Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine

[This page by Michael Wood]

Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine

By far Heiner Müller’s most well-known play, Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine has been immensely influential amongst theatre practitioners the world over, and can perhaps be considered an exemplary so-called ‘postdramatic’ theatre text. Müller finished writing the text whilst in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1977, after having been working on it for some time. It arose from a translation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601) which he was working on, and it is based on this same play. Its world première took place at the Théâtre Gérard Philipe Saint-Denis, directed by Jean Jourdheuil in 1979. It premièred in German at the Städtische Bühnen, Essen, in 1979, directed by Carsten Bodinus. Müller directed his own production of Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine in Gießen in 1985, but stated that he preferred Robert Wilson’s student production of the play at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York, in 1986. In the German Democratic Republic itself, Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine remained unperformed until it featured as the play within the play in Müller’s own eight-hour production, Hamlet/Maschine, at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, which ran from 1990 to 1993 (then in a reunified Germany). It is one of Müller’s most-performed plays, second only to Quartett; Quartet.

Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine is notorious for its complexity: most of the play lacks any character attribution, and when there is any, it may be instantly questioned or undermined. For example, one attribution is ‘Ophelia [Chor/Hamlet]’, after which the speaker(s) asserts that they are Ophelia; furthermore, when Ophelia is given as the character in the final scene, her words are ‘Here speaks Electra’ (‘Hier spricht Elektra’), and the very opening of the play questions the very possibility of subjectivity: ‘I was Hamlet’. The text of Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine is very short, and it contains seemingly unstageable stage directions, along with huge amounts of citations from Shakespeare, E.E. Cummings, Hölderlin, the Manson family, the Red Army Faction, and other works by Müller himself. The images described in the scene directions, and in the action of the spoken text are immensely dense, and therefore can be read and analysed in a seemingly endless variety of ways. Due to this, it is no surprise that two productions of Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine may bear no resemblance to one another whatsoever.

The play appears to have a cyclical structure, beginning and ending with a voice emerging from a scene of massive destruction. It consists of five scenes of varying length. The first scene, ‘FAMILY ALBUM’ (‘FAMILIENALBUM’) figures as an acceleration of the action of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘Hamlet’ stands before the ruins of Europe, and shares out the pieces of his father’s corpse amongst those gathered, before raping his mother. The second scene, ‘EUROPE OF THE WOMAN’ (‘DAS EUROPA DER FRAU’), consists of a monologue delivered by ‘Ophelia [Chorus/Hamlet]’ beyond suicide. In the third scene, ‘SCHERZO’, Hamlet’s clothes are torn from his body, and Ophelia offers him her heart to eat. He states that he wants to be a woman, and the scene ends with an image of the Madonna with breast cancer, which shines like the sun. The fourth scene, ‘PLAGUE IN BUDA BATTLE FOR GREENLAND’ (‘PEST IN BUDA SCHLACHT UM GRÖNLAND’) begins with ‘Hamlet’ speaking, before he removes his mask to address the audience as the ‘Hamlet-actor’ (‘Hamletdarsteller’). He describes his role in the Hungarian revolution as one of being on both sides, and his disgust at his own status as a privileged person. After a photograph of the author (presumably Müller) is torn up, three naked women, depicting Marx, Lenin, and Mao recite a passage from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right before Hamlet splits their heads apart with a sword. This is followed by an ice age. The final scene, ‘WILDSTRAINING / IN THE FEARSOME ARMAMENTS / MILLENNIA’ (‘WILDHARREND / IN DER FURCHTBAREN RÜSTUNG / JAHRTAUSENDE’) depicts Ophelia, speaking as Electra in a wheelchair at the bottom of the sea, as fish entrails float by her. She delivers a monologue in which she speaks of burying and suffocating the revolution between her legs. She speaks of a situation in which hatred and war are the only solution, while she is bound in bandages by two men in white coats.

As can be seen from the condensed and brief description of the text above, Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine is immensely dense and contains a plenitude of visual and aural material, which can contribute to readings which situate the play within various different discourses. The text is usually read as a critique of theatre, or of the ineffectual nature of revolutionary activity. It may even seem to be announcing a pessimistic view of history, although this is a difficult reading to accept: not only did Müller reject being described as a pessimist regarding history, but the text may present a realm of possibility. Die Hamletmaschine; The Hamlet Machine is read by many as a critique of the inability of the European intellectual (such as Müller himself) to make any real change in the cycle of violence and revolution in which he finds himself: ‘he’, because, for some scholars, Hamlet (the archetypal incapacitated philosopher for the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Schmitt) is contrasted with the female element of Ophelia, who promises the potential for revolution, and an escape from the destructive, rational course of history, promised by Marxist dialectics. Ultimately, however, the text defies the very process of finding stable ways of deciphering many of the signifiers within it, and thus refuses to be tied down by a single, totalising meaning.

Further Reading in English

David Barnett, ‘Some Notes on the Difficulties of Operating Heiner Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine’, German Life and Letters 48:1 (1995), 75-85

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

David Barnett, ‘Resisting the Revolution: Heiner Müller’s Hamlet/Machine at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, March 1990’, Theatre Research International 31:2 (2006), 188-200

Joseph M. Dudley, ‘Being and Non-Being. The Other and Heterotopia in Hamletmaschine’, Modern Drama 35:4 (1992), 562-70

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

Douglas Nash, 'The Commodification of Opposition: Notes on the Postmodern Images on Heiner Müller’s Hamletmaschine’, Monatshefte 81:3 (1989), 298-311

Georgina Paul, ‘Multiple Refractions, or Winning Movement out of Myth: Barbara Köhler’s Poem Cycle “Elektra. Spiegelungen”', German Life and Letters 57:1 (2004), 21-32

Georgina Paul, Perspectives on Gender in Post-1945 German Literature (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009)

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

Barnard Turner, ‘Müller and Postmodernist Classicism: “Construction” and “Theatre”’, in Gerhard Fischer (ed.), Heiner Müller. ConTEXTS and HISTORY (Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 1995), pp. 189-200

Carl Weber, ‘Heiner Müller: The Despair and the Hope’, Performing Arts Journal 5:12 (1980), 135-40

Nicholas Zurbrugg, ‘Post-Modernism and the Multimedia Sensibility: Heiner Müller’s Hamletmaschine and the Art of Robert Wilson’, Modern Drama 31:3 (1988), 439-53

Further Reading in German

Norbert Otto Eke, Heiner Müller. Apokalypse und Utopie (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1989)

Katharina Keim, Theatralität in den späten Dramen Heiner Müllers (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1998)

German DVD

Christoph Rüter, Die Zeit ist aus den Fugen (Frankfurt a.M.: Filmedition Suhrkamp, 2009)

Web Links

Typically, a search on YouTube for ‘Heiner Müller Hamletmaschine’ will bring a tremendous amount of results, but here are two examples.


Excerpt of The Hamletmachine and The Man in the Elevator at BAC, London, March 2007, by Imploding Fictions


Extract from an interview with Heiner Müller conducted in 1989.