Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”
I throw open the doors, to let in the wind and the cry of the world. – Ophelia
Although not well known to English-speaking audiences, Heiner Müller is considered by many Germans to be a leading dramatist of the twentieth century. Many of his plays rework classical myths in a struggle to make sense of the collision between mythology and ideology in post-war Eastern Europe.
His Hamlet Machine is a postmodern masterpiece and a harrowing portrait of life under totalitarian rule. Much of the complex work consists of dramatic monologs, dense with allusions to Shakespeare’s play and other monuments of European culture and history.
The Hamlet-actor begins in Brechtian mode, aware of his own role in the ensuing drama, announcing: “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLAH BLAH, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” (1) These lines echo the Fisher King of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” who “sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. (2)
Like Eliot, Müller also presents “a heap of broken images,” where mythological symbols flail like broken engines, gesturing wildly toward inhuman meanings.
In Shakespeare’s play, it will be recalled, the hero’s father fell victim to murder at his uncle’s hands, abetted by Hamlet’s complicit mother. Hamlet Machine describes the funeral thus: “The bells tolled the state-funeral, murderer and widow a couple, the councilors goose-stepping behind the highranking carcass’ coffin, bawling with badly paid grief”. (3)
Müller’s inspiration for Hamlet’s father was Traitscho Kostoff, a Bulgarian communist who was executed in a Stalinist purge. (4) Contemporary audiences may sooner think of the bizarre state funeral of Kim Jong-Il, but the subject of the allusion does not matter. While different actors play the parts, arriving on cue for their prescribed roles, the historical drama does not change. Hamlet reflects:
The set is a monument. It presents a man who made history, enlarged a hundred times. The petrification of a hope. The name is interchangeable, the hope has not been fulfilled. The monument is toppled into dust. (5)
Historical action is fixed by a small number of possibilities, pre-determined by unpersuasive narratives that bind action to violence and oppression. Even the utopian visions they nominally serve have lost the power to persuade or animate. One thinks of the playacting technocrats of Müller’s East Germany, tunelessly singing Marxist-Leninist songs.
As the play proceeds, the Hamlet-actor attempts to reject the role to which he has been consigned, refusing to go along with this murder-drama. The dramatic action breaks down, and a political demonstration explodes onto the stage, suggesting the 1967-8 student protests in Berlin.
The Hamlet-actor is swept up in the angry mob and pushed to the police lines, where, in one arresting image, he confronts his own reflection in bullet-proof glass, and sees himself facing himself from the opposite side of the line.
He responds with rage to his own complicity in totalitarianism:
I look through the double doors of bullet-proof glass at the crowd pressing forward and smell the sweat of my fear. Choking with nausea, I shake my fist at myself who stands behind the bullet-proof glass. Shaking with fear and contempt, I see myself in the crowd pressing forward, foaming at the mouth, shaking my fist at myself. (6)
He then goes home to watch television, “at one / with my undivided self.” (7) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inaction is a fatal flaw, but when all courses lead to murder, and the character is forced to choose between several dreadful alternatives. Inaction and action both mean self-betrayal, and purity is found only in death, or, in its political equivalent, television.
“I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep.”
Ophelia chooses suicide instead of murder. Like Nietzsche’s ascetic, her violence turns inward, sublimating her will to power. Her character represents a type for Müller, a woman whose inflexible moral code renders her capable of anything.
She is the “woman dangling from a rope,” suggesting the far-left RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, whose strident critique of hegemonic capitalism ignited a series of bank robberies and murders. (8) Eventually she was captured, and hung herself in her cell.
