Antonin Artaud’s Influence on Heiner Muller
The key to understanding Hamletmaschine, Quartett and many other plays by Muller is Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre And Its Double. In an article on Muller’s Hamletmaschine and Artaud, Kalb notes that “nearly every dissertation and book-length study on Muller contains a separate section, if not an entire chapter, summarizing Artaud’s theories and establishing affinities between the two writers” (“On Hamletmaschine: Muller and the Shadow of Artaud” 47-48). In spite of that, such sections and chapters are short.
This paper discusses such a relationship between these authors, and influence of Ardaut on Muller in particular.
In a 1989 collection of materials related to Muller’s writings and edited by Frank Hornigk, there is a short one-page summary of Artaud, which appears in the table of contents under its first sentence: “Artaud, The Language of Torture.” Muller praises the value of Artaud’s thought in this piece from 1977. He summarizes Artaud’s value for Muller as explained in the essay.
Following Muller’s death in December 1995, critics often comment on Muller’s continuous attempt to try new things as well as on his frequent reflections on death (“On Hamletmaschine: Muller and the Shadow of Artaud” 49).
Artaud’s theoretical essays, The Theatre and Its Double, were originally published in 1938 and republished in 1944. The second publication has been the more important one for the reception of the ideas of the author (Bradby 8). Bradby summarizes that “suffering and cruelty are never far from his [Artaud’s] preoccupations” (8). These ideas are also central to the world Muller presents in Quartett.
Whether one reads the play as a sexual confrontation of an actress and actor playing the roles of four characters in a personal one—upmanship game, as a study of terrorism, or as a demonstration of the power of personal confrontations which may carry terroristic elements. Muller takes ideas which were first presented in Artaud’s The Theatre And Its Double and pushes them close to their limit. The most complete reading of Quartett acknowledges both a personal confrontation between two characters and a terroristic element to that confrontation.
The double of the title of Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double is life itself (Costich 45). In a very circular way, the doubling of theater and cruelty as presented in the theoretical writings and stage attempts of Artaud returned a half century later in Muller’s theater. The choice of Lados’s novel as the basis for one of Muller’s plays is a natural one in keeping with the postmodernist theater of Muller, a theater which has strong roots in the avant-garde theater of a half century earlier in France.
Artaud believes that the director makes the most important contribution to a theatrical production and that ideally the author and director should be one and the same person (Costich 49). Costich notes that Artaud did not believe in input from the actors. As one reads Muller’s Quartett and looks in vain for traditional stage directions, one wonders if this insistence on directoral power does not account at least in part for their scant presence, although Scheer created a strong interpretation of Muller’s Hamletmaschine and Artaud through the performances of Muller’s play that Robert Wilson directed.
In interviews, such as one with Sylvere Lotringer (see Klein 400-01), Muller claimed that he did not read texts but devoured them. This sense of devouring rather than reading and digesting a text becomes basic to interpretations by Klein (401) as well as Kalb (“On Hamletmaschine: Muller and the Shadow of Artaud” 47-49). This is related to Artaud’s theory of the death of the author, though Kalb notes that:
Heiner Muller was an author, and the apparent paradox of this, of an author producing dramas that map the failure of drama to take place, is partly a result of his not taking the Artaudian tradition fully seriously …. On the contrary, the death of drama, like the death of the Author, was a myth to him, a double-edged fiction whose ambiguity and power over others he tried to harness on his behalf…(“On Hamletmaschine: Muller and the Shadow of Artaud” 49)
Yet Muller went so far as to have his own picture torn apart to represent the death of the author in. Kalb argues that this action suggests that “iconography, representation itself, is under attack as much as any male- or author principle” (“On Hamletmaschine: Muller and the Shadow of Artaud” 56). Referring to this same scene, Edward Scheer concludes that this gesture “simultaneously reinscribes the author, torn in two, as the founding divided subjectivity of the text” and “dramatises the destruction of that which made it possible but also that which must be destroyed for the work to stand alone” (205).
It shows how “Hamletmaschine stages Artaud’s call for the end of the narrative of the Cartesian subject while reintroducing the dislocated anti-narrative of the schizophrenic subject which desires its emancipation through becoming what it is not” (205). His description of the “dislocated…schizophrenic subject” is reminiscent of Valmont and Merteuil as they take on other roles in Quartett; Valmont as Merteuil and as Madame de Tourvel; Merteuil as Valmont and as Cecile de Volanges.
Visual images are very important in Muller’s theater. They are the most easily lost elements of theater when plays are read. The importance of seeing what is performed on the stage links Muller to Artaud, who was even more suspicious of language. Kalb summarizes Artaud’s influence on Muller when he writes that “his relationship to Artaud was tactical, borrowing a complexion of authentic pathology to lure us into a diabolical literary-historical funhouse where he could administer his own version of cruelty” (“On Hamletmaschine: Muller and the Shadow of Artaud” 62). The deaths at the end of Quartett, especially that of Madame de Tourvel, portray a level of cruelty that reminds one of the primeval drives which Artaud wanted to depict on the stage.
