HAMLETMACHINE: Entangled with the Icon that it Intends to Deface.
by Susana Cook
With Hamletmachine, Heiner Muller adds his signature to the classic drama of Hamlet, establishing himself as a champion avant-garde playwright in the Western world. Hamletmachine is considered by many to be the anti-Hamlet, a magnificent exponent of post-Shakespearean counter-drama, even postdramatic, anti-play, post-text and/or post-actor genre. If the intention of the author was to break away from any or all those traditions, then his efforts don’t seem to succeed in escaping or destroying the categories that they intend to subvert. Every line of the play makes us sink deeper into the roots of this particular drama and into cultural icons that link us, as the audience/reader, to the specific culture and narrative that we are supposed to break away from.
Heiner Muller has been associated with Antonin Artaud in his efforts to create a theater that would shake and subvert the status quo. Muller likes to think of himself as a “poet maudit.” Artaud is a sweeping force, a demolishing power, which no experimental avant-garde artist can escape. His ideas and writings about “bourgeois” theater in general and Shakespearean theater in particular opened a path that left a strong mark in the work of every artist who would like to see him/herself as transgressive or innovative. Artaud’s impulses were wild, undomesticated, honest, raw and real. They were coming from the genuine anger and frustration of a human being and artist who had already been rejected by mainstream society. Artaud’s position of constant segregation and suffering gave him the freedom of the one who has nothing to lose. He was an outsider. He was definitely not part of the status quo. His statements didn’t carry any possible or secret compromise with the normative theater forms of his time. Unlike Muller, Artaud was not an established artist with a reputation he had to maintain. During his lifetime Artaud suffered psychosis, poverty, incarceration, rejection, and drug addiction. His demolishing creative force has no intention to save any remains: he proposes a theater that will take us away completely from the status quo and from the stagnation produced by bourgeois theater. “Shakespeare himself is responsible for this aberration and for this decay,” wrote Artaud (1988: 254). He would probably not have been interested in playing with a Shakespearean text, either through adaptation or retelling. Some post-modern artists, though, chose to play with classic plays, and that is seen as an act of subversion and deconstruction (Lehman 2006)—even though the “destruction” of the status quo of the classic forms leaves us sometimes with a renewed version of the old text.
Hamletmachine is the Anti-Hamlet, ergo it cannot exist without Hamlet. If we would give the script of Hamletmachine to a reader who was not familiar with Shakespeare or the references and allusions in the text, then Hamletmachine would probably lose its meaning and importance. It has a meaning that cannot be decoded without knowledge of the previous meaning.
“I’m not Hamlet. I don’t take part anymore. My words have nothing to tell me anymore,” says Hamlet in Hamletmachine (Muller 1984: 56). He has nothing to tell us anymore; still, he is there and talking to us one more time. Hamlet is the machine that we can’t escape from or he is part of the machine that he can’t escape himself. He denies his own existence, while coming back to life. Just as we recycle parts of our culture, to trash them again. We break them into pieces, even if we don’t talk about them. They have nothing else to tell us, but they are still talking to us. The play could be read as a bold and even “disrespectful” act of appropriation. It incorporates elements that are very foreign to the original. Still, in this broken narrative, where the characters try to escape the original story, Hamlet still exists: “My drama doesn’t happen anymore” says Hamlet, as his drama keeps happening (Muller 1984: 56).
Heiner Muller boldly deconstructs Shakespeare’s story, altering the narrative, the timeline, the style, the characters, and even Hamlet’s gender identity, while keeping intact the names of the characters. As long as we hear the original names in the tragedy we are still witnessing the drama of Hamlet. The names resonate in us, recreating the strong images of the drama. We need those images to travel through Muller’s play. Hamletmachine cannot exist without Hamlet. The play assumes an informed reader who will enjoy the traveling away from the original. A common point of departure is necessary.
Hamletmachine could be read as a poetic experiment, but the cultural references thrown in by the author in the text resonate in our mind, bringing us to common places, making us inclined to find in these allusions some kind of added meaning or intention on the part of the author: Doctor Zhivago, Electra, Marx, Lenin and Mao. In a very un-orderly manner some of these names appear related to the Russian Revolution.
