Judith Butler (1997)
Even in the era of cybermodels, what the mind feels like is still, as the ancients imagined it, an inner space – like a theatre – in which we picture, and it is these pictures that allow us to remember.
Susan Sontag (2003)
What could befall you that could equal even half my pain.
Heiner Müller (1996)
The question I pose is: Can the discourse of the performance text bear witness to and embody pain as well as demonstrate the violence that is both enacted within and a consequence of speech? I ask with Susan Sontag, What do these imaginary accounts do to the real pain of the victims of war and political struggle and what is the point of their transformation into art given that “the iconography of suffering has a long pedigree” (Sontag, 2003: 40)?
Germania is significant in that it offers imaginary accounts of the pain and suffering of modern German history, inflected with references to the violence of the folktale and myth that underlie modernity. The focus is primarily on German history and culture, but also its effects across the broader field of Europe–Russia, Croatia, Poland and France.
In approaching this play, the pain examined in this essay is multi-layered. First, writing transforms a painful history into the discursive practices of the theatrical text. Language will be seen to create an imaginary space–intellectual, but also visceral and virtual–for the aesthetic representation of pain and suffering. Secondly, the speech acts that comprise the dramatic language are a parodic re-staging of the injurious and hateful speeches of historical figures such as Hitler and lesser fascist functionaries. Thirdly, the transformation of fascist and other injurious speech acts into performative acts exposes the speakers to ridicule and criticism. Finally, Müller’s text inhabits the realm of the symbolic where pain is distanced and submitted to the aesthetic conventions and dramaturgies of the theatre. But the effect need be no less powerful. Any discussion of Müller’s plays needs to have an eye to both its theatricality (or artifice) and its performativity (or self-reflexive presence).
Müller’s plays, interviews, poetry, and prose pieces, therefore, lend themselves to the kind of “Double Dialogue” enquiry initiated by Art and Pain. His work for theatre has frequently engaged with classicism–Greek and Shakespearean tragedy–and the pain and death, atrocity and horror contained within. The key shift in Müller’s treatment of these themes and the genre of the twentieth century is the elimination of the moral point, the cathartic release, and the classical unities of time and place. His re-writings use fragments of the well-known plays as analytical and comparative frames for an history of modernity that sets “the banality of evil” (to use the well-known phrase of Hannah Arendt (1964)) and the ambivalence of politics at an ironic distance. Absent is the redemptive power of knowledge.
This essay will focus on Müller’s last work for the theatre, Germania 3 Ghosts at Dead Man (1996). Germania is significant in that it offers imaginary accounts of the pain and suffering of modern German history, inflected with references to the violence of the folktale and myth that underlie modernity. The focus is primarily on German history and culture, but also its effects across the broader field of Europe–Russia, Croatia, Poland and France.
In approaching this play, the pain examined in this essay is multi-layered. First, writing transforms a painful history into the discursive practices of the theatrical text. Language will be seen to create an imaginary space–intellectual, but also visceral and virtual–for the aesthetic representation of pain and suffering. Secondly, the speech acts that comprise the dramatic language are a parodic re-staging of the injurious and hateful speeches of historical figures such as Hitler and lesser fascist functionaries. Thirdly, the transformation of fascist and other injurious speech acts into performative acts exposes the speakers to ridicule and criticism. Finally, Müller’s text inhabits the realm of the symbolic where pain is distanced and submitted to the aesthetic conventions and dramaturgies of the theatre. But the effect need be no less powerful. Any discussion of Müller¹s plays needs to have an eye to both its theatricality (or artifice) and its performativity (or self-reflexive presence).
Müller’s plays, interviews, poetry, and prose pieces, therefore, lend themselves to the kind of ‘Double Dialogue’ enquiry initiated by Art and Pain. His work for theatre has frequently engaged with classicism–Greek and Shakespearean tragedy–and the pain and death, atrocity and horror contained within. The key shift in Müller¹s treatment of these themes and the genre of the twentieth century is the elimination of the moral point, the cathartic release, and the classical unities of time and place. His re-writings use fragments of the well-known plays as analytical and comparative frames for an history of modernity that sets “the banality of evil” (to use the well-known phrase of Hannah Arendt (1964)) and the ambivalence of politics at an ironic distance. Absent is the redemptive power of knowledge.
