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Azdak Heiner Müller (English Version)

By Daniel Mufson
The German version of this article was originally published in Theater Heute, July 2000

 

Brecht’s Kaukasischer Kreidekreis begins and ends with an idea for an ideal future: “daß da gehören soll, was da ist, denen, die für es gut sind.” In his adaptation of the same play, Charles L. Mee updates Brecht’s utopian sentiment to reflect a world where anything belongs to anyone who has the money to buy it. In Mee’s Full Circle, Brecht’s Governor becomes Erich Honecker, accompanied by Egon Krenz and Hans Modrow. Holding to the traditional storyline, Mee’s Honecker has a baby—Karl Marx Honecker—which, amidst the turmoil of the Wende, is discarded by its parents, supposedly to be retrieved at a more convenient time. Mee divides Brecht’s Grusha into two characters: a wealthy American, Pamela (loosely based on the former American ambassador to France, Pamela Harriman), and Dulle Griet (the Brueghel figure that supposedly inspired Brecht’s Grusha in the first place). Perhaps the most telling change of all, however, is that the character of Azdak becomes a playwright and director named Heiner Müller.

We are first introduced to Honecker and his entourage as they watch a performance at the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Müller. The play depicts negotiations between two American investment bankers and three Chinese. The latter gradually agree to let the Americans buy their valley and plant it with genetically altered seeds, all in return for a two-and-a-half percent take of the profits. As the play closes, one of the Chinese remarks dryly: “Thank God. We used to think that Communism would solve all of our problems. Now we see that Capitalism will solve all our problems.”

As incensed as he is confused by what he’s seen, Honecker demands to see Heiner Müller and hear his explanation of the play. Müller emerges with his trademark tinted glasses and black shirt, and he proceeds to grovel and squirm at Honecker’s feet, sputtering out a series of contradictory and ridiculous interpretations aimed at assuaging Honecker’s anger. When Müller is saved by a throng of rioting students shouting for Honecker’s arrest, Honecker’s wife hands her baby off to Pamela and Dulle Griet, who flee together with the child towards Dresden. The plot then more or less follows the structure of Brecht’s play, but with certain detours. For example, the archetypal American investor, Warren Buffett, wanders in and out of various scenes, clutching a can of Coke, searching for central bankers and local investment clubs, and providing himself as an object for some of Pamela’s less maternal passions.

It is odd that Full Circle has been staged for audiences that for the most part have absolutely no idea who Erich Honecker or Heiner Müller were, let alone Egon Krenz and Hans Modrow. Indeed, when The Wall Street Journal reviewed the play, it described Müller simply as “a Stasi informer and the last communist artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble.” Undaunted by the possible culture gap, Mee knowingly manipulates German cultural figures and history in a fashion inspired by Brecht and Müller themselves. Early in the play, Müller asks Honecker if his baby will succeed him. “This is not the way we do things,” Modrow interjects, “handing down titles like aristocracy.” Müller replies, “Of course, of course, you know, one does historical plays, one forgets how things are.” The line is double-edged, at once a jab at Müller’s works but also at Mee’s, whose own works have been anthologized in a book entitled, History Plays. Mee, too, works a great deal with found materials, and, although he cites Max Ernst’s Fatagaga pieces as his main inspiration, some of his earlier writings clearly reflect Müller’s influence. This makes it all the more remarkable that Full Circle paints a rather ruthless portrait of Müller as an amoral survivor who could be counted on to be “brave seeming”, “the voice of conscience that knows just how far to go but not too far.” On the one hand, Mee has certainly given Müller the most remarkable speeches and written a rich part for actor Will Lebow to play; on the other hand, he seems to have a surprisingly visceral disdain for Müller, who spends most of the play in a shirt covered with vomit, prostrating himself on the floor.

Mee, who has previously written brutal—and superior—adaptations of Orestes and The Trojan Women, as well as The Investigation of the Murder in El Salvador, isn’t known for his rollicking humor. A curious wryness, however, leavens Full Circle. The character, Pamela, provides a veneer of genteel humor, but beneath the droll depiction of this wealthy eccentric traipsing through social upheaval, it is not terribly difficult to locate the bitterness and anger underlying Mee’s vision. Every nationality, class, and ideology is ruthlessly caricatured. No one seems to have any integrity except perhaps Dulle Griet, but even she warns of a “badness welling up” in her that makes her afraid of what she could do “if something turned me loose.” Capitalism has triumphed over Communism, but in Mee’s play this is nothing more than the triumph of one form of social obtuseness over another. Dulle Griet in the end loses custody to Pamela, now betrothed to Warren Buffett, who can provide young Karl Marx Honecker with “a home and a bank account,” but Pamela graciously hires Dulle Griet to work as her au pair, taking care of the child whenever Pamela needs to fly to Paris. Finally, Müller and Dulle Griet marry; under Robert Woodruff’s direction, this final gesture closes the show to the tune of “Sweet Embraceable You,” but Mee’s script calls for the actors to sing the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” in German—a final sardonic gesture that would have been more in keeping with the rest of the play.

 Woodruff elicits fine performances from his cast and, in general, successfully negotiates the script’s balance between farce and social commentary. But, just as Mee’s text sometimes lapses into a strange fusion of obscurity and heavy-handedness, so does Woodruff’s direction. The lapses can be severe enough to undermine enjoyment of the production’s merits.  At one point, Woodruff places an Ossi on stage, greedily hoarding bananas. There are only two possible reactions to this: either that of the average American , who has no idea of the significance of bananas, or that of the person who understands the “joke” but finds it neither original, nor clever, nor funny. Alas, the only way to defend such offenses  would be to point out that they are not significantly less nuanced than any number of European depictions of America….

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