by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - April 7, 2008) If one were to select some of the theatre's greatest oddities, the shortlist would certainly contain Artaud's Spurt of Blood, Jarry's Ubu Roi, Picasso's Four Little Girls, and Heiner Müller's Hamlet Machine.
It is this last piece that has fascinated me for many years and repelled so many of the managements that I approached to allow me to stage it. Like many works based on, or one should say derived from, the Bard it is only tangentially related to Shakespeare's play -- and yet the ghost of that ur-text pervades Müller's deconstruction in the way that Romeo and Juliet hovers over every moment of West Side Story. But one has to add hastily, that if by "a play" one means a progressive narrative with consistency of character and action in the service of an overriding theme, then one has to deny that nomenclature to Müller's work. It reads more like an invitation to a "happening" or a Performance Art piece than it does "a play" -- but because it contains an intrinsic theatricality and a number of wildly rotating themes, it tends to elude all categories. One should always mention that the text is only eight pages long -- although productions of it have lasted as long as three hours.
Müller, although an icon in Germany, is practically unknown in the U.S. He was one of the most promising and prominent writers of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and a leading light of the German Writer's Association until he displeased his East German benefactors with his drama Die Umsiedlerin ("The Resettler Woman") and, in l961, was censored by the authorities. Subsequently, the same authorities refused to allow the opening of Hamlet Machine. (It was premiered in Brussels.) Before long, Müller was drummed out of the Writers Association but resurfaced in various theatres in West Berlin where his mettle was quickly recognized and loudly celebrated. This was enough for the East Berlin hierarchy to readmit him into the fold. He was appointed president of Academy of the Arts of the GDR and was even invited to join the directorate of the Berliner Ensemble -- which was almost fated since Müller (despite publicly denying any authorial influence) was clearly an offspring of Bertolt Brecht -- although stylistically, there is virtually no resemblance. He traveled and worked both as director and writer in theatres throughout Europe and died in Berlin in 1995 -- publicly revered as the most accomplished dramatist since Brecht.
Hamlet Machine reflects the tensions and tragedies that beset many of the people in Germany, but mainly in the East, who tried to wriggle free from the yoke of the East German dictatorship. The work looks bleakly and objectively at revolutionary ardor and, with a penetrating pessimism, describes the dissolution of rebellion. There are traces of both the Hungarian and Polish uprisings in the work as well. It is Shakespeare as seen through the eyes of a tart social critic like Jan Kott and filtered through the poisonous skepticism of Friedrich Nietzsche. It recoils from Claudius's usurpation of the Danish crown and deeply pities the ravages wrought against Ophelia and, through her, all women caught up in revolutionary turmoil. It reprieves Hamlet's skeletal father and, along with Horatio and Gertrude throws them all into an open pit already steeped high with the corpses of others whose idealism has been snuffed out by state-inflicted horrors. I should add that it does all this obliquely and only en passant. Throughout, Müller's Hamlet, divested of power and as victimized as those around him, tries to find a role that can reconcile the horrors that engulf him -- and, by inference all those who vainly try to throw off shackles that have become grafted into their flesh. Everyone who strives for escape, in Müller's phrase, "gets torn apart by the contradictions of existence."
Intellectually, Müller resembles those artists who toy with the idea of shifting dialectics as a way of avoiding a finite position that they might have to defend. An admirer of Brecht and a theatre based on Marxist principles, he also invokes Antonin Artaud who, one suspects, would have found Brechtian principles an anathema. "When I am asked are you a Christian or a Marxist," Müller has written "I would of course say I'm a Marxist. It's a question of alternatives. But when I'm asked, are you a Marxist? I can't say Yes. When there is an alternative, I'm always a Marxist. And that is, I think, in truth, a Marxist answer. There is no Marxist position, except a position of negation. Using this detour, I could say, yes, I'm a Marxist. But I couldn't say it without this detour..." Perhaps for Müller, one of Hamlet's great appeals is the Prince's chronic vacillation and inability to pull his finger out. He is also on record as saying his writing of "Hamlet Machine" was undertaken so as to "free himself" of Hamlet. He certainly achieved that. Shakespeare's Hamlet floats like a poisoned ozone layer above the play Müller has expelled from its vitals.
Dialectically provocative, many of Müller's views are drenched in paradox and make it virtually impossible to pin him down using logic or ratiocination. "What I try do in my writings," he has been quoted as saying, "is to strengthen the sense of conflicts, to strengthen confrontations and contradictions. There is no other way. I'm not interested in answers and solutions, I don't have any to offer. I'm interested in problems and conflicts."
Müller's pronouncements on art amounts to a kind of chic nihilism that is arresting without being persuasive. And in regard to Brecht's attempt to foist Marxist solutions, he has said: "The categories 'wrong' or 'right' miss the essence of a work of art.... It's treason to use Brecht without criticizing him." But it is also wrong to pretend Müller's world view is not drawn from the genomes of that Marxist mentor who first introduced such subject matter into his disciple's bloodstream.
In l986, Robert Wilson tackled Hamlet Machine at New York University with an undergraduate cast. I didn't see it, but from the reviews, it is fairly clear that Müller's political grit did not mesh well with Wilson's pictorial estheticism; I can't think of any director less suited to interpreting Hamlet Machine than Wilson. Someone like Richard Foreman or Peter Stein might have extrapolated this fragmented material into imagery which revealed both the ideology and satanic comedy of Müller's work, but it is not a script you will find popping up in British reps or American regional theatres -- which is a pity because the lesson that Müller teaches is perhaps more apt in today's indiscriminately murderous world than it ever was in 1979.
There are some works, like incessant tunes that you can't get out of your head, that force themselves into director's psyches -- as if some diabolical rendez-vous is being bruited that inevitably must take place even if no exact date can ever be agreed. Hamlet Machine is one of those.
(I am indebted to Carl Weber, Müller's translator, who probably knows him better than any other Western critic and from whose Preface I drew many of the Müller quotations. And to Frank Guenther, the leading translator of Shakespeare in Germany.)
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