A short history of the early workers theatre

In 1860's Germany, several educative clubs for workers started up, some of which called themselves: "Co-operatives for the acquisition and increase of intellectual capital". It was the hope of the various leaders of this movement that once workers educated themselves, the capitalists could no longer dare to offer them such exploitative wages. Whilst some workers'clubs, like the ADAV, which was based on Lasalle's ideas (Lasalle was an aristocrat who agitated on behalf of the workers, but who was dismissed by the left wing politicians as a mere dandy) considered 'self-help' (Selbsthilfe) as unsuitable for the betterment of workers' living conditions (they argued that the cause for impoverishment did not lie within the working class itself), other organisations (VDAV) saw self-help as the only possible way out of the dilemma.

The workers' theatre eschewed upper class amateur theatre and its audiences, and instead shifted the emphasis entirely to the lower classes of society, whilst in the beginning adapting forms of courtly and bourgeois amateur theatre to its own needs. "Tableaux Vivants" were not uncommon in those days. Another model was found in so-called "festival productions". These had their origin in the medieval mystery plays, or in festivals of the Renaissance, where a certain historical event was celebrated on a given day. Often such plays would anticipate the awaited victory and put visions of a better future on to the stage. The plays thrived on a strong sense of dualism, expressed in the form of hostilities between opposing historical parties, as well as in the juxtaposition of a backward-looking interpretation of history with visionary promises of the future.


But it all started out quite simply. When the first volume of Karl Marx’s "Das Kapital" was published in 1867, Mr J.B.v. Schweitzer studied it thoroughly and published the results in the newspaper "Social-Demokrat". In order to make the text's more difficult thoughts comprehensible to the newspaper's readers, he used the form of a dialogue, or a disputation between two characters. This written debate, called „Schlingel„, was not originally intended for the stage or live performance. Nevertheless, it began to be performed here and there as a piece in German workers’ clubs. Because some of the text was too lengthy or theoretical, Schweitzer published a version adapted for the stage. (The piece nonetheless remained more of a ‘Lesedrama’ or proclamation, and was intended to be read rather than to be acted on stage. It was often performed as part of a longer evening with a variety of different recitations.) Up until 1878, this was the only attempt to confront the workers with the relevancy of Marx’s economic theory. More workers and functionaries were introduced to Marx's ideas through these performances than through the book itself. "Das Kapital" sold very badly to begin with. In 1867, only 100 copies had been ordered, although by 1871, most of the 1st edition of 1000 was sold. But by that time, the „Schlingel„ had been performed at least 15 times, which indicates that about 1500 to 3000 people learnt about the important theories of "DasKapital" for the first time through the performance.

However, long and argumentative debates were clearly not particularly entertaining. They were straightforward readings, slightly disguised with theatrical means. Their rhetoric and didactic literature were useful for purposes of agitation, but they included no action that could guarantee an entertaining stage play. Otto Walster considered these problems in "An Unsuccessful Agitator,or the Question of Real Estate", where he wrote an effective comedy, that included political debates and speeches, but only to a certain extent. Satisfying the need for entertainment was the major concern here; however, the piece did not in any way neglect actual political debates. Unfortunately, the play was not often performed in Germany. It was however published in 1877 in St Louis and performed by a New York workers’ theatre in the same year. German workers’ clubs in the United States had their own newspapers and the structure of their festivals was similar to that of the clubs in Germany. The ‘Volksbote’ in Chicago reported a huge ‘Tableax Vivant’ that was performed in front of some 2500-3000 cheering workers in the 1880’s.


Between 1880 and 1900, theatre by workers for workers was popular with the workers themselves and also an important tool for self-education (in language, rhetoric and articulacy). Nevertheless, the various plays and recitals were considered to be a waste of time by the socialist and communist parties, whilst state authorities regarded them as highly dangerous agitation and therefore censored and banned the performances. From 1890 onwards, the movement of the German system of "Volksbühne"(people’s stage) became a highly dangerous competitor to the self-made theatres of the workers. These stages were worked professionally and dismissed the concept of agitation. Their aim was rather to attempt to attract a new class of low wage white collar workers with more or less populistic and socially oriented productions. Instead of making an independent theatre, with the idea of entertaining and educating themselves and others (education & agitation), the workers were to be attracted by entertainment alone in the framework of bourgeois sentiment.

Nonetheless, smaller groups maintained the earlier, more left wing approaches of the first workers’ clubs. They became important models for the development of the „agit-prop-troops" in the 1920s.
One of the first "professional agitation troupes" was Boreslav Strzelewicz's "Gesellschaft Vorwärts" ("progress society"), a small troupe of three people who toured different workers clubs, theatres and festivals. Their programme included songs and poetry recitals, but also short farces and comedies, most of them written by Strzelewicz himself. The troupe could react quickly to local events in the places they visited, and incorporate current political developments immediately into their programme. In order to address their audience more directly, names and locations were left open in their scripts to be filled in on arrival at the location. For example, one of their titles read: "Despite the presence of the police, XX was swamped with pamphlets on the following morning." The "XX" could be filled in with names appropriate to the region the troupe was currently visiting. The troupe members themselves often used everday costumes like police uniforms in order to insert themselves into their audiences’s daily problems.
The „Gesellschaft Vorwärts" stayed together until 1914. Their songs, poems and farces were not primarily instructive and informative but tended more to be emotional and full of pathos. Their work was not strictly political and agitative, but nevertheless, their idea of a revue with variety of different acts provided an entertaining structure for propagating socialist issues. Such a "Nummernprogramm" (or, varied programme) could free itself from the „unity of action" demanded by classical bourgeois theatre. News and other printed matter of political relevance just needed to be put into the form of a dialogue or worked into a montage. Thus the troupe paved the way to the political revue which developed in the years following the First World War.

The development of epic theatre can be traced from the early proletarian festivals and the "Bunte Abende" (social nights) of the "workers’ (self-) help" through to the variety-programming of the troupe "Vorwärts" and chorus chants, right up to the more widely known theatre of 1920/30s:- the Proletkult troops and Agitprop, as well as the revolutionaries of the bourgeois theatre, Piscator and Brecht.

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after Peter von Rüden: Sozialdemokratisches Arbeitertheater (1848-1914) | 1973 Athenäum Verlag Frankfurt am Main