Heiner Muller: The Political Beast; A Never-before-Published Interview with the Late German Writer. (Profiles)

By Holmberg, Arthur | American Theatre, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Heiner Muller: The Political Beast; A Never-before-Published Interview with the Late German Writer. (Profiles)


Holmberg, Arthur, American Theatre


Edward Albee, John Guare and Arthur Miller, who gathered in July at the Lincoln Center Festival for a symposium on the work of Harold Pinter, were talking about the growing political bent in Pinter's later plays. "All art is political," Albee remarked offhandedly. Miller politely corrected his fellow playwright's generalization: "Lots of plays have no political side, but we don't discuss them. Man is a political beast. Politics is an attempt to shape the fate of man. What's closer to the theatre than that? We in America have a long history of politics as unaesthetic. It's unique in the world. It may be that our theatre arose out of a thoroughly bourgeois society. Other theatre came from the nobility, which was up to its neck in politics. It has inhibited our work."

Miller's hand-grenade comments demand attention. He suggests that only works with political content--the Oresteia, for example, or his own Death of a Salesman--are worthy of discussion and preservation. And he suggests that American artists, inhibited by middleclass institutions and audiences, turn their backs on politics. If Miller is correct, then Americans--like all "political beasts"--are in need of precisely what their native theatre fails to provide.

Miller's analysis helps explain the resurgence of American interest in Heiner Muller. Six years after his death in 1995, this East German playwright--a Marxist who critiqued both communism and capitalism--remains an influential and controversial author. German playwrights assault political issues more aggressively than Americans--Buchner, Brecht and Muller not only wrestle with politics, they do so in provocative ways that shatter conventional dramatic structure. They're willing to slap their audiences in the face and drag them kicking and screaming into new aesthetic realms. It is Muller's ability to hammer politics into art that explains why he continues to disturb, shock and seduce audiences.

Two major productions of Muller took place last season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--El Perifanico de Objetos' Hamletmachine and director Gabriella Maione's staging of Quartet (based on the notorious French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuse). In October; Manhattan's Castillo Theatre presented the American premiere of Germania 3: Ghosts at Deadman, and productions of Quartet and Medeamaterial are slated for this month by New York City's fledgling Cx & Company. Elsewhere in the country during the past year, there were six productions of Hamletmachine, three of Quartet and one of the formidably titled Gundling's Life/Frederick of Prussia/Lessing's Sleep Dream Scream.

In 1988 Robert Wilson staged a visually stunning and psychologically astute Quartet at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. "Quartet," Muller wrote, "is a reflex on the problem of terrorism, using material which on the surface has nothing to do with it." Whereas Wilson explored sexual terrorism, Maione's recent production at BAM gave sexual terrorism a political resonance by adding a second couple who waited on the decadent French aristocrats Merteuil and Valmont. At times working for them, at times against them, the servants looked on--silently, impassively--as the masters annihilated themselves and their world.

Echoing filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Maione (who acted in Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) says that as a director "I do not make political theatre, I make theatre politically. I added the second couple to interrogate the power of the first. My production raises political questions, but it's not ideological."

Maione also insisted on the humor in the text, introducing commedia dell'arte routines. "Muller compared his play to Charley's Aunt," Maione says by way of justification, "but the laughter in Muller is political. Muller's play is optimistic. In the face of a world blithely destroying itself, he reasserts the value of life."

I first met Heiner Muller in Cambridge in 1985, when he came to ART to work with Robert Wilson on the CIVIL warS.

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