Müller, Heiner (1929–1995)

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MÜLLER, HEINER (1929–1995)


German playwright.

Heiner Müller emerged as Germany's most influential playwright during the second half of the twentieth century. No other German dramatist since Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) achieved a comparable position in world theater. He reflected in his texts, more rigorously than any other writer, the violent trajectory of the last century's history. His writer's life began, one might say, when he was not quite four years old, the night after Adolf Hitler had become German chancellor. Heiner woke up upon hearing loud voices and books being thrown onto the floor in an adjacent room. The door to his bedroom opened and he saw his father, held by three SA men, softly calling his name. The terrified boy pretended to be asleep and so his father, a Socialist Party functionary, could not say goodbye to him before being taken away to a concentration camp. Later Müller described this event as his "first betrayal." And betrayal became a central topic in many of his texts, be they poetry, prose, or stage plays. His father was eventually released from the camp and the family led an impoverished life in a hostile Nazi society. After the war, his father became mayor of a small town in Saxony but soon defected with his wife to the West. Heiner decided to stay. He refused to betray the Marxism he had adopted, however much he would later criticize the iniquities that tainted the past and present of socialism.

Müller began to write after he returned from his brief military service, in 1945, and finished high school. For ten years he wrote mainly poetry while eking out a living as a librarian and, eventually, as a literary critic and occasional journalist. In 1955 he married the writer Inge Schwenker (1925–1966), who became his collaborator as he began writing for the stage. They jointly received a coveted literary award in 1959, for The Scab (1957) and The Correction, which had both premiered the previous year. The plays followed the model of Brecht's epic theater in portraying the difficulties of building the socialist industry of East Germany, a topic Brecht had tried and abandoned. Müller was determined to pursue it. His play The Resettled Woman, contemplating the consequences of East Germany's land reform, was in rehearsal when the Berlin Wall cemented the partition of Germany. It was banned after one preview performance at the end of September 1961. Müller himself was severely reprimanded and expelled from the Writers Association. For some years his texts could be neither published nor performed. The couple survived through the kindness of friends and occasional royalties from radio texts Müller submitted under an assumed name. His play The Construction Site was eventually published in 1965 but was harshly attacked for "ideological flaws." A year later, the deeply depressed Inge committed suicide.

Müller had begun to explore classical Greek drama for its relevance to the present and concentrated his efforts during the 1960s on adapting classic texts . Most of them received their premiere in the West, where his plays were mainly performed until the 1980s, when Müller became a dramaturge at East Berlin's Volksbühne.

During the 1970s, he dispensed with Brecht's model and developed a complex, multilinear dramaturgy which he called synthetic fragment, in texts such as Germania Death in Berlin (1971), Gundling's Life Frederick of Prussia Lessing's Sleep Dream Scream (1976) and, foremost, Hamletmachine, which also attested to the influence of Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett . Hamletmachine (1977) is Müller's most recognized play, widely taught as a seminal text of post-modern literature. Like several other of his plays, it was performed all over the world, especially after Robert Wilson staged it in New York in 1985, thus beginning his close collaboration and friendship with Müller.

In 1975 Müller was invited to the University of Texas, Austin, as writer-in-residence, and traveled extensively in the United States, and later in Mexico and the Caribbean. The American experience profoundly changed his view of geography's impact on human history and reinforced his commitment to feminist positions he had taken in earlier texts.

During the 1980s Müller increasingly directed his own works, to great success, and received the highest literary awards of both former German states. His staging of Hamlet/Machine, combining Shakespeare's text (in his own translation) with Hamletmachine, began rehearsal before the Berlin Wall fell yet premiered after the collapse of the East German socialist state, in 1990. The eight-hour production reflected on German history since World War II and the fratricidal trends of the nation's past. In the final year of his life, Müller became the artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble where he staged Brecht's Arturo Ui (1995) in a highly acclaimed production. He had finally assumed the mantle of his erstwhile hero, Brecht, as Germany's foremost playwright/stage director. He also staged Tristan and Isolde at the 1993 Bayreuth Wagner Festival.

Throughout his career Müller has been blamed—from the Left and the Right—for promulgating an apocalyptic view of human history and society. He once quipped about such criticism: "I'm neither a hope-nor a dope-dealer" (1984, p. 140).

See alsoBrecht, Bertolt; Theater.


Primary Sources

Müller, Heiner. Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage. Edited and translated by Carl Weber. New York, 1984.

——. The Battle: Plays, Prose, Poems. Edited and translated by Carl Weber. New York, 1989.

——. Explosion of a Memory. Writings. Edited and translated by Carl Weber. New York, 1989.

——. Krieg ohne Schlacht: Leben in Dikaturen. Cologne, 1992.

——. A Heiner Müller Reader. Plays, Poetry, Prose. Edited and translated by Carl Weber. Baltimore, Md., 2001.

———. Werke. Edited by Frank Hörnigk. 7 vols. Frankfurt, 1998–2004.

Secondary Sources

Friedman, Dan, ed. Müller in America: American Productions of Works by Heiner Müller. New York, 2003.

Hauschild, Jan-Christoph. Heiner Müller oder Das Prinzip Zweifel. Berlin, 2001.

Kalb, Jonathan. The Theater of Heiner Müller. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies, and Patrick Primavesi, eds. Heiner Müller Handbuch. Leben, Werk, Wirkung. Stuttgart, 2003.

Teraoka, Arlene Akiko . The Silence of Entropy or Universal Discourse: The Postmodernist Poetics of Heiner Müller. New York, 1985.

Carl Weber

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