şi Reteatralizarea în Romania. 1920–1960
(Cluj: Eikon, 2003); and Marian Popescu, Scenele teatrului românesc
1945–2004 (Bucharest: Unitext, 2004).
11. He rejected the hollowness of this naturalism and argued for a reality
conveyed through poetic-dramatic images in stage design.
12. Letter from the ITI secretary general Jean Darcante, May 1968, The
Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest, (my translation).
13. Note from the External Relations Department (Romania) regarding the
Session of the Theatre of Nations Cartel, 6 February 1968, The Archives
of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest, (my translation).
14. Letter from L.  Ciulei to SCAC, 1968, The Archives of the Ministry of
Culture, Bucharest.
15. Letter from Félix Giacomoni to Lucian Pintilie, 2 March 1968, The
Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
16. Vasile Florea, note to SCAC, 1968, The Archives of the Ministry of
Culture, Bucharest.
17. Note to the External Relations Department, SCAC, 27 March 1968, The
Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
18. Letter from Jean Darcante to Liviu Ciulei, 17 May 1968, The Archives of
the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
19. Letter from Jean Darcante to Radu Beligan and Liviu Ciulei, 25 June
1968, The Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.

20. Note from Vasile Florea to Pompiliu Macovei (President of the External
Relations Department, SCAC), 23 January 1969, The Archives of the
Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid.
23. Letter from Félix Giacomoni to the Bulandra Theatre, 24 January 1969,
The Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
24. Ibid.
25. Letter from Al. Gheorghiu to Dumitru Popescu, April 1969, The Archives
of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
26. A handwritten note on an official memo dated 10 April 1969 suggests
D. Popescu passed the letter on to Macovei.
27. Handwritten note by Pompiliu Macovei on memo to SCAC, 10 April
1969, The Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Bucharest.
28. Note from Vasile Florea to the Cultural Relations Direction of the Ministry
for Foreign Affairs, April 1969, The Archives of the Ministry of Culture,
29. Ţăranu, ‘Contribuţii la o biografie’, 19.
30. Ibid., 15–19 and 43–48.
31. ‘Round Table with Anca Maniutiu, Doina Modola, Nicolae Mandea and
Miruna Runcan’, in Ionesco dupa/après Ionesco, ed. Liviu Maliţa and Victor
Cubleşan (Cluj-Napoca: Casa Căr ţii de ştiinţă, 2000), 68.
32. Crin Teodorescu, ‘Teatrul de azi, încotro? Însemnări de la cel de-al XIII-
lea Congres al Institutului Internaţional de Teatru’, Teatrul 7.14 (1969),
33. Alexandra Olivotto, ‘Elita gay din Romania in puscariile comuniste’,
Cotidianul, 10 May 2007.
34. Philippe Madral, ‘“Scènes de carnaval” de Cargiale au Théâtre des Nations’,
L’Humanité, May 1969, 10, (my translation).

An Eastern Bloc Cultural Figure? Brecht’s

Reception by Young Left-wingers in Greece
in the 1970s

Nikolaos Papadogiannis

Thessaloniki, 1976. A wave of intensifying youth politicisation has been
shaking the foundations of youth leisure. The left-wing-controlled admin-
istrative council of a high school in the eastern part of the city decides not
to organise the annual student dance at a discotheque, which it lambasts as
yet another product of the ‘American way of life’. By contrast, it arranges
for the students to attend a performance of Brecht’s Little Mahagonny.
While political fever was running high in the 1970s, Bertolt Brecht was a
reference point for young left-wingers in Greece.
This article explores the reception of the plays and the life of Bertolt
Brecht in Greece in the 1970s. During this decade, his work became
immensely popular in Greece; at the same time, the country witnessed
growing left-wing youth politicisation. Thus, I am interested in explor-
ing interconnections between these two trends. I will examine the ways
in which young left-wingers of different stripes approached Brecht and I

N. Papadogiannis (*)
Modern and Contemporary History, Bangor University, Bangor, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 223

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_13

will analyse whether and to what extent his life and work functioned as a
means of praising the cultural politics of Eastern bloc countries. Brecht’s
­audience in post-dictatorship Greece was not made up only of young
people. Nevertheless, left-wing youth cultural associations figured promi-
nently in the spread of his work in Greece during the 1970s, while groups
of young Communists and Socialists were an avid and demanding audi-
ence of his plays, as shown below in detail.
In exploring the relationship between Brecht’s work and left-wing youth
politics, I aim to help refine the argument of ‘cultural Americanisation’.
According to the most nuanced version of this argument, which is predomi-
nant in the historiography of youth, the forging of youth identities in Europe
in the postwar decades was facilitated by the selective reception of American
cultural products.1 While I acknowledge that American popular culture was
a core component of diverse youth identities, not only in Greece, the argu-
ment of ‘cultural Americanisation’, even in a nuanced version, does not
provide an adequate explanation of the development of youth identities in
Greece in the 1970s; it actually obscures the importance of cultural transfers
from Western Europe, but also from the USSR, which played a major role in
the shaping of a significant proportion of the politicised youth in post-dicta-
torship Greece. Therefore, this article particularly wishes to help fill a lacuna,
namely that transfers from the Eastern bloc to the West and their impact on
young people living in the latter have so far remained largely unexplored.2
Moreover, examination of the reception of Brecht’s work in post-World
War II Greece further illuminates the cultural dimension of the Cold War.
As the British historian, playwright and journalist David Caute argues,
the Cold War did not solely comprise a ‘traditional political-military con-
frontation’, but also an ‘ideological and cultural one’. The British scholar
goes further, putting forth the compelling argument that the collapse
of the Soviet bloc may be attributed to the superior achievements of its
opponents in economy, technology, but also in culture. Cold War cultural
confrontations, in which theatre played an important role, occurred on
a global level.3 In general, there is a growing body of scholarly works
that deals with culture as a Cold War battleground.4 Such research has, in
recent times, increasingly addressed theatre.5
This contribution concurs with ‘postpositivist’ approaches to theatre
history. The latter, according to expert in Theatre Studies Christopher
B. Balme, no longer seek to reconstruct ‘ideologically “neutral” chro-
nologies’, but to present a ­‘plurality of histories’.6 In this vein, I intend to
illuminate the diverse reception of the Brechtian plays by people of varying
political persuasions.

The Political Condition in Greece, 1940s–70s

Post-Second World War politics in Greece bore the imprint of the Civil
War, which had already resumed in 1943. It lasted, with intermissions,
until 1949, ending with the crushing defeat of the Left. Subsequently,
anti-communism became the official ideology of the Greek state. The
Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was outlawed in 1947. Although
some rules of parliamentary democracy were followed in the period
from 1949 to 1967, the persecution of leftists by the state was system-
atic. As described by Greek political scientists, the regime was a ‘weak’
democracy.7 It was followed by the imposition of a militaristic regime
from 1967 to 1974, during which the status of the advocates of the
Left deteriorated. However, in the early 1970s and until late 1973, the
dictatorship introduced the experiment of so-called ‘controlled liber-
alisation’. Censorship was relaxed and martial law was removed in most
regions of the country. Nevertheless, the militaristic regime faltered
and failed in this effort, since it did not manage to attract significant
support in Greek society. There was in fact an increase in the number of
radical students during this time. These left-leaning students challenged
the regime and were the driving force in the most important uprisings
against the dictatorship, which occurred in Athens and Thessaloniki
in 1973. The dictatorship survived, but not for long: it collapsed in
summer 1974, after an attempt to destabilise the government of the
Republic of Cyprus, which triggered the Turkish invasion in July 1974
and the partition of the island. After the restoration of democracy,
anti-communism was delegitimised and no longer functioned as the
official ideology, even during the years in which the centre-­right New
Democracy Party formed the government (1974 to 1981). Communist
parties and youth organisations were legalised in 1974.8 The most
important left-wing youth groups in this period were the pro-Soviet
Communist KNE (Kommounistiki Neolaia Elladas, Communist Youth
of Greece); the Eurocommunist RF (Rigas Feraios), which embraced
political pluralism and modelled itself mainly on the Italian Communist
Party; the Socialist Youth of PASOK (Panellinio Sosialistiko Kinima,
Panhellenic Socialist Movement); and the Maoist student groups PPSP
(Proodeytiki Panspoudastiki Syndikalistiki Parataxi, Progressive Pupils’
Unionist Movement) and AASPE (Antifasistiki Antiimperialistiki
Spoudastiki Parataxi Elladas, Anti-fascist Anti-imperialist Student

Movement of Greece). The rhetoric of the Socialist party PASOK and

its youth group was based on dependency theories that did not juxta-
pose the ‘Socialist’ with the ‘Capitalist’ bloc, but instead the industri-
alised ‘North’ with the dependent ‘South’, placing Greece in the latter.
After 1978, all left-wing youth organisations became increasingly splin-
tered, resulting in the formation of a fluid network of autonomous left-
wingers, mainly students, who named themselves ‘Choros’ (Space). The
influence of the Communist and the Socialist youth groups extended
mainly to the urban centres, especially in the universities, as shown in
the table below. By contrast, the centre-right youth organisation failed
to garner any significant support during this period. It would not actu-
ally become an important political force until the early-to-­mid-1980s
(Table 13.1).

The Brechtian Oeuvre: Point of Entry

and Subsequent Dissemination in Greece

According to data reproduced by the renowned writer Petros Markaris,

the first reference to the Brechtian oeuvre appears in Greece as early as
1931, in the translated History of German Literature, originally authored
by Thomas Walter.9 However, both Brecht’s theoretical work and his
plays would remain largely unknown to the Greek public until his death
in 1956. A left-wing magazine, Epitheorisi Technis, helped spread his
plays, both knowledge of them and the plays themselves. It published
articles about literature and culture in general and was independent of
the apparatus of the clandestine Communist Party of Greece. Some of
the major contributors to the magazine claimed that left-wing intellectu-
als should not be instructed by the Party to advocate a particular dogma.
In 1956, Epitheorisi Technis published the Caucasian Chalk Circle, trans-
lated into Greek by Asteris Stagos.10 Subsequently, Karolos Koun’s Art
Theatre in Athens performed the same play in 1957. The Art Theatre had
been established in 1942 and aimed to introduce contemporary foreign
and Greek theatre trends to audiences in Athens. Epitheorisi Technis also
hosted discussions on the relationship of Brecht with socialist realism.11
In Greece, this issue had actually been addressed by the late 1950s. In an
article written by the Italian Marxist theorist Galvano della Volpe, which
was also published in Epitheorisi Technis in 1959, the author maintained
that Brecht’s theatrical methodology was indelibly linked with socialist

Table 13.1  The results of student elections in Greece, 1974–81, in percentages

1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981
PASP (affiliated 24.6 26.2 25.9 21.6 27.6 26.7 26.8 25.2
to the Youth of
PSK (affiliated 20 23.2 27.4 27.3 30.6 31.2 31.3 32.3
to the KNE)
DA-DE (affiliated 19.8 17.3 18.1 21.2 16.7 7.5 8.9 10.1
to RF)
Groups linked 7.2 11.3 8.4
with Choros
DAP-NDFK 16.2 17.05 11.1 13.4 12.1 10.9 10.3 11.4
(affiliated to the
centre-­right New
AASPE (Maoist) 3.8 3.7 5 4 3.2 1.9
PPSP (Maoist) 2.7 4.5 5.6 4.9 5.4 5.6 5.6 2.1
Turnout (in 23,863 45,460 39,383 47,743 49,656 50,513 50,690 47,916
number of voters)

