Heiner Müller

[This page by Michael Wood] 

Heiner Müller (1929-1995)

Heiner Müller is possibly the most significant and important German-language dramatist since Bertolt Brecht.  Born in 1929 in Eppendorf in Saxony, he moved to Berlin in his early adulthood, where he lived until his death on 30 December 1995. Müller spent almost the entirety of his life living in East Berlin, the capital of the Soviet satellite state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In his lifetime, he received ten major German literary prizes, including the Büchner Prize in 1985 and the Kleist Prize in 1990, and was posthumously awarded the Berlin Theatre Prize in 1996. Given his youth under National Socialism (1933-45), Müller characterised his life as one spent under two dictatorships. This is not to say that Müller desired to flee the GDR for the capitalist state of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Far from it: despite his own overtly critical stance towards the real-existing socialism in the East, Müller remained a committed socialist, and lamented the swift demise of socialism and the (for him) complacent self-affirmation of capitalism after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and the ‘unification’ of the two Germanies in 1991. Müller regarded this not so much as a case of unification, rather as an imperialistic annexation on the part of the capitalist West (see his 1993 text ‘Mommsens Block’; ‘Mommsen’s Block’).

Between the period 1956-89, Müller produced a vast number of theatrical texts, beginning with his first major work, Der Lohndrücker; The Scab (1956). While there are some tangible developments in Müller’s style and the issues he addresses in his texts throughout his career, it is often difficult to talk of his works in terms of periods: not only did he assemble individual texts over what was sometimes a course of decades, but he asserted that attempting to place his works into a chronology or ‘periods’ of production was ‘brutal’ and a manifestation of ‘colonialism’. Furthermore, Müller was very active as a director. After receiving a lowly position at the Berliner Ensemble, where he hoped to work intimately with Brecht, he proceeded to direct productions at theatres including the Volksbühne, the Deutsches Theater, and the Berliner Ensemble (all in Berlin), and even directed a production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuther Festspielhaus in 1995 (with musical direction by Daniel Barenboim and costumes by Yojhi Yamamoto). Perhaps one of the most infamous of Müller’s productions is his Hamlet/Maschine of 1990. In this seven and a half hour performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Deutsches Theater, Müller inserted his own text Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamletmachine (1977) as a play within the play. His 1995 production of Brecht’s Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is still in the repertoire of the Berliner Ensemble to this day.

Further to his work as a dramatist, Müller also wrote a number of poems and short prose texts. In the periods of literary production prior to 1956 and after 1989, he mostly composed poetry. In 1992, his autobiography Krieg ohne Schlacht – Leben in zwei Diktatoren; War without Battle – Life in Two Dictatorships was published: rather than writing his autobiography, this was conducted as a set of interviews, which he later edited together. There was great scandal following its publication, as a journalist in the magazine Der Spiegel uncovered that Müller had worked as an informal operative for the East German state security services (Stasi), yet failed to mention it in his autobiography. Müller’s interviews are also worthy of attention: as he progressed throughout his career, his responses in interviews became much more stylised and literary, and may be considered art in themselves. Müller was also a creative and thought-provoking essayist. While mentioning prose and poetry alongside Müller’s plays, however, it is to be noted that these genres are often very difficult to apply to Müller’s texts: a text may appear to be prose or poetry, when it is in fact a performance text. His 1984 text, Bildbeschreibung; Description of a Picture, for example, is ostensibly a piece of prose: it is written as a continuous sentence, punctuated only by semi-colons and commas, adhering to none of the conventions of dramatic texts. Nonetheless, it was written for the stage, and has, accordingly, been performed very often across the globe.

Müller’s experimentation with both textual form and staging devices in the theatre have afforded him the position of perhaps one of the most globally influential playwrights of the past fifty years. His work is in many ways exemplary of what Hans-Thies Lehmann designated in 1999 as postdramatic theatre. Furthermore, his work as a director follows in the tradition of Brecht, while strongly criticising it and departing from it. It is in this sense that he may be understood as a ‘Post-Brechtian’ director in David Barnett’s terminology.

