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From Bertolt Brecht to Heiner Mller

Author(s): Sue-Ellen Case

Source: Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1983), pp. 94-102
Published by: Performing Arts Journal, Inc.
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Sue-Ellen Case

Bertolt Brecht founded his Berliner Ensemble the same year the German
Democratic Republic was founded (1949), and built his directorial/dramaturgical stage practice along side the new state and its cultural policies. He
was the international star of the first generation of GDR playwrights. The
year Brecht died (1956), Heiner Muillerwrote his first major play. Though
other playwrights followed Brecht chronologically and formally (Peter
Hacks and Volker Braun),Muller became what Theo Girshausen has called
"the real Brecht pupil." Girshausen: "The real Brecht pupil is not he who
uses the forms of epic theatre, or even imitates them ... rather, it is he who
accepts and further develops the socio-political and aesthetic principles on
which Brecht founded his theatre model."1 Muller has developed, revised,
and finally abandoned the Brechtian model of political theatre, in the process creating a new form for the contemporary political play.
Brecht devised a model for the role of the political playwright based on the
playwright's relationship to a specific political ideology, and his or her
alliance with an organized political movement or state. In his emigration to
the GDR, Brecht allied his work with the new state and placed his theatre
within the context of state history and ideological development. In his
Notes to Katzgraben, he states that a new kind of state produces a new
kind of audience, a new class of playwright, a new content, and a new relationship of audience to stage. (Certainly, Brecht's early plays reflect the

same bias-The Mother dramatizes the issues of a partisan audience and

portrays the Party's programfor change.) Ironically,the duration of Brecht's
work in the GDR coincided with the first Cold War and the playwright found
himself, both in the East and in the West, interpreted and criticized primarily in terms of his national alliances. The problem for the West was his
emigration to the GDR;the problem in the GDR was his exile in America.
Mother Courage was Brecht's first production in the GDR. The play set off
"the first great conflict of opinion over aesthetic principles among Marxists
after the war."2They perceived the epic style as a form contaminated by
Western influences. In 1949, one article referred to the epic style as "essentially of American origin."3 (American cultural forms were considered
vehicles of capitalist decadence.) Thus, the epic style fell on the formalist
and Western side of the growing Formalist/Realist debate because it could
not be defined as part of "a realistic art according to the great example of
the Soviet Union"4-the cultural goal of the Party's first Five Year Plan. Further, Brecht's development of a documentary, "scientific" theatre of contradictions violated a cultural policy adopted at the Party Congress in 1950
to ban "any objective presentation of contrary or enemy ideologies."5
Brecht's production of Days of the Commune was even labelled "objectivistic" and its opening "postponed." Thus, Party policies of the early fifties (a consequence of Soviet dominance) banned two of Brecht's contributions to political theatre-the epic style and the staging of "scientific"
values. After an initial publication on Brecht in Sinn und Form in 1949, no
other article appeared in the GDR on Brecht for more than five years.6 Yet,
Brecht continued to direct, collaborate, and speak at major cultural functions. By now, he had fallen into a situation which Muller would inherit:
while the playwright's work is defined as contradictory to Party cultural
policies and is therefore officially ignored in production, publication, and
critical debate, the playwright remains a central influence in the development of the GDR theatre tradition and is hailed in the West as both a
representative of the new politic and a dissident of the state.
Heiner Muller plays the Brechtian role, rejects it, and redefines political
alliance and options open to an artist in a state which has a new set of
cultural and political policies. Today the GDR is less a beneficiary of the
USSR than an intellectual and engineering leader of the Third World. Occupation and isolation exist only as leftovers of the postwar era. Brecht lived in an isolated military zone; Muller lives in a newly-constructed international quarter called Tierpark.The theatre, rather than an isolated political
experiment derived from Soviet models, is now an advanced institution
which attracts theatre workers from South America, South Africa, and
Japan. Muller learned his craft within this world and is presently employed
as a dramaturg at the Volksbuhne, a theatre which boasts four hundred
employees. Because of his professional association with the state and
because his early plays chronicled its history, Muller is often regarded as a
political "guru"(as Carl Weber put it-see PAJ 12) by young people in both
the East and the West. In West Germany, young theatre people think of him