Percentage of votes received by each of the student groups mentioned and voter turnout in the student
elections in the period 1974–81. Throughout the examined period all student groups largely agreed on
the published results. In the case of Choros, it should be noted that some of its members did not take part
in student elections. In the percentage of DA-DE, I have included some student groups that were collabo-
rating with it, but were not part of it. Moreover, DAP-NDFK was established as a united group in 1976.
Concerning the preceding two years, its percentage refers to student groups leaning toward or aligned
with the centre-right New Democracy. The percentage of the votes harvested by small centrist or left-­
leaning Christian groups is not mentioned. The table was prepared by the author, based on data from:
Dimi tris Aravantinos, ‘To Metapoliteytiko foititiko kai syndikalistiko kinima,’ in 75 chronia:To Panepistimio
tis Thessalonikis stin avgi tou neou aiona, ed. Ioannis K. Hassiotis and Dimitris Aravantinos (Thessaloniki:
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 2002), 465-560, which I have cross-checked with the data offered by
the student groups contesting those elections

This was certainly not, however, the only cause of reflection and debate
around the Brechtian oeuvre in Greece. From the mid-1950s to the
present, the reception of Brecht’s plays in Greece, as the theatre expert
Platon Mavromoustakos argues, has largely polarised: there is an evident
tension between those who stress his militancy, neglecting to a lesser or
greater extent his experimentation in the field of theatre, and those who
have adopted a ‘depoliticised’ approach to Brecht.13 The latter pay only
perfunctory attention to his political activity and instead focus on his

t­ heatrical innovations.14 Markaris suggests that some of those who lam-

basted Brecht’s militancy also detested his theoretical work on theatre.
He ­singles out the distinguished actors and directors Dimitris Myrat and
Alexis Minotis, who published texts about the Brechtian oeuvre. Both tried
to approach Brecht solely as a ‘great author’, downplaying his militancy
and the Communist ideas he was attracted by as well as the ‘inapplicable’,
as they maintained, theatre methodology that Brecht endorsed.15 Their
stance was not peculiar to Greece, however. As Patterson has asserted, ‘the
Western approach to Brecht has generally consisted of a grudging acknowl-
edgement that he is a fine playwright in spite of his Marxist beliefs’.16

Brecht’s Theatre and Life as a Battleground

in the 1970s

Brecht’s work did not become immensely popular in Greece until the
1970s. It suffices to mention that in the period from 1971 to 1974 eight
productions of Brecht’s plays by professional companies were performed
in Greece, while from 1974 to 1977 there were 11 productions, a signifi-
cant increase compared to the 11 professional productions of his work
in the period from 1957 to 1971.17 In addition, translations of Brecht’s
plays also proliferated after 1970. According to the translation stud-
ies expert, Dimitris Asimakoulas, ‘with 19 translations in 1970 alone,
Greece produced more Brecht translations than either all of the Eastern
Bloc countries or all Western countries did together in their peak years,
15 in 1962 and 17 in 1968 respectively’.18 These translations were often
undertaken by left-leaning publishers. After the relaxation of censor-
ship, various publishing houses, many of which had been founded by
young left-wingers, wished to provoke reflection on political and social
issues and encourage criticism of the dictatorial regime. According to
Asimakoulas, Brecht was greatly appreciated by these publishers and by
dissident students.19 The spectacular increase in the popularity of his plays
in Greece largely coincided with the ‘Brecht boom’, which, according to
Michael Schneider,20 occurred in West Germany in the late 1960s: Brecht
was propelled into the limelight by student protestors, for whom he func-
tioned as an important reference point. Asimakoulas suggests that various
Greek left-­wingers, who were living in West Germany at that time and
were influenced by the ideas of the New Left, may have in fact helped to
bring this ‘Brecht boom’ to Greece.21

In general, theatre was affected by politicisation throughout the

1970s, as Mavromoustakos claims, but this intimate link between poli-
tics and theatre emerged in full force after the collapse of the dictator-
ship.22 Politicised troupes and their audiences were able to express their
views in total freedom, since they were no longer censored or thrown
into jail because of their ideological orientation. In this vein, Socialist
and Communist newspapers and magazines, whose circulation was now
permitted, regularly published reviews of plays and interviews with newly
formed theatre companies. Young left-wingers, as in the preceding years,
continued to play a major role in the politicisation of theatre.23 Not only
were they avid watchers of theatre performances; they were also involved
in amateur theatre groups, such as the Theatre Section of the University
of Athens, which had been founded in 1969, but whose activity had been
limited until the collapse of the militaristic regime. While it would be dif-
ficult to determine whether young left-wingers functioned as the driving
force or a stepping stone in this process, they were certainly an integral
piece of this puzzle.
The Brechtian oeuvre attracted the attention of the Greek Left in the
mid-to-late 1970s as well. Numerous performances of his plays were
staged by left-wing or left-leaning companies during this period, such as
The Respectable Wedding by the Popular Experimental Theatre in 1976.24
Amateur theatre groups, especially those established by young left-­wingers,
also followed suit. For instance, the Theatre Section of the University of
Athens performed The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Athens in May 1975,
and the theatre group of the Cultural Youth Association in Skouzes per-
formed the Fear and Misery of the Third Reich in 1977–78.25 Brecht’s
plays were certainly appreciated by young Greek left-wingers of all stripes
in the mid-1970s. It was not unusual for left-wing-controlled high-school
student unions to arrange for their members to attend performances of his
plays, as shown in the vignette at the beginning of this article.26
In contrast to what Mavromoustakos argues, young Communists
and Socialists did not construe Bertolt Brecht merely as a militant. They
actually displayed a serious interest in Brechtian theatre concepts, which
they tried to associate with the diverse models of cultural politics that
they endorsed. A significant proportion of left-wing youth, especially the
pro-­Soviet Communists, the Maoists, and the Socialists, tried to discern
­‘progressive’ cultural products as opposed to the ‘American Way of Life’
or, to put it another way, the cultural patterns promoted, as they claimed,
by the ‘imperialist centres’. Thus, they embraced a bipolar model, which

the Greek Left had already introduced in the late 1950s. By contrast, the
publications of the Eurocommunists and the autonomous left-wingers
demonstrated mounting criticism of such classifications, especially towards
the end of the decade.27
Young Greek left-wingers particularly debated the Brechtian
Verfremdungseffekt,28 through which the playwright wanted to achieve the
estrangement of the audience from what the latter regarded as familiar.29
Rather than identifying with the characters of his plays, Brecht wanted the
audience to reflect critically on their actions. He tried to achieve this by
employing various techniques, such as the actors directly addressing the
audience and, thus, breaking the illusion that the spectators are invisible.
The scenery was also meant to challenge rather than reproduce the ‘fic-
tive’ qualities of theatre.30 The Verfremdungseffekt was not conceptualised
in only one way by young left-wingers in Greece during the 1970s, how-
ever. Broadly speaking, the ensuing heated debate amongst them revolved
around two approaches: an ‘open-ended’ and a ‘didactic’ one. By the 1970s
only a few of the theoretical works authored by Brecht, such as the Short
Organum for the Theatre, had been translated into Greek. Thus, young
Greek left-wingers assessed the Brechtian oeuvre mainly on the basis of the
theoretical contributions of Western European and Soviet scholars.31 The
Free Theatre troupe, which also included young radical left-wing actors and
which had engaged with Brecht’s understanding of performance already
since the early 1970s, was one of the prominent advocates of the open-
ended approach. In an interview with Agonistis, the newspaper of the Youth
of PASOK, the troupe argued that Brecht did not teach ‘ex cathedra […].
He wants the spectator to get involved in the dialectical development of a
performance […]. We do not necessarily agree with the solutions he gave,
since they arose in particular settings, but we do agree with his method-
ology’.32 Young Eurocommunists took a similar stance. As manifested in
Thourios, the RF newspaper, they were influenced by translations of Roland
Barthes’ writings on Brecht’s plays. In one such text, Barthes appears to
claim that Brecht does not opt for ‘vindicating a particular position’ and
does not wish to ‘agitate’ through his plays. To be best positioned to
capture this complex character of his work, RF members concurred with
Barthes that they should resort to semiotics, an approach that stresses that
signs do not reflect a ‘reality’ existing outside them and, as such, their
meaning is to an extent arbitrary.33 They would repeat such arguments in
Thourios ­throughout the 1970s: Brecht was singled out as authoring work
which was conducive to left-wing politicisation, but which did not comprise

just a bunch of ‘simplistic verses’ that ‘referred to strikes, factories or the

problems of the peasants’.34 Like the Free Theatre, they asserted that the
importance of Brecht’s theatre lay in cultivating insightful observers who
take nothing for granted. In putting forth this argument, they embraced
a particular conceptualisation of culture vis-à-vis politics, designating the
former as a means of self-reflection and even self-criticism, which would
prevent left-­wingers from becoming ‘passive’ recipients of dictates.
Still, this ‘open-ended’ approach was not met with unanimous approval
by all young left-wingers. Young pro-Soviet Communists opted for a
‘didactic’ conceptualisation of Brecht’s work. They were mostly interested
in the political messages they could distil from his plays, whose meaning
they presented as fixed. They stressed that the Verfremdungseffekt made
the audience critically reflect on the plays, but in a very specific way, as a
means of achieving a specific aim: it helped demystify capitalist relations
of production, which had hitherto appeared to be ‘the natural course of
things’ to the spectators. Thus, ‘change’ would then appear possible to
them.35 The young pro-Soviet Communists identified with the description
of the German playwright as a ‘socialist realist’, which circulated in pub-
lications of the USSR at that time. Odigitis, the official newspaper of the
pro-Soviet Communist youth, published an interview with the chief editor
of Literaturnaja Gazeta, a Soviet newspaper dedicated to cultural issues.
Brecht was listed among the advocates of socialist realism, who, according
to the editor, presented ‘reality’ clearly and displayed efficacy in strength-
ening the Communist movement through his work.36 Publications by the
KNE further stressed what they viewed as the anti-capitalist orientation of
the Brechtian oeuvre in reviews of Brecht’s plays, such as The Respectable
Wedding, which were performed onstage in Greece at that time.37
KNE members did not approach Brecht solely as a theatre practitioner,
but also as a figure in the socialist struggle. Texts published by the pro-
Soviet group lauded Brecht for his militancy. In a biography of the German
playwright, he was portrayed as having been a ‘committed anti-­fascist’ and
an ‘active militant’ since his youth. He was also described there as having
contributed to the education of the workers and peasants in the German
Democratic Republic by cofounding the Berliner Ensemble.38 The latter
point also attested, according to the KNE, to the significance assigned
by the socialist European countries to ‘culture’. This was actually an oft-
repeated argument in the texts of this group: the socialist European state
was depicted as very well-organised, providing patronage to ‘culture’, sus-
taining numerous museums, libraries, concert halls and other spaces where

