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Brecht and stage design: the Bühnenbildner and the Bühnenbauer: Christopher Baugh

Brecht and stage design: the Bühnenbildner and the Bühnenbauer: Christopher Baugh

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B R E C H T A N D S TA G E D E S I G N



Throughout his stage career, Brecht worked with three scenographers: Caspar Neher,1

Teo Otto and Karl von Appen. Whilst von Appen was an important and influential successor

to Neher at the Berliner Ensemble, both he and Otto may, from one point of view, be

considered as substitutes at times of Neher’s unavailability. Of Brecht’s many collaborations, that with Neher was the most durable. They had been classmates at school, although

Neher was a year older, and their friendship survived the separation enforced initially by

Neher’s horrific war service. Long conversations reinforced a shared vision of the artist and

the world (a vision partly caught in Neher’s drawings of short combative men with bared

teeth), and the friendship developed into one of the most crucial associations in twentiethcentury theatre. It was a partnership based on the actively pleasurable (lustig) involvement

in devising theatre. Neher had as great a commitment to writing and devising theatre as

Brecht had to visual imagery, stage furnishings and effects; neither would contemplate a

stage aesthetic which was separate from the political rationale for theatre.

As students, both were based in Munich: Brecht at the University and Neher at the

Academy where he studied illustration and later painting. During the period from 1919 to

1922, Brecht was writing Baal, Drums in the Night, Galgei (an early version of Man is Man),

working on film scripts, and writing and singing in cabaret. Neher shared this creativity;

preparing visual propositions which extended as well as illustrated ideas and which constantly led to revision and development. In spite of their collaboration on Drums in the Night,

Neher’s drawings were rejected by the Munich Kammerspiele in September 1922, where

he was an assistant, and the work given to Otto Reigbert, the more pictorially coherent

resident designer. But by the following year Brecht had developed authority (favourable

notices and the Kleist Prize) and Neher had acquired sufficient theatrical credibility by

designing Kleist’s Kätchen von Heilbronn at the Staatstheater in Berlin for managements

actively to encourage their collaboration. This began in May 1923 with the production of

In the Jungle at the Munich Residenz-Theater, directed by Erich Engel, the most successful of

Brecht’s predecessors as director of his plays. Neher worked with Brecht on his adaptation

of Edward II at the Kammerspiele and moved as a contracted designer, with Brecht as junior

director, to the Deutsches Theater in Berlin where In the Jungle opened at the end of

October, and work on the adaptation of Coriolanus began.

Neher’s style at this time grows away from the typical pictorial “effects” of expressionist

art: harsh, distorted, angular lines and tightly focused, steeply angled light sources and

their inevitable play with dramatic shadows. He appears to be trying to find a theatre

equivalent of the sketch: a way of bestowing wood, canvas and stage paint with a softness of

definition similar to the undogmatic, thought-provoking effects achieved by drawing with

ink upon damp watercolour washes, a favoured medium at this time. Neher’s habit of

sketching characters from a play while Brecht was working on it, as author or director,

provided material for debate between the various collaborators. These were not costume

designs but, perhaps uniquely in the European theatre, visual quests for the appropriate

dramatis personae.

This early activity culminates in the major collaboration involved in staging The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm during the summer of 1928. This was the

first production in which the idea of an entire staging achieved the status of a “model”2 – not

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only from a personal sense of pride (and copyright) but in the important sense that the

setting could exist as a layer of meaning within the text; a layer which is as contributive, and

therefore perhaps as inappropriate to separate from future productions, as the dialogue

and Kurt Weill’s musical score.3

A more significant “culmination” of the Weimar period for Brecht’s theory and practice

as it relates to scenography was what is usually considered as either a dramaturgical caesura

(if you follow a biographical “growth and development” approach) or alternatively, the

arrival at the absolute centre of Brechtian thinking. The Lehrstücke were experiments in audience/performer redefinition which pared down scenic material to a minimum. Visual statement develops from an illustration of an action or argument, to action (and therefore

argument) itself. The theoretical basis of these plays expresses the central relationship

between Brecht’s view of theatre and what inevitably follows as his expectation of

scenography and the scenographer.

