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  • Brecht ± Müller: German-German Brecht Images before and after 1989
  • Stefan Mahlke (bio) and Ralph Denzer
    Translated by Ulla Neuerburg


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Figure 1.

Hermann Beyer, Corinna Harfouch, and Ulrich Mühe perform in Heiner Müller’s adaptation of Macbeth (1982), directed by Müller and Ginka Tcholakova at the Volksbühne in East Berlin. (Photo by Adelheid Beyer; courtesy of Stefan Mahlke)

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Figure 2.

Lady Macbeth (Corinna Harfouch) and one of three Macbeths (Dieter Montag) in Müller’s Macbeth (1982). (Photo by Adelheid Beyer; courtesy of Stefan Mahlke)

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Figure 3.

In 1996, Einar Schleef directed Brecht’s Puntila and His Servant Matti at the Berliner Ensemble. (Photo by David Baltzer; courtesy of Stefan Mahlke)

In 1982 Heiner Müller and Ginka Tsholakowa directed Müller’s Macbeth at the Volksbühne in East Berlin. In his review of the production Ernst Schumacher wrote: “All in all a realism of a surreal kind. The overall style: ‘Spiritual. Ceremonial. Ritualistic.’—as Brecht aspired to—of course before he turned Marxist.” Schumacher noted the “distinctiveness of the theatrical symbolism,” which only partly succeeded “in creating characters that were not only outwardly remarkable, but also at the same time ‘inwardly’ interesting.” In this highly stylish production, the psychological subtext of the two lead characters, which already is minimal in Müller’s text, gets even more lost. While splitting the character of Macbeth into three allows some of the motivations to emerge more strongly, it destroys the “character image” as a whole. The symbolism obscures the fable rather than revealing it. This way, unfortunately, the principle that in Shakespeare clearly leads toward humanization remains submerged. Schumacher’s criticism culminates in the demand for “guarding the growth in aesthetic innovation, but adding a concrete humanism in its content. Neither following behind Shakespeare, nor falling back behind Brecht—but outgrowing them” (1982:157).

Schumacher’s critique is remarkable. Presented by an acknowledged Brecht expert, it mobilized arguments with Brecht against Müller thereby calling forth the expressions and key words on which Brecht criticism and audience reception were based from the beginning in the postwar era. They were: character, psychology, humanism, artistry, Marxism. Schumacher’s Brecht was the image of an author whose character makeup stayed hidden. Schumacher divided Brecht’s work historically into phases, and then favored the “Marxist.” That way his criticism of Müller turned into a critique of the early pre-Marxist Brecht. Schumacher, the founding father of East German Brecht studies, was here falling back on a paradigm of canonizing Brecht that had prevailed for a long time in the SBZ-GDR [Soviet-Occupied Zone-German Democratic Republic]. It was based on the so-called “theory of phases” widespread in both the East and the West. In a dialectical three-step, the nihilist-vitalist poet of chaos of the first phase (until ca. 1926) turned into the behaviorist or mechanical [End Page 40] materialist of the second phase (1927–1933), who would in his third phase, with his “great dramas” of the exile period, climb to dialectical-materialist heights where Brecht would show “the mature poet in full possession of his artistic means” (Grimm 1972:74). Schumacher himself had supported such a model in his first book, Dramatic Attempts of Bertolt Brecht 19181933 (1955). To use such an analysis in 1982 was anachronistic because it did not comply with Brecht research in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Schumacher formulated “accusations” that Brecht himself had already fought. In an interview from 1984, published only after ‘89, Schumacher talked about Müller’s “blackened” image of the world and humanity, which could have been called “becoming pointedly pessimistic” (Schumacher [1984] 1996:827). During Brecht’s East Berlin period, this was called “misery-theory” [Miseretheorie]. Critics close to the party had accused Brecht of representing German history as a great misery in his productions of Urfaust (1952) and Hofmeister (1950) at the Berliner Ensemble.


“Rather the bad new than the good old” was Brecht’s slogan in the ‘20s. “Well—this age of ours turned out to be a whore...

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