A very complex network of thematic strands are addressed in Müller’s works. Being a socialist, and a citizen of the GDR, Müller was educated in the view of history as a teleological dialectical process (Karl Marx). Yet Müller is critical of this insight, preferring to view history as a set of catastrophes from which progress must fly, but at the same time wait for. History receives a very thorough treatment in his texts, and his ‘Glückloser Engel’ (‘Hapless Angel’) and ‘Engel der Verzweiflung’ (‘Angel of Despair’) follow from, but also criticise Walter Benjamin’s ‘Engel der Geschichte’ (‘Angel of History’) in the latter’s Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen (Theses on the Philosophy of History). Furthermore, Müller criticises Western culture and its imperialist tendencies to annex and silence different voices. He is self-consciously aware of his status as a European intellectual, and criticises this position for the privileges it affords the artist, exacerbating his/her ineffectuality to bring about any change in the world. Müller also considers the status of women and other marginalized voices, which have been forced out of discourse, and, in some of his texts, sees these as holding the promise of revolution. He also overtly criticised GDR ideology in many of his plays, leading to both performance and publication bans, and, in the case of Die Umsiedlerin oder das Leben auf dem Lande; The Resettler, or Country Living (1961), his banishment from the German Writers Union.

Müller’s texts include:

Der Lohndrücker; The Scab (1956)

‘Der Vater’; ‘The Father’ (1958)

Die Korrektur; The Correction (with Inge Müller, 1957/8)

Die Umsiedlerin oder das Leben auf dem Lande; The Resettler, or Country Living (1961)

Philoktet; Philoctetes (1958/64)

Der Horatier; The Horatian (1968)

Mauser (1970)

Germania Tod in Berlin; Germania Death in Berlin (1956/71)

Zement; Cement (1972)

Die Schlacht; The Battle (1951/74)

‘Todesanzeige’; ‘Obituary’ (1975/6)

Leben Gundlings Friedrich von Preußen Lessings Traum Schlaf Schrei; Life of Gundling Frederick of Prussia Lessing’s Dream Sleep Scream (1976)

Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine (1977)

Edition of Bertolt Brecht’s unfinished play, Der Untergang des Egoisten Johann Fatzer; Downfall of the Egoist Johann Fatzer (1978)

Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission (1979)

Quartett; Quartet (1980/1)

Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten; Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts (1982)

Anatomie Titus Fall of Rome Ein Shakespearekommentar; Anatomy of Titus Fall of Rome A Shakespeare Commentary (1984)

Bildbeschreibung; Description of a Picture (1984)

Wolokolamsker Chaussee I-V (1984-8)

‘Mommsens Block’; ‘Mommsen’s Block’ (1993)

‘Ajax zum Beispiel’; ‘Ajax for Example’ (1994)

Germania 3. Gespenster am toten Mann; Germania 3. Ghosts at the Dead Man (1995)

Further Reading in English

David Barnett, Literature versus Theatre. Textual Problems and Theatrical Realization in the Later Plays of Heiner Müller (Bern: Peter Lang, 1998)

David Barnett, ‘“I have to change myself instead of interpreting myself.” Heiner Müller as Post-Brechtian Director’, Contemporary Theatre Review 20:1 (2010), 6-20

David Barnett, ‘Heiner Müller as the End of Brechtian Dramaturgy. Müller on Brecht in Two Lesser-Known Fragments’, Theatre Research International 27:1 (2002), 49-57

David Bathrick, The Powers of Speech: The Politics of Culture in the GDR (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Chapter 5: ‘History against Itself: Heiner Müller’s Theater of Revolution’, pp. 129-50

Sue-Ellen Case, ‘From Bertolt Brecht to Heiner Müller’, Performing Arts Journal 7:1 (1983), 94-102

Gerhard Fischer (ed.), Heiner Müller. ConTEXTS and HISTORY (Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 1995)

Jonathan Kalb, The Theater of Heiner Müller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

New German Critique 73 (1998) and 98 (2006), Special Issues on Heiner Müller

Arlene Akiko Teraoka, The Silence of Entropy or Universal Discourse. The Postmodernist Poetics of Heiner Müller (Bern: Peter Lang, 1985)

Michael Wood, Heiner Müller's Democratic Theater: The Politics of Making the Audience Work (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2017)


Further Reading in German


Jan-Cristoph Hauschild, Heiner Müller oder Das Prinzip Zweifel. Eine Biographie (Berlin: Aufbau, 2003)

Hans-Thies Lehmann and Patrick Primavesi (eds.), Heiner Müller Handbuch. Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2003)

Ian Wallace, Dennis Tate and Gerd Labroise (eds.), Heiner Müller. Probleme und Perspektiven (Amsterdam and Atlanta GA: Rodopi, 2000)


Web Links



Alexander Kluge interviews Heiner Müller (in German with English subtitles)



Heiner Müller reads his poems aloud (in German)



International Heiner Müller Society (in German)