Documentary Theatre in the United States: An Historical Survey and Analysis of Its Content, Form, and Stagecraft

By Gary Fisher Dawson | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Origins in American
Documentary Theatre

“It is part of my life that work must always be a matter of cooperation with
others. I have always tried to see that this conviction was incorporated
into some sort of formal organization. Collective effort is rooted in the very
nature of the theater. No other art form, with the exception of architecture
and orchestral music, relies so heavily on the existence of a community of
like-minded people as does the theater.”

—Erwin Piscator

The Political Theatre1

On 6 October 1951, Erwin Piscator received a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Refusing to do so, he left for the former West Germany the very next day and would not return to the United States to direct, or teach theatre again. It is ironic that Are You Now or Have Your Ever Been, a documentary play about the HUAC, is a form of drama he innovated. Even more ironic, writes Maria Ley-Piscator, his widow, is that the “the blueprint for a new theatre which Piscator had drawn up in America came to life from the day he went back to Europe.”2 This chapter concerns the origins of American documentary theatre practice with particular emphasis on the role played by Piscator, and other traceable links to its development. These include such productions as John Reed's The Pater son Pageant and the Group Theatre's production of Piscator's Case of Clyde Griffiths.

The history of American documentary theatre is in some respects the history of Piscator's documentary theatre in the United States—at least as far as the form's development here is concerned, and perhaps more.3 For example, he helped to foster growth in development of the Off-Broadway theatre movement, and indirectly, alternative theater in America as well. Judith Malina, cofounder/director of America's longest surviving Off-Broadway theatre company, The Living Theatre, explains that at the time the company formed, their idea of thea-

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