Lehrstücktheater is radically one without an audience, since the act of theatre is seen as a

dialectic: an active process in which the audience take upon themselves the role of interpretation and in effect become actors. This contrasts with traditional views of practitioners

and theoreticians, which suggest that theatre has, as its base procedure, a series of strategies

designed to manipulate its audience in a variety of predetermined, “getting the message

across” ways. The question “what is my job and responsibility as a theatre practitioner?”



Figure 25.1 Production photograph from the 1928 The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, showing a section of Neher’s stage just before the arrival of the mounted

messenger.



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is consequently of more fundamental importance than the actuality of stage aesthetics. Right

at the heart of this there is the problem of names.

Designer or scenographer, Bühnenbildner or Bühnenbauer?’4 The distinction was very

important to Brecht and Neher and must be of more than pedantic interest today. It goes to

the heart of Brecht’s consistent and unified understanding of the stage as Lehrtheater stemming from clear political philosophy:

Marxism posits certain methods of looking, certain criteria. These lead it to make

certain judgements of phenomena, certain predictions and suggestions for practical

action. It teaches a combination of thinking and active intervention as a means of

dealing with reality in so far as social intervention is able to deal with it. It is a doctrine

that criticises human action and expects in turn to be criticised by it. A true Weltanschauung, however, is a picture of the world, a hypothetical knowledge of the way in

which things happen, mostly moulded in accordance with some ideal of harmony.5

The object of the Bühnenbildner, the whole stage picture, suggests such a harmoniously

composed knowledge of the world as this; it offers an interpretational viewpoint, if not

necessarily a wholly coherent outlook, upon a play’s topic and theme. Whereas the scenographer as Bühnenbauer is forced to consider that the job in hand is to create or build a

scene as an integral component of a play’s dramaturgy and which therefore should be

considered an act of performances as “a combination of thinking and active intervention.”

The scenographer will be responsible with others for the building of theatre “gests” involving a combination of variable performance elements. This is a significantly different attitude

from that which aims for a composed stage picture, with its assumption that the designer

is responsible for the “setting” which stands on the stage and which provides a sympathetic

and appropriate environment in and on which performance can occur.

This distinction helps to clarify and make further sense of Brecht’s ultimate rejection of

those pillars of leftist revolutionary theatre of the period such as Piscator and Meyerhold,

and designers like Georg Grosz whose stage “pictures” firmly defined a world view:

This theatre is in reality anti-revolutionary, because it is passive and reproductive.

It has to rely on pure reproduction of existing – that is prevailing – types, and will

have to wait for the political revolution to get its own archetypes. It is the ultimate

form of the bourgeous naturalistic theatre.6

Theatre “reality” still engaged director and scenographer as they resumed their collaboration

after the Second World War, when Neher considered the term Bühnenbild to be a “Nazi”

term, since it pretended to offer as being “real” a coherent view of the world:

A picture is never realistic, the stage is always realistic. That’s why I maintain that

the “realistic stage picture” is a nonsense.7

The performances of the Lehrstücke offer some of Brecht’s most radical scenographic

exploration: the rejection of traditional theatre architecture and its proscenium arch; the

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Figure 25.2 Neher’s scenographic sketch for the scene from Brecht’s unfinished play The Breadshop

(1929–30). “The scenographer will be responsible with others for the building of theatre

‘gests.’ ”



presence of a large choir of singers who, in The Flight over the Ocean and The Baden-Baden

Cantata of Acquiescence (1929) defined and became the narrative process; and such powerful

constructions as the use of a boxing-ring for the singers of the “zonks” in the Songspiel

Mahagonny (1927). There were projections by Neher and direct exhortations to the audience

(“follow the words in your programmes and sing along loudly!”) which must have created,

even within the context of a Festival of New Music in Baden-Baden, a remarkably discordant

atmosphere. Teo Otto designed The Measures Taken at the Grosses Schauspielhaus in Berlin in

1930 with a workers’ choir beneath the projection screen and with the actors and choir lit

by low-hanging industrial lamps.8

For The Baden-Baden Cantata a large, roughly 3-metre high grotesque figure was constructed, which effectively “animated” its design. Two “clowns,” in order to theatricalise the

inhumanity of man, grotesquely saw off the figure’s limbs, all of which takes place in front

of and amongst the choir.9 These Lehrtheater experiments should not be seen only as

short-lived particularised attempts to create didactic, Marxist theatre, but in terms of

understanding the nature of Brecht’s theatre they should be seen equally as providing the

operational basis for the future development of his theory and practice.