"Metaphorscan describe gestures without

a sense of reference, are not reducible
to a (political) movement,
are foreign rather than distanced,
are without morality."
as a kind of political conscience, reminding them of the other half of German culture involved in a collective, communist experiment. In the GDR,
young theatre people see him as a writercapable of criticizing the history of
the country and remaining in a position of power. Muller's alliance with
state politics includes both postures, as well as being complicated by
others. On the one hand, Muller is one of the few theatre workers of any international note to remain in the GDR,and on the other hand, as Mullersaid
in 1978 in conversation about his first play: "I was afraid to see the truth
when I was writing Lohndrucker.I was so afraid to see the true thing-that
there is no solution for the problems of our country, the so-called real
socialism ... the only solution is maybe a collapse, a catastrophe....
Some people told me, 'We can't understand why they didn't kill you when
you wrote this.' "
It is impossible to understand this negativity unless one comprehends
Muller's break with the Brechtian tradition and the kind of political experience it represented. Muller indicts Brecht as a writer guilty of
classicism. This is a role Brecht did not inherit in the GDR until the latter
half of the fifties. After the Workers' Strike in the GDR in 1953 and the
Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the gratitude for and dependency on
Soviet solutions diminished in the GDR. The artists, critics, and political
philosophers began to organize the "German way to socialism." In the
theatre, Brecht was wrested from his American alliances and situated firmly in the tradition of German revolutionary literature. His works were assigned to the genre of Critical Realism, which validated his "objectivistic"
values and negative heroes as illustrations of the kind of life the new world
was shedding. Soviet realism was flatteringly relegated to the future and
characterized as part of the Soviet donation to the new socialist life. This
critical maneuver was the basis of Brecht's new role as a classicist-a German revolutionaryclassicist. Mullerallies Brecht with Goethe rather than
with any revolutionary movement.
In his speech to the International Brecht Society in Washington, D.C. in
1979, Muller described Brecht's exile years as an "emigration into
classicism" and characterized Hollywood as "the Weimar of German antifascist emigration." This exile "distanced" Brecht from the "Germanclass
struggle" and led him to write in "the universality of the parable." In other
words, the great Brechtian "distancing" effect was his historical condition
of exile. From this distance, Brecht could see issues clearly defined, the
outlines of whole movements and the universality of solutions. Since he

was outside of the historical process, his understanding of political events

included perceptions not possible when one is involved. Mulleralso stated
that classicism suppresses alliances and compensates for them with a
universality to produce the perfection of form, "the manners of might," or
the aesthetic muscle of dominant culture. Thus, Muller dismisses sharplydefined alliances and self-contained ideologies as proof of a distance from
political struggle. According to him, the best aspect of the episodic form is
its fragmentary character, and the most obvious aspect of universal values
is their absurdity.
Muller began his expropriation of the Brechtian style with his first major
play, Der Lohndrucker,the idea for which he took from interviews and sketches Brecht made before he died. Brecht's play was to be titled Busching,
and it was based on the life of a contemporary worker-hero named Hans
Garbe. Muller's play-variously translated as "The Rate Buster" or "The
Scab"-is based on the function of the character as viewed by his collective. In Brecht, the heroic aspect of Garbe is perceived only from the point of
view of the state. Muller, on the other hand, presents the viewpoint of the
work brigades and their having found a "scab." Muller's perspective is not
simply a negative one; it is a mixture of elements, values, and alliances. His
remarks on Brecht's failure to write the play are important:
The net of Brecht's dramaturgy was too widespread for the
microstructure of the new problems: "class" was already a fiction. In
reality, there was a conglomerate of old and new elements ... the
Great Model of Brecht's was swept over by the sandstorm of reality.
In Muller's play, there is no clear delineation of the "politically correct" and
the "politically incorrect." There are no warring classes, no clear contradiction between old and new. Muller's society, seen from the inside, is full of
complications, mistakes, destructive elements, and political ironies. On the
surface, the play is composed of documentary elements and GDR history
presented in the realistic style within an episodic framework. Muller,
familiar with censorship and careful to construct plays which demonstrate
certain aesthetic principles and political content on the surface, is just as
careful to construct a radical subtext, which generally resides in the formal
requirements for production.

