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a:/be1954donjuan.html. Location: tripod/go20ccm   10.03.1999

Don Juan von Molière (in der Bearbeitung des Berliner Ensembles)

When Brecht first returned to Berlin after 15 years of exile, he was dismayed that stage performance in the immediate post-war era still exhibited traces of petit bourgeoisie. Actors engaged in psychological ramblings and exaggerated gestures that lacks precision and process of thought. The theatre professionals have gone back to the conditions prior to the rise of the Nazis as if history has taught them nothing. The Berlin theatres were not ready for the people facing the task of building a new socialist state yet. The founding of the new Berliner Ensemble (the adjective “new” was dropped after a few months) was set out to correct the situation and to provide the German people a forum to reflect upon their new role in human history. Part of the lesson was to recognize the historical conditions that led to capitalism.

The Don Juan project started when the Brecht student, Benno Besson, was approached for a production at the Volkstheater in Rostock in 1951. Instead of the Miser by Molière originally suggested, Besson proposed the lesser known piece by the same playwright. Then he and Elisabeth Hauptmann immediately embarked upon a translation from the French original. They probably have consulted a German translation by Eugen Neresheimer (München 1911), but like all previous adaptations by the Berliner Ensemble the play would be completely reworked to highlight the social message and aesthetic principles of the company. Brecht acknowledged the historical conditions Molière was situated in and went a step further to expose the historical limitations of his position. Brecht wrote, “We are not on Molière’s side here. His vote goes to Don Juan - the Epicurean (...) supporting the Epicurean.”

Brecht’s involvement in the adaptation probably began when he attended the final rehearsals before the play opened on 25 May 1952 in Rostock. This production featured Norbert Christian from the Berliner Ensemble as Sganarelle and Joseph Noerden as Don Juan. A more intensive reworking would come a year later when the production was slated for the Berliner Ensemble itself on 16 October 1953. The play officially opened on 19 March 1954 as a celebration of the reopening of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, now served as the permanent home for the theatre company.

In adapting the classics, Brecht urged his fellow workers not to be intimidated by them. Instead, they should take on the task with a fresh eye. Brecht also warned against the traditions that have piled upon the original text and eventually distorted the initial meaings throughout the course of the history. Hence, in this particular case of Don Juan, Brecht found the popular interpretation of the character as a “positively tragic rake,” “ever insatiably seeking and yearning” unjustified from the reading of the text and the knowledge of the age from which Molière came. He places the blame on the bourgeois theatre whose ignorance of the historical conditions had continually stagnated the inner tensions of human relations inherent in the orignal texts. The degenerated routine from a practice of psychological study obsures the values, the subtleties, the scales of beauties and truths of these “old works.” But this does not translate into a literal adaptation. The modern interpreter should elicit effects derived from them that are suited to our own time. On the social level, Brecht finds the “glamor of the parasite less interesting than the parasitic aspects of his glamor.” And this is also connected on the dramaturgical level, as the modern interpreters are able to recover the satirical presentation of the subject that were closer to Molière.