The closest possible creative collaboration between writer, director and scenographer

was central, not only for the development of a stage aesthetic and a working practice, but

for the development of Brecht’s dramaturgy; which in turn was inseparable from a philosophy which redefined or “refunctioned” (umfunktioniert) theatre. In consequence, it is

inappropriate and impossible to isolate the designs and consider the stage aesthetic which

they represent without seeing them as merely the most tangible remains (apart from production photographs) of a complex and still revolutionary mode of giving effective form to

a philosophy which understands theatre as the logical annotation of life.

Close to the very heart of their collaboration lies the fundamental ability for director, writer

and designer democratically to consider all aspects of theatre without following an etiquette

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of prescribed “areas of responsibility” established by a tradition of professional practice. The

inseparability of creative contribution was essential in creating a theatre which relished

diversity and a conscious separation of scenographic elements. Neither Brecht nor Neher

served any form of established apprenticeship, so neither acquired “professional” practices

and skills which might temper their untutored passion and joy in shared creativity. Close

to the end of their work together, Egon Monk describes them rehearsing The Tutor in the

spring of 1950:

Brecht and Neher sitting next each other at rehearsal. Both of them leaning back,

their knees pressed against the seats in front. Brecht appreciatively studying his

cigar; Neher, his eyebrows exaggeratedly raised or exaggeratedly frowning over his

glasses, more severe . . . They are rehearsing “by interjections.” Each interjection is

prefaced by Neher or Brecht naming its originator. “Neher thinks . . .”. “Besson

thinks . . .”, “Brecht thinks . . .”, “Monk thinks . . .”. The interjection is listened to,

then tested. If a detail works, then Brecht giggles with pleasure and Neher gives him

a look of amusement . . . This lasts a long time.10

The logical progression from a theory formulated in the Lehrtheater which united

political and theatrical ideology to a practical grappling with rehearsal was inevitable.

This is an aspect of the “text” of Brecht which deserves constant re-examination. His

descriptions of the “problems” of traditional practice are recognisable and evident within

contemporary theatre:

Normally the sets are determined before the actors’ rehearsals have begun, “so that

they can start,” and the main thing is that they evoke an atmosphere, give some kind

of expression, [and] illustrate a location; and the process by which this is brought

about is observed with as little attention as the choosing of a postcard on holiday. If

at all, it is considered with regard to creating a space with some good possibilities

for performance . . . It seems very strange that set designers [Bühnenbildner],

who feel and claim that they are artists with a “vision” which they must realise,

seldom reckon with the actors, maintaining that set designers can work just as well,

or even better, without actors.11

The working model for an alternative to this still common attitude is spelt out just as clearly:

The good scene designer [Bühnenbauer] proceeds slowly and experimentally. A

working hypothesis is based on a precise reading of the text, and substantial conversations with other members of the theatre, especially on the social aims of the

play and the concerns of the performance, are useful to him. However, his basic

performance ideas must still be general and flexible. He will test them constantly

and revise them on the basis of results in rehearsals with the actors. The wishes and

opinions of the actors are wells of discovery for him. He studies to what extent

their strengths are adequate and intervenes . . .

This is how a good stage designer [Bühnenbauer] works. Now ahead of the actor,

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now behind him, always together with him. Step by step he builds up the performance area, just as experimentally as the actor.12

Building the imagery of the stage is as much a rehearsed process as that of building the

performances of actors. By this possibility, Brecht and Neher enfranchised scenography,

empowering it with potential for comment, criticism, humour and disruption. Brecht

writes about the Songspiel Mahagonny (Baden-Baden, 1927):

so long as the arts are supposed to be “fused” together, the various elements will all

be equally degraded, and each will act as a mere feed to the rest. . . . Showing

independent works of art as part of a theatrical performance is a new departure.

