Introduction to Müller in America: American Productions of Works by Heiner Müller, 2003

Müller in America: American Productions of Works by Heiner Müller  (Castillo Cultural Center, 2003)

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Introduction

Dan Friedman

   The Castillo Theatre of New York City, where I am dramaturg and which is publishing this journal, first produced Heiner Müller in January 1985. 

   The Medea Project, the second show ever produced by Castillo, contained fragments of texts related to Medea from a number of sources, including Müller’s Medeamaterial. It was compiled and directed by Eva Brenner, one of Castillo’s founders. Brenner is an Austrian designer, director and scholar now back in Vienna, then working on her doctorate at New York University. Her thesis was a comparative study of five productions of Müller’s Hamletmachine; one of her thesis advisors was Carl Weber. 

   Brenner introduced Müller’s work to Castillo; many of us, including this writer, at first found it rather off-putting. Some of us came out of the street theatres of the late 1960s and ’70s, others out of the politically oriented stand-up comedy scene. Still other Castillo founders, not originally theatre people at all, but figurative painters, modern dancers, and musicians, looked for new political art to emerge from the street, from the then coming-into-being hip-hop culture (graffiti, rap, break-dancing and so on). We were interested in creating theatre that could speak to New York’s poor and working people. We didn’t think Müller could.

   Fortunately, our views didn’t prevail. In 1987 Brenner invited Joseph Szeiler, artistic director of the Angelus Novus theatre in Vienna, to direct Explosion of a Memory/Description of a Picture at Castillo. Szeiler directed the play in a style that I have now come to identify (if you will excuse the apparent contradiction in terms) as “traditional avant-garde.” The walls of the theatre space were lined on all four sides by backless benches for the audience. The space was dimly lit, an actor sat at a table with a lamp, reading the text into a microphone over and over in a monotone while other performers posed and grimaced in semi-slow motion.

   As might be expected, many of Castillo’s artists and supporters were puzzled (and some were outraged). What did this crazy, elitist German and his impenetrable poem have to say to us and to our audience, which was based in the poor and working-class African American and Puerto Rican communities of New York? We decided to find out. Szeiler agreed, albeit with some trepidation, to allow us to transform the Castillo Cultural Center (rather than the theatre per se) into an environment in which our audience members could articulate their reactions to the production. 

   The main entrance to the theatre was kept open and audience members were told when they arrived that they were free to come and go when they wanted. In the lobby we hung long scrolls of paper from the ceiling and set up tables stocked with paint and brushes. Our painters encouraged audience members when they took a break from the performance to paint their reactions, which were then cut from the scroll and hung on the walls. 

   A trio of singers roamed throughout the center, singing left-leaning folk songs and reciting poems by Otto René Castillo, the Guatemalan poet and revolutionary after whom we had named our theatre. Occasionally the trio would stand in the door of the theatre space (the agreement with Szeiler was that they wouldn’t enter) and sing to the actors and audience members.

   In another room (accessible directly from the theatre) Barbara Taylor, then the principal of the Barbara Taylor School, an experimental elementary school in Harlem, set up a classroom. She encouraged audience members leaving the performance space to write poems and essays about the production. “Most people were a little confused and weren’t sure about what they were seeing,” recalled Taylor 15 years later. “Others thought it had a beauty to it. They picked up on certain phrases or images and wrote poems based on them.” 

   So began Castillo’s dialogue with Müller. It has continued in various ways ever since. 

   A half year after the production of Explosion of a Memory, Castillo produced a play by William Pleasant, an African American writer then associated with Castillo, called Müllerschmerz/Müller’s Pain, which took the German writer to task for, among other things, his perceived Eurocentrism. Müller reportedly found the script amusing. That same year Brenner interviewed him in Berlin. In 1989, while in New York, Müller visited Castillo (which was then producing the American premier of The Task) and met with our artistic director Fred Newman, who has gone on to direct the majority of our Müller productions. In 1990, Brenner and then Castillo director Emmy Gay, an African American comic and at first one of Castillo’s most outspoken opponents of producing Müller, visited with him in Berlin.

   As of this publication (Spring 2003), Castillo has staged 10 Müller productions and three plays in which Müller is a character (Müllerschmerz, An Obituary — Heiner Müller: A Man Without a Behind and Revising Germany). For our second production of Explosion of a Memory, in 1992, this time directed by Newman, Müller sent a video of himself reading the text in English on a rooftop in Berlin. It was incorporated into the production. 

   That production of Explosion built on the first. It started with Amy Pivar Dances, a modern dance troupe, dancing to a recorded recitation of the script while painters painted on a plastic transparency that separated the stage from the audience. Then everyone — audience, dancers, painters, actors from Castillo (including its improv comedy troupe, the Gayggles) social therapists from the East Side Center for Social Therapy, and Barbara Taylor equipped with a blackboard — gathered in Castillo’s lobby for hours of playing with the text. Quoting a review of our first Explosion production by Robert Massa in the Village Voice, we called the lobby our “postmodern kindergarten.” The dancers taught the audience dance moves and together they improvised dances inspired by the script, singers made songs out of its lines, the Gayggles improvised comedy skits based on the text (or at least some of its lines, images and implied characters), social therapists made themselves available to anyone who wanted to talk about their emotional reactions to the play, and Taylor presided over an endless (and wall-less) classroom. After five or six hours of play and improvisation, the gathering returned to the theatre and separated into audience and dancers once again. The dancers created a new version of the production based on all the collective work that had been done in the course of the day.

