Pictures at a Deconstruction: Visionaries Heiner Muller and Robert Wilson in Word and Image

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Has there ever been a playwright more postmodern than Heiner Muller? This avant-garde writer-director, the most celebrated 20th-century East German dramatist other than Brecht, was a "virtual copyist" who, by his own admission, would just as soon have signed his name to an act of Shakespeare as his own play. He spent a career shadowboxing with a gallery of elite literary figures. In fact, contends Jonathan Kalb in his clear-sighted and sagacious book The Theater of Heiner Muller, the playwright's anxiety of influence was more like terror - he wrote to desecrate the body of Western literature.

In typical postmodern fashion, Muller either adopted the style of another playwright entirely - "occupying the corpus like a vampire or virus in order to explode it from within," in Kalb's words - or used the source author as a paradigm, to be embarrassed and detonated. For example, his 1982 Quartet, an examination of aggression and sexuality, is also a pastiche of Genet's The Maids. No wonder that Kalb structures his unusually honest book according to the different source authors with whom Muller battled, like Brecht, Kleist, Mayakovsky, Shakespeare, Artaud and Wagner.

Although this conceit sometimes wears thin, Kalb's close readings of the Muller oeuvre are incisive and refreshingly free of critical rhetoric. Though it pays insufficient attention to Muller's directing work, the book does an admirable job of decoding the dense, monologue-laden writing, with its numerous references to German politics; formulated on the shards of historical and literary allusions, these plays can only be understood with this kind of deciphering.

Is the cryptic style responsible for Western audiences' comparative ignorance of Muller's work? Kalb lays part of the blame on the dramatist's readiness to "sacrifice his integrity" - giving in to Communist pressure by dropping a scene from Germania - Death in Berlin, for example. Muller, who died in 1995, set a low-water mark as a human being - and he was brazen about it. "I have children [four from four marriages], but they don't interest me," he once bragged. An eager snitch for the East German Stasi, he was also fond of labeling Hitler and Stalin geniuses.

Other daunting obstacles to Muller's international reputation, as Kalb notes, include his writing's "merciless Teutonism" and his obsession with nihilism and anarchy. To a great extent, Miller's is the tragedy of the writer as intellectual provocateur and arsonist, eventually trapped in dead-end gestures of despair.

"Strangely enough, despite his rigorous intellectualism," Kalb speculates, "a part of Muller would like to have been a naive painter like Robert Wilson." It isn't hard to see why. Wilson, the avant-garde director and visual artist, plays both sides of the hope-despair continuum simultaneously, captivated by pretty pictures as much as by death and destruction. While Muller's work lacked laughs, Wilson, ever the showman, recommends that a playwright "never do a play without humor."

Strange bedfellows though they might have seemed - Muller's hermetic, inscrutable language-based theatre versus Wilson's painterly assemblages - the two artists collaborated on several projects. Muller wrote a section of the CIVIL wars (1983) and a prologue for Wilson's Alcestis (1986); Wilson directed Muller's Hamletmachine (in 1986) and Quartet (in 1987). Laurence Shyer, in his fine early book Robert Wilson and His Collaborators, observed that the two share a disgust for narrative, linear action, causal development, characterization and "interpretation and fixed meanings," as well as an anti-rational approach to visuals and an affinity for collage techniques. …