Neher’s projections adopt an attitude towards the events on stage; as when the real

glutton sits in front of the glutton whom Neher has drawn. These projections of

Neher’s are quite as much an independent component of the opera as are Weill’s

music and the text.

([Brecht on Theatre, trans. and ed. John Willett. London:

Methuen, 1964, 1974], pp. 37–8).

Scenography happens in time, working alongside and in conjunction with the actors, their

movement and their groupings, and inevitably requires its own rehearsal. The few wooden

poles and simple plank door (The Caucasian Chalk Circle, scenography by Karl von Appen,

1954) have scant architectural and no theatrical significance until they are bursting at the

seams with wedding guests whilst the wedding bed lies, not quite empty, to the side. The

final result, originating from the placement of people who define the spaces, creates a stage

beauty of haunting significance:

the Neher principle of building the set according to the requirements established

at the actors’ rehearsals allowed the designer to profit by the actors’ performance

and influence it in turn. The playwright could work out his experiments in

uninterrupted collaboration with actor and stage-designer; he could influence and

be influenced. At the same time the painter and the composer regained their

independence, and were able to express their view of the theme by their own

artistic means.

([Brecht on Theatre], p. 134)

For both Neher and von Appen, the constant notation of actors’ groupings and relationships, with often only faintly sketched-in backgrounds, was not only an appropriate beginning

but also lay at the core of their working method within the overall collaboration. From the

perception of performance “shapes” created by these groupings the scenographer can construct a stage which in its precise sizing and format can physically exemplify the anatomy of

action. These sketches, moreover, were not simply a scenographer’s transcription of dramatic

text into visual text en route to becoming theatre text; for Brecht, they were a constant part of

rehearsal methodology. Far from being exclusive to the scenographer, they drew strength

from the actors, were fed back to them and served as models for stage blocking and textual

development. Egon Monk’s description of the rehearsals for The Tutor again:

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They [Neher’s sketches] always lay ready to hand on the director’s table, with the

scene currently being rehearsed on top. Nearly all the blocking of the Berliner

Ensemble derived directly from Neher’s sketches. If there was a particular scene, or

a particular moment within a scene – a “nodal point” as Brecht and Neher would

call it – that had no sketch, or if Neher for once was not there (a rare occurrence in

the first years of the Berliner Ensemble), then that rehearsal might well be broken

off. As for instance when the last scene but one of The Tutor was being rehearsed:

“Engagement in a Snowstorm.” This had to appear as an idyll, amiable at first but

gradually undermined by malice.

On stage, a large number of actors, glasses in their hands, drinking a toast

(yes, but how?). Projected behind them, falling snow. Brecht rehearsed somewhat

indecisively, asked first one then another of his aides to try blocking the scene,

looking helplessly at the actors on stage, who looked equally helplessly down on

him, then finally said: “It’s no use, we’ll have to wait till Cas gets here.”13

This is more than a reliance upon a comrade in rehearsal, it is scenography standing side by

side with dramaturgy. As the theatre text emerges, “self-supporting” energies of meaning

are constantly created by confrontations between actors and scenic material in ways which

cannot be thought of as three-dimensional literature. Monk continues:

Friedrich Maurer as Wenzeslaus the Schoolmaster . . . One hand holding Neher’s

sketch, the other holding the long quill pen with which the sketch shows him

driving Count Vermuth and the Major’s armed domestics from the room. A most

impressive moment, clarifying the scene as no subsequent performance could do.14

The movement of the theatre process is the energy which transforms a long quill pen into

scenography. In a similar way, old wicker hampers and skips become a nineteenth-century

stage-coach in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby (1981) and a suspended

assortment of old metal domestic objects (cheese-graters, egg whisks, oil lamps etc.)

are transformed into the starry firmament in William Dudley’s scenography for The

Mysteries (1985) at the National Theatre. The actor is the catalyst for this energy, the

“chemistry” is that of the scenographer and it is the audience who read the “formula” and

offer any resolution. Properties and furniture, however beautifully researched and crafted,

have no value in themselves – they can only exist in relationship to the value which is

created by their role within performance. Scenic “material” thereby acquires its place within

the dialectic of theatre.