Germania, like Sophocles’ Oedipus, begins at the present and works its way backwards through time. The play begins at the Berlin Wall and then returns to the historical events–German Socialism, Hitler, Stalin, World War II, German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.), post-war re-construction, and even the Berliner Ensemble–before bringing us back to the collapse of the G.D.R. The strange underbellies of these events, dramatised as comedy and pathos, are set out as precursors to a new crisis–re-incorporation into a unified Germany.
I. Conversation in Brecht’s Tower
In the conversation in “Brecht’s Tower,” atop the Berliner Ensemble theatre building, Müller speaks on the topic of “Why Theatre.” Interspersed within the transcript of the interview are memorable images of the artist in parentheses: “[Pause. HM lights a cigar, dips it in whiskey, smokes.]” (in Weber, 2001: 220). “Whisky and Cigars,” wrote Jonathan Kalb, a few months after Müller’s death, were the “preferred instruments of pleasure and self-destruction” of this artist whose basic character and identity will be of lasting debate (Kalb, 1998: 1). But by this stage, the whisky would have been more pain relief than either pleasure or self-destruction. In the short introduction to the English translation of the transcript, Carl Weber has already revealed that Müller suffered constant pain throughout the video-taping and, shortly after, underwent chemotherapy for a recurrence of the cancer from which he would soon die. Perhaps it is only those who are ill whose physical actions add such punctuation to their conversation and are so noteworthy.
The transcript’s parentheses, “[HM: Pauses, Smokes. Drinks.]. . . [Pauses. Smokes. Smiles]. . . [Laughs]. . . [Nods]” (in Weber, 2001: 219-232) accentuate the presence of the author, give emphasis to the comments and point to the pain that is denied. For Müller, the greater dissatisfaction, even pain, at this stage of his own illness is intellectual in nature and caused by the world outside the body. Amongst the comments about contemporary theatre, the continuing necessity of theatre as a space of thought, of critique and as a presentation of dissatisfaction with reality endures:
II. Germania 3 Ghosts at Dead Man
Germania was created in early 1995 in Santa Monica, U.S.A., as Müller recuperated from an operation for cancer and was published posthumously in February 1996, a month after Müller had intended starting rehearsals of the play at the Berliner Ensemble.
Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Germania begins with two guards at night. They set up watch on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall but are themselves already ghosts. One is Ernst Thalmann, a founding member of the German Communist Party, who was arrested when Hitler came to power and executed at Buchenwald in 1944. He despairs at the current state of the G.D.R. now in its final stages. It is, he says, “the mausoleum of German Socialism” (in Weber, 2001: 184). The stage directions indicate that, for the duration of the scene, tracer shells and shots are sporadically fired at escapees. Thalmann’s fellow guard is Walther Ulbricht, the former head of state who had ordered the building of the Wall in 1961. He has nothing but contempt for the inhabitants of the G.D.R. who snore away “in fuck cells with district heating from Rostock to Joanngeorgenstadt, their skulls hugging the TV screen” (ibid.).
Germania ends in chronological time a few months later during the period of reunification, where, in the woods far away from the celebrations, a serial killer known as the Pink Giant masturbates next to the corpses of a Russian officer’s wife and her children (ibid., 215). In the 1996 Berliner Ensemble production, the Pink Giant is played by the same actor who plays the part of Hitler. The costume is also the same–bare feet and torso and black trousers–but with the addition of a pink rose behind the ear. Müller’s final theatrical vision is of a monster that roams the edges of German civilisation. He is part-historical (there was a serial killer who was named Der Rose Riese by the press), part-traditional (he is a Rumplestiltskin-type who mutters colloquial sayings), and a reference to the East German fear of the fascist West.
