texts by Heiner Müller
conceived and directed by Robert Wilson
co-director Ann-Christin Rommen
with the performers of the
Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica Silvio d’Amico
dramaturgy by Wolfgang Wiens
assistant director Giovanni Firpo
music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
original sound design by Scott Lehrer
collaborator to sound design Thorsten Hoppe
collaborator to light design John Torres
based on the original light design by Robert Wilson
light board operator Camilla Piccioni
collaborator to set design Marie de Testa
stage manager and props master Giuliana Rienzi
costumes Micol Notarianni
based on the original costumes by William Ivey Long
video section produced and directed by Richard Rosenbaum
technical director Mauro Farina
RW personal assistant Owen Laub
production coordinator Virginia Forlani
with Micaela Comasini
new version based on the original production premiered on May 7, 1986
at New York University, New York, New York
project by Change Performing Arts
commissioned by Spoleto Festival of 2Worlds
for Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica Silvio d’Amico
Hamletmaschine, by Heiner Müller, is one of Robert Wilson’s fascinating and provocative works. Conceived after the author’s first trip to the USA in 1977, it was born from Müller and Wilson’s meeting exactly nine years later.
Robert Wilson’s friendship with the East German playwright Heiner Müller was not only legendary but also extremely productive. Müller wrote texts for the Cologne Section of THE CIVIL warS (1984), The Forest (1988), and La Mort de Molière (1994) and some were used in Wilson’s Medea (1984), Alcestis (1986), Ocean Flight (1998).
Müller himself called Wilson’s Hamletmaschine "the best production ever" of this work, praising it for its lightness and absence of interpretive staging. Hailed by Gordon Rogoff as ‘brilliant, triumphant’, it won for Mr. Wilson an Obie Award for Best Director.
The show premiered on May 7th, 1986, starring the actors of the New York University, and on October 4th, 1986 at the Kunsthalle, Hamburg. It has not been staged since then, making therefore a comeback after 31 years thanks to the commissioning of Spoleto Festival dei 2Mondi and the collaboration of the Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica Silvio d’Amico.
"[…]When I wrote Hamletmaschine, after translating Shakespeare’s Hamlet for a theater in East Berlin, it turned out to be my most American play, quoting T.S. Eliot, Andy Warhol, Coca Cola, Ezra Pound and Susan Atkins. It may be read as a pamphlet against the illusion that one can stay innocent in this our world. I am glad that Robert Wilson does my play, his theatre being a world of its own."
— Heiner Müller, 30/04/86
"[…]Wilson enables the spoken word to be heard and understood. The text happens within a sound scape, in which it becomes hard to tell what is live and what is being broadcast over microphone and speaker. Only rarely is the text spoken directly by a single actor without first taking an electronic detour. The text doesn’t manifest itself visually but acoustically, with considerable clarity and plasticity."
— Henning Rischbieter, Theater heute, October 1986
Heiner Müller | Robert Wilson
By Gordon Rogoff
New York University, 1986
Among the brillant series of provocations initiated by Heiner Müller in his HAMLETMACHINE is a moment when an actor slowly and methodically tears Müller’s photograph in half. With Müller, one learns quickly to postpone questions untill the provocations have multiplied. His ground rules are plain enough: he prefers drama to other forms because it enables him to "say one thing and say the contrary", and isn’t suggesting self-destruction; rather he is offering himself stripped to essentials. The torn photograph is like the text itself – stripped, blasted, divided.
Nothing in HAMLETMACHINE can be taken as found, least of all our dramatic expectations or our experience of Shakespeare. But if this were its only innovation, it would be just another version of the fragmentary, non-linear forms that have been disrupting drama since Woyzeck. His recent plays – HAMLETMACHINE goes back to 1977 – are histories with a difference, gathering into their explosive energetic fields a remorseless sense of loss and destruction. He might mix different periods into his text, or pieces from his own biography. Unlike most Americans, however, he is using the stage as public discourse rather than private confession.
Müller’s discourse is embeded in his confrontation with theatrical possibility. Still in East Berliner, but freely travelling in the West, he is calling a plague on all our houses. If theatrical texts can act as public documents, they can do so only as they are willing to deny the truth of history as normally reported. Müller’s plays are such denials, suggesting an exhaustion that can be overcome only by theatrical process itself.
In the absence of coherent ideology and leadership, the playwright addresses us from unexpected, dislocating barricades. "The political task of art today", says Müller, "is precisely the mobilization of imagination". And so he does what little he can do.
