Backstage Blog

4 Key Influences of Shockheaded Peter

John Heartfield set for Bertolt Brecht's Die Mutter (The Mother), 1951.

John Heartfield set for Bertolt Brecht’s Die Mutter (The Mother), 1951.

EPIC THEATRE was a theatrical movement that arose in the early to mid-20th century from the theories and method of a number of theatre practitioners (namely Bertolt Brecht) who responded to the political climate of the time through the creation of new political theatre. Epic theatre is often characterized by a series of loosely connected scenes that avoid illusion and often interrupt the storyline to address the audience directly with analysis, argument, or documentation. Brecht wanted his audiences to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognize social injustice and exploitation and be so moved as to effect change in the world outside the theatre walls. By highlighting the constructed nature of a theatrical event and employing various techniques used to remind the spectator that a play is a representation of reality, and not reality itself, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was equally constructed and, as such, was changeable.

Commedia Del'arteCOMMEDIA DELL’ARTE is a theatrical form that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe. It is characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful, masked stock characters. Performances were based on a set schema, or scenario—a basic plot, often a familiar story, upon which the actors improvised their dialogue, leaving actors to tailor a performance to their audience, allowing for sly commentary on current politics and bawdy humor that would otherwise be censored. The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social archetypes, or stock characters, such as enamored lovers, foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado.  And each stock character of the commedia evolved a distinct set of attributes—characteristic speech, gestures, props, and costume—that became standard to the portrayal of the character. All characters except for the lovers and the comic servant wore masks, a tradition deriving from ancient Roman comedies that featured similar character types. Because the mask partially or entirely obscured facial expression, emphasis was placed on dialect (often reflecting regional stereotypes) and exaggerated gesture to convey emotion and intention.

A still from Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, a 1922 German Expressionist horror film directed by F.W.Murnau.

A still from Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, a 1922 German Expressionist horror film directed by F. W. Murnau.

A still from The Cabinet Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German Expressionist horror film directed by Robert Wiene.

A still from The Cabinet Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German Expressionist horror film directed by Robert Wiene.

GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM refers to a series of related creative movements beginning in Germany before World War I that reached a peak in Berlin during the 1920s. As part of the larger Expressionist movement in North and Central Europe in fields such as architecture, dance, painting, sculpture and cinema, it emphasized directness, frankness, and a desire to startle the viewer. German cinema in particular had a major influence on American films, particularly in the genres of horror and film noir. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, is considered by many to be the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema.

"Crime in a Madhouse" photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

“Crime in a Madhouse” photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

THE GRAND GUIGNOL (1897-1962) was a theatre in the Pigalle area of Paris that specialized in naturalistic horror shows. Its name is often used as a general term for graphic amoral horror entertainment, a genre popular from Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre through today’s splatter films. Their popular and well-known horror plays featured a distinctly bleak worldview, as well as notably gory special effects in their notoriously bloody climaxes.


Fall into the world of Victorian steam-punk nightmares as a manic music box spins stories of naughty children and misguided parents. Silly and sinister, Shockheaded Peter dares us to ask what’s beneath the floorboards.

Don’t miss the most damning tale ever told on stage! Runs through June 18th.