Posts Tagged ‘Harry Elam’

Stanford remembers director extraordinaire Carl Weber: “the rigor of thought, the rigor of deep, sustained attention, and the rigor of history”

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

Harry Elam, Marina Lewis, and Florentina Mocanu. (Photo: David Schendel)


Last week, Stanford friends, colleagues, students, and former students gathered at the Roble Studio for the memorial of the eminent German director Carl Weber, a former protégé of Bertolt Brecht and emeritus professor of drama, who died on Dec. 25 at 91 (we wrote obituaries here and here). The occasion followed the Carl Weber lecture, an annual event that began about five years ago. Plenty of pinot noir (Carl’s favorite varietal) was tipped to commemorate the passing of one of Stanford’s internationally renowned giants – thanks to Branislav Jakovljevic, chair of Stanford’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies, who organized the event.


Branislav Jakovljevic with pinot noir. (Photo: David Schendel)

“Professor Carl Weber was a humanist whose exquisite knowledge of life, theatre and history was inspiring and daunting at the same time,” said the Romanian director and actress Florentina Mocanu-Schendel, a close friend and former student. “He lived, learned, told and retold stories with the enthusiasm of a beginner, generous, kind, and discreet – never betraying his immense experience – he encouraged us to live, practice, write with courage and humor, and always challenged us to express our vision. His question reverberates: What do you see? We know that Carl saw the world with his entire being.”

At the request of Carl’s daughter Sabine Gewinner-Feucht, she read a 1938 Brecht poem, “Legend of the Origin of the Book of Tao Te Ching on Lao Tsu’s Road into Exile.”

A statement from Stephan Dörschel, head of Berlin’s Archive of Performing Arts, also lauded the late director. Here it is:

“In April 2012, I met this man, small in stature but with an enormous  past – director, professor, dramaturge Carl Weber.  We spent four days at Stanford University researching his artistic-scholarly and biographical archive, preparing all the documents for the transport to the Archive of Performing Arts – Academy of Arts, Berlin. These were four intense, activity packed days, in which I found out about his theatre beginnings in the POW camp with Klaus Naschinsky, later famously known as Klaus Kinski. I learned about Carl’s work with Bertolt Brecht and his rehearsal methods, about his response to the Berlin Wall and GDR in 1961, and his exile to the USA, where he became the ambassador of German theater in New York. With his professorship at New York University and Stanford University, Carl was able to share his knowledge but also discover and promote young talents: he was incredibly proud of [his former student] Tony Kushner. Professor Carl Maria Weber was remarkable and his work will be immeasurably influential  in the future. I bow with great admiration and affection before him!”

(The Carl M. Weber-Archive can be accessed at the Academy of Arts, Berlin, here.)

Others shared their memories of this extraordinary man. Here are a few of them:

Harry Elam recently appointed vice president for the arts and senior vice provost for education, is a scholar of theater and performance studies. He recalled the moment Carl spat and playfully shouted, “Toi! Toi! Toi” – “which I first didn’t understand at all what we was doing and seeing my confusion, he explained that it was the German version of ‘break a leg.’” An excerpt of his remarks:

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Harry Elam and Aleta Hayes, dance lecturer (Photo: David Schendel)

Carl Weber epitomized the conjunction of theory and practice that has come to serve as the central conception of the Theatre and Performance Studies at Stanford. Carl not only understood but exemplified how the study and analysis of theatre and performance informs and is informed by the practice of theatre. Carl embodied what it meant to be a scholar/artist. An esteemed scholar and translator, one of the foremost interpreters of Bertolt Brecht, credited with bringing the work of the Great East German playwright Heiner Muller to English speaking audiences, Carl exercised and promoted the critical import of intellectual engagement with the dramatic text. …

Yet the Carl Weber who came to be towering presence in this department, whose powerful shadow and profound accomplishments still fill our hallways, was never self-promoting but always self-confident. He was at times strong willed and yet was also always open to the differing perspectives. He gave generously of his time and his artistry but also remained guarded in his criticism, finding the right time and productive ways to express concerns. Carl was indeed a special soul that has made an indelible impression on this department, on this institution, and on our theatrical world. … there was no playwright he didn’t know or play he hadn’t read, directed, or seen. So, when I talked within him about contemporary playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, he knew the work, and brought deep insight and analysis to our discussion. …

Carl kept teaching well until his eighties, because he loved it, because it kept him young and Carl always had a young and inquisitive soul. And he influenced so many, from the undergrads who took his sophomore seminars on Brecht, to many of those in this room who where his grad students, to the famous story of Tony Kushner and how he thanked Carl for his impact on his career and the list goes on. Last November, Stanford parent, film star and Bay Area native son, Tom Hanks came to Stanford and performed in a benefit along with wife Rita Wilson for Stanford. Afterward, he talked about what influenced him to go into acting … and he mentioned as a student coming across the bay on a class trip to see a production of Brecht over at Stanford. He vividly described the production and confided that was so moved by the production, so impacted by the theatrical experience that he determined then and there that this is what he wanted to do, to act. Of course, the play he saw was staged by Carl Weber. Indeed, there was no one like Carl Weber. Rest in peace, Carl.

