The Void of Utopian Potentials: Heiner Müller's Production of Tristan und Isolde

by Margrit Frölich
The Void of Utopian Potentials: Heiner Müller's Production of Tristan und Isolde
Margrit Frölich
The German Quarterly
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Universittit Leipzig

The Void of Utopian Potentials: Heiner Miiller's Production of Tristan und Isolde

Heiner Miiller's opera debut with the production of Tristan und Isolde at the 82nd Bayreuth Richard Wagner Festival in July of 1993 came as a surprise.l Long be- fore the premiere, the news about Miiller's appointment at one of Germany's world-fa- mous, yet also controversial institutions of high culture2 gave room for speculation about the outcome of the event. How would the East German playwright, known for his uncompromising efforts at excavating the contradictions of German culture and his- tory, approach Wagner's music drama? How would he stage a piece from the nine- teenth-century composer whose musical modernism and-now suspect-monumentalism brought him as much fame and ap- praisal as his notorious anti-Semitism and nationalism di~trust?~

Muller's opera debut was a surprise also for another reason. After all, he was hardly known for having a particularly strong in- terest in opera, let alone a taste for the mu- sic of Wagner (though he does claim that Wagner's dramaturgical ingenuity had al- ways been important to him).4 And did not the Brechtian dimension of his thinking seem to be at odds with any deeper engage- ment with the work of Wagner? Again, was it not Brecht who, in a politically and aes- thetically substantiated verdict against Wagner, had insisted that Wagner's operas should not be performed because of their educational and ideological abuse by the Na~is?~Yet Brecht's postwar stance against Wagner was relativized when in the 1970s several Brecht students, such as Ruth Bergha~s,~

who sought to contextu- alize Wagner within the parameters of dia- lectical enlightenment, showed a renewed interest in Wagner and staged path-break- ing productions of his work.

In his autobiography, Muller describes his relation to opera as having been "dis- turbed" for a long times7 He mentions see- ing a performance of Tristan und Isolde in 1948 that, however, made no lasting im- pression on him. It was primarily through the music of the Brechtian composer Hanns Eisler and through his collaboration on Paul Dessau's modern opera Lancelot in the late sixties, that he discovered the po- tential of music in theater and beyond.8Yet it was not until much later that he devel- oped a more genuine interest in opera.g Nevertheless, the work with Dessau and his modern opera resulted in a short article entitled "Sechs Punkte zur Oper" ["Six Points about Opera"] that appeared in the East German theater journal Theater der Zeit in 1970. In this article, Muller argues for the larger utopian potential of opera in comparison to the theater, and he main- tains the possibility that opera in the GDR might generate an innovative theater prac- tice: "What one cannot yet say, one canper- haps already sing" ["Was man noch nicht sagen kann, kann man vielleicht schon sin- gen"1.l0 This peculiar and surprising pro- grammatic optimism about the innovative aesthetic and social function of opera, which regards opera music as a vehicle for utopias, must be understood against the backdrop of the playwright's repeated dis- illusionment with East German censorship. This includes the scandal surround-

The German Quarterly 72.2 (Spring 1999) 153


ing the premiere of his play about the land reform, Die Umsiedlerin, in 1961, and the critique to which the notorious eleventh Plenum of the Central Committee in 1964 subjected his industrial play, Der Bau. These experiences led Muller to turn to Greek mythology in order to address topi- cal issues of power and politics in his plays. Eventually he abandoned the theme of so- cialist reconstruction altogether and fo- cused on larger questions of German his- tory and civilization, depicting what Joachim Fiebach has aptly described as the collision of human bodies with ideas.ll The increased hermeticism as well as the sur- real and allegorical forms of representation in his plays since the 1970s are a conse- quence of these concrete historical experi- ences as a result of which negation became for Muller the only form of expressing the unbearable impossibility of social innova- tion.12

More than a decade after the publica- tion of his article on opera, in one of his numerous televised conversations with the filmmaker Alexander Kluge that took place shortly after the premiere of his production of Tristan und Isolde, Muller's profoundly pessimistic outlook with regard to thefunc- tion of opera clearly replaced his earlier op- timism. According to his view, opera only confirms a social, political, and aesthetic status quo in which utopian and innovative potentials remain insignificant: "When everything has been said, the voices be- come sweet; then comes opera" ["Wenn alles gesagt ist, werden die Stimmen siilj, dann kommt die Oper"].13This cynical per- ception reverberates Muller's scepticism about the impact of art in the unified Ger- many.

