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Muller's Cement: Fragments of Heroic Myth MAX HARRIS That "Heiner Muller is the most important dramatist in the German language since the war" is, according to the German critic F.J. Raddalz, "[a] fact. .. not disputed among serious critics of literature."l But it is a fact little known in North America. Cement, one of the few of MulIer'S plays that has been both translated and performed on this side of the Atlantic2 , serves as an excellent introduction to his work. Premiered by the Berliner Ensemble in 1973, it is now recognised both as a major text in Muller's corpus and as a significant point of transition between his earlier work, owing much to Brecht and to the themes of socialist realism, and his later, more idiosyncratic and sceptiCal "synthetic fragments". Muller's play adapts a classic of Soviet socialist realism, Fyodor Gladkov's novel Cement (1925), so as to reveal the playwright's growing distrust of political rhetoric. Set in 1921, the novel celebrates the struggles of the proletariat to rebuild Russia after the civil war, under the terms ofLenin's New Economic Policy. Gladkov's hero is Gleb Chumalov, a veteran ofthe civil war. Returning home after three years at the front, he is stunned both by the dilapidation of the local cement factory and by his wife Dasha's cool independence. In the one case, he triumphs over bureaucratic morass and Cossack sabotage to reopen the factory ("heroism . .. on the industrial front"3), and in the other he triumphs over delusions of male "ownership" to applaud the new Dasha as "a human being, equal to him in strength, ... without her former attachment for home and husband" (p. 290). Gladkov's novel is, in its realism, every bit as harsh as Muller's play. The torture 'of suspected Communists by Cossack soldiers is described by Gladkov in graphic detail. But so is the inefficiency and corruption of the Soviet bureaucracy, the sexual arrogance ofthe Soviet men, the starvation of children in the Soviet Children'S Home and the chilling suppression of all human emotions not directed towards the building of the new Soviet culture. For 430 MAX HARR.IS Gladkov, however, the future redeems the present. His novel ends with Chumalov's speech to the assembled masses at the reopening ofthe factory. "If I am a hero," Chumalov tells the crowd, "then you are all heroes," and with such heroism and united self-sacrifice, the Revolution will spread "all over Europe in no time"; And we'l1 do it, Comrades! It must be! We've staked our blood on it, and with our blood we'U set fITe to the whole world. And now, tempered in fLTe, we're staking everything on our labour. OUf brains and our hands tremble - not from strain but from the desire for new labours. We are building up sociali~m, Comrades, and our proletarian culture. On to victory, Comrades! The crowd erupts, "dancing and leaping there beneath the high platform, on the rocks and mountain slopes, where the banners flashed like wings offire, and the bands rang like thousands of great bells" (pp. 310- 11). It is a vision of the future that brooks no doubt, admits no irony.. It.is precisely this absence of irony that distinguishes Gladkov from Muller, writing fifty years later. Muller's Cement also ends with approved rhetoric. But it is rhetoric that chills rather than fires. In a scene borrowed from earlier in Gladkov's novel, proletariat "heroes" greet a group of Cossacks returning from exile, "beaten, tired" and homesick. The Cossacks expect to be shot. Instead they are taken ashore and told, in the final line of play, "In the name of the working people we call upon you to place your energies at the disposal of the Soviet Republic.,,4 It is an exemplary sentiment, taken almost verbatim from Gladkov's novel (p. 223). But, for Muller, "If you read it as a genesis of the Soviet Union as it exists now, it is quite a cold statement." The four "heroes" who greet the Cossacks "are empty people, emptied out by the Party intrigues and the wrecked machines. Polya is a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 429-438
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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