Obituary: Heiner Muller

Heiner Muller was the greatest modern German dramatist since Brecht. His influence on the German and continental theatre scene was immense, and in Europe (outside England) he was one of the most performed contemporary playwrights. His language has great range, from a tough, lucid prose to muscular blank verse. A poet as well as a playwright, he ranks not just with Brecht, but with Goethe.

His challenging and often controversial plays were close to the pulse of history and contemporary politics. His political honesty brought him enemies as well as friends. A citizen of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), he encountered difficulties throughout his career, and faced official persecution bravely. Yet he refused to move to the West when that would have been possible. To the end he believed in the possibility of an alterable and better world, and refused to countenance the death of utopias despite the demolition of East European socialism.

As a German writer he is in danger of being seen as merely intellectual, but his plays have produced visually exciting theatre of great physicality - often their sheer sexual energy strike one as much as their politics. If he is influenced by Brecht, he is too by Antonin Artaud, the French visionary of the "Theatre of Cruelty".

His ascetic face belied a love of the earthy, good things of life, in particular whisky and the eternal cigar (a German television portrait of him was aptly entitled "Apocalypse with Cigar"). He could be abrasive, but only out of his total sense of honesty (and his love of debate), and he was always soft-spoken. "The truth, softly but unbearably," he often quoted. He was a loyal friend, and I enjoyed the jousts of argument.

Muller was born in Saxony in 1929. After the Second World War he quickly proved one of the most talented theatre writers in the new GDR. Initially very much a Brecht pupil, his early plays, like Die Korrektur ("The Correction") and Der Lohndrucker ("The Wage Dumper", performed at the Berliner Ensemble), are in the social realist mode, and use elements of Brecht's dramaturgy. Muller deals with the reality of building socialism in East Germany and, though he was supportive of the socialist idea, his criticisms brought him into conflict with the authorities. He ultimately rejected attempts to censor the plays and force him to rewrite: the result was a complete stop on productions and, in 1961, exclusion from the GDR's Writers' Union.

Only with the success, ironically in the West, of the Munich production of his Philoctetes (1968) did things begin to improve. This free version of Sophocles, both a tough anti-war piece and a fascinating analysis of the politics of power, led Ruth Berghaus, then director of the Berliner Ensemble (now the famous opera director), to intervene with the GDR authorities. After much discussion the Ensemble was finally permitted to produce Muller's epic play Zement ("Cement", 1973). Written in blank verse, this dealt on a Shakespearean scale with the problems facing the early Russian revolution: economics and questions of power and morality side by side with sexual politics.

The success of Zement led to increasing opportunities, especially in West Germany. Germania Tod in Berlin ("Germania Death in Berlin") and Schlaf Traum Schrei ("Sleep Dream Scream"), both dealing with recent German history, followed, as well as the first of many Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth. Shakespeare, to Muller, was the great paragon; he obsessed him all his career.

In these works of the Seventies Muller started to hone his technique of "collage", of an almost deliberately fragmentary approach to writing. This can be seen to effect in Der Auftrag ("The Task", 1981), one of his masterpieces, which combined elements of the French Revolution and the slave uprisings in the Caribbean with dreamlike sequences of contemporary third world problems. Quartett ("Quartet", 1982) continued in this vein: this is Muller's two-handed version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, earlier and more powerful than Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the same material, which in the rest of Europe met with little success, as theatres preferred Muller's more visionary and experimental approach.

Der Auftrag also became the first of his plays Muller himself was allowed to direct in the West, in Bochum in 1982; thereafter he produced many paradigmatic productions of his own work. From 1985 onwards he wrote a series of connected texts which took their overall title, Wolokolamsker Chaussee ("Volokolamsk Road"), from the westward road from Moscow, where Hitler's troops were finally halted within sight of the Russian capital.

Europe's and Germany's recent history, from the rise of Fascism to the East/West conflict, had been Muller's inspiration. His work is central to any understanding of the events of 1989, but the fall of the Wall ironically also robbed him, for a time, of the basis for his dramatic writing. Instead he turned to essays and interviews, which are among the most lucid comments on the collapse of the GDR and German unification, which, like his Western colleague Gunter Grass, he viewed with scepticism.

From 1990 to 1992 he was President of the Academy of Art in Berlin. He published his autobiography Krieg ohne Schlacht ("War Without Battle", 1992) and turned to directing: Berlin saw his amazing eight-hour version and amalgamation of Shakespeare's Hamlet and his own collage-like Die HamletMaschine ("The Hamlet Machine") in 1991. He was the Bayreuth Festival's unusual choice to direct Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1993), a cult success. Most recently he had another huge success with a production of Brecht's Arturo Ui at the Berliner Ensemble, whose sole director he had become.

Muller's achievements were recognised with many awards, including Germany's highest literary award, the Buchner Prize, very apt as he shared many qualities with the author of Woyzeck and Danton's Death.

Apart from George Tabori, no other German playwright has had greater impact on recent theatre; to their shame neither the RSC nor National Theatre in England have put on any plays by him, the RSC rather giving a platform to Botho Strauss, a far lesser figure. But there have been powerful productions on the London Fringe, and in 1992 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.

Muller's last two years were marked by illness, though he continued to work. After six years of silence he had almost completed a new play, about Stalin and Hitler, those two figures who loom so darkly over our century, which he had hoped to direct himself in the New Year - but in the last few months his cancer struck again.

Muller had always confronted death with courage, in his life as in his work, as he thought it a central theme no one could avoid who wants to write with truth about our times - especially a German writer, aware of the pain and death the Germans have brought all over the world. "All art, including mine, is a remembrance of the dead," he once said.

Heiner Muller, playwright, director and poet: born Eppendorf, Saxony 9 January 1929; married; died Berlin 30 December 1995.

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