Michael Hunter (co-founding artistic director of San Francisco’s new theater company Collected Works) is a director, performance curator, and adjunct professor at Stanford University, where he received his PhD in Drama and Directing. Excerpts from his remarks: 


Carl in his Stanford office, 2004 (Photo: Daniel Sack)

His commitment to passing on knowledge was so deep, and he was so tireless in his energy and willingness to support and critique our work – and the two things go hand in hand: one of the main reasons his critiques were so helpful was because he was also so present and steadfast in his support of his students.

I think one of the biggest things Carl taught me has to do with the seriousness of theatre, as a tool that can shape the world. One of the reasons I came to Stanford was to work with Carl: as an undergraduate, I was very seduced by Brecht, and by the idea of theatre as a political tool, and also by the notion of the director-scholar. I remember reading Carl’s conversation with Tony Kushner about Brecht while I was flying from Edinburgh to Texas, and feeling strongly that I wanted to work with, and learn from, this man.

I also remember starting to take directing classes with Carl shortly after I arrived, and like many of us, being kind of frustrated because we spent all of our time talking about what we saw, in such intense detail. I found it a little pedantic – I was in a PhD program at Stanford! Where was the meat? And like many of Carl’s students, I look back on that training as one of the most important things that happened in my development. Carl taught me to look in a way I had never done before, in a completely patient, tireless way. That man could sit and look at something for hours and hours and his attention would not flag – and he would probably tell you later that it was too long, but that would never stop him from watching it with his full attention.

I guess another word for this would be rigor – the rigor of thought, the rigor of deep, sustained attention, and the rigor of history. Of course the undergrad in me agreed that theatre could be a tool to make change, but it wasn’t until I saw how seriously Carl treated theatre – treated dramaturgy, treated casting, treated rehearsals – that I understood that immensely hard work was required to make it a tool. It didn’t just happen; in fact, 95% of the time it doesn’t happen. But Carl taught us all not to cut corners, to work and work and work until we had reached precision, and to know our history.


Michael Hunter (Photo: Marina Lewis)

Of course I’ve never met anyone who knew, and remembered, his history like Carl. Even the last time I visited with him, he was discussing the origins of the First World War, and he never lost that historical memory. In his dramaturgy class, when I flirted with the idea of using Brecht’s The Days of the Commune for my quarter long project, I was daunted by the double task of researching both the period of the commune itself and the post-War context in which Brecht wrote it – knowing that Carl would not let me by with short-changing either history. He was baffled that I would shirk form the challenge – for him, there was no more exciting project than one in which two historical periods would be held in tension, looked at from the third vantage of the contemporary. …

I ended up helping Carl take care of was going through his home library, and figuring out where his incredible and eclectic library – of novels and plays and history books, and the theatre journals he had collected for decades – should go. I spent weeks in that library, and I was struck initially, and most obviously, by the range of Carl’s erudition. But his collection of plays in manuscript form also brought home to me how much he had been a champion of the experimental language playwrights of the 1970s and 80s – Mac Wellman and Peter Handke especially. I remembered that this side of Carl had seemed remote to me when I first started taking classes with him – how could a man who seemed attached to concrete detail in such a literal way also have made it his work to produce these wild, anarchic assaults on logic and convention? And the lesson really came home for me that it was precisely his rigorous attention to the concrete that made it possible for him to produce this kind of work – that creating worlds that are not merely a mirror of our own requires even more effort to be precise about what people are seeing. And that in order for true experiment in the theatre to “work,” as Carl would put it, abstraction always has to be undergirded by a great commitment to the detail.

Marina Lewis was a Stanford neighbor and friend for nearly thirty years. She offered some remarks on the private side of Carl:


Harry Elam and Marina Lewis (Photo: David Schendel)

He usually did the shopping – and time and again, at least once a week, I saw him bringing home a bouquet of flowers to Marianne, whom he adored. He was a very romantic fellow. They frequently traveled to France where they had a – so I have heard – lovely home in the countryside.