Although even Muller himself initially considered the offer from Bayreuth as "as- tounding and absurd,"14 it compelled him to seize upon the unexpected opportunity. The production of Tristan und Isolde allowed him to work together with a number of virtuosos from different fields: with the internationally renowned conductor and director of the Berlin opera, Daniel Baren- boim, who had conducted the previous Bayreuth production of Tristan und Isolde by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in 1981; with Erich Wonder, Muller's set designer of many years; and, for the first time, with the Japanese haute couture fashion de- signer Yoshi Yamamoto, whose philosophy of clothing, as we know from Wim Wen- ders's film portrayal,15 rejects the contin- ual illusion of change intrinsic to the very concept of fashion. On the one hand, the collaborative effort of these stars seemed to yield the promise of a highly unusual production. On the other, Muller's slick production of Tristan und Isolde at Bay- reuth raised the question whether the un- compromising East German dramatist, in spite of his critical views about the unified Germany, had complied with the absorp- tion of his art into the established institu- tions of high culture by putting himself into the service of Germany's contemporary monumentalist cultural practice.

Despite the obvious differences of Muller's and Wagner's artistic approaches, there are also some significant parallels. Both Muller and Wagner can be linked to the tradition of modern art-Wagner as its predecessor and Muller as its descendant. They also share a similar concern with the entwinement of enlightenment, myth, and unconsciousness. Another crucial common factor is their understanding of the func- tion of art as resistance to the status quo. Wagner located the key value of the Gesamtkunstwerk in its ability to rescue the individual from compulsive entrapment in instrumental reason, to elevate it to artistic self-awareness. Conceived the same year he participated in the revolutionary strug- gle over the barricades at Dresden in 1849,16 Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk stands, as Genia Schulz and Hans-Thies Lehmann have shown, in a lineage of aesthetic theory and practice whose roots date back to the early stages of romanticism and the romantic concept of universal poetry.17 This concept empha-


sizes the transaesthetic function of art and artistic practice and conceives of art as an organon aimed at the fundamental altera- tion of sensuous human nature. Through a synthesis of the arts, Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk strives to break the marginal so- cial status of the aesthetic and of art; thus art has a potential social function in that it becomes the crossing point of all other fac- ulties and discourses. Although the ideo- logical values Wagner intended his works to express have been discredited through their appropriation by fascism and although the monumentalism of his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk posthumously has become ideologically suspect for its associa- tion with nineteenth-century nationalism and twentieth-century totalitarianism,18 the Gesamtkunstwerk cannot be separated from its original, innovative goal of funda- mentally altering the status of the work of art. But whereas Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk aimed at synthesizing the imagination, the intellect, and the emo- tions together to reach at unconscious lay- ers of sensibility and emotion, Muller's method, salient in his texts since the 1970s, which he designated as "synthetic frag- ments,"lg inverts the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Firmly embedded in twentieth- century modernist and post-modernist anti-m0numentalism,~0 Muller isolates, fragments, and segments the particles in order to undermine this synthesizing proc- ess and to make the disturbance thus en- gendered clear to cons~iousness.~~

In doing so, he aims at inverting the totalitarian structure inherent in the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Muller's appointment, which came about due to the influence of Daniel Baren- boim, was primarily a choice guided by ar- tistic considerations. It fit in with the tra- dition of the festival as a "laboratory for experiments" explicitly propagated by the director Wolfgang Wagner since the 1970s when he began to invite more avant-garde productions that would not simply enshrine the musical works of his grandfa- ther-productions that have repeatedly outraged the more orthodox Wagnerians among the audiences. Twice in the past, he intended the Bayreuth festival to become an artistic forum for a dialogue between East and West Germany, when he invited East German directors to Bayreuth. The first guest director from East Berlin was Gotz Friedrich, whose staging of Tannhauser in 1972 stirred up the most political outrage in the postwar history of the Bayreuth festival; the second guest was Harry Kupfer, who directed Der fliegende Hollander in 1978 and Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1988. Muller's recruitment to Bayreuth-although the East German playwright had long ago lived past an age where the label "experimental," typically associated with young aspiring directors, would seem appropriate-was a symbol of national reunification actually taking place in art, and it confirmed a shared national heritage.