   “It was so helpful to play with Müller so intimately,” said Taylor. “I became so close to Müller’s text that I could dance to it.” 

   Not all of Castillo’s productions of Müller have been so participatory (or so long). As our audience became more familiar with Müller and matured into more sophisticated theatre-goers, we began to stage events that looked more like plays. At the same time, we have continued to seek ways of building bridges between Müller’s texts and our audience so that everyone involved could get something out of the conversation. In recent productions — The Mission (1998), Germania 3 Ghosts at Dead Man (American premiere, 2001) and Hamletmachine (2002) — Newman has written songs as windows into what otherwise might appear to our audiences as an inaccessible, boarded-up text. When Müller was alive, Castillo would send him videos of all our productions of his work. He found them curious, engaging and provocative. 

   What has been the content of our conversation with Müller? It’s hard to describe an artistic engagement that has spanned nearly 20 years. That said, there are some conversational threads that can be identified. 

   Like Müller, we believe that “only when a text cannot be staged in a manner that is conventional to the theatre will it prove productive for the theatre or interesting.”1 We who built the Castillo Theatre have always understood the institution of the theatre as a conservatizing force that historically has served to resolve on the stage those social conflicts that remain unresolved in the world. We have, from the beginning, struggled with ways to engage this tradition of resolution. Müller’s later texts obviously provide one way of engaging many of the assumptions of modern theatre (and modernism in general) — causality, time, narrative, individual identity. These are not easy assumptions to give up, and our struggles to stage Müller’s texts have been helpful to Castillo in this regard.

   We have also worked hard to learn the European and communist history and literature that form the sea in which Müller’s texts swim. For better or worse it is that history, that culture, which has played a dominant role in shaping today’s world, and led to today’s cultural, political and economic dead-ends. Learning this history in the course of mounting his plays has been an invaluable education. At the same time, we have brought the history and culture of America into the productions, seeking to stay true to the texts while embodying them in an American cultural context. In this regard we have emphasized the humor inherent in Müller’s texts, added music and found in vaudeville an antecedent of his non-linear dramaturgy. 

   We also have found in Müller a poet who gives voice to much that we, as political progressives, have felt and struggled with for years. Müller, for us, is a brilliant deconstructionist. His ability to expose the utter corruption, hypocrisy and horror of both capitalism and the old communism is, we feel, unmatched. Yet our historical location and political perspective are very different from Müller’s. Castillo is part of a larger development community (or in an older language, a political tendency or movement) that works to build environments and activities in which people can grow and develop. (We hope that the Castillo Theatre is one such environment and activity.) Unlike Müller, we are not essentially critics. We are builders. We recognize the despoiled landscapes that Müller paints; we live there. But we work to create something in the ruins, to build with “the mud cookie boxes feces used condoms Marlboros.”2 If all we have is pain and crap, then we build with that.

   At the end of our most recent production of Hamletmachine, for example, after Ophelia in her wheelchair is wrapped in bandages and the lights fade, a woman rapper named Browneyes (Nekaybaw Nichelle Brown), who has worked with Castillo since the early ‘90s, appears on video monitors in the theatre rapping a text based on Ophelia’s closing monologue. The women cast members then slowly unwrap Ophelia, who struggles to her feet and leads the entire cast in an awkward attempt at hip-hop dancing.

   This, of course, puts us out of step with the cynical zeitgeist of the early 21st century, and, it might be argued, with Müller’s own embittered politic and sensibility. We don’t deny that. It is, in fact, those differences that we have conversed about so passionately for two decades. 

   Our audience, which has expanded beyond its working-class roots to become one of the most diverse in the country, has come to expect to see Müller in our theatre season. What do they get from these encounters with Müller? Probably as many different things as there are audience members. Some love Müller, some don’t like him at all. Most say he helps them see in a new way. JoAnne P. Sullivan, an African American woman who works as an assistant office manager and has been a regular Castillo audience member since the early ’90s, says: “I still don’t care for avant-garde theatre. I go to see something different and to keep my mind open to new things…. I understand that Müller’s making a political statement from his perspective as an East German Marxist, it’s just that I like my theatre with a beginning, middle and an end. But I do enjoy the Müller plays when I’m watching them, they’re always filled with activity and are interesting to watch.” 

   At the same time that we have used the Castillo Theatre as a means of conversing with Müller, we have been working to find ways of expanding the dialogue beyond the limitations of our (or any) stage. 