Which turns out to be a lot. HAMLETMACHINE is a six-page scenario divided in five parts that stands, like most of Müller’s plays, as an anti-fact waiting for a director whose imagination can be mobilized. Taken literaly, the text appears to be more than Dada scribble: Ophelia’s heart is a clock; Hamlet begins saying "I was Hamlet", but lster says he was Macbeth; the third part is called "Scherzo" and takes place in the University of the dead; the actor is playing Hamlet is not supposed to notice that stagehands are putting a refrigerator and three TV sets on the stage; and in the fourth part, Hamlet splits the head of Marx, Lenin, and Mao with an ax. Even if any of this could be literall embodied, there would be no point. Müller’s ideal mobilizer has to be more cunningly theatrical – more provocative even – than Muller’s wildest dreams.
Who else but Robert Wilson? In Wilson, Muller has found the perfect director for unearthing the form behind scribble, and in Muller, Wilson has at last found the dramatist who can give textual weight to his stunning, impalpable visions. Once seen, nothing could be simpler than Wilson’s ingenious, rational, cubist solution, but it isn’t likely that anyone else could have thought of it.
Müller’s five scenes are preceded by a dumb show in which fourteen actors perform ritual actions in an elongated, yawning rectangle surrounded by a white screen on a left side and black curtains on the back and right sides.
A woman in a swivel chair, her back facing us as she moves, turns and utters a silent scream, the powder from her frazzled hair disappearing in a lighted mist above her head; three women sit at an agled table, further angling their chairs as they smile and finger the table in unison; a man peers over a low-slung corrugated wall against the white screen; a young runner stops in mid-flight, balancing himself suddenly on one leg – and so on with different actions for the remaining eight actors.
Heads turn from left to right and back again; in time these human swivels suggest and overwhelming anxiety, frightened Beckettian doing something – anything – while waiting for the next event. Some of the men drop to the floor, lying there until an impulse brings them back to their positions again. A single clap on a wood-block initiates each major action. (Wilson’s elegant borrowings are usually from himself, though he is quite capable of taking a hint from Japan).
Each action is studiously and precisely etched within Jennifer Tipton’s penetrating, yet ghostly, lighting patterns. Accompanying all of this is a one-finger piano rendition of the song made popular Peggy Lee "is that all there is?".
When the dumb show ends, the actors pull a black curtain over the white screen, moving the furniture into the same configuration, but against the back wall this time, with its curtain pulled to reveal another white screen.
And with this new perspective on exactly same repeated actions, the text actually begins, spoken by several actors as Hamlet and Ophelia.
Müller’s part 2 is then played at another angle in still a third perspective, the right wall a white screen now, while the others are in black. The third part – the Scherzo – is played as a relieving interlude in which the actors congregate behind a screen that bisects the space while a film of their ritual is played with Müller’s word sas subtitles, all accompanied by Jessie Norman’s voluptuous recording of Schubert’s narrative song, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), the story of a dwarf condemning himself to perpetual exile on the sea.
Oddly, the musical elements are the only real interpolations. While completing the play with the last two parts in new perspective – the fourth played against us as if we were the white screen, the fifth returning the entire work full circle to its original position in the dumb show – Wilson is noneless absolutely faithful to Muller’s words and stage directions (the latter heard if not seen), all of them offered in this oblique, non-literal manner so that they must be heard or read even more intensively than they would be in a blind attempt to illustrate directly. When different parts of text appear over actions already seen either silently or with other words, the resonating effects are starting: we never see the three television sets on the stage, but we do see the three women, staring once again into blank space. Wilson’s images are affinities rather that equivalences of Muller’s politically charged landscape. We are free to make our own associations. Muller wants the public to make up its owns mind, Wilson lets the public think.
Almost imperceptibly, the relations are disrupted by momentary changes in their roles: the middle woman at the table, for instance, suddenly sounds like a drawling imitation of Mae West, which is like adding cartoon to caricature; the sounds of scretching birds link not-so-subtly with women screaming later on. Ophelia announces herself in Part 5 as "Electra speaking", bringing back news from "the heart of darkness".
Muller deliberately connects her to Manson’s gang, and in this respect, it may be that Wilson is marely offering a more clearely defined Muller, one who can’t help seeing women as victims frighteing him to death. In a work so otherwise neutral and possessed, these hardened allusions have a chilling, unbalancing effect. Not even the surprising tango, however, played over the runner’s last flight can quite dislodge the production from its essentialy unwhismical foundations.
WILSON AND MULLER AT N.Y.U.