The final line is marked with capitals and parentheses: “[DARK COMRADES IS OUTER SPACE VERY DARK]” (ibid., 216) which Weber attributes to the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, the first person to orbit the Earth in a spaceship. Interestingly, the citation is pointedly not the more famous quotation, “People of the World! Let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, not destroy it.” Müller’s line also recalls his earlier dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment:
The effect continues in a further scene, “A Hunter Blew His Horn,” in which Stalin later enters Hitler’s bunker. The Hitler figuration prosodises as “he” tears up a map:
Poland a joke France a piece of cake
The Balkans Greece
Who counts my victories
In Russia snow in Africa sand
The Jew was my undoing he drinks the
Gasoline I need to win His ashes
Are clogging the wheels of my tanks (in Weber, 2001:195).
The presentation on the banality of evil is followed by scenes that depict the pain of history. There are the bodies of the officers and generals whose attempt on Hitler’s life failed and their widows who fear the systemic rape of women in war. These figures speak from within their historical contexts to the present in an effect which creates a museum-like theatre of the dead: voices from the past speaking of pain and suffering. Yet no-one is innocent. The oldest widow reverts to racist hate-speech when she refers to the Russians approaching from the East as “not human, that’s Asia” and denies the existence of the concentration camps as “mere rumour” (in Weber, 2001: 197). The discourse of the performance text bears witness to the violence that is both enacted within and as a consequence of speech.
In the context of contemporary theatre, however, history is resignified and transformed through the aesthetic process, into an object to behold. The re-staging of Hitler and Stalin as theatrical figurations, through which they are de-contextualised from the mass rally and the military display and deterritorialised on a stage, symbolically exposes them to critical spectatorship. In fact, the Stalin figure in a multi-layered remark proclaims: “I stand naked facing his [Hitler’s] divisions” (ibid., 187). The speech that comprises the play text becomes a form of opposition. This re-working of history goes some of the way towards providing an answer to Sontag’s question: “what does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?” (Sontag, 2003: 40). The resignified speech acts as a continuing parody of the discourse of fascist Germany by a playwright who believed that the moralising discourse of much political theatre was no longer useful. It works inside the gap envisaged by Butler between the injurious speech act and the effects it produces:
III. Snot and tears
In one sequence, with allusions to Brecht’s The Measures Taken and Müller’s 1970 reworking of that as Mauser, a German soldier starving on the Russian front during World War Two tells the story of how he was “cured” of Communism. This story is inserted within a scene depicting the failed Fascist German advance on Moscow and refers to events that took place thirteen years before in Berlin three weeks before the election of 1928. The soldier recalls how his branch of the communist party had dealt with a young member. The relation of the soldier story-teller in the present to the events in the past is unclear, but in the telling he positions himself as a witness. The story concerns a seventeen year old boy, a member of the party, unemployed as they all were then, who in the soldier’s words had “slipped down the wrong way, robbery and murder. . .” :
And had slipped down the wrong way, robbery
And murder. Great stuff for their propaganda
Against us, three weeks till election day.
That’s what the Commies do, robbery and murder
His wanted poster on each fence and wall
He was hiding somewhere in Geiseltal
We called a vote at our party meeting
And the majority agreed: We chase him
Doing the job the police couldn’t do
And hand him over at the police precinct.
The honor of the party What kind of honor is that
If we are dragging one of ours to the block.
Who are the judges Is this our state
Why don’t we go and kill him ourselves
The hunt lasted three days His father had
Joined our posse fifty against one
And we turned three times over every bush
Until we found him Snot and tears were running
Down his face I never will forget that
And his father who hit him in the face
It was for our seats at city council.
We also took the price put on his head
Five Hundred marks for the Red Welfare Fund
(in Weber, 2001: 191-192).