The most thorough discussion of Artaud and Muller in secondary literature is the article by Scheer which focusses on Artaud, Muller, Robert Wilson, and a new aesthetic of cruelty. Scheer adds Robert Wilson to the discussion as he finds that when Wilson works as the director of Muller’s play Hamletmaschine, the meaning of cruelty in the theater of both Artaud and Muller becomes better illuminated. Writing about Hamletmaschine – Scheer observes that Muller takes from Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty, not its achievement or embodiment, but the continuation of the arc of its aesthetic trajectory and the thematic relaunching of its essential structure” (202).
Scheer believes that both Artaud and Muller engage in the “act of calling forth the advent of something unique, archaic and colossal, preparing a frame for the unframable, a stage for the presentable event in a desacralised performative ritual” (202). How much the stage frames the reality it presents and how much that reality attempts to escape from the frame of the stage are discussed at length by Scheer, who refers both to Artaud and Derrida for ideas. He believes that “for Artaud, that which chains the theatre to representation and thereby to its secondary status is its reliance on language” (202). Scheer concludes that:
to repeat the unrepeatable, to represent the unrepresentable, constitutes the structure of cruelty in Artaud’s theatre…Cruelty is … the impossible staging of the trespass beyond the aesthetic world of representations from which true life and death are of necessity excluded. (204)
Likewise, Muller’s Ouartett “repeats the unrepeatable” and “represents the unrepresentable” in its scenes.
In an effort to distinguish Muller’s learning plays from Brecht’s, Case argues that:
the GDR Learning Play must free the collective from its official unity to discover its individual components…Perhaps the Millerian Learning Play operates more in the Artaudian tradition than in the Brechtian one. Through a negative model the play creates a ‘double’ which the actors themselves invent. This ‘double’ is the world of dream and fantasy which the official texts omit … The play produces the negative image underlying the classical heritage…Artaud’s combination of ‘plague’ and ‘double’ parallel the effective form of Muller’s political writings. (48, 49)
If one looks for traces of Artaud in Muller’s Hamletmaschine and Quartett, one recognizes that some of the apparent influence is tied to the subject and that at least part of that subject is a doubling of Laclos’s novel Les Liaisons dangereuses. This doubling includes new interpretations of the characters from the novel and their influence on each other.
In her discussion of Muller’s Macbeth, Case notes that “Romain Weingarten, in his article entitled ‘Re-read Artaud,’ describes the Artaudian actor as ‘someone acted upon, not someone who acts'” (92). This description is equally valid for the characters in Quartett. Certainly it applies to Cecile Volanges and Madame de Tourvel and insofar as they each act as a reaction to the other, to Valmont and to Merteuil.
With respect to Muller’s autobiography and its claim that Quartett represents terrorism, there is a relation between the terrorism of the second half of the twentieth century and the ideas expressed in Artaud’s theater of cruelty in its first half. In both, violence is an acceptable means to an end. In both, that end includes the determination to portray anything, even actions that are socially unacceptable. It certainly carries with it a willingness to shock and sometimes pride and even joy in participating in shocking activities. The way in which the play is staged can provide a sense which is not evident in the written text, but which is essential to fully understand Muller’s work and how it was intended to be staged, seen, and experienced.
Finally, we should mention some relationship between Genet and Muller , in the light of Artaud’s influence on them. Occasionally critics have mentioned a connection between Genet and Muller. Citing an interview in Der Spiegel, Carl Weber state that he believes that the play THE TASK, even more, Quartet show his affinity to Genet, about whom he said: “I believe that Genet articulated very precisely and correctly: The only thing a work of art can achieve is to create the desire for a different state of the world. And this desire is revolutionary.” (Muller in an interview for Der Spiegel, qtd. in Weber, “Introduction” to Hamletmaschine 14)
Sieghild Bogumil has also explored the roles that violence plays in the theaters of Muller and Genet in a short article. Both the role of violence and that of death in Genet’s theater nay be seen to be extended in Muller’s theater, though “Genet appears to have read very little Artaud” (Bradby 179), a fact that rules out too complex an interweaving of these themes in the three playwrights. Kalb also finds affinities between Muller and Genet.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre & Its Double. London: Calder, 1993.
Bradby, David, Modern French Drama. 1940-1990. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Case, Sue Ellen. “Developments in Post-Brechtian Political Theater: The Plays of Heiner Muller.” U of California, Berkeley, 1981.
Costich, Julia F. Antonin Artaud. Twayne’s World Authors. Ser. 492. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Klein, Christian. “Quartett.” Heiner Muller Ou l’Idiot de la Republique. Berne: Peter Lang, 1992. 395-429
Kalb, Jonathan. The Theater of Heiner Muller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kalb, Jonathan. “On Hamletmaschine: Muller and the Shadow of Artaud.” New German Critique 25.1 (1998): 47-66.
Muller, Heiner. Theatremachine. Translated and edited by Marc von Henning. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.
Scheer, Edward. “‘Under the Sun of Torture’—A New Aesthetics of Cruelty: Artaud, Wilson and Muller.” Heiner Muller: Contexts and History. Ed. Gerhard Fischer. Tubingen: Stauffenburg, 1995. 201-12.
Weber, Carl, Ed. and Trans. Introd. Hamletmaschine And Other Texts for the Stage. By Heiner Muller. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984.
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