“Something is rotten in Denmark,” Hamlet states in the original play by Shakespeare. “SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THIS AGE OF HOPE” (53), says Muller’s Hamlet in Hamletmachine. These lines were written in English in Muller’s original text in German. I imagine that for a spectator listening to the script in German, the sudden switch to English suggests an allusion to Western capitalism and imperialism. This moment also creates a certain complicity with the (East German) audience, by pointing to the Other, which was, at that moment of Hamletmachine’s writing, Western Europe and the United States.
Muller makes Hamlet the victim of thoughts, and thoughts the enemy of images. Muller believes that theater is a laboratory for the social imagination. Nostalgic for a theater of images, he tries to bring forth a visual spectacle: “thoughts suck the blood out of images,” (56) says Hamlet in Muller’s play. Muller is more interested in a visual and poetic display of images onstage than in a theater focusing on text. Still, he is an author, and his plays are analyzed and read with full attention to every word of the text, with a devotion similar to Shakespeare’s studies. In a way Muller’s efforts to kill the script leaves him with a new script. His efforts seem to be like killing the queen but not the idea of the queen.
The play deals with the idea of consecutive lives, questioning the reasons for the drama to come back to life and in what form. Hamlet seems to be commenting on his own return: “A MOTHER’S WOMB IS NOT A ONE-WAY STREET” (54). This idea, of returning to the womb to be born again, makes this Hamlet a new creation of the same mother (with a different father). In that way Hamlet(machine) is almost the same Hamlet, in a new life. In this new life, Muller’s Hamlet wants to come back in a different form. “I want to be a woman,” says Hamlet as he dresses in Ophelia’s clothes.
The post-modern narrative of Hamletmachine—with its characteristic traits of collage, pastiche, bricolage, irony, and intertextuality—seems to break away from the canonical aspects of Hamlet. Yet the power structures of the classic plays remain intact in this new version. Ultimately, I contend that Muller’s play does not shatter canonical boundaries because too many elements of the original remain intact; even though the characters may rebellious and defiant, they are still part of social structures like royalty and the upper class.
Hamletmachine marked a breakthrough in Muller’s career but it is also seen as a breakthrough in written drama. If we wanted to frame this art piece to make it stand on its own, we would have to cut the tentacles that connect it and entangle it with the canonical icon that is trying to deface.
Hamletmachine is the Anti-Hamlet, the counter-Shakespeare. What new form is Muller creating with Hamletmachine? As Hans-Thies Lehman observes: “Provocation alone does not make a form; even provocative, negating art has to create something new under its own steam. Through this alone, and not through the negation of classical norms, can it obtain its own identity” (2006: 28). Postdramatic Theater.
Hamletmachine reflects the paradox of contemporary theater. Muller printed his own initials (on Shakespeare’s play). He wrote Hamletmachine, his own creation (based on Hamlet). He is offering us a recycled piece of culture (that stands on its own). In a culture obsessed with classics, Muller’s retake of a classic becomes a classic. How far can you travel away from Hamlet and still recognize it as Hamlet? Can you make Hamlet more crazy, a woman wanna-be, a non-Hamlet (“I am not Hamlet”), and still have it be Hamlet?
At the end of Hamletmachine, Ophelia, speaking as Electra “in the heart of darkness” (58) seems to reject this new birth and every birth. Looking at it “Under the sun of torture. In the name of the victims” (58) She finds it useless and renounces to give birth to it : “I eject all the sperm I have received…I bury it in my womb.”
Whether that is the intention of the author or not, the play seems to show us that there’s no escape, only new perspectives.
Artaud, Antonin, and Susan Sontag. Selected Writings. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1988.
Kalb, Jonathan. The Theater of Heiner Muller. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001.
Lehman, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theater. Trans. Karen Jurs-Munby. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Müller, Heiner, and Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage. 1st ed. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984.