Another event preceding the premiere of Tristan und Isolde under Muller's direc- tion at Bayreuth gives further evidence of the peculiar entanglement of artistic, so- cial, political, and economic layers of sig- nificance. Just before the premiere of Muller's production, a widely publicized press conference took place. It was attended by the festival's guest of honor, Michail Gorbatchev, the Federal Republic's former foreign minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, Heiner Muller, Daniel Baren- boim, and Erich Wonder, as well as the film- makers Alexander Kluge and Wim Wen- ders, amongother~.~Z

The press conference was organized as a platform for the former Soviet chief of state to direct his appeal, supported by all the others present at the press conference, for subsidies from the German public to be used to rescue a de- clining Russian culture.23 This event, pre- ceding the premiere of Muller's produc- tion, highlighted the imbrications of art, politics, and economy, and in particular foregrounded art's dependency on state pa- tronage (as was the case in the Soviet Union


and in the GDR) or private sponsors (as in the current capitalist market economies). Moreover, its underlying message was the affirmation of collective support for a mul- tifaceted European culture as well as a new post-cold-war Russian-German political and economic alliance seeking to undo more than fifty years of (West German) es- trangement, aggression, and hostility, which Alexander Kluge emphasized in his plea for the necessity of an alliance with intellectual Russia.24

Muller himself, an outspoken critic of the new nation-state and what he called the "mise en scene of f~rgetting"~~

that he saw underlying the self-representations of the unified Germany, seemed unconcerned about the symbolic significance of his en- gagement at Bayreuth. The fact that he was sensitive to the historical implications of the Bayreuth festival is indicated by the poem "Seife in Bayreuth," dedicated to Daniel Barenboim. In this poem Muller makes associations between present-day thus triggered controversy, dividing the audience into those with more conventional tastes and those with more avant- gardist predilections, as is typically the case at Ba~~euth.~g

Yet, as was the case with Patrice Chkreau's controversial centenary production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1976,the initial uproar died down when the production was repeated the subsequent year.

Heiner Miiller's approach to Tristan und Isolde may seem unconventional to some, yet Wagner's music drama about love and renunciation, unbound erotic passion, and inner psychic torment, represents the composer's most innovative workS30 A fun- damentally romantic piece, it is at the same time the beginning of musical modernism. Nietzsche gives account of the intoxicating effect of the work in The Birth of Tragedy, when he poses the question whether any- one could listen to the third act of Tristan und Isolde "without expiring in a spasmodic unharnessing of all wings of the

Bayreuth, the Nazi past, and Aus~hwitz.~6 soul."31 The work's main feature is the

Yet, in public, he sought to direct attention to his production, declaring that the his- torical implications of the festival, while provoking both fascination and horror in him, were of little interest to his work.27 Instead, his concern was to find an ade- quate approach to Wagner's musical drama and to reconsider the possibilities of opera in relation to the theater. He stated that what interested him in Wagner is "exactly what also magically attracted Hitler: his sheer monstrous utopian potential. What I make of it, however, separates me from him" ["genau das, was auch Hitler so magisch angezogen hat: sein geradezu ungeheuerliches utopisches Potential. Was ich daraus mache, unterscheidet mich al- lerding~"].~~

