Avant-garde theater director Carl Weber began his theatrical career in a POW camp. He became Bertolt Brecht‘s protégé and brought Germany’s experimental theater to America. The Stanford drama professor, emeritus, died in Los Altos on Christmas night. He was 91.
“At the first opportunity” – he recalled, and then put up both hands in the universally accepted sign of surrender – “I was a prisoner of England in Belgium.” He was sent to Colchester, Essex, as a POW.
Within weeks of his capture, he was performing Friedrich Schiller‘s The Robbers as one of a handful of performers at the Christmastime play in a mess tent, with tables for a stage. The group had a captive audience – literally.
But the event was a turning point: After Weber returned to a Germany that was “cold and miserable and in ruins” in February 1946, he finished his studies in chemistry at the University of Heidelberg and went to Berlin in September 1949 to pursue a career as an actor, director and dramaturg.
Many of the “alumni” of Camp 186 in Colchester went on to have remarkable careers: German stage and TV actor Günther Stoll; Werner Düttmann, city architect for Berlin in the 1960s; and actor Klaus Kinski, collaborator with writer-film director Werner Herzog.
Carl began his formal career as an actor at the Heidelberg City Theater while still studying at Heidelberg University. In 1949, he was one of the founders of the Heidelberg Zimmertheater and directed the company’s opening production. In Berlin, he joined the company of Theater der Freundschaft in 1950.
His life changed course when he saw Brecht’s Mother Courage, a production that launched Brecht’s famous Berliner Ensemble:
“It is still to me the most impressive theater I have seen in my life. It was a totally different kind of theater. Simply stunning. The way of acting was different, the staging was very different.”
Weber knew right away: “I have to work with this man.”
Brecht is remembered in the United States mostly as the dramatist who brought left-wing politics to the stage. He was much more than that, however: He tore down the “fourth wall” barrier between the stage and audience. It wasn’t enough to sit in the theater and be entertained: Brecht wanted you to question society’s values and your own.
Brecht’s values exploded other conventions, too, by emphasizing the visual – “telling the story by the way the visual production unfolded,” said Weber.
“When I work with students here, my first, foremost focus is to teach how to create visual narrative – by the way you move people and objects in space; by the configuration of what you see.
“In Brecht’s staging and directing, psychology was not particularly important. Brecht quite rightly thinks the audience has no idea what the actor is thinking,” said Weber. “Actors don’t think only with their heads, but with their bodies. The sooner they move, the more they can internalize the text with what they’re doing with their bodies.”
Weber said that Brecht’s oft-repeated phrase to actors was “Don’t tell me, show me.”
He was invited, in 1952, to join the Berliner Ensemble as an actor, dramaturg, and assistant director to Brecht, with whom he worked on the productions of Katzgraben, Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo.
As I wrote in 2010:
Weber’s 1952 “audition” for Brecht was a series of essays: Weber was asked to sit in on a few rehearsals and write not a critique or review – but rather what he actually saw onstage. Not surprising, given Brecht’s desire for absolute visual clarity – what was happening in a play should be evident even to a deaf person watching the scenes unfold.
Weber was headed for controversy, for Brecht was a double-edged sword in the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War years.
When the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage premiered at Théâtre des Nations in Paris in 1954 (it received the festival’s prize), the Communist Party in East Germany denounced it as “decadent.” Greater problems lay ahead.
In 1961, as Weber was preparing a Lübeck production of Brecht’s Trumpets and Drums, the German border was closed without warning, and construction of the Berlin Wall began. Weber never returned to his East German home.
Much of Weber’s time – especially in recent years – has been devoted to the work of one East German writer trapped behind the Wall. At present, Weber is working on a forthcoming volume of Heiner Müller’s Shakespeare adaptations, “Macbeth” and “Anatomy Titus – Fall of Rome.”
After Brecht’s death in 1956, Weber became one of the directors of the company. He co-wrote and directed, with Peter Palitzsch, The Day of the Great Scholar Wu. He staged a revival of Brecht’s production of Mother Courage, and he was one of the directors of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. He also directed productions at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater and for German television.
Between 1962 and 1966, he directed at theaters in West Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States, among them the San Francisco’s Actors Workshop, Norway’s National Theatre in Oslo, and Berlin’s Schaubühne. From 1964 to 1966, he was principal resident director of Wuppertaler Bühnen, the home of Pina Bausch’s “Tanztheater.”