Too little attention is paid these days to the life of reality. The things we put on

stage are dead, never mind how real they are, if they have no function – if they are

not used by actors or used on their behalf.15

However, Brecht was no harsh utilitarian when it came to the appearance of properties

and stage furnishings. Much is made of statements describing his love of old objects which

“recount” by their appearance the conditions of their use and imply a “sociology” of prop195



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making; and this is right. But from his earliest statements on theatre language to the last

examples of his practice, there is also a demand for the energy and beauty which is

the product of artistry. The beauty of a well-used copper saucepan, certainly, but also the

beauty of an object or a piece of stage architecture joyfully chosen and designed so that it

might rightfully take its individual place and not just “service” the action with appropriate

size, location and finish. The joy and the self-referential beauty of Brecht’s and Neher’s

theatre, with its constant reminders of illusion (and inevitable mutability) invite its

audience to engage with the theatrical in their own lives. This is a central tenet of the

“refunctioning” of stage language which is not well served by the dour, utility Brecht of

many post-Brecht revivals.

It is neither clear nor indeed especially relevant to an assessment of theatrical ideas whether

the “break” which took place between Brecht and Neher over the winter of 1952–3 was

intended to be both practically and emotionally final. However, Neher seems to have

made his professional position clear when he chose to become a regular designer at the

Volksbühne in West Berlin, and in 1954 accepted the appointment as head of design at the

Munich Kammerspiele. Significantly, in December of that year, Brecht received the Stalin

Peace Prize and Neher was appointed to the Board of the Salzburg Festival. The increasing

rate of production at the Ensemble needed a fully resident scenographer.

Karl von Appen had a considerable theatre career behind him when Brecht first invited

him to design for the Ensemble in the spring of 1953. Barred from working during the Nazi

period, he spent the final years of the war in a concentration camp. He worked in Dresden at

the Sächsischen Staatstheater until his invitation to the Ensemble, where his first scenography

was for Katzgraben by Erwin Strittmatter, directed by Brecht and Manfred Wekwerth. Von

Appen records in his notebook what might well have been his job interview with Brecht:

BRECHT: How do you visualize it?

APPEN: I can offer nothing more specific than a certain aversion, but this might

actually prove fruitful.

The only thing I’m quite sure about is that theatre must be created for

actors.

BRECHT: That’s what you feel – as a designer? By the way, I agree with you . . .

APPEN: . . . as a playwright? Your colleague Shakespeare didn’t have these

worries – but even in those days technical innovations could be created

for each play. Molière had his own solutions – and remember that the

Chinese performed in front of a carpet for centuries! All these difficulties only seem to have started with the coming of complex machinery.

BRECHT: What – you’re a machine wrecker?

APPEN: I am if the machines are only meant to create even greater illusions of

external reality. And that’s what’s happening.16

When the Ensemble moved into the renovated Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in the

spring of 1954, von Appen was appointed principal designer and collaborated on the first

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production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle later that year. Ironically, it is the scenography of

von Appen and Teo Otto which travelled the world and established the image of the

“Brechtian” stage. Mother Courage, arguably the most scenically influential of the Ensemble’s

productions, toured in what was essentially the original scenography created by Otto for the

première production at the Zurich Schauspielhaus in 1941, rather than the staging which

Neher prepared for the Zurich revival of April 1946.17 Paradoxically, therefore, Neher’s

work was not represented at all when the company visited London shortly after Brecht’s

death in August 1956.18

Although he was clearly indebted to Neher, there is a distinct change of attitude apparent

in von Appen’s work. If teeth are still bared, then they are shown with an artistic skill which

sometimes prevents the eye going below the surface to engage in a dialectic. The scenographies seem to offer visual unities: the coherence of a “world-view” with pre-interpreted,

and therefore closed, ideologies.19 Evidently the battle with definitions of stage reality which

had taxed Neher and Brecht as root “problems” could not be engaged in Stalinist East

Germany during the 1950s other than by offering completed “solutions”: “realism within a

utopian horizon”.20



Figure 25.3 Karl von Appen’s Arrangementskizzen for Turandot.



