PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.1 (2005) 117-124
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Heiner Müller's Lysistrata Experiment
Among the manuscripts left at Heiner Müller's death, a fragment was discovered, several handwritten pages that most probably were jotted down in 1970, according to Frank Hoernigk, the editor of Müller's collected works published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main. The text first appeared in the January 2001 issue of the Berlin theatre magazine, Theater der Zeit, under the title Lysistrate 70, and the same year in volume 4 of the Suhrkamp edition.
Müller evidently had probed the value of Aristophanes'comedy Lysistrata for an adaptation to the contemporary historical environment, i.e., the East German society of the former GDR during the early 1970s. Aristophanes' utopian fable, proposing an agreement between women from Athens and Sparta in which they decide to refuse all sexual intercourse with their men until those men agree to end the Peloponnesian War, must have offered an intriguing model to Müller who just had written a farce that celebrated the emancipation of women in the GDR workplace, Women's Comedy (1969). The intended adaptation seems to have been focused on a general strike by women against the dominant patriarchal family system, i.e., the women's refusal to be enslaved by men in every respect, sexually and otherwise. Instead they would turn the tables and dominate their male oppressors.
The project, if completed, would have continued two trends that were conspicuous in Müller's previous writings. One of them is the adaptation of texts from the canon of classic Greek drama and its constitutive mythology. Of these efforts, the adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrant, had its premiere at East Berlin's Deutsches Theater, in 1967. The next year another Sophocles adaptation, Philoctetes (written 1959-68) opened at the Munich Residenz Theater in what then was West Germany; the play went on to become one of Müller's most popular and frequently performed texts. In 1969, his adaptation of Aeschylus' Prometheus had its premiere at Switzerland's Zürich Schauspielhaus. He later also completed a version of The Persians by Aeschylus (1990) though, to my knowledge, there is no record of a production. Previously, 1964-66, he had written Heracles 5, a farcical retelling of Heracles' fifth labor that satirized the idolatry and manipulation of "heroes" who are perceived as social role models, a phenomenon quite dominant in the GDR at the time when "model workers" were the subject of extensive press coverage; the play [End Page 117] didn't receive a staging until 1974, and that in West Berlin. Müller went on to insert interludes he based on the myths of Heracles and Prometheus in his dramatization of Fyodor Gladkov's Soviet novel, Cement, staged at the Berliner Ensemble, in 1973. Not much later he adapted the myth of Medea, in two very different versions: Medeaplay (1974) and Medeamaterial (a text not fully completed until 1982). During the 1990s, he wrote the epic poem Heracles 13, based on Euripides' drama,, and finally reflected in another long poem, Ajax for Instance, on the impossibility to write any longer a tragedy at a time when global capitalism had emerged as the triumphant victor of the Cold War. It would be interesting to speculate why Müller considered in that particular historical moment the Greek hero, and his suicide during the Trojan War, as a potential metaphor for a tragic treatment of contemporary history.
Throughout his life, Müller conducted what might be called a creative dialogue with the mythology and the theatre of ancient Greece. Athenian drama, in its dialectic interaction with history, formulated the great paradigmatic narratives of the individual's conflict with an often hostile body politic. These were fables Müller found useful in his attempts to negotiate comparable, if vastly different, conflicts of his own time. As he once put it: "the return of the Same as an Other." Beyond that, Greek drama and epic literature offered rigorous models of a poetic language, which...