Müller, Heiner

(1929-1995)
   Playwright. Müller was considered the leading playwright of the German Democratic Republic, and in many ways his life and career echo that regime's bleakest idiosyncrasies. His career in East German theater began in 1957, when his first plays were published and he began working at the Maxim Gorky Theater in East Berlin. His plays were structurally indebted to Bertolt Brecht's one-act politicized didactic pieces called Lehrstücke. Müller called his plays Brigadestücke; these "brigade plays" portrayed platoons of workers and their tribulations within a totalitarian state that claimed always to have their best interests in mind. Although Müller was awarded the regime's Heinrich Mann Prize, many of his plays, including Der Lohndrücker (The Scab, 1958) and Die Umsiedlerin, oder Das Leben auf dem Land (The Settler, or Life on the Land, 1961), met with official disapproval, which led to his expulsion from the East German Writers' Union. The Scab was based on a real character named Hans Garbe, an energetic and ambitious bricklayer who ran afoul of other workers in the immediate postwar years, when the GDR was attempting to repair war-ravaged structures. Der Bau (The Construction Site) borrowed material from the novel Spur der Steine (The Trace of Stones) by Erik Neutsch (1931- ), which became a 1966 movie likewise suppressed because it featured the unflattering portrayal of a Communist Party functionary.
   Müller turned his attention to adaptations of Greek classics in the mid-1960s, though in them Müller seemed to reject the didactic purposes he had formerly espoused. In the 1970s he took on the abstract style with which he later became identified, notably in Zement (Cement, 1974), which was based on a Russian novel of the same title by Feodor Gladkov (1883-1958). Western critics noted that The Scab, The Construction Site, and Cement prominently featured building materials; the inference was that Müller's viewpoint in such plays was not directly unfavorable toward the regime. He nevertheless focused on discrepancies present in construction efforts, many of them seemingly inevitable in planned societies like those of East Germany and the Soviet Union.
   Müller's lack of optimism and accusations of "formalism" (lack of accessibility) were reminiscent of similar problems the East German regime had encountered with Brecht, because "official" art was supposed to be both avant-garde and accessible; experimentation was unnecessary because it was superfluous. Yet perhaps because so many observers in the West were comparing Müller to Brecht, the regime permitted Müller to become dramaturg of the Berliner Ensemble in 1970. In that capacity, Müller continued adapting or reworking classic material, such as Philoctetes, Heracles, Prometheus, Oedipus, Medea, Hamlet, and Macbeth. These and other reworkings, however, likewise lacked a positive affirmation of what the regime termed "socialism as it existed in reality." His Hamletmaschine (Hamlet Machine, 1977) was particularly pessimistic, but when it premiered in Essen in 1979, the regime began to realize it had a valuable celebrity on its hands. In both Hamletmachine and Quartett (1980), Müller moved even further away from the ideal of accessibility, embracing instead a collage-oriented dramaturgical aesthetic; such approaches won him numerous admirers in the West and even grudging respect in the East.
   Despite profound misgivings among many in what was termed the Kulturapparat(cultural apparatus) of the East German regime, Müller was permitted to travel to the West in the mid-1970s (venturing as far away from Berlin as Austin, Texas); his fundamental loyalty to the Soviet-style system was rewarded with extensive travel permissions and ultimately with the GDR's National Prize, First Class in 1985. In 1988 he was finally permitted to rejoin the East German Writers' Union-but it was too late: Müller had already been awarded the Büchner Prize from the city of Darmstadt and was earning substantial sums in hard currency because his plays, banned in the GDR, were being performed throughout Europe and in the United States. He had essentially become independent of the East German regime.
   When the regime collapsed in 1989, Müller remarked laconically on the privilege he had experienced of living through the downfall of three German regimes. "I foresee little hope in the downfall of the Federal Republic, however." In the wake of the GDR's dissolution, Müller briefly assumed leadership of the Berliner Ensemble, and in 1993 he staged Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Müller's last staging was Brecht's Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) in 1995; it ironically became the company's most popular staging in years. After Müller's death, the company performed it on tour in cities throughout Germany, and later included cities in France, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Belgium, the United States, Argentina, and Portugal.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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