The lesson of this Lehrstück-gone-wrong is uttered by the more cynical of the soldier’s companions and comes out as “to every dog his bone.” This ironic ethic is iterated throughout the whole of Germania and is represented as the default position for the subject of history. Butler’s conceptualisation of hate-speech suggests it is capable of inflicting injury by means of the subject’s identification with the injurious intent:
In this construction, language is ascribed agency with the power to inflict injury. The anti-communist propaganda can hurt electoral prospects and interpellates a subject as victim (Butler, 1997: 1-2). “Thus,” writes Butler, “the injurious address may appear to fix or paralyze the one it hails, but it may also produce an unexpected and enabling response” (ibid., 2). In the case of Germania, the stories of which the text is composed contain elements of the injurious address, “that’s what Commies do,” that fix and paralyse the subjects it hails. This mode of analysis helps see the text as a cry of pain within the paralysed state that is history and the literature that represents it.
IV. He looks like a peasant
The story of “The Guest Worker” begins in the final days of World War Two in a manor house in Mecklenberg. The three widows of German generals and officers, on hearing that the Russians are on their way and fearful of what they will do to them, plan to kill themselves. Unable to do the deed themselves, a Croatian SS Man, who looks to these widows like a peasant, arrives and does the job for them with the peasant’s tool, an axe.
The scene segues into the post-war era, perhaps close to the present time, and the Croatian soldier is now a guest worker standing in the abandoned manor, dressed in a suit, shirt and tie with the axe still in his hand. He tells his story:
In this sequence, as in the story told by the German soldier, a throw-away line and a statement of the obvious are illocutionary speech acts that in the act of enunciation, do what they say. These become instances of injurious speech. The empty sayings, “he looks like a peasant” (implying that we can therefore ask him to slaughter us) is shown to have perlocutionary ramifications in that it produces consequences, the murder of the peasant family, many years later. The Croatian SS Man is insulted at being called a peasant by the high-born officer’s widow. In the post-war era as a guest-worker in suit, shirt and tie driving his German car, he returns to his village to kill off his peasant past. But first he must put on his peasant clothes. If he comes into existence as peasant through being so addressed, then, in order to remake himself as an urban German, he must make his peasant self unrecognisable as such. Thus his peasant wife and children must become “othered,” and killed to offset any further association with his past.
The act of retelling makes the spectator witness to the event. It becomes part of the context in which language “works its force upon the one it injures” (Butler, 1997: 159) and therefore complicit and critical. The story of the Croatian is a force field of pain and injury that includes the listeners and spectators in the formerly unspeakable pain of Germans: underling SS men, Communists, widows of generals, slain peasant families, and the victims of a serial killer.
In conclusion, the discourse of the text suggests the metaphor of “the present” as the condemned of history, laid on a harrowing apparatus like Kafka’s condemned man (Kafka 1919: 169-199). Whereas, in Kafka, the name of the law is needled into the body of the condemned, in Müller’s last play the present is inscribed with the sentence of history. This represents a strange view of atrocity and horror that inverts the more frequently used mechanism of the present looking back at the past. Yet, this view of the present is central to Müller’s continuing critique of modernity. The present is represented as something of a voiceless terrain, a passive recipient of dramatic inscription and of memory, but is also driven to resignify its discourse. The pain of history is mediated through subjects whose speech resonates powerfully with the pressure of contemporary experience. Most importantly, however, Müller is the artist, not the historian or the journalist, and his plays transform the past and the present into art, in a way that bears out Susan Sontag’s thoughts in Regarding the Pain of Others: “transforming is what art does” (2003: 76). In this sense, Müller gives some meaning to the banal pain of the historical and fictional subjects of his play. As Elaine Scarry has said in her well-known study:
Hannah Arendt (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Judith Butler (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (London: Routledge)
Judith Butler (1998). “On Left Conservatism II”
Franz Kafka (1919). “In the Penal Settlement,” in Metamorphosis and Other Storie, tr. Willa & Edwin Muir (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961)
Jonathan Kalb (1998). “Theater”
Heiner Müller (1985). “Fatzer +/-Keuner,” in Margaret Herzfeld-Sander (ed.) Essays on German Theatre (New York: Continuum)
Elaine Scarry (1985). The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press)
Susan Sontag (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux)
Carl Weber (ed. & tr.) (2001). A Heiner Müller Reader (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press)
W.B. Yeats (1922) “Easter 1916,” in The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (London: Macmillan & Co., 1961)