Hamletmachine

[Hamletmaschine]

By Heiner Müller

English version premiered on May 7, 1986 at New York University, New York, New York

German version premiered on October 4, 1986 at the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

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).  Furthermore, texts by Müller were used in Wilson’s Medea (1984), Alcestis (1986), and Ocean Flight (1998).  When Müller failed to write a new text for a Wilson play in 1987, he wrote a long letter declining the collaboration, reaching Wilson in the last week of rehearsals for “Death, Destruction and Detroit II” at Berlin’s Schaubühne–the letter itself became part of DD+D II.  That same year, Wilson directed Müller’s Quartett, first in Germany and later in France.

For Hamletmachine, Wilson first worked with students at New York University, and later–in the original German version–with theater students in Hamburg, produced by the Thalia Theater.  Müller himself called Wilson’s production “the best production ever” of this work, praising it for its lightness and absence of interpretive staging.

The German writer Freilgrath, a close friend to Karl Marx, said: ‘Germany is Hamlet, never quite knowing how to decide and because of that always making wrong decisions.’ When I wrote Hamletmachine, 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, April 30, 1986
By not illustrating the text but instead juxtaposing his very American (under)-world figures, 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, and it does so with considerable clarity and plasticity.
— Henning Rischbieter, Theater heute, October 1986
In his staging of Hamletmachine, Wilson relinquishes any attempt to interpret or even illustrate Müller’s scenography of the ‘frozen storm’ that presses the feminine discourse of the ‘anarchic-natural’ into the wheelchair of passive cultural nihilism. Completely separating the acoustic score of Müller’s text (live amplified and taped voices) from the single visual stage tableau that is choreographically constructed and repeated five times in five different angles, Wilson here lets the text create its own plasticity, an “other” space that is not seen but heard.
— Johannes Birringer, “Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism” (1991)