Mullerindicts Brecht as a writer

guilty of classicism.
He throws the "sandstorm of reality" in the eyes of the censors to cover his
"formalist" principles. The major "formalist" device used in Lohndrucker
and many of his later plays is the metaphor. In Lohndricker, the metaphor
resides in the tableaux created during the short scenes, and in wordless actions Mullerappended to the end of several scenes. These devices contrast
with severely truncated dialogue and scenic construction. The visual

tableaux undercut the language approved by the censors, as well as the

plot development. Moreover,the metaphors remove the play from its seemingly realistic mode into one of greater ambiguity and complication. In
Muller'sspeech to the International Brecht Society, he ascribed certain properties to the nature of his metaphors:
Metaphors can describe gestures without a sense of reference, are
not reducible to a (political) movement, are foreign rather than
distanced, are without morality. The broken stones of recent history
have done less to harm the Penal Colony than the dialectical model
construction of the Learning Play. The blindness of Kafka's experience is the proof of its authenticity. (Kafka's view as looking into
the sun.)
Metaphor does not lend itself to teaching a lesson, but only to recording a
presence, a process of participation. The daily life of political struggle is
one of complication, participation, blindness, and ambiguity. Mullerwould
construct a dramatic mirrorfor this political situation. This interest led him
to reject didacticism, another major element in one Brechtian political play
model. So he turned to the form which best represented that element, the
Learning Play, and redefined its form and function.
Mullerwrote a trilogy of learning plays based upon earlier Brechtian texts:
Mauser was based on The Measures Taken and The Horatian on The Horatians and The Curiatians. The third play, Philoctetes, derives from
Sophocles's play. These texts are the most popular of Muller's works outside the GDR, and have been produced in many theatres in West Germany,
Paris, Tokyo, Berkeley, New York,Amsterdam, and Lisbon. Muller's rethinking of the learning play's form and function was even published in the
literary pages of the West German newspaper, Die Zeit, in 1978.
I will not twiddle my thumbs until a revolutionary situation comes
along. But theory without basis is not my metier. I'mnot a philosopher
who needs no foundation for thought and I'm also not an archaeologist and I think we must take leave of the learning play until
the next earthquake. The closed Christian time of The Measures
Taken has run out, history has adjourned its proceedings onto the
streets, the learned chorus sings no more, Humanism appears only as
Terrorism, the Molotov cocktail is the last bourgeois cultural event.
What remains? The solitary text which waits on history. And the perforated memory, the crackled knowledge of the masses, already
threatened by forgetfulness. In a region in which THE LESSON is so
deeply buried and the Over-and-Aboveis laid with mines, one must
knowingly stick one's head into the sand (slimestone) in order to
broaden one's view. Moles. Or constructive defeatism.

Mullerhas exchanged the Brechtian

collective, revolutionary, theatrical
model for a dramaturgyof self-implosion.

