Heiner Müller Essay - Critical Essays


Heiner Müller’s development as a dramatist must be seen in the context of the international debate concerning a poetics for postmodernist drama. After 1971, Müller presented his work as a contemporary dramatist in terms of the poetic productions of a postmodernist artist in a postcapitalistic world system, as Teraoka has shown. In the works of this phase, beginning in 1971 with the completion of Germania Tod in Berlin, he engaged in the deconstruction of certain models of enlightenment or socialist drama in favor of alternative models of Third World drama. Investigating the issues of cultural colonialism and the exportation of revolution, the role of the intellectual in the revolutionary process, and, especially, the role of the European socialist intellectual in the conflicts of the Third World, Müller was current in terms not only of his topics but also of his dramatic techniques. In his revolutionary postmodernist aesthetics, Müller associated himself with the antiliterary traditions of contemporary literature, which work toward the elimination of the aesthetic autonomy of the work of art and the disappearance of the author behind the text as part of a universal discourse.

In an essay, “Der Schrecken, die erste Erscheinung des Neuen: Zu einer Diskussion über Postmodernismus in New York” (1979; “Reflections on Post-Modernism,” 1979), Müller defined his place and role within modernist and contemporary European literature. For Müller, quoting Franz Kafka, “literature is an affair of the people.” The revolutionary artist must write from the standpoint of the oppressed people within the dominant structures of imperialism, capitalism, and colonialism. For Müller, the “oppressed people” are the masses of the Third World in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, living in a world that is divided between the two power blocs of capitalism and socialism. The author in the socialist world, who is still privileged by virtue of his talent, has the goal of working toward his self-abolition. This goal is closely connected to the revolution of the Third World, which will establish, according to Müller, Marx’s “realm of freedom,” in which the author as privileged creator and art as private property no longer exist. In this situation, there are only two alternatives for the language of the contemporary author: either the self-abolition of the privileged voice or participation in a collective discourse—in Müller’s words, “the silence of entropy, or the universal discourse which omits nothing and excludes no one.”

Only gradually did Müller come to this perspective. His dramatic uvre can be divided into three major periods: from the early 1950’s to the early 1960’s, when Müller dealt with contemporary problems in industry and land reform in the GDR; from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s, when the playwright followed the trends of a socialist classicism, employing mythology and the models of classical drama; and from the mid-1970’s to 1995, when Müller explored the causes and consequences of failed revolutions in Germany and the demise of the German working-class movement. In this last period he focused on the issues of cultural colonialism, the exportation of revolutions, and, especially, the struggles of the Third World.

In his first phase, Müller explored the contradictions, evolving from the collaboration of communists and former Nazis, within the new collective work system under socialism. Plays such as The Scab, The Correction, Die Umsiedlerin (the homeless one), which was to be revised as Die Bauern (the peasant), and Der Bau (the wall) belong to this period.

The Scab

The play most typical for this period is The Scab, dealing with the need for increased production under poor working and living conditions in the GDR in 1949. Following the Soviet model of rewarding exemplary workers, the GDR had singled out workers surpassing production norms for extra pay and special privileges. The protagonist of the play is such an “activist,” hated and distrusted not only by his coworkers but also by management and the party. Their distrust is not without reason: The protagonist had denounced workers for sabotage during the Nazi regime in order to save his own life. The fulfillment of socialist production plans, however, requires the collective labor of all workers. There is no room for private revenge. The protagonist, who is beaten by his coworkers after work, and his adversaries on different levels have to work together to complete an important project. The dialectics of the play show that collective labor under socialism is a matter not of individual choice but of historical necessity.

The Adaptations

During the second phase of his work, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Müller did adaptations of Greek, Shakespearean, and Brechtian plays: Ödipus Tyrann (based on Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of Sophocles’ play), Macbeth (based on Shakespeare’s play), Philoctetes (based on Sophocles’ play), Prometheus (based on Aeschylus’s play), The Horatian (based on Brecht’s play), Mauser (based on Brecht’s play Die Massnahme), and Cement (1972, based on Gladkov’s novel) make up the corpus of his middle period.


The work most typical of this period is Philoctetes. The original play by Sophocles has a rare happy ending, returning the protagonist and his invincible bow from his isolation on the island of Lemnos to the Greek army before Troy, where his festering wounds are healed. In Müller’s version, the return of Philoctetes is engineered by Ulysses for the sole purpose of rallying the troops for battle. Ulysses uses Achilles’ son to carry out his plan, deceiving Philoctetes into believing that he is rescued to be taken home to Greece. When Achilles’ son finally tells Philoctetes about the lie, a battle ensues, during which Philoctetes is killed. Now Ulysses exploits the death of Philoctetes, concocting a new lie in the service of the war against Troy. The Trojans are said to have invaded Lemnos and killed Philoctetes because he refused to join their side. With this propaganda story, Ulysses hopes to inspire the Greek army to fight...

(The entire section is 2598 words.)