Der Lohndrücker; The Scab

[This page by Michael Wood] 

Der Lohndrücker; The Scab

Completed in 1956/57, Der Lohndrücker; The Scab is Heiner Müller’s first major piece for the stage, and one which he wrote with his then wife, the poet and children’s writer, Inge Müller (1925-66). It is a short ‘Produktionsstück’ (play concerned with production and industry), comprising of nineteen fairly short, and very short scenes, and was premièred in 1958 in the German Democratic Republic at the Städtisches Theater, Leipzig, under the direction of Günter Schwarzlose. Initially, the play proved immensely popular with theatre programmers: within the period 1958-59, it was produced no less than seven times in different theatres across within the GDR. Thereafter, it fell out of fashion in the GDR and was only produced once or twice before Müller’s own monumental production at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, from 1988-91, framed by two more of his texts, Der Horatier; The Horatian, and Wolokolamsker Chaussee IV. Kentauren; Volokolamsk Highway IV. Centaurs. This production was widely acclaimed, and featured in the 1989/90 Berliner Theatertreffen; it is, however, no longer in the repertoire of the Deutsches Theater.

The play is based on the historical case of Hans Garbe, as well as being in dialogue with Brecht’s Büsching and Fatzer fragments. In 1949, in the infancy of the GDR, Garbe rebuilt a factory ring oven under the most adverse conditions, thus saving the factory’s productivity. In doing so, Garbe became a ‘Held der Arbeit’ (a Stakhanovite hero of the workplace), but he also raised the production norm, causing his co-workers’ wages to be reduced in relation to the level of productivity expected from them.

Thus, Müller’s text draws on this historical model: at the beginning of the text, he writes that the story itself is historical, set in the GDR in 1948/49 (although the GDR was only established in 1949), while the characters themselves are fictional. Müller replaces Garbe with Balke, who similarly opts to re-build a ring oven under adverse conditions. Due to a lack of materials, he and his colleague Lerka use bricks which still aren’t dry. The result is that the repair fails, and Lerka is accused of sabotage by the factory director and subsequently dismissed. Yet, the next time Balke rebuilds the ovens, he is successful. While he has saved the factory from falling below its expected production quota, he has upped the production norms, and thus lowered the material conditions of his co-workers. Thus, in a sense, Balke is both a hero and an enemy of the working people for whom this state was built, and to whom it belongs.

Der Lohndrücker; The Scab does not resolve this dialectical opposition, but, following the Brechtian tradition to some degree, Müller leaves us with a fundamental contradiction, embodied by Balke (see also Der Horatier; The Horatian), but he leaves the resolution of this contradiction to the individual audience member. Furthermore, Müller questions the very possibility of building real-existing-socialism in the way it was attempted in the GDR. The characters exist within a climate of high-suspicion of one another, and histories which are now catching up with them. Balke, for example, is a former Nazi, who is suspected of having informed on Schorn for sabotage during the war. Furthermore, the material conditions in which the workers live are not necessarily conducive to socialism, but to the pursuit of individual satisfaction in the face of poverty and low-quality consumer products.

Further Reading in English

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

Bertolt Brecht, Fatzer, trans. and ed. by Tom Kuhn, in Bertolt Brecht, Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop: Fatzer and Other Dramatic Projects, ed. by Tom Kuhn and Charlotte Ryland (London: Methuen Drama, 2019), pp. 69-179

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

Loren Kruger, Post-Imperial Brecht. Politics and Performance, East and South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Michael Wood, ‘“Das Land, in dem das Proletariat [nur] genannt werden darf.” The Language of Participation in Heiner Müller’s Der Lohndrücker’, Modern Language Review 109:1 (2014), 160-77 

Further Reading in German

Bertolt Brecht, Der Untergang des Egoisten Johann Fatzer (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1994)

Genia Schulz, Heiner Müller (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1980)