Perhaps, for the most revolutionary dramatists, their followers take to the streets on occasion. The funeral cortege of German dramatist Heiner Müller (1929-1995) was “an impromptu procession numbering in the thousands,” according to Jonathan Kalb. It made “its way up Friedrichstrasse and, stopping for red lights, attended the burial … in the hollowed ground of the Dorotheenstädtischen Freidhof.” Of the eight dramatists I am writing about, he is perhaps the most extraordinary and maddening, establishing single-handedly a unique dramatic and theatrical practice of montage, the fragmentary shards sharp enough to cut into the brain. His chosen field of exploration was Central European history, his chosen subject himself, which makes his work somewhat inaccessible to British and American audiences. Müller’s plays have yet to fully reveal their mysteries to English-language theatregoers.
Among the first books I proofread when I joined Performing Arts Journal in 1983 was the collection Hamletmachine, translated and edited by Carl Weber; my early mystification with these texts has developed into a more textured and nuanced mystification; but then, Müller was writing for history, himself, and his fellow Central Europeans, not for me. Considered the most direct successor to Brecht, he began his career by reconceiving the lehrstücke form for a post-war German theatre; from then he became increasingly radical. Müller constructed his later plays from a variety of sources, and this montage reflected itself even in his titles (Gundling’s Life Frederick of Prussia Lessing’s Sleep Dream Scream: A Horror Story is the name of one; Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts another). Müller conceived of all Western civilization — from the myths of Medea and Philoctetes to the politics of Communist Party congresses — to be fodder for subjective destruction and reconstruction. What makes the reading of Müller’s work even more difficult is that he was also the leading director of his own plays and demanded technical resources far beyond the scope of what is available in non-commercial American theatres. (A sample of his directorial and scenographic work can be found in a DVD of his 1993 Bayreuth production of Tristan und Isolde.) The linguistic and theatrical poetry that emerged was anxious and difficult, reflecting the impossibility of a truly integrated self, let alone a Germany or a Europe. Nonetheless, his theatre practice has spawned a host of international imitators, calling the process “mash-up” instead of “montage”; but it was the same thing.
His subject matter ranged from a revision of Hamlet to a Jamaican slave rebellion to a setting of Dangerous Liaisons. Müller himself was an extraordinarily divisive figure, refusing to be pinned down to any ideological perspective, even after it was revealed that he had been meeting with East German Stasi agents since 1978. But if Müller felt any kind of guilt, it was not a guilt that he would publicly reveal — and his guilt was also that of his fellow countrymen. The division between waking and dream, history and future in Müller’s plays was never clear-cut: to read a Müller play is to invite hallucination. American dramatist Tony Kushner wrote that Müller’s final example offered this ambivalent advice to playwrights: ”Write into the void, learn to embrace isolation, in which we may commence undistractedly our dreadful but all-important dialogue with the dead. Forget about love and turn your face to history.”
Hamletmachine and A Heiner Müller Reader from PAJ Publications are the most commonly available English-language collections of Müller’s plays, but in The Theater of Heiner Müller, the best English-language introduction to Müller’s plays, Jonathan Kalb writes that these translations “need to be substantially reworked by a native speaker of English or, better, redone from scratch”; however, he calls Marc von Henning’s collection Theatremachine from Faber & Faber “competent.” Earlier this year, Seagull Books published a volume of new translations of Philoctetes, The Horatian, and Mauser. PAJ is publishing another volume of Müller’s plays early next year.
Kushner’s comments on Müller appear in his introduction to A Heiner Müller Reader. In addition to Kalb’s book, Germania, a 1990 collection of essays by and interviews with Müller, is quite useful. There is a Web site devoted to Müller here.