people could familiarise themselves with various genres of art.39 Indeed, as

Caute argues, the Berliner Ensemble benefited from r­ emarkable subsidies
from the East German state from 1953 onwards, after the East Berlin
uprising had been quelled.40
Nevertheless, Brecht’s relations with the East German regime were
much more complex than they appeared in the biographies of him that
were published in Odigitis. The East German authorities had often placed
restrictions on him and his work in the early 1950s. According to Caute,
Brecht’s Die Tage der Kommune (The Days of the Commune), which had
been written in Zürich in 1948–49, was met with hostility by high-ranking
officials in the German Democratic Republic; performance of the play was
soon banned. Similarly, Brecht’s musical drama entitled Das Verhör des
Lukullus (1938–39/1940) was banned in East Germany after only one
performance. It has been suggested that during those years, marked by the
highpoint of the ‘Stanislavsky wave’ in East Germany, Brecht’s plays were
prone to receiving negative criticism from the regime for being akin to
‘formalism’,41 which had been anathema to the cultural politics of Eastern
European countries and the USSR since the late 1940s.
By contrast, some elements of Greek left-wing youth in the late 1970s
emphasised such tensions and made no reference at all to the collaboration
between Brecht and the authorities of the German Democratic Republic:
these were autonomous young left-wingers, who participated in Choros.
They did not view Bertolt Brecht as a quintessential cultural figure of the
Eastern bloc and did not link his work with the cultural politics of those
regimes. One such left-winger, Diamantis Basantis, who wrote various
articles about cultural issues in the mid-to-late 1970s, put forth a narra-
tive, in which he argued that the ‘dialectical theatre’ comprised stylistic
experimentations that fundamentally deviated from socialist realism, at
least from the static way in which it was being reproduced in the USSR.
This groundbreaking theatre style, according to Basantis, had been expo-
nentially influential amongst left-wingers in Greece and in Europe in gen-
eral since the 1950s, limiting the significance of the Soviet-­backed socialist
realist performances, a development which he appreciated.42 Instead of
trying to employ culture as a means of lending support to the ideological
prerogatives of another Cold War camp, however, Basantis in particular
and young autonomous left-wingers in general construed it as a source of
reflection and self-criticism.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the Cold War was intensifying on the
diplomatic and military level; this was particularly apparent in the Soviet

invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and in the USA’s decision in the early

1980s to deploy MGM-31 Pershing as well as cruise missiles in Western
Europe, primarily in West Germany, as a response to the Soviet RSD-10
Pioneer ballistic missiles, stationed in Eastern Europe and the USSR.43
Nevertheless, the question of whether culture should serve as a Cold
War battlefield triggered debates among Greek left-wingers of all ages.
A trend that had first tentatively appeared in the late 1950s, especially
in Epitheorisi Technis, emerged more strongly: a number of left-wingers
became explicitly unwilling to approach culture in a way that would vin-
dicate the cultural politics of the USSR. By contrast, theatre continued to
serve as a powerful Cold War weapon for the most popular Communist
youth organisation, the KNE, until the fall of the Eastern Bloc.
In any case, since the 1980s, there have been some performances of
Brechtian plays; for instance, those put on by the National Theatre, which
was founded in 1930 and has subsequently become one of the most well-­
established theatre companies in Greece.44 In 1981, the Berliner Ensemble
also staged performances for the first time in Greece.45 In general,
­however, the interest of various segments of the Greek public in Brecht’s
plays gradually waned, according to Mavromoustakos.46 To appropriate
a term introduced by Werner Mittenzwei, an expert in theatre and lit-
erature, the 1980s in Greece ushered in a period of ‘Brecht-Müdigkeit’

This article aims to stress the significance of transnational flows across the
Cold War divide and within Western Europe in the circulation and recep-
tion of Brecht’s plays by young Greek left-wingers in the 1970s. Even
though the growing interest in Brecht’s work witnessed in Greece in that
decade was not limited to young Socialists and Communists, young left-
wingers contributed significantly, both as performers and as viewers, to the
immense popularity of Brechtian plays in the country at that time. I intend
to complement the argument put forth by Mavromoustakos, namely that
the reception of Brecht is polarised between those favouring a depoliti-
cised version, concentrating on his theatre methodology, and those who
view him solely as a left-wing militant author: As this article shows, young
left-wingers of differing orientation transcended such a dichotomy and
looked for links between his work and collective action in Greece in the
1970s, construing them, however, in diverse ways. Transnational flows

of ideas were crucial to the forging of the cultural orientation of Greek

left-wing youth, not only in the field of theatre. In their c­ onceptualisation
of the Brechtian oeuvre, young Communists and Socialists looked to
Western European and Soviet scholars and publications. A study of these
youth groups shows that the paradigm of Americanisation fails to reflect
the shaping of youth identities in Europe in the 1960s and the 1970s in
all its complexity. Moreover, I demonstrate that Greek left-wing youth
witnessed a growing diversification from the late 1970s onwards in the
ways in which it positioned culture vis-à-vis the Cold War. Some left-wing
youth organisations refrained from interpreting culture as a means of vin-
dicating a specific Cold War bloc. Nevertheless, a remarkable proportion
of Communist youth in Greece in the 1970s conceptualised the work
and life of Brecht as a Cold War weapon. In particular, he functioned for
the pro-­Soviet Communist youth as yet another example of the enduring
superiority of the Eastern bloc over the ‘West’.
Before closing, I would like to stress again that the proliferation of
translations of Brecht’s plays in Greece in the early 1970s might be linked
to the ‘Brecht boom’ in West Germany in the late 1960s. Thus, a com-
parative and transfer history of the reception of the Brechtian oeuvre across
and, even, beyond Europe would contribute to a more nuanced analysis of
the cultural dimensions of the Cold War.

1. Kaspar Maase, ‘Establishing Cultural Democracy: Youth, “Americanization”
and the Irresistible Rise of Popular Culture’, in The Miracle Years, A
Cultural History of West Germany, 1949–68, ed. Hanna Schissler
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 428–450; Rob Kroes,
‘American Mass Culture and European Youth Culture’, in Between Marx
and Coca-Cola: Youth Cultures in Changing European Societies, 1960–1980,
ed. Axel Schildt and Detlef Siegfried (New York and Oxford: Berghahn
Books, 2006), 82–105, and Uta Poiger, Jazz, Rock and Rebels, Cold War
and American Culture in a Divided Germany (Berkeley, Los Angeles and
London: University of California Press, 2000).
2. On this issue, see also Nikolaos Papadogiannis, ‘Political Travel Across the
“Iron Curtain” and Communist Youth Identities in West Germany and
Greece in the 1970s and 1980s’, in European Review of History—Revue
européenne d’histoire, 23.3 (2016), 526–553.
3. David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy dur-
ing the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1–16.

4. Besides Caute’s work, see, for instance Naima Prevots, Dance for Export.
Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War (Middletown: Wesleyan University
Press, 1998); Frances C. Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the
Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999); Reinhold Wagnleitner,
Coca-colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United
States in Austria after the Second World War (Chapel Hill and London:
The University of North Carolina Press, 1994). For a comprehensive lit-
erature review of the ways in which scholars have linked the Cold War with
culture, see Yale Ferguson and Rey Koslowski, ‘Culture, International
Relations Theory, and Cold War History’, in Reviewing the Cold War:
Approaches, Interpretations, Theory, ed. Odd Arne Westad (London and
New York: Routledge, 2013), 149–179.
5. For example David Barnett, A History of the Berliner Ensemble (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2015); Charlotte M.  Canning, ‘“In the
Interest of the State”: A Cold War National Theatre for the United States’,
Theatre Journal 61.3 (October 2009), 407–420; John Elsom, Cold War
Theatre (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015); Bruce A. McConachie, American
Theater in the Culture of the Cold War: Producing and Contesting
Containment, 1947–1962 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003).
6. Christopher B.  Balme, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 113.
7. Illias Nikolakopoulos, I kachektiki dimokratia: kommata kai ekloges,
1946–67 (Athens: Patakis, 2001).
8. Yannis Voulgaris, I Ellada tis Metapolitefsis, 1974–1990. Statheri Dimokratia
Simademeni apo ti Metapolemiki Istoria (Athens: Themelio, 2002),
9. Petros Markaris, O Brecht kai o dialektikos logos (Athens: Ithaki, 1982), 85.
10. Aimilia Karali, Mia imitelis Anoixi …: ideologia, politiki kai logotechnia sto
periodiko Epitheorisi Technis (Athens: Ellinika Grammata, 2005), 85.
11. Socialist realism was pervasive in the literature produced by Greek
Communist authors. In addition, reviewers in Communist magazines and
newspapers in Greece had demanded since 1934, when the First All-Union
Congress of Soviet Writers adopted socialist realism as the approved style
for Soviet authors, that genuinely revolutionary authors conform to its
principles. The dominance of socialist realism among the Greek Left
decreased from the 1950s onwards, without, however, totally falling into
12. Karali, Mia imitelis Anoixi, 186. This is still a contentious point amongst
Greek left-wing intellectuals. Karali, for instance, explicitly argues that
Brecht should not be seen as fully subscribing to socialist realism, since he
never depicted this style as the highest form of artistic expression (ibid).

13. Platon Mavromoustakos, Schediasmata Anagnosis (Athens: Kastaniotis,

2006), 119–123.
14. In addition, Mavromoustakos suggests that Brecht’s endeavours in politics
and theatre were both important and linked with each other; thus, a more
inclusive approach to his work is necessary.
15. Petros Markaris, O Brecht kai o dialektikos logos, 72–87.
16. Michael Patterson, ‘Brecht’s legacy’, in The Cambridge Companion to
Brecht, ed. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994), 273–287, here 276.
17. Mavromoustakos, Schediasmata Anagnosis, 121. Overall, according to
Gonda van Steen, expert in Greek Studies, ‘Brecht became the most popu-
lar foreign playwright in Greece during the junta years [1967-1974]...’.
See: Gonda van Steen, Stage of Emergency: Theater and Public Performance
under the Greek Military Dictatorship of 1967-1974 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2014), 260.
18. Dimitris Asimakoulas, ‘Framing Brecht and the Greek Student Movement
(1972–1973)’, Meta 52.2 (2009), 233–247, here 239.
19. Ibid., 239 and 240–244.
20. Michael Schneider, ‘Bertolt Brecht—Ein abgebrochener Riese. Zur ästhe-
tischen Emanzipation von einem Klassiker’, Literaturmagazin 10: Vorbilder
(1979), 25–66, here 27.
21. Asimakoulas, ‘Framing Brecht’, 239.
22. Platon Mavromoustakos, To theatro stin Ellada 1940–2000, Mia episkopisi
(Athens: Kastaniotis, 2005), 139. For the politicisation of theatre in post-
1974 Greece, see also Nikolaos Papadogiannis, Militant Around the
Clock?: Left-Wing Youth Politics, Leisure and Sexuality in Post-Dictatorship
Greece, 1974–1981 (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015), 131–136.
23. For the relationship between dissident students and theatre in the final
years of the dictatorship, see Kostis Kornetis, Children of the Dictatorship:
Student Resistance, Cultural Politics, and the ‘Long 1960s’ in Greece (New
York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013).
24. ‘Ti einai to Laiko Peiramatiko Theatro’, Thourios, 6 January 1977, 14.
25. The former event was mentioned in ‘To theatriko tmima tou Panepistimiou’,
Odigitis, 21 May 1975, 12 and the latter in ‘Provlimata Erasitechnikon
Thiason’, Odigitis, 18 August 1978, 17. Lofos Skouze is a district of
26. See, for example, the agreement between the pupils of the Eighth Male
High School of Thessaloniki and the ‘Theatre of Thessaloniki’. The pupils,
influenced by the KNE, agreed to attend a performance of Little
Mahagonny. I found this document in the personal collection of Nikos
Samanidis, a high school pupil affiliated with the pro-Soviet Communist
youth organisation in the mid-1970s.