Weber moved to New York in 1966 when he was appointed Master-Teacher of Directing and Acting at the newly-founded NYU School of the Arts. He directed many productions in New York and theaters across America. He came to Stanford in 1984, where he headed Ph.D. Directing Studies.
His former Stanford student, Romanian actor and director Florentina Mocanu, was with him hours before his death to deliver holiday cheer and gifts (some all the way from Germany), and said he seemed well. “He was sharp and curious, wanted to know all about everyone. He made us laugh with his favorite Bette Davis quote: ‘getting old is not for sissies.'”
She looked at photos with him, and asked him as they looked at a photograph with Brecht (at right), “Carl, correct me if I am wrong – looking at this photo, I think that Bertolt Brecht trusted your sensibility and the fact that you had a way of seeing the world that he could not even imagine, a kind of respect and reverence for your talent and expertise that was beyond your young years. You came back from the war, as a surviver soldier and a POW theatre maker.” Weber replied, “Yes, that’s right.”
“For me, Professor Carl Weber is a humanist, a disciplined intellectual, a mentor who encourages originality in storytelling – on the page, the stage or on the screen,” said Florentina, who came to Stanford from Romania to study with him. “Carl wants precise answers to this seemingly simple yet challenging question: ‘What do you see?'”
One of his students, Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Angels in America, said, “Carl was a spectacular teacher. I feel like a great deal about what I learned about writing plays came from working with Carl as a directing student.”
“Carl is a spectacularly erudite man, vastly well-read and enormously fluent in art and in music and cinema and history,” Kushner said. “Having somebody who was a serious intellectual and thinker and politically engaged gave me permission, in a certain sense, to take theater very seriously. It mattered. It was a serious way of thinking about the world and the meaning of existence.”
At Stanford, French scholar, author, and playwright Prof. Jean-Marie Apostolidès remembered Carl as a devoted and gifted teacher, dedicated to his students work both in scholarship and performance. He also changed his French colleague’s understanding of Brecht: “I had a biased view of Brecht : I saw him as a twentieth-century artistic giant, yes, but also as a rigid and dogmatic Marxist. Charlie [a nickname for Carl Weber] told me that Brecht was absolutely the opposite. He described him as pragmatic, accepting ideas from others, using anything he could find to create a better show.”
He also praised him as a generous artist and collaborator, as well as a close friend. The two often met in France either, in Paris or at La Miausserie, Weber’s country home.
He recalled their 1988 collaboration on Eugène Labiche‘s nineteenth-century play, The Affair of Rue de Lourcine, with Carl as director and Jean-Marie as dramaturge. “I thought I would play only a minor role in this production but Carl wanted me not only to revise his translation he had done, but above all to provide a general vision of the play that he would translate and concreticize on stage, which I did in a long text that I sent him in February 1989. This text became a sort of contract between the two of us. Only when I was working with Jean Gascon in Canada (on the production of Œdipus Rex in 1982) have I found such confidence, such generosity offered to the dramaturge by the director of the show. Gascon and Weber (who knew one another) were indeed two great professionals, never scared of possible rivalry with their dramaturge.”
He also described him also as a loyal and devoted friend: “To give you an example: he had known Bernard Sobel since the Berliner Ensemble period, around 1957. Sobel is considered a major director in France and someone close to the aesthetics of Brecht. Fifty years later, we went to his theatre in Gennevilliers, Carl and myself, to see one of the last shows produced by Sobel. After the show, we went to congratulate the actors and the director. We spent the evening with them. For me, it was a very moving moment to see these two old guys (Carl and Bernard) kissing one another, talking together (in german, a language that Sobel spoke fluently) and digging from their memory so many souvenirs belonging to their youth.”
In his last years, Carl divided his time between America, France, Germany, Austria, and even Greece. His daughter Sabine and his companion, film and television writer Inge Heym often accompanied him in America.
Carl is survived by his daughter actor, educator Sabine Gewinner-Feucht in Austria, his son Dr. Stefan Heym, and three grandchildren in Berlin. His wife, the German theater and film actress Marianne Rossi, died while they were vacationing in France a decade ago.