After Marianne suddenly passed away in France about ten years ago, he came back a broken man. All he could think about was Marianne and that she did not come home with him.

Then, as usually happens, time has a way of healing wounds. He had resumed contact with many of his colleagues and friends in Germany especially after the Fall of the Wall, and after one such trip I saw him coming back with a very attractive woman accompanying him. Of course I was curious and looked forward to meeting her. Her name is Inge [Heym] and she was, as I heard later, the mother of Charlie’s son Stefan. It was a passionate but brief courtship, but at the time, circumstances did not permit for them to stay together. Now, later in life, each having lived their own separate lives, they rekindled that once upon a time love affair which lasted to the day Charlie died.”

Marina Lewis, who is Austrian, has continued her friendship with Inge Heym and with Carl’s daughter Sabine, who lives in Austria. She shared this message from Inge Heym with the gathering:

Professor Carl Weber, a true friend, a good human being, has recently left us. To his many friends in Berlin, Charlie, as he was known, will remain a fond memory. Those friends shared with him the good times in the 1950s when he was an assistant of Bertolt Brecht in the Berliner Ensemble.

He had come to East Berlin from Heidelberg and was quickly drawn into the literary and artistic Boheme in the GDR. In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, Charlie stayed on the other side and our contact grew infrequent. And soon after he left for New York.

Our contact never ceased totally, however. His friends knew and valued his work and missed his presence.

The book that rocked a nation: Another Look takes on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Join us on March 5!

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, with Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte.

In the last year, the killings of black youth have sparked protests and violent clashes with police across the nation, putting racial justice in the headlines. Next month, the Another Look book club will reflect on these issues with a public discussion of James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, the author’s scathing, yet compassionate, reflections on the consequences of America’s racial inequities.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating.

The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.

baldwin-bookMichele Elam, who will moderate the event on the novelist, playwright, essayist and activist, said that she selected the The Fire Next Time“because its urgent insistence that black lives matter is as poignantly relevant today as it was in the civil rights era.” Elam, whose Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin will be out this month, added that “The Fire Next Time offers some of his most cogent and searing insights into race, power, and love in America.”

Read the full Stanford Report article here or click the link below.

The book has two parts: Baldwin’s essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which originally ran in the New Yorker, and also “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” a shorter piece that Elam called “a meditation on the fragility of black boyhood.”

Baldwin wrote to his nephew of the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed, and his countrymen “do not know it and do not want to know it. He added, “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

He claimed in the longer essay that white men project their fears and their longings onto African Americans. “The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.”

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the first of nine children. He never knew his biological father, but his stepfather was a harsh preacher. At school he studied with Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and worked on the high school magazine with Richard Avedon, who would become a world famous photographer. The book dwells briefly on his precocious and brief teenage career as an evangelical preacher. He moved to Greenwich Village at 17 to be a writer. A British television journalist recalled that when he started his career he was black, impoverished and homosexual – how disadvantaged can you get? “No, I thought I hit the jackpot,” he said, grinning. Then after the laughter subsided, added, “It’s so outrageous you could not go any further, so you had to find a way to use it.”

He hit the jackpot. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

He hit the jackpot. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

Use it he did. He wrote than a score of fiction and non-fiction works, including novels, essays, and plays. The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies, and put Baldwin’s face on the cover of Time magazine. The award-winning author was a popular speaker – lively, epigrammatic, scathingly witty, passionate and deeply humane. He eventually settled in the south of France, where he was named a Commander of the Legion of Honor the year before his death of cancer in 1987.

The Fire Next Time is one of the great books of the last century,” said Wolff, who teaches the book every fall. “With forensic calm born of rage, Baldwin performs an autopsy on the self-flattering myths by which we blind ourselves to the radical injustices of our society,  even as we congratulate ourselves on its moral superiority. Grounded in historical and personal experience, relentlessly logical, his words burn as hot today as when they left his pen.”

Certainly the book changed minds and lives. When he was still a graduate student, Bob Fitch, who currently has a photography exhibit spotlighting the Civil Rights era at the Stanford University Libraries spent all night reading the book and the next day bought a camera and began photographing the Civil Rights movement. A few years later, at an informal staff meeting held in Martin Luther King’s bedroom, he saw The Fire Next Time among the leader’s rumpled bedsheets. King told the young photographer that the book had inspired his own 1967 book, which would be his last, Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community? The Green Library exhibition continues through March 18.

Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto have copies ofThe Fire Next Time.


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. Another Look also invites readers far away to join us in reading the book, and to send us comments. Podcasts of previous events are on the website.