27. For a detailed analysis of the cultural politics of left-wing youth groups in
Greece in the mid-to-late 1970s, see Papadogiannis, Militant around the
28. The term has been translated in English as ‘alienation effect’, ‘distancing
effect’ or ‘estrangement effect’. To avoid confusion, I use the original
German term, as employed by Brecht.
29. However, a small proportion of left-wing youth downplayed the impor-
tance of the Verfremdungseffekt, while assessing the Brechtian oeuvre. In
particular, the journal Proodeytikos Kinimatografos (Progressive Cinema),
which first appeared in 1978 and was produced by a group of young
Maoists, claimed that the aforementioned technique was nothing more
than a component of Brecht’s dramatic theory. Thus, they largely refrained
from elaborating on the Verfremdungseffekt. Instead, the journal published
a translation of his ‘Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties’ (1935), which, as
they argued, best captured his Marxist-Leninist orientation (see Proodeytikos
Kinimatografos, 1979, 7–19 and Proodeytikos Kinimatografos, 1979,
30. Peter Brooker, ‘Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre’, in
The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. Peter Thomson and Glendyr
Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 185–200, here
191–195 and Patrice Pavis, Dictionary of the Theatre. Terms, Concepts, and
Analysis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 19.
31. For the translation of the Short Organum, see Markaris, O Brecht, 89.
Translations of theoretical texts written by Brecht also appeared in the
journal Theatro, such as in Theatro (1975). Theatro ceased publication in
1967, but resumed it again in 1973.
32. Nikos Lagadinos, ‘To Eleythero Theatro kai o Tychodioktis tou Mih.
Hourmouzi’, Agonistis, 1–15 January 1975. On Free Theatre and Brecht
in the early 1970s, see: van Steen, Stage of Emergency, 287–289.
33. Roland Barthes, ‘Ta kathikonta tis brechtikis kritikis’, Thourios, 3 April
1975, 11. The text was originally published by Barthes in 1956; it was
entitled ‘Les tâches de la critique brechtienne’.
34. ‘Neoi diskoi’, Thourios, 9 December 1976, 14 and V. K., ‘O anthropos pou
paraxeneyotan…’, Thourios, 28 March 1978, 13.
35. See, for instance, an article published in the newspaper of the university
students aligned with the KNE: ‘Ti einai apostasiopoiisi’, Panspoudastiki,
11 January 1975, 2.
36. ‘Sosialistikos realismos. Ti simainei?’, Odigitis, 23 December 1976, 13
37. ‘Bertolt Brecht, Oi Gamoi ton Mikroaston’, Odigitis, 3 February 1977,
38. ‘O Brecht kai to “Berliner Ensemble”’, Odigitis, 16 October 1974, 2.
39. ‘Technes-Grammata-Zoi’, Odigitis, 27 August 1975, 12.

40. Caute, The Dancer Defects, 292.

41. Stephen Parker, Peter Davies and Matthew Philpotts, The Modern
Restoration: Re-Thinking German Literary History 1930–1960 (Berlin and
New  York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 280–281 and Caute, The Dancer
Defects, 285. Parker, Davies and Philpotts argue that the East German
authorities developed a complex relationship with Brecht, not because of
the style of his plays, but mostly because of the fact that Brecht kept him-
self at a relative distance from the country’s regime: he never became a
member of the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic and he
acquired Austrian citizenship (Parker, Davies and Philpotts, The Modern
Restoration, 282).
42. Diamantis Basantis, ‘“I avli ton thavmaton”: apoichoi kai prominymata
mias epochis’, Agonas gia tin Kommounistiki Ananeosi, May 1979, 59–61.
43. For the intensifying Cold War tensions in the late 1970s and early 1980s,
see, for instance Raymond L. Garthoff, ‘The Failure of the Détente of the
1970s’, in The Cold War: The Essential Readings, ed. Klaus Larres and
Anne Lane (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 159–180.
44. Various programmes of performances of Brechtian plays staged by the
company in the 1980s and the 1990s are available in the digital archive of
the National Theatre, see NT-Archive: http://www.nt-­archive.gr/,
accessed 15 March 2016.
45. Mavromoustakos, Schediasmata Anagnosis, 125.
46. Ibid.
47. Werner Mittenzwei, Wer war Brecht? (Berlin: Aufbau, 1977), 100.

Acting on the Cold War: Imperialist

Strategies, Stanislavsky, and Brecht
in German Actor Training after 1945

Anja Klöck

On 28 October 1947, order no. 230 from the ‘Chief of Administration

of the Soviet Military Administration of Thuringia’ commanded the
foundation of the Deutsches Theaterinstitut (DTI, German Theatre
Institute) in the name of ‘Marshall of the Soviet Union Sokolovsky’.1 The
DTI was to be established in Weimar in the Soviet occupation zone of
post-war Germany. It bore the programmatic subtitle ‘Institute for the
Methodological Renewal of German Theatre’ and was obviously consid-
ered a matter for the political leader (see Figs. 14.1 and 14.2).
After Nazi Germany had capitulated in May 1945, each military adminis-
tration—British, French, Soviet, and American—followed the common goals
that had eventually been agreed upon at the Potsdam Conference in the sum-
mer of 1945: to democratise, denazify, demilitarise, and decentralise Germany.
In the field of German culture, the goals were to reorganise German cultural
life and to enrich it with international works. The measures taken in order
to achieve these objectives, however, differed depending on the cultural and

A. Klöck (*)
Hochschule für Musik und Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy”,
Leipzig, Germany

© The Author(s) 2017 239

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_14
240   A. KLÖCK

Fig. 14.1  Order no. 230 of the Chief of Administration of the Soviet Military
Administration of Thuringia of 28 October 1947, C, II. 3, T 302/1.3, HMT
Leipzig Archive

Fig. 14.2  German translation of order no. 230 of the Chief of Administration of
the Soviet Military Administration of Thuringia of 28 October 1947), C, II. 3, T
302/1.2, HMT Leipzig Archive
242   A. KLÖCK

political self-understanding of each victor nation. Theatre was recognised as

a major culture-transmitting institution by all military administrations. In the
1947/48 season, for example, there were 81 old and newly opened public the-
atres in the Soviet occupation zone, a number never reached before or since.2
In the British occupation zone, the ‘Theatre and Music Section’ began as early
as summer 1945 to select British plays for German stages.3 The American
Military Administration issued 64 contemporary US plays for translation,
print, and distribution in German, about 45 of which were actually produced
by 1949.4 And in the French occupation zone, 21 French theatre compa-
nies were contracted between August 1945 and December 1946 to tour the
French occupied territories, among them productions by Charles Dullin and
Louis Jouvet and ensembles such as Comédie-Française, Compagnie Noël
Vincent, and Groupe de théâtre antique de la Sorbonne.5 In the field of post-
war German theatre, hence, the division of German territories into four occu-
pation zones and Berlin sectors in 1945 promoted the transnational transfer
of American, British, French, and Soviet cultural products and achievements.
These strategies of transmitting culture transnationally were at the same
time locally specific in their actualisation and bound to a conflict of global
dimensions: the intensification of the East/West conflict between the two
superpowers USA and USSR, officially named a ‘Cold War’ in the context
of the failed attempts at bringing the latest nuclear war technology under
international control in 1947.6
Within this field of conflicting forces trying to condition the post-war
anti-fascist or post-fascist democratic German citizen, actor training pro-
grammes became a site par excellence where larger Cold War rhetoric
intersected with local artistic practices. The actor moved into the centre of
aesthetic discourse as an idealised model human being for a cultural iden-
tity yet to come or as the keeper and transmitter of modes of being from
a more distant past.7 This increased attention to acting is reflected in the
large number of acting schools that were licensed by the various Military
Administrations of Germany in the immediate post-war years.8 One of
these schools was the above-mentioned DTI, founded in the Soviet zone
in 1947. It is no coincidence that it was officially launched by a Soviet
military officer in 1947, when the Cold War first appeared as a discur-
sive concept with which to frame, name, and control world politics in
terms of a competitive and antagonistic relationship between the USA und
the USSR. As is the case with most public acting schools founded under
military administration in Germany, the founding moment of the DTI is
deeply grounded in Cold War rhetoric and in strategies of transmitting
ideology via artistic-aesthetic practices.

Recent studies on Cold War culture have shown how theatre and dance
productions, plays, and key artists were constructed and treated as trans-
national export goods and as vehicles for demonstrating ideological supe-
riority and alliances during the Cold War.9 These strategies more often
than not developed their own dynamics, conflicting with national and local
policies and producing at times irreconcilable inconsistencies between
transnational representation and national practices. On the basis of these
insights, I would like to show how processes of institutionalisation of actor
training in post-war Germany participated in these global processes. In so
doing, I will focus on the founding moment of the DTI and its exemplary
position within a general transnational transfer of cultural products and
‘achievements’ from the Soviet Union to East Germany. This transfer set
standards for actor training in the GDR that had far-reaching implications
beyond the immediate post-war years. Situating the discourse on acting
within the larger, global East/West conflict may help to explain the prob-
lematic status of Bertolt Brecht in East German official cultural politics
in the early 1950s and—following the international success of Brecht’s
Berliner Ensemble—the struggle of party officials to resolve the apparent
contradiction between Stanislavsky’s and Brecht’s approaches to acting in
the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A ‘Methodological Renewal of German Theatre’

under Soviet Occupation (1945–49)