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Nevertheless, a common factor can be established: within the variety of individual

methods we have developed a realistic style in the theatrical work of our Republic.

In this theatrical work socialist realism is a method aimed at selecting the socially

fruitful means out of the whole wealth of means at the stage designer’s disposal, and

at always discovering new ones.21

But in practice the working methodology continued: von Appen was constantly in

rehearsal, producing copious drawings and sketches of the actors and their groupings which

created “storyboard” outlines of the movement of plays:

Arrangements [Arrangementskizzen] fix the movement on the stage. They determine

the position of groups and decide on how they are changed. It is their task to

elucidate the plot. Finding arrangements should be the starting point of any

rehearsal work.22

Von Appen usually read Brecht’s Bühnenbauer as scene-builder; and he acknowledges the

direct link with Brecht’s dramaturgy:

To my mind an arrangement outline is part and parcel of optical dramaturgy,

and should form the basis of all further work. I start by trying to narrate a play

optically, and it is only after this has been done that the shaping of the actor’s

environment begins.

This sounds easy and is appreciated by many of our colleagues, also by those from

abroad. But in reality they adhere to the old decorative conceptions because it is

more convenient to do so. We in the GDR too, do not yet attach enough attention

to this aspect of basing the work of scene designing on the arrangement.23

Von Appen was therefore the agent whereby Brecht’s and Neher’s collaborative theatrebuilding became enshrined into the practice of the Berliner Ensemble, but whilst he constantly emphasises his ideological debt to Brecht, he rarely refers to Neher or his work. The

Ensemble’s influence spread to a larger audience through training programmes and the

OISTT (International Organisation of Scenographers and Theatre Technicians). This was

dominated by the heavily funded theatre institutions of Eastern Europe and their related

training schools which organised the major design exhibitions during the 1970s and 1980s.

Throughout most Western theatre, therefore, the prevailing theatrical preference is for the

Brecht–Neher, and more accessible von Appen solutions, to be preserved in a well-meaning,

but reverential struggle to stage “authentic Brecht.”

Of course, “solutions” have a disarming way of disassociating themselves from their theoretical context and becoming the object of study and theatrical imitation. The early reception

of Brecht outside Germany suffered considerably from a “fetishisation” of the Berliner

Ensemble’s appearance and its effects. Unfamiliarity with the language and ignorance of

the plays resulted, especially in Britain, in a thorough distortion by directors and designers

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of Brecht’s theatre.24 This was an objectification of his theatre which Brecht clearly

recognised:

When studying the following remarks, consisting of a number of thoughts and ideas

conceived while rehearsing a play, one should – when faced with certain solutions

to problems – recognise primarily the problems.25

But whilst acknowledging this, it is still tempting to try to present a play which is “true” to

Brecht scenographically, since he is the rare dramatist who has written copiously and

clearly about designing his plays. The performance imagery attains the power of dramatic

utterance: harsh white lighting from exposed lighting instruments, stripped bare stage,

undyed or “earth” coloured hessian and canvas costumes, half stage-height curtains running

on horizontal strainer wires across the stage and terse, combative “literary” captions painted

or projected onto screens which straddle the stage. Kenneth Tynan reports the potent

physicality of this scenography at the Palace Theatre, London, in 1956:

Let me instance the peasant wedding in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a scene more

brilliantly directed than any other in London. A tiny cell of a room, ten by ten, is

cumulatively jammed with about two dozen neighbours and a sottish monk. The

chances for broad farce are obvious, but they are all rejected. Reality is preferred,



Figure 25.4 Von Appen’s drawing for the peasant wedding in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Such drawings

are ideas for staging.



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