The result, an anti-illusionist approach that refused to grant any cathar- tic release, was perceived by parts of the festival audience as the violent intrusion of a stark and dismal East German, commu- nist viewpoint into Wagner's illusionistic operatic universe. Muller's opera debut hitherto unheard-of predominance of the musical over the near-absent narration. In spite of the romantic foundation of the themes in Tristan und Isolde, that is, the intoxication with love, the longing for re- demption through death, and the meta- physics of the night, the musical treatment of the symphonic poetry for singing voices, especially its chromaticism, borders on the threshold of modern music and its dissolu- tion of harmonic tonality. The peculiar mix- ture of romantic and modern elements is brought about in Tristan und Isolde through its emphasis on the world of inner subjective processes, which the music drama thematizes on the level of plot while propelling it forward through the music, whereas the objective reality of the daily world is left in the background. Due to the emphasis on internal as opposed to exter- nal plot, Tristan und Isolde takes place at a higher level of abstraction than Wagner's other music dramas as well as other works from the period.


A chief example of the work's focus on internal reality coupled with the with- drawal from external reality is the second act. Intoxicated with love, the two lovers praise the nightly world in a duet during their blissful nightly reunion because it shelters them from the daily world that forces them to repress their passion for one another. The orchestra, with a polyphonic density and passionate expressiveness that underscores the withdrawal from external reality, becomes the primary vehicle for the internal action. The musical and drama- turgical devaluation of external reality that can be traced throughout the work is pre- cisely what accounts for the work's inno- vativeness.

The withdrawal from the real social world, the dismissal of the diurnal world of objects and social constraints by the lovers, as well as the work's musical-dramaturgi- cal turn away from realism, can be related to Wagner's concrete historical experience. Completed between 1857 and 1859, Tristan und Isolde can be linked to Wagner's disappointment over the failures of the 184849 revolution. With the Parisian coup of 1851 that brought Napoleon I11 to power, Wagner saw the chances for social change deteriorate beyond recall. The frustration of his revolutionary hopes--comparable, as Friedrich Dieckmann has argued, to Muller's loss of hopes for the revitalization of socialism after 196832-resulted in his subsequent turn to Schopenhauer's pessi- mist philosophy. With Tristan und Isolde, Wagner intended to monumentalize in mu- sic Schopenhauer's concept of the negation of the will to life. Accordingly, he coupled the eroticism inherent in the lovers' ec- static passion with a self-destructive drive. Death is meant to become the substitute for life, the sublime telos of the lovers' long- ing, their only means of redemption. Due to the impossibility of any fulfillment of the lovers' longing for an alternative life in the social world as it exists, their will to life turns against and extinguishes itself. Hence, what Wagner's music drama encap- sulates as opposed to the Schopenhauerian negation of life is the lovers' longing to die as the assertion of the will to life per nega- tionem.

Muller's staging of Tristan und Isolde is a minimalist production influenced by the classical Japanese Bunraku puppet theater33 and Robert Wilson's postmodern mythico-ritual theater, Like these models, Muller's production emphasizes artificial- ity and segmentation. In atomizing Wag- ner's music drama, Muller creates a dis- tance from the pathos inherent in it. The result is that Muller's approach to Tristan und Imlde is in tune with the work's mu- sical and dramaturgical withdrawal from external reality and its emphasis on the world of inner subjective processes; how- ever, his staging of Tristan und Isolde also strips the Wagnerian work of its ecstatic passion, unbound eroticism, and the mys- tification of death as redemption. Instead of accentuating the ardor of fatal erotic pas- sion that Wagner created through his mu- sic, Muller stages a sobering endgame of gender relations and romantic love and pushes the music drama as a genre to its end. In this respect, his production of Wag- ner's music drama is ambivalently connected to Quartett, Muller's vicious and cynical demystification of romantic love based on Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons [Les Liaisons Dange're~sesl.~~

Whereas Quartett focuses on the battle between the sexes through their declamations about seduction, sex, power, as well as death and its postures, Muller's production of Tristan und Isolde turns Wagner's tale of unbound erotic pas- sion against itself, impeding the lovers' path toward redemption through death.