The ‘methodological renewal of German theatre’ at the yet-to-be-founded

DTI was already being prepared in Moscow in 1944. While the world was
still at war, German communist emigrants were tasked by the Stalinist
regime with preparing the anti-fascist renewal of German culture after
the anticipated end of the Second World War. On 25 September 1944 at
Hotel Lux, Moscow, a meeting took place in the room of Wilhelm Pieck,
later President of the GDR, to gather and work out strategies in the fields
of film, literature, radio, and theatre. Among those invited was Maxim
Vallentin,10 who would later become head of the acting department at the
DTI in Weimar.11 In his 1944 position paper on theatre, Vallentin stresses
the importance of ‘Stanislavsky’s Method’ and demands ‘educating the
actor as a socially responsible human being, as a citizen and conscious
vehicle of progress, as a teacher of the people with the pedagogical means
of art.’12 Stanislavsky, an authority on actor training who most acting
schools in post-war Germany will draw upon, is placed into the service not
244   A. KLÖCK

only of artistic but also of public instruction and of progress. This Stalinist
appropriation of Stanislavsky’s writings in terms of a ‘method’ and of the
actor as a ‘conscious vehicle of progress’ will also govern, as I will show,
the mission statement and curriculum at the DTI.
After the end of the war, in summer 1945, Vallentin saw to the reopen-
ing on new terms of the acting class at the existing State Music Academy
in Weimar. On a discursive level, the specific appropriation of Stanislavsky
sketched out in Vallentin’s 1944 position paper was put into practice
and further developed into a ‘method’. This is circumstantiated not only
by archival documents but also by Das deutsche Stanislawski-Buch (The
German Stanislavsky Book), a course book published to accompany
the Weimar programme by Vallentin’s colleague Ottofritz Gaillard in
1946.13 In his introduction to the book, Vallentin assumes two pillars of
‘Stanislavsky’s Method’: the ‘truth of sensation’ (that is the actor’s experi-
encing with his or her senses, which is supposed to be ‘truthful’ to itself),
and the ‘truth of the stage’ (the truthful playing with props, space, and
partners in a fictive theatrical situation). To these ‘truths’ Vallentin adds
a third pillar, the ‘societal truth’.14 According to The German Stanislavsky
Book, the actor should serve society by realistically imitating and better-
ing it on stage. He or she is expected to craft according to observations
of everyday life from a working-class perspective, resulting in a horizon-
tal alignment of his or her sense experience and a dissociation from the
German historical avant-garde before 1933. Not unlike the schools in
the other occupation zones, the Weimar programme aimed at humanis-
ing society with the help of a newly trained actor.15 However, as already
indicated by Vallentin’s 1944 paper, it offered a very specific reading of
Stanislavsky’s concepts in terms of a Soviet cultural programme in line
with the parameters of socialist realism:

Russia very decidedly disavowed the ‘Proletkult’ and an intellectual direc-

tor’s theatre. The human realism of Stanislavsky was acknowledged as a
great cultural achievement of bourgeois theatre and the theatre of the Soviet
Union has tied in with its progressive traditions.16

The apotheosis of realism and the repudiation of avant-garde practices in

German acting and actor training was a ‘transzonal’ phenomenon, mean-
ing that acting schools in the other occupation zones were also leaning
towards different forms of realism (such as psychological realism or magi-
cal realism). This turn toward realism was partly conditioned by the canon

of contemporary plays licensed for translation and production particularly

by the American, British, and Soviet military administrations. But it was
much more fundamentally driven by a general, transnational quest for
truth. In this context, realism can be regarded as an epistemological rather
than an aesthetic category, a mode of presenting ‘truth’ and true values on
stage. Within the epistemological category of realism, the actor becomes
a medium of truth; that is, a medium of knowing right from wrong, of
transmitting ‘correct’ cultural values and ‘correct’ ways of behaviour. The
open, at times experimental dynamics of modernist, avant-garde forms
are irreconcilable with this ‘truth claim’ of realism. This partly explains
why expressionism—having entered the established German theatres way
before 1933—was not considered a possible starting point from which to
launch a renewal of German culture after 1945. It also explains why the
education of ‘new’ actors was viewed as a key issue in post-war German
culture. In the case of Vallentin’s and Gaillard’s discourse on acting in
1946, the ‘truth claim’ of realism is posited against Russian avant-garde
forms of theatre subsumed under the term ‘Proletkult’ (proletarskaya kul-
tura: constructivism and Russian futurism). With formalist artistic tradi-
tions rendered taboo by the Soviet administration, the burden of proof
in actor training is shifted toward a more distant modernist authority: to
Stanislavsky. At the same time, the apotheosis of socialist realism in the
Soviet zone underscores the modernist model of innovation and techni-
cal progress. Thus Stanislavsky is simultaneously turned to as an authority
from the past and reconstructed as a modernist tradition in such a way
that the new, that is contemporary, acting method comes as ‘a great cul-
tural achievement’ and as the very climax of this new ideological narrative,
which is not at all an intrinsic part of Stanislavsky’s own writings.17
These ideological parameters crystallise most obviously around the
foundation of the DTI in 1947. The title of the Weimar institute (which,
to be precise, was neither called the Weimar Theatre Institute nor the
Stanislavsky Institute, but the German Theatre Institute) extends the
truth claims of its theatre education and particularly of its actor train-
ing beyond the borders of the Soviet occupation zone to all of post-
war Germany, that is to the theatres in the areas under British, French,
and American occupation. Upon completion of their studies each class
of acting students was supposed to form a theatre ensemble headed by
their main teacher. These ‘professionally qualified ensembles’ (a term
taken from a 1948 prospectus) were meant to settle permanently in other
German cities in a potentially united Germany.18 In 1948 the curriculum
246   A. KLÖCK

entailed eight semesters of study with a consecutive four-year contract

binding graduates to such an ensemble on leaving the school. The DTI’s
mission of educating autarkic acting ensembles constitutes a very specific
rereading of Stanislavsky’s concept of an ensemble. Whereas Stanislavsky
emphasises a focus on the acting ensemble in order to break with the star
system in Russian theatre of the end of the nineteenth century, ensemble
acting at the DTI is viewed as a ‘pedagogical means of art’, to invoke
Vallentin once again, with which to politically educate the spectator. It
becomes a medium of expanding a socialist view of the world in the con-
text of the rising East/West conflict after the Second World War, and
particularly after 1947. By means of this imperialist strategy, the ‘meth-
odological renewal of German theatre’ propagated by the subtitle of this
institution was to be systematically achieved.19

Acting on the Cold War: Transzonal Interactions

This did not go unnoticed in the Western occupation zones. In Munich,
located in the American zone, Hans Gebhart wrote a memorandum to the
Bavarian State Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs early in 1949.
Gebhart was a friend of the late Otto Falckenberg, long-time artistic direc-
tor of the Münchner Kammerspiele. In this memorandum he cautions the
political officials about the DTI in the Soviet zone:

No doubt: under a correct assessment of the social function of theatre,

the work of this theatre institute amounts to the formation of politically
tuned actor-units, which, in the expected expansion are meant to occupy
the Western theatres. No doubt either that in Weimar high quality and sys-
tematic artistic work is being accomplished, thereby legitimising itself to
push into the vacuum of Western theatre. There is only one way of holding
one’s ground against this: establishing a public theatre school providing an
­education that is commensurate with occidental and Christian man and a
system at least matching up with the one of Stanislavsky.20

We find here, in a nutshell, the basic argumentative pattern grounded in

Cold War rhetoric that will continue in the Western perception of East
German theatre until 1989 and beyond:
–– a fear of transnational (here: transzonal) communist expansion by
means of theatre;
–– a competitive relationship between East and West;

–– the striving for one’s own technical advancement, progress, and sys-
tematic modernisation grounded in this competitive relationship;
–– and the perceived high effort and quality of East German artistic
It is certainly no coincidence that, following Gebhart’s memoran-
dum, a delegation from the Falckenberg School in Munich (compare
endnote 8) visited the Weimar programme early in 1949 to gain an
insight into the work that was being done there. Such direct transzonal
interaction of acting schools was still possible at that time. However,
by the autumn of the same year, the situation had changed: Armin-
Gerd Kuckhoff, head of the theatre studies department at the DTI,
warns Otto Lang from the acting department in an internal note: ‘by
collaborating with the DTI, acting schools in the West might be try-
ing to gain a lead over other acting schools, and [that] they could
discredit the DTI by using its name for commercial purposes’.21 This
fear of being discredited by their Western colleagues has to be seen
in the light of global Cold War politics and the change of attitude of
the Soviet political leaders towards Germany in 1949. The formation
of two separate German states in the autumn of 1949 (the Federal
Republic of Germany, FRG, in the West and the German Democratic
Republic, GDR, in the East) may be regarded as symptomatic of the
intensified East/West conflict at this time. Over the course of this con-
flict, cultural strategies changed to favour segregating rather than inte-
grating East and West German occupation zones geopolitically. This
change in cultural politics also trickled down to the institutions of actor
training. In the case of the DTI, it may be noticed in the change of
attitude toward ‘acting schools in the West’ as indicated in the above-
mentioned note from autumn 1949. It also had consequences for the
overall self-definition of this institution: the imperialist pan-German
strategy of educating ‘professionally qualified ensembles’ for a poten-
tially united Germany was abandoned. The only ensemble that ever left
the school in the way envisioned in the 1948 prospectus was the Junges
Ensemble (young ensemble) under the direction of Maxim Vallentin.22
After 1951, graduates of the acting department were no longer bound
by an ensemble contract. Instead, they were supposed to put their
efforts into establishing a national GDR theatre system.
248   A. KLÖCK

Stanislavsky Institutionalised: The DTI

Around 1950
After the formation of two separate German states, economic and cultural
efforts initially focused on internal processes in order to give East German
society a head start over the West and to prove its systemic superiority.
The transnational reverberation of this change of Soviet politics within the
DTI is indicated by a visit from an acting teacher from the Moscow GITIS
in 1950. During the month of German-Soviet friendship, the theatre
director and acting teacher Pavel Aleksandrovich Markov visited Germany
together with several other artists and scholars and several Stakhanov work-
ers. These workers were part of the Stakhanov movement, which aimed to
increase worker productivity (through an over-fulfilment of their planned
workload) and to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist economic
system. Markov’s visit to the DTI gives expression to the, by then, solidi-
fied competitive and antagonistic relationship between two economic-­
ideological systems: consumer capitalism and Stalinist socialism. Markov
lectured on topics such as ‘The Soviet Theatre and Stanislavsky’ and ‘The
Soviet Theatre and its Fight Against Formalism’,23 solidifying an ideology
of modernism in the field of acting as a transformation of Stanislavsky’s
poetics into a ‘system’ of tried and true techniques that participated in the
overall ‘modernisation’ of East German post-war society. This interlock-
ing of an ideology of modernisation, Stanislavsky, realism and transna-
tional (meaning Soviet-German) socialist politics is further exemplified in
a speech by Walter Ulbricht, Secretary General of the Central Committee
of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of East Germany). In his 1950-speech
at the Third Convention of SED, he stresses the innovative aspect of
Stanislavskian actor training:

We welcome that some friends have set themselves the task, following the
methods of the great Soviet artistic director and pedagogue Stanislavsky, of
educating actors of a new type.24

Within a rhetoric of modernisation (‘actors of a new type’), this explicit

political apotheosis of Stanislavsky’s approach to acting pays tribute not
only to the ‘friends’ at the Weimar acting programme. It also pays homage
to the formalism debate in Russia, and I am thinking here particularly of
the so-called second ‘Zhdanovshchina’ passed in 1948 in order to fight
‘objectivism’, ‘formalism’, and ‘cosmopolitism’ in Russian culture.25

By the time that Bertolt Brecht first visited East Berlin in October 1948
and even more so by the time he moved there in 1949, the ‘Stanislavsky
dogma’, the doctrine of socialist realism and the fight against ‘formalism’,
seen as including the traditions of the German historical avant-garde, were
already part of the cultural politics of the SED and had been institution-
alised in East German departments of actor training. It does not come as
a surprise that, during his lifetime, Brecht—in terms of his plays and his
theoretical writings for the theatre—was an untouched and untouchable
subject in East German state programmes of actor training.