By John Rockwell
New York University, 1986
[…]A meditation on ’’Hamlet’’ and myriad other subjects, from more of Shakespeare’s plays to the Hungarian uprising of 1956 to a kind of feminist vengeance on indecisive masculinity, it tells no story and develops no characters in the ordinary realistic sense. Instead, there is a dreamscape of fragments and hallucinations, reminiscent of Pina Bausch and full of political insight, historical evocation and psychological terror. […]
Both men are so enthusiastic about this production - Mr. Wilson called it ’’one of the best things I’ve done in years’’ […]
What brought this visually oriented Texan and this doom-laden East Berliner together? For Mr. Wilson, it had something to do with his need for a real writer to collaborate on projects that were already rich in visual imagery […]
Mr. Muller […] is still committed to communist ideals of class equality […] For him, America represents an extraordinary expansion of space and possibility[…]
[…] The two men share a mysticism full of apocalyptic imagery as distant from the conventionalities of commercial American theater as from the pieties of Socialist Realism. Filled With Americanisms
’’Hamletmachine,’’ written in 1977 after Mr. Muller’s first American visit, is shot through with Americanisms and even, in the manner of Brecht, American sentences (it is done entirely in English at N.Y.U., of course, in Carl Weber’s translation). The last line of the play - which Mr. Muller says he came across in a copy of Life magazine he found in Sofia, Bulgaria - is by Susan Atkins of the Manson ’’family’’: ’’When she walks through your bedrooms carrying butcher knives you’ll know the truth.’’
It is this final scene that sums up Mr. Muller’s play and Mr. Wilson’s cooly formal yet obsessively terrifying production; as Mr. Muller happily put it, a ’’combination of mathematics and children’s games.’’ The Ophelia, childlike yet calmly matter-of-fact, reiterates with chilling certainty the lines ’’Down with the happiness of submission. Long live hate and contempt, rebellion and death,’’ the air pierced by female screams. A more telling synthesis of German Expressionism and American Minimalism could hardly be imagined.
"[Robert Wilson is] a towering figure in the world of experimental theater and an ex‐ plorer in the uses of time and space on stage." —The New York Times
Born in Waco, Texas, Wilson is among the world’s foremost theater and visual art‐ ists. His works for the stage unconventionally integrate a wide variety of artistic media, including dance, movement, lighting, sculpture, music and text. His images are aesthetically striking and emotionally charged, and his productions have earned the acclaim of audiences and critics worldwide.
After being educated at the University of Texas and Brooklyn’s Pratt Insti‐ tute, Wilson founded the New York‐based performance collective "The Byrd Hoff‐ man School of Byrds" in the mid‐1960s, and developed his first signature works, including Deafman Glance (1970) and A Letter for Queen Victoria (1974‐1975). With Philip Glass he wrote the seminal opera Einstein on the Beach (1976).
Wilson’s artistic collaborators include many writers and musicians such as Heiner Müller, Tom Waits, Susan Sontag, Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Lou Reed and Jessye Norman. He has also left his imprint on masterworks such as Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande, Goethe’s Faust, Homer’s Odyssey, Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Verdi’s La Traviata.
Wilson’s drawings, paintings and sculptures have been presented around the world in hundreds of solo and group showings, and his works are held in pri‐ vate collections and museums throughout the world.
Wilson has been honored with numerous awards for excellence, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination, two Premio Ubu awards, the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale, and an Olivier Award. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the German Academy of the Arts, and holds 8 Honorary Doc‐ torate degrees. France pronounced him Commander of the Order of Arts and Let‐ ters (2003) and Officer of the Legion of Honor (2014); Germany awarded him the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit (2014).
Wilson is the founder and Artistic Director of The Watermill Center, a la‐ boratory for the Arts in Water Mill, New York.
Born in Eppendorf, Saxony, in 1929, Heiner Müller is considered the most important German author after Bertold Brecht. His work has distinguished itself in theatre and poetry, making him a remarkable writer and essayist as well.
Müller’s work, with its fragmented and enigmatic texts, is a remarkable contribution to post modern theatre. The author has treated the subject of a concrete realisation of the self in the new society, underlining the obstacles and the persistent contradictions rising against the individual human being, due to his own responsibility.
Among his works, that have also seen the re wring of Greek and Shakespearian tragedies (Philoktet,1965; Ödipus Tyrann, 1967; Prometheus, 1969; Macbeth, 1972) are Germania Tod in Berlin (1971), Die Schlacht and Traktor (1975), Leben Gundlings. Friedrich von Preussen. Lessings Schlaf Traum Schrei (1976), all strong parodies of middle class ideals. However, it is with the 80s phase that he lands on a new dramaturgic language, with a reduction of the narrative string and the adding of a painful pessimism. Among the texts of this period figure Hamletmachine (1986) and Quartett (1987), both directed on stage by Robert Wilson, with whom he had begun a strong friendship and an intense collaboration before.
Thanks to his activity, Müller was admitted in time to the Academy of The Arts of East Germany (1984) and to the Academy of The Arts of West Berlin (1986). After entering the board of the Berliner Ensemble in 1992, he became Artistic Director in 1995, a short time before his death.