In his production, Muller entirely ig- nores the stage directions Wagner pro- vided, which allows him to demystify the operatic pathos and passion through both the acting and the mise en scsne. Unlike Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1981 Bayreuth fairy-tale version of Tristan und Isolde, which embeds the drama of passionate hu-


man nature in a visually enchanting decor of natural history through romantic im- agery recalling the painterly landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, Muller refrains from any romantic, naturalistic, or con- crete historical scenery. This denaturaliza- tion corresponds to Muller's recurrent at- tempts (for instance in Quartett)to discon- nect the temporal-spatial settings of his plays from any concrete historical refer- ences typical of the representational thea- ter. His production of Tristan und Isolde nevertheless remains an astoundingly faithful rendition of Wagner's music drama that distinguishes itself through utmost precision and inner coherence, with all de- tails carefully matching.

Erich Wonder's sets consist of clear ab- stract geometric spaces based on cubes and squares. Each act is dominated by a mono- chromatic color: red (with multiple shad- ings), blue, and gray; the decor is reduced to simple signs; the lighting enhances the musical intensity. In the beginning, after the curtain has been lifted, a large whitish square, recalling an empty screen, is pro- jected onto a second, nearly-transparent curtain that separates the stage from the auditorium. This second, gauze-like cur- tain, which is lifted as the first act begins, creates a distance between the audience and the imaginary scene on stage, ruptur- ing the illusion of its immediacy and draw- ing attention to the phantasmic character of Wagner's music drama. The chromatic minimalism of Miiller's staging, vaguely reminiscent of Wieland Wagner's postwar productions of the w0rk,~5 also recalls the modernist simplicity of Vsevolod Meyer- hold's 1909 production of Tristan und Isolde in pre-revolutionary Saint Peters- burg.36 Like Meyerhold, Muller creates a highly artificial and estranged universe that dismantles Wagner's illusionism. His ritualistic staging, the clarity and barren- ness of his mise en scene, and the confined spaces assign a limit to the lovers' longing for metaphysical boundlessness. In doing so, Muller foregrounds the dramatic struc-

ture and gives priority to the music, under- scoring the music's role as the agent of phantasmagorias.

Erich Wonder's set narrows the wide stage of the Bayreuth opera house to a cube-shaped box. In the first act alarge and a small rectangular pit in the front and in the back have been dug into a stage floor that slightly ascends toward the audito- rium. Subtle light projections suggest the cross-beams of a boat's wooden floor and refer to the setting of the scene; two flick- ering stripes of light at the larger pit's side bring up the association of the sea crossing on which Tristan (Siegfried Jerusalem) is taking the Irish princess Isolde (Waltraud Meier) to Cornwall, to become the wife of his uncle and ruler, King Marke (Falk Struckmann). Yet beyond these subtle signs, the mise en scene omits any natural- ist creation of space. The stage is merely a red-tinged rectangular space abstractly subdivided by further light projections. Two yellow-red light squares, one large and the other small, reminiscent of a Mondrian painting, are projected against the back wall of the stage, while a third large trans- parent yellow light square adds to the geo- metrical subdivision of the space. The spa- tial and visual arrangement create a nearly invisible boundary, separating Isolde and her maid Brangane in the pit in the fore- ground from the nearly identical, yet dis- tant square in the background, where Tris- tan and his companion Kurvenal, initially hidden behind the hazy veil created by the lighting, persevere. The narrow geometri- cal field is the spatial reflection of the worldly boundaries confining the lovers' desire which they long to transgress.

The costumes, designed by Yoshi Yamamoto, who had no previous experi- ence working for theater or opera, add an additional note to Muller's attempt at es- tranging Wagner's psychic musical drama and toning down the ecstatic passion gen- erated by Wagner's music. The garments are of unpretentiously plain elegance, con- temporary, with a subtle Asian touch re-


calling an archaic samurai universe. All characters are wrapped in eye-catching, pe- culiarly futuristic collars that are remotely reminiscent of halos positioned in the wrong place but at the same time look like metal necklaces. They are distinctive, sym- bolic emblems marking the characters' im- prisonment in social customs and rituals and referring to the court's social hierar- chy. These necklaces, which look as if the characters were forged into them, are also the symbolic fetters of social obligations and constraints. Tristan and Isolde's ac- quittal from the pressures imposed upon them by the social order is underscored when they take off their cloaks at the end of the first act; this happens after they have taken a sip from the presumably fatal phil- ter that turns out to be a love potion, and for once fall into each other's arms. King Marke is wearing the largest size necklace of this kind, salient as a powerful, dark threat in the mighty silhouette of the ruler projected against the back wall of the stage at the end of the first act and later, in daz- zling brightness, as an unmistakable insig- nia of state power.