Here is the learning play as mole rather than teacher... the finale of constructive defeatism rather than the new world ... the solitary text without
major political organizational alliances-enter Philoctetes on his deserted
island with his stinking foot and hatred of the Greeks, a character closer to
Beckett's Hamm than any positive socialist hero. Here is a world which concentrates on the battle over private property and the state's use of the individual. Odysseus teaches the cunning compromise of individual conscience for public good. At the end, Neoptolemus exits with his new lie and
the dead Philoctetes on his back-the cultural inheritance of the classical
world. Philoctetes is the solitary text which waits on revolutionary history.
The play merely sits on the stage, limping and stinking along with its hero.
Mullerwill not impose revolutionaryaction into a social context (or theatre)
in which it does not already exist. There is no revolutionary lesson in the
structure: it is a victim of its time. Muller's drama has purged the learning
play of didacticism and optimism.
In The Horatian, Muller removes simplicity and clarity. The Horatian
dramatizes the crack in complete knowledge and the "perforated memory."
The single event and single character grow more complex; the political action loses its comprehensibility. Brecht wrote The Horatians and The Curiatians in 1934, one year after the rise of fascism in Germany. His version
presents two sides and gives the necessary information for a correct
perspective on rebellion. Mullerwrote his play in 1968, the year the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia; the USSR, which had brought the socialist state to
the East bloc, filled the streets of Prague with tanks. In the play, the Horatian defeats the Curiatians, but kills his sister because she wept for one of
the vanquished. The people must decide whether the Horatian is a hero or a
murderer.They decide he must be remembered as both. The complications
lead Mullerto a new sense of the theatrical event:
Not to introduce one thing after another, which was still the law for
Brecht. Now you have to bring in as many factors as possible at the
same time so people are forced to make choices. That is, maybe they
can't choose anymore, but they have to decide what they can
assimilate first.7
The careful construction of revolutionary logic, through the method of
dialectical thought, is abandoned for an accelerative, accumulative process-a thinking which is "on the go," adapting to situations, grabbing
what it can; in place of central organization, fringe accommodation: closer
to the life of a guerilla unit than to a Party Congress.
Mauser is based on The Measures Taken, the play Brecht called "the
theatre of the future." Though Mauser revolutionizes the voice of the learning play and its relationship to the audience, perhaps its single most revolutionary function is in the portrayal of the new relationship between the individual and the collective, the heart of Brecht's understanding of
socialism. Brecht emphasized the need for the individual to assume a
representative identity: the collective represents the individual and the in99

dividual represents the collective. In The Measures Taken, the collective is

used to teach the ABCs of communism and the relationship of work groups
to Party guidance. Joachim Fiebach, one of the finest GDR theatre critics,
explains in his book, From Craig to Brecht, that this kind of teaching is no
longer important for the stage in the socialist/communist state, where the
ABCs are taught by the state through newspapers, TV, and schools.
Fiebach concludes that here the theatre is free to concern itself with "the
specific activities and possibilities of the socialist subject."8 After all, as
Stefan Schutz, a young GDR playwright, put it, "A collective in a capitalist
social order can do important things, it can be very progressive; but a collective immersed in socialism becomes a legitimation of an ideology, it
becomes immediately reactionary."9
Muller stages this contemporary view of the collective in a brilliant, new
way. There is no lesson, no metaphor, no subversive language, no complications of thought. Rather, there is the spare, closed language of ideological
thought and political jargon; revolutionary slogans are repeated as solutions to contradictions. There is no language or action in the script for the
subject or the self-the radical quality of the text lies in its production. In
the way that it is constructed, language suppresses the ability of the actor
to identify with the character. The entire play is distanced from its production, and any personal associations are prevented by the formal ideological
presentation of ideas. The play then forces the actors to create a
"double"-a play in which they can exist. In the University of Texas-Austin
production of Mauser, an all-woman cast inserted images of rape and
violence into the play; the Cologne production portrayed sexual problems
between a man and a woman. The subject of history is forced to appear in
any playwright's work if he or she is compelled to discover a strategy for
breaking in on the closed, ideological collective. Mullerreverses the Brechtian dynamic of collective identity, in part because of the present historical
realities, but also because his play is written without the Brechtian
"distance." It is written from within the collective experience.