   As part of preparing for Castillo’s second production of Hamletmachine in the fall of 2002, Castillo audience members from all over the United States and beyond invited friends over for coffee or drinks and sat around in their kitchens or living rooms and read and discussed the script. If they had more questions or wanted to talk more about the script and its implications, they contacted me, as Castillo’s dramaturg, over the Internet. Some 130 of these gatherings took place in the course of two months and we are as proud of that fact as of any production ever mounted on our stage. It is evidence, we believe, that over the last two decades we have succeeded in getting a conversation going between Müller, one of the most politically and artistically radical playwrights of our time, and ordinary Americans.

   Over the last two years Castillo has worked to open the conversation with and about Müller to other Americans interested in his work and what it has to say to them. We have reached out in a number of ways, setting up public dialogues between those who have produced Müller, including a public conversation between Newman and Robert Wilson that took place at John Jay College in Manhattan in February 2002. 

Another fruit of these efforts is this collection of essays. We sought out everyone who had requested the rights to produce Müller in the United States and attempted to track them down. Many of the theatres which had mounted Müller productions no longer existed and many of the professors who had done college productions had moved on to other schools. It took a good deal of detective work, but we found some two dozen directors of Müller, many of whom appear here.

   The two-year process of gathering, writing, and editing these essays has, in some cases, led to other forms of collaboration. Nick Fracaro, (a.k.a. Nick Manhattan), co-artistic director of the Thieves Theatre (who directed Medeamaterial in 1991), worked with Castillo for many months in early 2002 in a workshop in which we explored Medeamaterial and other Müller texts. Steve Earnest, a professor at California State University, San Bernardino (who directed Mauser in 1998 and The Horatian in 2001) traveled to New York in the summer of 2002 to work with me in dramaturging for Castillo’s production of Hamletmachine. John Troyer, artistic director of The Praxis Group in Minneapolis, who had directed two productions of Hamletmachine (2000 and 2002), came to New York for Castillo’s opening of that play in 2002 and took part in a public dialogue about it with Newman.

   What we have collectively produced is the first collection of essays by directors who have tackled the texts of Heiner Müller in North America. The productions they discuss span 23 years, from 1979 to 2002, and vary widely in terms of venue, from the regional theatre to a homeless encampment under the Manhattan Bridge. The directors gathered here represent a broad range of aesthetic approaches and political attitudes. Reading through this collection, one can not help but conclude that Müller’s texts have indeed functioned, as he hoped they would, as “a kind of supernova … [that] inspires directors with ideas.”3

   That Müller’s works for the stage would inspire American directors at all may come as a surprise to some, as it did to me nearly two decades ago. Certainly Müller is very German. His concerns are with history, not psychology. His texts are an ongoing deconstruction of theatrical convention, his politics Marxist. All of which might appear to work against the likelihood of his being accepted in the American theatre. But the American theatre (like American society in general) is hardly a monolith. Despite the dominance of Broadway and Hollywood, the American theatre is multifaceted and, at least on its fringes, richly diverse. As this collection makes clear, some American theatre artists and their audiences have found much to fascinate and challenge them in the plays of Heiner Müller. Just what they have found fascinating and challenging I will leave to them to articulate in the pages that follow.

   I would like to express my personal appreciation to all of the contributors for the hard (and risky) work of mounting Müller in America and for then making the time and effort to try to capture some of that experience in these essays. I would like to thank Eva Brenner for introducing Castillo to Müller and Fred Newman for his consistent advocacy of Müller’s work over the years. I want, also, to express my gratitude to: Diane Stiles, Castillo’s managing director, for producing so much of Castillo’s conversation with Müller, including coordinating the production and distribution of this journal; David Nackman for his painstaking design work; Jessica Massad, who project-managed this journal with dogged grace; Margo Grant, for her proofreading; and Phyllis Goldberg for her copyediting. I would also like to thank Martina Puchta and translations.com for their translation of Stephan Suschke’s article, and Tonda Marton at the Elisabeth Marton Agency for her assistance in this project. We are grateful to Brigitte Mayer for her friendship and for sharing her beautiful photographs of Heiner with us. Finally, I would like to thank Carl Weber for his invaluable work of translating so much of Müller into English, thus giving us in America the chance to make him our own, and for graciously agreeing to write the foreword to this collection. 

   It is my sincere hope that this entire volume is just the beginning of an ever-expanding dialogue among Americans about Heiner Müller and his work.

 

1. Müller, Heiner. Gesammelte Irrtümer. Interviews und Gespräche. Trans. Cordula Quint (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 1986) 16. 

2. Müller, Heiner. Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape with Argonauts. Trans. Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and other texts for the stage by Heiner Müller (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984) 127. 

3. Müller, Heiner. “Poets Have To Be Stupid: An Interview With André Muller.” Germania. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Bernard & Caroline Schütze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990).

Dan Friedman is the dramaturg at the Castillo Theatre in New York City. He is co-editor, with Bruce McConachie, of Theatre for Working Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980 (Greenwood Press, 1985) and editor of Still on the Corner and Other Postmodern Political Plays by Fred Newman (Castillo, 1998). Friedman’s articles have been published in Performing Psychology: A Postmodern Culture of the Mind, Theatre Symposium, Theatre InSight and (forthcoming)The Drama Review. Friedman is also the author or co-author of 14 plays.