Like chess figures, Muller positions the characters and their passions within the geometric field. Each move seems precisely stipulated, thus recalling the rigidity of the protagonists of Greek tragedy. In a differ- ent context, Muller once stated his interest in the struggle of the human voice with the score in ~pera~~-an

aspect of crucial sig- nificance in regard to the score of Tristan und Isolde with its extraordinarily high de- mands on the singers' capacities. Although Muller acknowledges the impossibility of an opera production that entirely does without the conventional gestures of pa- thos (since they are an indispensable pause for the singers that allows them to facilitate their breathing), in his production the act- ing does not double the dramatic conflict exposed through the music.38 Gestures re- main spare and subdued, emotions chaste. In short, the ecstatic passion of the two lov- ers, elaborated through the music, is never fully allowed to unfold in the acting. This is particularly striking in the second act. Muller only moderately permits the two lovers, driven into adultery by the love po- tion they mistook as a fatal philter, to es- tablish their bonds of love. He underscores the proximity between death and desire; yet instead of unbound eroticism suggested by Wagner's music, there are only ritual- ized postures of desire. The subdued acting undercuts the fulfillment of the lovers' fu- sion in the ecstasy of erotic passion. When Wagner characterized Tristan und Isolde as the "deep art of sounding silence,"39 he was aware of the secondary importance of words and dialogue as a means of commu- nication. This feature, which Muller's stag- ing brings to the fore, gives way to the im- pression that in his version Tristan and Isolde constantly miss each other and re- main distant. In refusing to use acting as a pictorial representation of what the emo- tional drama expresses through the music, Muller's staging circumvents what in ro- mantic-metaphysical terms may be under- stood as the dissolution of the individual's boundaries.

Muller's anti-illusionist treatment of Wagner's music drama is further under- scored through the set. Instead of the gar- den setting in front of Isolde's cabinet that Wagner envisioned as the setting for the second act (where Isolde is waitingfor Tris- tan while her husband, King Marke, and his entourage have gone hunting), a field of cuirasses, vaguely reminiscent of grave- stones, fill the stage. These visual signs re- call the military rituals of medieval chiv- alry and manhood. Narrow, jagged lanes cut across the empty cuirasses that are po- sitioned in rank and file. These aisles create an additional confinement for their reun- ion: they are lined with lifeless metallic bodies through which Tristan and Isolde hesitantly, with slow, ritualistic, and con- trolled motions, approach each other while nevertheless remaining apart. When Tris- tan and Isolde sing their love duet, sitting next to each other on the floor, the cuirasses


glimmer in the intense blue light that makes the two lovers, who finally have achieved some remote proximity, tempo- rarily disappear in the increasing darkness of the nightly setting before their adultery is discovered by King Marke upon his un- expected return.

As mentioned before, Muller's pronounced disillusionism, that is, his strip- ping down of the Wagnerian metaphysics of love and death, triggered annoyance in parts of the audience. Many were troubled by Muller's insinuation that the two lovers never fuse in the unbound eroticism and ecstatic passion suggested through Wag- ner's music because Tristan's longing for death appears stronger than his longing for Isolde, as if he were reluctant to let himself get fully immersed in heterosexual passion. His supposed love for Isolde and the rheto- ric of ecstatic passion remain an abstrac- tion, a pretense for him to die. Muller'sver- sion underscores what is already implicit in Wagner's original, namely that Tristan's death, or what Muller refers to as Tristan's "extra-death,"40 is in fact suicide. Conse- quently, Tristan throws himself into the sword Melot just barely lifts before he re- ally begins stabbing Tristan. Death and the desire to die in this respect function as a constant reminder of the impossibility of human desire finding fulfillment in reality.