Bertolt Brecht and the Stanislavsky Dogma

The desire of some party officials to stage a public confrontation between
Brecht and other members of the Berliner Ensemble (BE) on the one hand,
and representatives of the so-called ‘Stanislavsky method’ and of socialist
realism on the other, is epitomised in the Stanislavsky Conference in April
1953. The conference was organised by the Staatliche Kommission für
Kunstangelegenheiten der DDR (State Commission on Artistic Affairs of
the GDR), which operated from 1951 until 1953. Several members of the
Berliner Ensemble had been invited to this conference, and Helene Weigel
was asked to present a position statement on Stanislavsky in relation to
the work of the BE.26 A recent study of the collection of archival docu-
ments pertaining to this State Commission suggests that the aim of the
Stanislavsky Conference was twofold: (1) to either eliminate Brecht or to
commit him to socialist realism and (2) to explain and establish the Soviet
interpretation of the ‘Stanislavsky method’ as the sole binding working
method for all theatres in the GDR. Although Brecht evaded these aims,
in public discourse the self-proclaimed advocates of Stanislavsky continu-
ously tried to play his theatre of Verfremdung off against a Stanislavskian
theatre of empathy.27 This antagonism ironically also entered the anti-­
Brecht discourse in West Germany during the FRG’s Brecht boycott in
response to his apparent loyalty to the SED regime after the East German
uprising of June 1953. In the GDR, the antagonism of Brecht and
Stanislavsky governed most of the polemical reviews of Brecht’s produc-
tions during his lifetime, and his theatre always seemed to be on the verge
of being dismissed as formalist. It is obvious that, in the long run, the SED
leadership could not tolerate such inconsistencies between the theory and
practice of cultural politics. It is also clear that, with the international suc-
cess of the Berliner Ensemble from 1954 onwards, Brecht could no longer
250   A. KLÖCK

be left out of the relatively young history of German socialist theatre. The
inconsistencies between transnational representation and national prac-
tices needed to be reconciled much like the never officially sanctioned
confrontation of Brecht and Stanislavsky in the early 1950s.28
In April 1959, at the so-called Bitterfeld Conference, the SED lead-
ership was calling for a ‘new Socialist national culture’. In this context,
theatre scholars and practitioners, like acting teachers, were expected to
work toward a socialist German national theatre.29 By that time Stalin had
died and been denounced, Brecht had died, the Berliner Ensemble had
had its international breakthrough and the DTI had been relocated from
Weimar to Leipzig and restructured as a Theaterhochschule (University of
Theatre). At this historical moment, the SED leadership, bound to con-
sensus, had a problem: the apparent opposition of Stanislavsky and Brecht
produced by the discourses of the early 1950s, and by the co-existence of
Stanislavsky-based actor training institutions vis-à-vis the institution of the
Berliner Ensemble, needed to be reconciled. Hence the incipient cultural
political debate on socialist German national theatre differed from the for-
malism debate one decade earlier: it was less polarising.30 Previously, one
of the major arguments against Brecht’s theatre that demanded its repres-
sion had been that it belonged to ‘bourgeois modernity’, which socialism
had already overcome. The debate in the late 1950s, however, no longer
aimed at excluding modernity but rather considered its inclusion in the
history of socialist art. In Leipzig, a draft of a ‘Programme of a Socialist
Reform of the Theaterhochschule’ was circulated internally at the end of
1958. It criticises the single focus on ‘the Stanislavsky system’ stemming
from the founding years of the DTI as ‘too one-sided’ and calls for an
integration of ‘the experience and insights of Bertolt Brecht and others
[…]’.31 The antagonism of Brecht and Stanislavsky’s approaches needed
to be resolved and Brecht’s theatre model was in need of an official, public
explanation. Given the importance ascribed to the ‘new type of actor’ to
be educated in the East German acting schools, it is not surprising that
this reconciliation was launched, once again, from within an institution
of actor training: this time from the State Acting Academy of East Berlin
(established out of the Acting School of the Deutsches Theater in 1951).
The head of the institution, from 1959 onwards, was actor-director
Wolfgang Heinz. He had moved to East Berlin in 1956 in order to work
at the Deutsches Theater after his workers’ theatre in Vienna, the Neues
Theater in der Scala, had been closed down. Heinz was mostly associated
with Stanislavsky and realistic acting32 but he had also met Brecht, and
staged and acted in productions of Brecht’s plays.33 With this trajectory

and as head of the State Acting Academy, Heinz became an early key fig-
ure within the Brecht–Stanislavsky reconciliation process in East Germany.
In 1961, at a meeting of all acting teachers of the GDR, the relationship
of Stanislavsky’s and Brecht’s approaches to acting was discussed. In July,
the periodical Theater der Zeit published a version of the paper presented
by Heinz entitled ‘Principles of Training Young Actors’.34 It is struc-
tured into five consecutive paragraphs bearing the following subheadings:
‘Stanislavsky and Brecht’, ‘Theoretical and Practical Classes’, ‘Demands
on Actor Training’, ‘The Youthfulness of the Actor’ and ‘Against Private
Lessons’. The paper opens with the ideologically most pressing question
of how to reconcile the apparent opposition of Stanislavsky and Brecht in
East German actor training, which had resulted from the controversies and
formalismdebates of the early 1950s. It then seems to move on to other
issues of actor training, while supposedly Stanislavskian and Brechtian
concepts continue to be negotiated throughout most of this text.
The introductory passage of the article, first of all, makes it clear that
any official discussion of Brecht had to be and would be grounded in the
already established standards of socialist realism. The passage closes with
the prescriptive statement: ‘The laws we are accepting for us today are
those of socialist realisms’, and the following discussion of ‘Stanislavsky
and Brecht’ leaves no doubt that both Stanislavsky and Brecht would (be
made to) fit these standards as well as be reconciled: ‘Advancing to the
heart of the systems of these two great masters of the theatre, we will
see that there are really not as many differences as many people seem to
find.’35 Heinz attributes the perceived differences to ‘misunderstandings’:

[…] [A]pproaching Brecht via form, it is impossible to understand him. His

concern as a poet was the statement. In the West he is often completely mis-
understood and sometimes with us as well. I myself have witnessed proofs
of a misunderstood Brecht at our Berlin acting school.36

Within the set parameters (Stanislavsky, socialist realism), Heinz discur-

sively creates an opening for Brecht to finally and officially enter East
German actor training. In the passage ‘Demands on Actor Training’ he
calls for an acting teacher who will explain in rehearsals that

in the theatre, relationships among people and in space are in themselves artistic
means of expression. Meaning, the scenic arrangement does not just entail mov-
ing naturally in a realistic environment, but that the scenic arrangement must
at the same time and in every single moment be an expression of the actual
dramatic or rather dramaturgical function of the human beings on stage.37
252   A. KLÖCK

This focus on the actor’s expression in terms of an analysis of social

­relationships and in terms of dramaturgy is new to officially published GDR
acting discourse at this time. It is different from the ‘societal truth’ invoked
by Maxim Vallentin in 1946. Vallentin constructed this third aspect of
Stanislavskian acting in order to modernise Stanislavsky and to orient the
acting students in Weimar towards socialist realism and a ‘true’ portrayal
of working-class people. Methodologically, the idea of an affective natural-
ness based on the seemingly unfiltered and immediate representation of an
affect was never officially called into question by the teachers at the DTI or
at the Theaterhochschule until the late 1950s. In 1961, Heinz adds to this
approach the conscious shaping of an affect by the actor based on his or her
rational analysis of social conditions. Situated in the context outlined above,
it may be regarded as an officially sanctioned response to the political task
of dissolving the apparent contradiction between Stanislavsky and Brecht
in the early 1950s. As such it set the tone for the rise of the scholarly and
artistic reception of Brecht’s writings in the GDR in the 1960s, in terms of
an integration and explanation of his theatre practice in and as a socialist
national theatre that was superior to the theatre of West Germany.

‘To Act Correctly’ after the Construction

of the Wall in 1961

In the article from July 1961, Heinz pinpoints two ‘demands on our con-
temporary actor training […], namely to act well and to act correctly’.38
What Heinz meant by ‘correct acting’ and what it was set up against (in
terms of ‘incorrect acting’) is exemplified by a documentary broadcast on
GDR television in December 1961.39 It culminates in a sequence at the
State Acting Academy in East Berlin, showing students rehearsing a scene
from Gerhart Hauptmann’s Michael Kramer. During the rehearsal a dis-
pute rises over how to play Kramer: as someone feeling self-pity, steering
toward suicide, or as a battlesome man, fighting against the conditions
causing his misery. Eventually Heinz, who has been watching silently,
intervenes and explains why an actor should NOT identify with the char-
acter he or she is playing:

If as a painter, you paint a picture on the topic ‘the misery of oppressed

people’ and you show miserable figures in a horrible milieu in which they
have to live until the end of their days, this might trigger in the onlooker
a strong feeling of trepidation, but possibly also merely a shrug, because:

what shall be done about it? And religion has done much to make people
say: this is wanted by God and cannot be changed. We however, know that
it is changeable. And that’s why art, whatever the theme, must always be an
appeal. Realism demands this, too: that a perspective is provided with the
representation of contemporary conditions.40

Without mentioning Brecht, Heinz explains ‘correct acting’ by drawing on

the former’s concept of Verfremdung (exemplified in the field of painting).
Brecht’s Verfremdung was a dramaturgical means of pointing the audience
to contradictions and poor conditions in contemporary society (an effect
not compatible with the idealised representation of reality in socialist real-
ism, and not wanted by party officials). Here, however, it is shifted from
the level of dramaturgy and dramatic writing to the level of acting method
and actor training. While Stanislavsky, who is cited in the opening of the
film sequence, remains the authority, Brecht’s dramaturgy of making expe-
riential social contradictions and misconditions is introduced and at the
same time reduced to an actor’s contradictory construction and presenta-
tion of his or her dramatic character within the epistemological category of
socialist realism. This shift allows for a domestication of Brecht’s concept
of Verfremdung within socialist realism, while Brecht himself is never men-
tioned. The dramaturgy of the rehearsal scene and Heinz’s explanation of
‘correct acting’ are examples of a general tendency in official East German
discourse to integrate Brecht’s concept of an actor’s non-identification into
socialist realism at the end of the 1950s. However, this time ‘correct acting’
is also set up geopolitically in order to demonstrate the superiority of East
German theatre over theatre in West Germany.
Following Heinz’s explanation, a student asks whether ‘we alone are
making art and are acting correctly’, and another student gets to the heart
of the matter, asking: ‘Isn’t this the difference between our theatre with
us, here, and in West Germany for instance: that we are approaching act-
ing from different preconditions?’41 We, our theatre, the difference from
West Germany: demarcations of this kind were quite common before and
after the construction of the Wall on 13 August 1961. They were wide-
spread in medial discourse, rooted in the Cold War rhetoric of the imme-
diate post-war years.42 And Heinz answers the students:

Let’s put it this way: we are trying to do theatre more correctly and some-
times we succeed. Because we are reflecting reality, that is reality the regular-
ity of which we grasp with the help of materialist dialectics. Thus we can sort
the accidental from the substantial.43
254   A. KLÖCK