Muller's drama has purged the learning

play of didacticism and optimism.
In his later plays, Muller abandons experiments in Brechtian tradition and
turns to the dramatization of contemporary political experience, and to contemporary forms of drama. As Brecht put the theatrical modes of his time to
a political use (Valentin's cabaret, Piscator's docu-stage and the
physicalization of the Oriental theatre), Mullernow uses Beckett's sense of
the subjective self and its disintegration, the theatre of images from
Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson, and physical images of repression
from Edward Bond to create the new political play form.
The Hamletmachine [text published in PAJ 12] is a prime example of this
new form. The set requirements-"university of the dead, three TVs

According to him [Muller],the best

aspect of the episodic form is its
fragmentary character, and the most
obvious aspect of universal values
is their absurdity.
simultaneously broadcasting"-work in the imagistic manner of a Wilson
set, and physical images of repressive violence are acted out in the manner
of Bond's Saved or Lear. In this play, trapped by its own conscience and
moving towards its own destruction, the Shakespearean tradition of
language and theatricality is abandoned-the actor refuses to play Hamlet
any longer. Art's complementary and natural relationship to a dominant,
elite, repressive culture drives the play to abandon its formal alliances, to
self-destruct. As Muller expressed it in a speech he wrote (but never
delivered) for the MLA:
As long as freedom is rooted in violence and the practice of art in
privileges, works of art will tend to be prisons, the great accomplices
of power. The major writings of the century work toward the liquidation of their autonomy (autonomy a product of incest with private property), toward the expropriation and finally the disappearance of the
A photograph of Mullerdescends during the play and is ripped to shreds by
the actor. It is a terrorist play, a guerilla play; as Hamlet says, "LET'S
"central organization"; it erupts, self-destructs, and ends.
It is not an economic revolution, a class revolution, or a historical revolution
that Hamletmachine acts out. It is what Jean Baudrillardcalled "the revolution of signs"-it taps the surrealist roots of the drama for their semiotic
revolution. Baudrillard,in his book Kool Killer,describes the new ghettoes
as those of the social sign and the social code rather than of class or labor
pools.10 It is this ghetto of theatrical art which Muller destroys for its
"prison" quality. Yet, in his ultimately subjective style, the play destructs
inwardly, contracts and shrinks to its end. Baudrillard describes this process:
The orders of the real belongs to the expansionist system. In such a
system everything functions ... to shut out contradictory powers ...
in contradiction to this principle is the virulent implosion ... the sup-

pression of worth, sense, the reduction of the real to a specific point,

and this point can be infinitesimally small and thus a gigantic suction, a gigantic absorption of the real and a convection.1
Muller has exchanged the Brechtian collective, revolutionary, theatrical
model for a dramaturgy of self-implosion. The blast is self-contained and


a shot heard around the world, but isolated

rifle fire in the

1Theo Girshausen, "Reject it, in order to possess it," Modern Drama, January,
1981, p. 405.
2WernerMittenzwei, Der Realismus Streit um Brecht (Berlin:Aufbau-Verlag,1978),
p. 36.
3Mittenzwei,p. 39.
4H.G. Huettich, Theater in a Planned Society (Chapel Hill: Univ. of N. Carolina
Press, 1978), p. 74.
5Huettich, pp. 26-27.
6Mittenzwei,p. 49.
7Quoted in Helen Fehervary,"Enlightenment or Entanglement," New German Critique, Spring, 1976, p. 81.
8Joachim Fiebach, von Craig bis Brecht (Berlin:Henschelverlag, 1975), p. 319.
9Quoted in New German Critique, Spring/Summer 1981, p. 61.
'?Jean Baudrillard,Kool Killeroder Der Aufstand derZeichen (Berlin:MerveVerlag,
1978), pp. 19-21.
"Baudrillard, pp. 14-15.

Sue-Ellen Case is a director and critic who teaches



at the University of