Miiller's version of Wagner's music drama brings to the fore the ambivalence inherent in Tristan's desire. The political dimension ofinterest to Muller is that Wag- ner's drama of inner psychic torment, erotic passion, and renunciation also con- cerns the theme of loyalty and betrayal-that is, betrayal of state power. Sla- voj 21Sek has described the prototypical Wagnerian hero as someone who "failed to act in accordance with his 'duty,' the ethical mandate."41 Indeed, Tristan, the faithful yet faithless vassal of his king and paternal guardian, fails because of his inability to straddle the conflicts posed by his wavering desire.42As a male subject, Tristan has de- voted his loyalty to state power and the di-

QUARTERLY Spring 1999

urnal world of social-symbolic obligations (i.e., the marital contract between Isolde and King Marke); hence the Theweleitian dimension of his male anxiety, that is, his resistance to Isolde's desire and his efforts at remaining unapproachable to her in the first acL43 In fact, he refers to honor and custom when he renounces Isolde's ad- vances. Tristan wavers between wanting to withdraw from control by the state order and at the same time wanting to be part of its socio-symbolic universe (a key issue for Muller with regard to his own relationship as an artist and intellectual to the state, salient in Hamletmaschine).Tristan is torn between faithfulness to King Marke, that is, loyalty to the paternal principle as well as to the state power, its ethical norms and values, on the one hand, and the seduction presented by the prohibited love for Isolde, wife of king Marke, on the other. Erotic passion thus appears as the dimension that breaks apart and betrays state order. Isolde, the object of Tristan's desire, mani- fests the seductive promise to transgress social norms. Yet Tristan's desire for her paradoxically is also related to the fact that state power, embodied by King Marke, holds possession over her; therefore Tris- tan longs for her even more, which, as the faithful vassal, he only reluctantly admits. In psychoanalytic terms, King Marke, Tris- tan's paternal guardian as well as the pri- mary representative of the worldly uni- verse and its power structures, embodies the Freudian Super-ego, the big Other. Muller's staging device, drawing upon vis- ual means, underscores the phantasmic dimension of this big Other. We see Marke appear for the first time at the end of the first act only as a dark, oversized silhouette projected against the back wall of the stage, an image that conveys the inescapable sug- gestive power of his might.

The setting of the third act, supposedly at Kareol, the castle of Tristan's ancestors in Brittany, smacks of decay and wreckage. Mortar and debris cover the stage; and the arrangement of rectangular and cubic


spaces brings up associations with a bomb shelter. The gray imagery of the scenery recalls Heiner Muller's typical landscapes of ruins after a catastrophe in which his- torical deterioration is the equivalent to a state of inner, subjective consciousness (as for instance in Medea Verkommenes Ufer Landschaft mit Argonauten or in Quartett, whose temporal-spatial setting in a salon before the French revolution and simulta- neously a bomb shelter after World War Three joins a concrete historical epoch with the anticipation of a catastrophic future).44 As if waiting infinitely in this no-man's land devastated by a catastrophe, the nearly fatally injured Tristan is lying on a run-down armchair. He is guarded by his companion Kurwenal and a motionless, melancholy shepherd with dark sunglasses and long gray hair. All three appear like ailing lemurs in this wasteland. Through a slit in the red square on the back wall, Isolde eventually enters into the gray world of the agonizing Tristan. In a last delirious frenzy, Tristan simultaneously tears off his bloody dressing, the visible wound of his fatal love, and rushes to meet Isolde, only to collapse and die in front of her.

