Making the audience work textual politics and performance strategies for a ‘democratic’ theatre in the works of Heiner Müller
Wood, Michael Alistair Peter
In 1985, the East German playwright Heiner Müller (1929-95) spoke of the importance of a ‘democratic’ theatre: for Müller, the theatre was to be a space in which audience members are free to produce their own interpretations of the material presented on stage. In turn, the audience is encouraged to question the composition of its material reality but is not presented with a solution. Müller explicitly related this practice to his own production of his three texts Der Lohndrücker (1956-57), Der Horatier (1968), and Wolokolamsker Chaussee IV: Kentauren (1986) together at the Deutsches Theater in 1988-91. As this thesis demonstrates, Müller foregrounds instigating audience participation and the means of creating ‘democratic’ theatre from the very beginning of his career. In studying the composition of Müller’s texts, the historical contexts in which they were written, and their premières we gain new perspectives on the ways in which the possibility for political theatre is anchored in Müller’s texts and just how this political theatre aims to engage its contemporary, implied audiences; indeed, this thesis argues that the politics of Müller’s theatre can be best defined as ‘democratic’. In the introduction, I establish how Müller understands the term ‘democratic’ and how his understanding differs from interpretations of democracy contemporary to him; in doing so, I borrow critical vocabulary from the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière. The introduction also elaborates a methodology for studying both implied and real audiences. While each of the prevalent semiological, phenomenological, or materialist theories of audience response has its strengths, in order to pay sufficient attention to the multiple influences upon and aspects of audience interaction, we must take a more holistic approach to audience research. I therefore articulate a new materialist phenomenological approach to audiences, drawing on Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology. In the following chapters, I study Der Lohndrücker, Der Horatier, and Kentauren in their historical contexts and consider how they were both composed with their contemporary audiences in mind and staged in their premières. This approach sheds new light on each text in question: not only do all three texts demonstrate a concern for a lack of democracy in material reality, but each also contains strategies for engaging audience involvement in a piece of ‘democratic’ theatre. My final chapter analyses Müller’s own staging techniques in Der Lohndrücker in 1988, arguing that they enhance the production’s democratic political potential and contribute to our understanding of Müller’s political theatre. While the productions discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 have largely been overlooked by theatre scholarship to date, they provide important insights into the politics of Müller’s texts and the possible limits of writing political theatre texts. This thesis draws on a wide range of both published and unpublished materials, including rehearsal notes, stage manuscripts, audience letters, newspaper reviews, theatre programmes, records of reactions to Müller’s works within the GDR’s statecraft, and Müller’s own notes for writing his texts. Through this wealth of material we not only gain an insight into the ways in which Müller’s texts were written for his audiences but we also recognise the parameters for his audiences’ responses. In offering a fresh perspective on Müller’s works, this thesis demonstrates both a compelling model for audience research and that a synthesis of textual/performance analysis, historical contextualisation, and audience research provides us with a very adept tool for analysing the making of political theatre and the politics of making theatre.