Unlike the article in the periodical from July, the film from December
1961 draws up boundaries between East German theatre and theatre in
West Germany. It stages the ideological and methodological superiority
of East German acting and actor training. With all these insights, it is
important to remember that this is a ‘filmic construction’ of a rehearsal
situation and that Heinz is talking not only to students but also to an
East German television audience. Much as the acting students are sup-
posed to learn something, so are the viewers in front of their televisions.
They are included in the ‘we’ Heinz frequently employs in his speech.
Furthermore, this ‘we’ excludes those possible spectators on the other side
of the Wall in the West, discursively constructing a border between East
and West in the cultural sphere. The subjectivation of the actor in actor
training programmes is, much as in the post-war discourses, collectivised
as a model for society—however, this time, for East German society exclu-
sively. It serves as a subject-model for the East German spectators in front
of their televisions.
The filmic construction of ‘correct acting’ in the 1961 documentary
exemplifies the desire of the SED leadership for a dissolution of the appar-
ent antagonism between Stanislavsky and Brecht of the early 1950s. This
antagonism had emerged in the context of post-war strategies of trans-
mitting culture transnationally to occupied Germany, particularly from a
Stalinist Soviet Union to the Soviet occupation zone and to East Germany.
The final part of the documentary, showcasing the artistic achievements
of Wolfgang Heinz in terms of a socialist German national theatre, stages
an attempt at closing the ensuing debates: at least at the State Acting
Academy in Berlin, there seems to be a consensus on how socialist theatre
might be done and taught. It also shows that, in the context of the East/
West conflict, acting and actor training are interlocked with medial dis-
courses that attempted to nationalise ideals of personhood, and concepts
of the self and of the other.
I hope to have shown how, in the discourses on acting in post-World
War II Germany, the actor/the actress appears as an idealised medium of
‘truth’ for the (re)building of a German democratic society. Looking at
the Cold War rhetoric and strategies associated with Stanislavsky, Brecht,
and the institutionalisation of actor training in Germany after 1945, I
would like to suggest that historical research on acting in terms of cultural
transmission may provide new insights into East/West German cultural
history and contribute to global theatre histories in a way that an exclusive
focus on acting as communication or performance cannot.

1. Order no. 230 of the SMA-Thuringia, 28 October 1947 (original in
Russian, with German translation), C, II. 3, T 302, HMT Leipzig Archive.
2. Andrea Schiller, Die Theaterentwicklung in der sowjetischen Besatzungszone
(SBZ) 1945 bis 1949 (Frankfurt on the Main: Lang, 1998), 60–61.
3. Gabriele Clemens, Britische Kulturpolitik in Deutschland 1945–1949
(Stuttgart: Steiner, 1997), 103.
4. Wiegand Lange, Theater in Deutschland nach 1945. Zur Theaterpolitik der
amerikanischen Besatzungsbehörden (Frankfurt on the Main: Lang, 1980),
5. Stefan Zauner, Erziehung und Kulturmission. Frankreichs Bildungspolitik
in Deutschland 1945–1949 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1994), 290–291.
6. Bernd Stöver, Kalter Krieg 1947–1991. Geschichte eines radikalen Zeitalters
(Munich: Beck, 2007), 11–15.
7. Anja Klöck, Heiße West- und kalte Ost-Schauspieler? Diskurse, Praxen,
Geschichte(n) zur Schauspielausbildung in Deutschland nach 1945, Theater
der Zeit Recherchen 62 (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2008), 60–65.
8. Among these schools were, for example: the Otto-Falckenberg-­School in
the American Zone in Munich (opened in 1946  in conjunction with the
Münchner Kammerspiele Theater and named after the theatre’s former
artistic director Otto Falckenberg in 1948); the Hannover Acting School in
the British occupation zone (founded by Hans-Günther von Klöden in
1945 and later institutionalised as the present-day University of Music and
Theatre Hannover); the acting class at the Saarbruck Conservatory in the
French protectorate Saarland (founded in 1947 after the model of the Paris
Conservatoire de musique); the Hebbel Theatre School in the American
Sector in Berlin (opened in 1946 at the Hebbel Theatre, later transferred to
a separate institution called the Max Reinhardt School, and today known as
the acting programme at the University of the Arts in Berlin); and the school
associated with the Deutsches Theater in the Soviet sector in Berlin
(reopened in 1946 and later transferred to a separate institution today
known as Staatliche Hochschule für Schauspielkunst ‘Ernst Busch’).
9. See Charlotte M.  Canning, ‘“In the Interest of the State”: A Cold War
National Theatre for the United States’, Theatre Journal 63.1 (October
2009), 407–420; and Naima Prevots, Dance for Export. Cultural Diplomacy
and the Cold War (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
10. Maxim Vallentin (1904–1987) had worked with Max Reinhardt and
Leopold Jessner in Germany in the 1920s. He was persecuted by the fascists
due to his communist theatre group ‘Das rote Sprachrohr’ (the red mega-
phone). He emigrated to Prague in 1933 and to the Soviet Union in 1935.
11. Petra Stuber, Spielräume und Grenzen. Studien zum DDR-Theater (Berlin:
Links, 2000), 12.
256   A. KLÖCK

12. Maxim Vallentin, ‘Einleitende Bemerkungen zur Ausarbeitung von

Richtlinien (Theater) (1944)’, in Spielräume und Grenzen. Studien zum
DDR-Theater, ed. Petra Stuber (Berlin: Links, 2000), 257–261, here 261.
All translations into English are my own.
13. Ottofritz Gaillard, Das deutsche Stanislawski-Buch: Lehrbuch der
Schauspielkunst nach dem Stanislawski-System (Berlin: Aufbau-­Verlag, 1946).
14. Vallentin in ibid., 7–11.
15. See Anja Klöck, ‘Historiographie der Körper(ver)formungen: Institutionen,
(Körper)Politik und Schauspielkunst in Deutschland nach 1945’, in
Theaterhistoriographie. Kontinuitäten und Brüche in Diskurs und Praxis,
ed. Friedemann Kreuder, Stefan Hulfeld and Andreas Kotte (Tuebingen:
Francke, 2007), 235–257.
16. Gaillard, Das deutsche Stanislawski-Buch, 19.
17. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity. Essay on the Ontology of the Present
(New York: Verso, 2002), 172.
18. ‘Deutsches Theater-Institut Weimar Schloss-Belvedere. Institut zur meth-
odischen Erneuerung des deutschen Theaters. Aufnahmebedingungen,
Lehrplan und Methode, Studiengebühren, Institutsordnung (Wintersemester
1948)’, p. 4, C, IX. 1, T302/5, HMT Leipzig Archive.
19. The reorientation of acting teachers in the American occupation zone,
who were sent to US institutions for a ‘methodological reorientation’, may
be regarded as yet another imperialist strategy of Cold War culture. The
‘antiquated methods’ of German acting teachers were meant to be trans-
formed into the more advanced techniques taught at US institutions so
that the plays licensed by the American Military Administration, mostly in
the genre of American psychological realism, could be more effectively
staged in Germany.
20. Hans Gebhart, ‘Gedanken zu einer Theaterschule’, unpublished manu-
script, MK 50662, [no date], 2, Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv.
21. Gerhardt Neubauer, ‘Im eigenen Auftrag’, in Auftrag. Das Schauspielinstitut
‚Hans Otto‘ in Leipzig. Vergangenheit, Gegenwart, Zukunft (Leipzig:
Hochschule für Musik und Theater ‚Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’, 2010),
5–21, here 10.
22. The Junges Ensemble went to Berlin (East) in 1951, settling there perma-
nently as the Maxim Gorki Theatre, which is still one of the leading public
theatres in Berlin today.
23. Pavel Markow, Der Kampf des sowjetischen Theaters für eine realistische
Kunst, ed. Armin-G.  Kuckhoff (Berlin: Verlag Kultur und Fortschritt,
1951), 9.
24. Ibid., 10.
25. The ‘Zhdanovshchina’ was named after Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov, a
Russian politician and close acquaintance of Stalin. Zhdanow had announced
the doctrine of socialist realism in 1934 (Jiri Smrz, ‘Symphonic Marxism:

Sovietizing Pre-revolutionary Russian Music Under Stalin’, Discourses in

Music 4.3 (Summer 2003), http://www.discourses.ca/v4n3a1.html, accessed
27 April 2012.). In September of 1947 he responded to the Truman doctrine
(of March 1947) with a speech to the members of the Comintern.
26. Christa Hasche, Traute Schölling, and Joachim Fiebach, Theater in der
DDR. Chronik und Positionen. Mit einem Essay von Ralph Hammerthaler
(Berlin: Henschel, 1994), 25.
27. Dagmar Buchbinder, ‘Die Staatliche Kommission für Kunstangelegenheiten
(1951–1953)—eine Kulturbehörde “neuen Typus”’, in ‚Die Eroberung der
Kultur beginnt!‘ Die Staatliche Kommission für Kunstangelegenheiten der
DDR (1951–1953) und die Kulturpolitik der SED, Studien des
Forschungsverbundes SED-Staat an der Freien Universität Berlin, ed. Jochen
Staadt (Frankfurt on the Main: Peter Lang, 2001), 9–276, here 135.
28. I would like to extend my gratitude to Peter Kupke for sharing his insights
into these times in a conversation in April 2011.
29. Stuber, Spielräume und Grenzen, 192–200.
30. Ibid.,173.
‘Entwurf zum Programm zur sozialistischen Umgestaltung der
Theaterhochschule’, 1958, C, V. 4, T65, HMT Leipzig Archive.
32. Evelyn Deutsch-Schreiner, Theater im Wiederaufbau. Zur Kulturpolitik im
österreichischen Parteien- und Verbändestaat (Vienna: Sonderzahl, 2001),
33. Renate Waack, Wolfgang Heinz. Denken, Handeln, Kämpfen (Berlin:
Henschelverlag, 1980), 11–63.
34. Wolfgang Heinz, ‘Gesichtspunkte für die Nachwuchsausbildung’, Theater
der Zeit, 7 July 1961, 61–63.
35. Ibid., 61.
36. Ibid., 62.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid., 61.
39. Das Künstlerportrait—Wolfgang Heinz, Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF)
1961, television premiere on 26 December 1961 on channel 1 of the DFF,
45’00”. For a more detailed discussion of this documentary film see Anja
Klöck, ‘Subjektmodellierung und Subjektrepräsentation. Fernsehdoku­
mentationen zur Schauspielausbildung in BRD und DDR’, in Theater und
Subjektkonstitution, ed. Friedemann Kreuder et al. (Bielefeld: Transcript,
2012), 477–490.
40. Das Künstlerportrait—Wolfgang Heinz, timecode 36:52:00-37:54:06.
41. Ibid., timecode 38:00:00–38:13:17.
42. Matthias Steinle, Vom Feindbild zum Fremdbild. Die gegenseitige
Darstellung von BRD und DDR im Dokumentarfilm (Constance: UVK,
2003), 40–48.
43. Das Künstlerportrait—Wolfgang Heinz, timecode 38:18:00–38:42:13.

