Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission
[This page by Michael Wood]
Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission
Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission was written in 1979, but the idea for the play was conceived long before. Upon reading Anna Seghers’s 1961 novella, Das Licht auf dem Galgen; The Light on the Gallows, Müller penned a short poem, entitled ‘Motive bei A.S.’; ‘Motifs in A.S.’, which to some extent presents a more condensed form of the play which is to later come about. Müller’s play, like Seghers’s story, recounts the experiences of three French revolutionaries, sent to Jamaica in order to spark a revolt against the British crown. Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission is subtitled Erinnerung an eine Revolution (Memory of a Revolution), as, much like Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstück, Die Maßnahme (1930-31), it is almost entirely presented in the past tense, as a memory of unsuccessful revolutionary activity: both plays begin with a form of prologue, which recounts the skeleton of the failed revolution, before it is performed as a glimpse into the past.
As his directorial debut, Heiner Müller directed the première of Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission at the Volksbühne, East Berlin (i.e. in the former German Democratic Republic) in November 1980 with his then wife, Bulgarian born Ginka Tscholakowa (a theatre director in her own right). The play has proved immensely popular with theatre audiences across the world. It was repeatedly produced in both the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany, and throughout Europe, and has been performed in countries such as Israel, Brasil, Chile, and Australia. In 1991, the Australian-Aboriginal writer and activist, Mudrooroo teamed up with Prof. Gerhard Fischer of the University of New South Wales, Sydney, to produce an adaptation of Müller’s play: The Aboriginal Protestors Confront the Declaration of the Australian Republic on 26 January 2001 with the Production of The Commission by Heiner Müller.
The play retells the activities of three revolutionaries sent from Jacobin France to Jamaica. They are: Debuisson, a bourgeois revolutionary in the mould of the likes of Danton or Robespierre; Galloudec, a French peasant; and Sasportas, a black slave. It opens with a letter from Galloudec in which he tells a figure, Antoine, that the revolution failed as they had been betrayed. The rest of the play tells of this betrayal by Debuisson, who, despite his revolutionary intentions, is completely incapable of leading a slave revolt. This intention for a slave revolt is counterpointed by the switch, within the play and history, from the Republic of the French Revolution to the Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. We learn that both Galloudec and Sasportas have been executed for their part, and that Debuisson has merely disappeared. At the same time, however, there is a strong suggestion that Antoine is indeed Debuisson in disguise. Furthermore, in Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission, Müller inserts his ‘Engel der Verzweiflung’ (‘Angel of Despair’), and the seemingly unrelated monologue, ‘Der Mann im Fahrstuhl’ (‘Man in the Elevator’). These passages, however, contribute to the play as a critique of the European intellectual: the bourgeois, European intellectual is incapable of leading the revolution against oppression. Its counterpoint is, however, suggested in the figure of Sasportas: as a black slave, Sasportas represents the oppressed, non-Euro-(phallo)-centric, third-world elements of the world, and it is in them that the possibility for revolt resides.
Other major dramas about the French Revolution include Grabbe, Napoleon oder die 100 Tage; Napoleon or the 100 Days (1829-30); Büchner, Dantons Tod; Danton's Death (1835); Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Marie Roland (1867); Stanisława Przybyszewska, The Danton Case (1929) and Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade (1964).
David Barnett, Literature versus Theatre. Textual Problems and Theatrical Realization in the Later Plays of Heiner Müller (Berne: Peter Lang, 1998)
Jonathan Kalb, The Theater of Heiner Müller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Gerhard Fischer (ed.), The Mudrooroo/Müller Project. A Theatrical Casebook (Kensington: UNSW Press, 1993)
Brad Prager, ‘The Death Metaphysics of Heiner Müller’s The Task’, New German Critique 73 (1998), 67-80
Elena Stramaglia, ‘“Es gibt keine Universalgeschichte”: Heiner Müller’s Der Auftrag as Critique of Cold War Revolutionary Theory’, Monatshefte 114:2 (2022), 179-99
Arlene Akiko Teraoka, The Silence of Entropy or Universal Discourse. The Postmodernist Poetics of Heiner Müller (Berne: Peter Lang, 1985)
Arlene A. Teraoka, East, West, and Others: The Third World in Postwar German Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996)
Further Reading in German
Ulrike Dedner, Deutsche Widerspiele der Französischen Revolution. Reflexionen des Revolutionsmythos im selbstbezüglichen Spiel von Goethe bis Dürrenmatt (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2003), Chapter 7 on Der Auftrag
The ‘Man in the Elevator’ (‘Der Mann im Fahrstuhl’) scene from Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission at the Castillo Theatre in New York, directed by Gabrielle L. Kurlander, 2010