Müller’s Ophelia would also choose death as a way of dismembering the mechanisms of oppression:
I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home. I fling open the doors so the wind gets in and the screams of the world. I smash the window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photos of the men I loved and who used me on the bed on the table on the chair on the ground. I set fire to my prison. (9)
Compare to Meinhof’s approving citation of Fritz Teufel’s statement that “It is still better to set fire to a department store than to run one,” written after her group set fire to a Frankfurt department store in 1968 “to protest against the apathy of society in the face of the murders in Vietnam.” (10)
Born in Eppendorf in 1929, Müller spent his childhood under the shadow of the Nazi regime. In “The Father,” an early autobiographical prose-poem, he describes being woken from sleep when he was three years old:
In 1933, January 31 at 4 a. m., my father, a functionary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was arrested from his bed. I woke up, the sky outside the window black, noise of voices and footsteps. In the next room, books were thrown to the floor. I heard my father’s voice, higher than the other voices. I climbed out of bed and went to the door. Through a crack I saw how a man was hitting my father in the face. (11)
Two officers of the Nazi SA, the predecessor to the notorious SS, took his father to a concentration camp, where he was held for over a year for his socialist activities. Müller was shunned as the son of a criminal, and other boys in his village were not allowed to play with him.
After he visited the camp with his mother, he was haunted by the image of his father diminished behind the wire mesh fence, and later, by memories of walking for hours in bitter cold to meet his father upon his release.
I wish my father were a shark
Who tore to pieces forty whalers
(And in their blood I had learned to swim)…. (12)
In these early memories, we find the germ of his later political views. Müller would remain a socialist for the rest of his life, though he appears to have been deeply demoralized by Stalin’s tyrannical abuses. He was tolerated as a high-profile artist of the GDR, but was also a fierce critic of his country. Hamlet Machine was banned in East Germany until its final days. (13)
Perhaps in these early memories, we also find the seeds of his feverish, fragmentary style. Hamlet Machine resembles the disjointed impressions of a child-dreamer, woken from sleep by disturbing events for which he has no context or compass.
Perhaps Müller seeks to bring his audience to that moment of his childhood, to share with them his epiphany of chaos. It may be the only truth of which he was certain.
“One can make many things of Hamlet Machine,” Müller said. “First of all, its unperformability certainly stands for stagnation.” (14) Indeed, the play is notoriously difficult to stage. The playwright Tony Kushner notes:
Certainly the most immediately striking fact of Müller’s dramaturgy, of all of his dramatic texts, is that they were written intentionally to resist production, to make of their production an act of appropriation. When one first encounters Müller’s plays one worries how they ‘should’ be done, one searches in vain for the key to their staging, assuming that the author has hidden such a key in the text or that it may be uncovered through some sort of anthropological investigation. Research, and learning, is required; but ultimately, familiarity with the plays’ referents and antecedents will not reveal how they are to be staged. Eventually any theater artists intent on doing Müller’s works will find themselves faced with a heady and alarming freedom, for the key to the staging must, to a far greater degree with Müller’s plays than with any other major body of dramatic work, be invented upon the occasion – by the historically informed, politically engaged imaginations of those doing the staging. (15)
This may gives a clue to the title of Müller’s play. It is sometimes taken to refer to the author himself, i.e., Hamletmaschine (HM) = Heiner Müller (HM). The author himself “carefully disseminated this interpretation.” (16)
I prefer to think of the play itself as a meaning-making machine. It runs on interpreters, directors, actors, readers, and an audience; all are free to move among its fragments, and to create something for themselves.
This essay originally appeared on the Modern Mythology blog here.
1) Müller H. ed. Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and other texts for stage. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p. 53
2) Eliot T. S. “The Waste Land,” lines 423-5, from The Complete Poems and Plays; 1909-1950. Harcourt, Brace, & World. 1971. p. 50.
3) Müller, 1984. p. 53
4) Müller H. Krieg Ohne Schlacht; Leben in zwei Diktaturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch. 1994. p. 292
5) Müller, 1984. p. 56
6) Müller, 1984. p. 56
7) Müller, 1984. p. 56
8) Müller, 1994. p. 294
9) Müller, 1984. p. 54-5
10) Meinhof U. “Setting Fire to Department Stores.” from Everybody Talks About The Weather … We Don’t; The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. ed. Karin Bauer. Seven Stories Press. 2008. p. 248
11) Müller H. A Heiner Müller Reader. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. p. 14
12) Müller, 2001. p. 15
13) Müller, 1994. p. 296
14) Müller, 1994. p. 295
15) Kushner, T. “Foreward,” from Müller, 2001. p. xvi
16) Müller, 1984. p. 51