Checkpoint Music Drama

Sebastian Stauss

When opera and music drama are discussed in a political context, of course
their representational aspects, which have marked these genres from their
beginnings, again sharply shift into focus; and as the aesthetic debates of
the nineteenth century had centred on and around the national schools
of opera, so too during the Cold War the internationally standardized
repertoire was occasionally turned into a means of diplomacy, especially
when the two political systems on either side of the Iron Curtain sought a
display of operatic culture to fit the contemporary requirements.
As is widely known, soon after Second World War, two stage directors
and companies established themselves as the flagships of their profession
in East and West Germany respectively: Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth and
Walter Felsenstein in East Berlin. The two cities in which the two directors
were based must be mentioned, as it is significant that, when seeking a thor-
ough understanding of the style of each director, one had to travel to respec-
tive locations. Wagner also directed in other German cities, especially in
the so-called ‘Winter Bayreuth’ of Stuttgart, and Felsenstein’s productions
were sometimes televised; he was occasionally a guest director and he went

S. Stauss (*)
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

© The Author(s) 2017 259

C.B. Balme, B. Szymanski-Düll (eds.), Theatre, Globalization
and the Cold War, Transnational Theatre Histories,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48084-8_15
260   S. STAUSS

on tour with his ensemble throughout Europe once in a while, but they
were primarily associated with Bayreuth and East Berlin.
One generation later, however, the situation changed considerably—as
guest performances by stage directors from the East became more com-
mon in West Germany. Below I will focus on some examples, mostly but
by no means only from Munich’s operatic history, to exemplify how these
productions were received. Interestingly enough, the capital of Bavaria, in
the American zone of occupation, saw, between 1953 and 1966, the com-
pany of the Bavarian State Opera not only touring to London or New York,
but also to East Berlin, Leipzig and even Athens.1 That connections like
these (as well as the short-term engagement of conductor Rudolf Kempe
from Dresden as the State Opera’s general music director from 1952 to
1954), were, on the one hand, not welcomed by some parts of the audi-
ence or by some journalists, will be examined more closely below. On
the other hand, it is well known that stage directors from the GDR were
sought after in the West from the early 1970s onwards. Probably the most
prominent events were the debuts of Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer
at the Bayreuth Festival in 1972 and 1978 respectively. In terms of their
directing style, both Friedrich and Kupfer were considered the successors
of Walter Felsenstein and his approach to realistic music theatre, which
could be adapted to, if not fully integrated into the doctrine of Socialist
Realism by the authorities.
In the case of Friedrich’s production of Tannhäuser in Bayreuth, such
adaptations led to heated reactions from the audience, which are hard to
understand from our point of view, 40 years later. The biggest provoca-
tion of this particular staging seems to have been its ending, in which it
was apparently (judging from the costumes and a saluting gesture omitted
in the following revivals) a chorus of working-class people from a socialist
country, instead of the group of younger pilgrims returning from an audi-
ence with the Pope in Rome, who came onto the stage and proclaimed
the redemption of the protagonist. However, Götz Friedrich had already
conjured up the storm some days before the first night of Tannhäuser
when he spoke of his intentions and his view of the Bayreuth Festival, for
example, in an interview given to Hessian Radio:

If I have understood Wieland Wagner correctly in what he was wishing and

working for, […] and if I have understood correctly what Wolfgang Wagner
is planning after Wieland’s death: in my eyes Bayreuth isn’t to be considered
a place of cultish reverence, as it may be for others, for me it is a workshop.

Bayreuth is one of the few workshops of a new way of dealing with opera,
trying to make a new start with the form of opera—it is a similar workshop
to Berlin’s Komische Oper in the GDR.2

As Frederic Spotts has pointed out, the reception of this Tannhäuser

ended in a double bind equal to the personal situation Friedrich had found
himself in long before the curtain had risen:

Friedrich was denounced as a dangerous red who was a threat to the Federal
Republic and who should be sent back to East Germany. Some accused him
of turning the opera into a Communist attack on Nazism, others of using
it to celebrate the inevitable triumph of the poor over the rich. […] The
paradox of course was that Friedrich, the putative Communist propagandist,
had spent his career contending with the ideological oppression of the East
German Communist regime.3

Friedrich, who had been born in Naumburg (Saxony-Anhalt) in 1930 and

began his career as Felsenstein’s assistant at the Komische Oper, fled from
the East soon after this Bayreuth debut; it would be too easy to say that
he was ‘won over’ by the West, however. Throughout his career as a direc-
tor and after it, and until his death in 2000, as Intendant of West Berlin’s
Deutsche Oper, he clung to the concept of opera as an art of the ensem-
ble, freshly reflecting and rethinking the traditions. Even if he (like most
artists) had to face objections to his aesthetic course from critics and some
of his audience, after he had become a Western citizen his directing style
did not test the spectators’ tolerance as it had before. Whatever difficulties
had had to be overcome on the first arrival of one of Felsenstein’s proté-
gés in Bayreuth, in the years that followed, other productions directed by
both Friedrich and his peer Harry Kupfer were less fiercely contested and
were criticized more reluctantly.
At the Bavarian State Opera of Munich, the situation appears to have been
rather different. Here too, directors from the East made appearances, especially
after the basic treaty between the two German Republics in 1972, which, how-
ever, did not result in a truce for the theatre. When Ruth Berghaus (1927–96),
who at that time held the position of Intendant at the Berliner Ensemble (as
her mentor, Bertolt Brecht, had done before her), made her directing debut
in Munich, the stage was set for a clash of cultures. To Munich’s opera-goers,
Gioacchino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), newly
staged by Berghaus on 26 November 1974, seemed to both demonstrate the
262   S. STAUSS

theatrical aesthetics of East Berlin as the capital of the GDR and challenge
the West German audience in its accustomed views. It is possible to gain an
impression of what happened on the first night of this production with the aid
of photographs depicting Andreas Reinhardt’s stage design, and the original
radio recording by the Bavarian Broadcast Corporation. As soon as the curtain
opened for the first act, the audience’s animosity was roused by a female torso
made of bricks that filled the stage to its full height—a strong image, blend-
ing several metaphors for materialism, seclusion and gender gaps. Although
the atmosphere in the audience was heated, it did not erupt during the first
appearances; however, things changed considerably after the protagonist
entered the stage. In the recitative after his famous aria the laughter, booing
and heckling of large parts of the audience for some moments threatened to
bring the performance to a halt: as soon as the Count of Almaviva explained
that it was right here that the object of his desire (Rosina) was to be found,
the first loud reaction—laughter—came from the auditorium, even turning
tumultuous when the barber answered: ‘auf dem Balkon da?’ (on the balcony
over there?). Curiously enough, the singer of the title role, the well-known
(West-)German baritone Hermann Prey, delivered these lines in a rather
mocking tone which made it even easier for the hecklers to join in (during
the preparations for the first night, Prey had already pointed out that he and
Berghaus did not share the same opinion of Rossini’s work). Just a few lines
later, there was another cue (‘Euch fiel der Käse gleich auf die Macaroni’—
the cheese fell straight on your macaroni) prompting laughter and protest
(instigated by the colloquial meaning for ‘Käse’ as ‘nonsense’). And finally,
when Rosina delivers her first lines not from a window but from an opening
positioned in one of the brick torso’s breasts, there was another uproar, which
only gradually subsided (Fig. 15.1).
The controversy of the production can be seen as twofold. Or, as Sigrid
Neef, a great expert in music theatre between the Eastern and Western
borders of Europe, says:

The discussion dealt with a contemporary and substantial element of the

development of theatre. At first glance it was about comedy of characters
versus comedy of types, but what lay beneath was the issue of opera as an
art form of the ensemble or as star theatre. The international development
was already under way: moving away from the theatre of the ensemble and
towards a marketable production with singers contracted ad hoc […] Ruth
Berghaus played the card of interaction, which meant precisely outlining
both the big and small form.4

Fig. 15.1  Rosina’s first appearance in Act I of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia,

1974, Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: Sabine Toepffer

Almost four decades later, one can confirm Neef’s judgement with the
help of a few observations. On the one hand, Berghaus’s production of
Rossini’s Barber did not remain in the repertoire of the Bavarian State
Opera for very long and was superseded by a production that fitted the
requirements of internationalism as sketched by Neef. On the other hand,
at the State Opera Unter den Linden in Berlin another production of the
264   S. STAUSS

very same opera with Berghaus as the stage director (after its premiere in
1968) would become a trump card of the company’s repertoire and remain
so for more than 30 years, albeit with a different stage design (by Achim
Freyer, another artist originating from Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble), but
otherwise similar in its handling of movement and drawing of the char-
acters. Is this a sign that the ensemble culture of the Berlin State Opera
was more intact than that of Munich, comparable to the structures Götz
Friedrich hinted at, referring to the Komische Oper and the theatrical
foundations of the GDR as a whole? If so, the competition between the
two systems, the ‘Western’ star system and the alternative model consist-
ing of local celebrities in the East, is no different to the usual fan discus-
sions and conflicts between adherents of the contending opera houses.
Reading some of the reviews of the new production in 1974, one
comes to conclusions that differ slightly from Neef ’s judgement. The
critics dealt with the production more as a political and ideological mat-
ter; the form and genre of the opera itself were sometimes used as bogus
arguments for detecting the director’s way of thinking. For instance,
K.H. Ruppel, the critic of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, whose review was
later also printed in a revised version in the monthly Opernwelt, left
the reader in no doubt as to why he considered Berghaus’s staging to
be pretentious and inappropriate when he referred to the first finale,
in which ‘acidic social criticism made in the GDR seemed to be adding
to the director’s lack of humour and corroding the harmless picture of
a funny finale buffo which one usually has in mind’.5 This statement is
paradoxical in more than one way. The harmlessness of the opera buffa
is invoked, but Pierre Beaumarchais’s original drama, upon which the
libretto of Rossini’s Barber is based, more than implies the social criti-
cism which the Bavarian critic considered to be a typically socialist idea:
there is no doubt that it is the Count’s aristocratic position that saves
him from getting arrested at the end of Act I.  Moreover, in criticis-
ing Berghaus’s almost mechanistic choreographing of the scenes, the
reviewer obviously has not taken into account the musically repetitive
structure of the finale in question. In measuring the director’s style
against operatic conventions, he even goes as far as to deny her highly
analytical approach towards the opera. As such, this could be counted
among a critic’s minor failures. However, the crucial factor is that, by
introducing the ‘GDR trademark’, this particular opera production is
made into a political issue. And this review was not the only one to take
such an approach.

Of particular relevance in this context is Oper und Konzert, a magazine

based in Munich, in which a staff of professional, semi- and non-­professional
critics reported on the national (West German) and international operatic
scene from the 1960s to the 1990s. In the January 1975 edition, four per-
formances of the Munich Barber’s first run were reviewed by four different
writers. What is of interest is not so much their continuously negative recep-
tion of Berghaus’s interpretation, but the arguments each of them employs
against Berghaus as one of the GDR’s leading cultural representatives. The
chief editor of the magazine (Hans Huber), for instance, conceded that one
could see in the protagonist of Rossini’s opera (especially since it is based on
the revolutionary play by Beaumarchais) a ‘coldly calculating pimp who is
only motivated by money especially when he is repeatedly talking as well as
singing of it.’6 It is obvious that the writer of this review wants to show that
he is fully capable of understanding the critique of capitalism intended by
the stage director (of course the production cannot be reduced to this, but
it is the historical perspective that counts here). What follows, however, is his
objection to the limitations of Berghaus’s skills in realizing her concept and
the use of the wrong cast of singers in the wrong place. So what we are deal-
ing with here is basically a double-voic