Isolde's final appearance underscores the purely phantasmagoric nature of Wag- ner's music drama. Here, Jean-Pierre Pon- nelle's production of Tristan und Isolde went even a step further than Muller's. It suggested that Isolde's arrival at the Breton castle and her so-called "love death" is only a figment of Tristan's fe- vered imagination. By contrast, in Muller's production, the disillusionment is of a dif- ferent When Isolde begins to sing her last aria, the so-called "love death," raising her arms as in trance, the pre- viously red square field in the background turns golden, thus recalling a visual meta- phor from the overture. Suggestive of the metaphysical value attached to the suppos- edly redemptive swooning that befalls Isolde as she sings herself into death, the visual clash of the warm and bright golden glow of transfiguration with the gray land- scape of ruins at the site of Tristan's death could hardly be any greater. The utopian score of Isolde's "love death," its quasi-re- ligious solemnity reinforced through the intoxicating orchestral effects,46 is then undercut through the fact that the last cur- tain falls down while Isolde is still standing in the stage's center, positioned toward the audience, instead of dyingon stage. As with Tristan's free acceptance of death, Muller again dismantles the Wagnerian metaphysical mystification of death, the pathos immanent to opera in general, in the final scene. The metaphysics of redemption through death is exposed as nothing but an iridescent illusion: Isolde's "love death," which Ponnelle's staging exposed as a male phantasmagoria, becomes a utopian void, a phantasm generated entirely by the or- chestra music.

Muller's deconstruction of the utopian, metaphysical score of Wagner's music drama can be seen in relation to Adorno's critique of the Wagnerian musical tech- nique of the leitmotif. In his study, In Search of Wagner, written in 1937-38 under the immediate impact of Wagner's ab- sorption into Nazi culture, Adorno sought to draw out the mediation of social, ideo- logical, compositional, and aesthetic aspects through musicological analysis.47 He argues that the leitmotif on the one hand pretends to be a spontaneous and unique expression of mental processes that cannot be repeated, on the other hand-reinforced through the meaning of its term-it recon-figures and freezes as an allegorical image. What Adorno scrutinized and found objec- tionable on the level of musicological analy- sis is the point of departure for Muller's dramaturgy, since his production decon- struct~the work's seeming immediate na- ture. Even death, or redemption through death, as we have seen, becomes for Muller only a mask-a mask for love (which Muller likewise treats as a metaphysical category).48 Muller's anti-utopian produc- tion nihilistically emphasizes that behind the ecstatic passion of the lovers, their un-


bound eroticism and their longing for meta- physical transcendence through death, there is no substance, but only a void.

Muller's deconstruction of the meta- physics of death inherent in Wagner's Tri- stan und Isolde is the other side of his ob- session with savage scenarios of historical violence permeating many of his texts, and is directly related to it. These scenarios, prominent for example in Die Schlacht and Germania, Tod in Berlin, frequently have been misunderstood as evidence of Muller's fascination with death.49Yet they reveal, in fact, the exact opposite. They are the haunting memory of the murder and deaths of millions in the twentieth century, a memory restored in the savage images found in Muller's texts that present indi- viduals as the battlegrounds of historical conflicts. Ultimately these violent scenar- ios, like the demystification of the Wagne- rian metaphysics of death in his production of Tristan und Isolde, are expressions of Muller's non-acceptance of death. Further- more, his rigorous refusal to permit the ac- tors in Tristan und Isolde to represent, that is, to double what is insinuated through the music, at first glance appears as an aes- thetic choice that resonates with his con- cept of theater practice as a whole. At a closer look, it is linked to Muller's under- standing of the social function of art as an objection to the status quo, an objection to the ideological reproduction of the real. Considered in these terms, Muller's atom- izing staging of Tristan und Isolde rejects a postmodern universe in which reality has become entirely replaceable through im- ages that can be infinitely reproduced, syn- thesized, and replayed.50 Muller's demys- tification of the Wagnerian metaphysics of love and death, his undercutting of the bonds of love and passion between Isolde and Tristan brings to light, as we have seen, the ruptures and gaps in the phantasmatic unity desired by Wagner. In addition, his anti-utopianism reflects back on the de- struction of human relations caused by ad- vanced technology. From this perspective, Muller's staging of Tristan und Isolde is to be read as an objection to a world in which the need for human contact, the ability of individuals to enter into concrete interper- sonal relations is rapidly vanishing under the influence of technologies producingvir- tual hyper-realities.51 Finally, Muller's anti-utopian staging reflects the acknow- ledgment of the existence of a vacuum at a historical moment, when in the aftermath of the demise of the GDR and German uni- fication, the obliteration of the historical experience of the twentieth century that shaped Muller's thinking is underway. Given this vacuum, which Muller experi- enced as a loss of artistic and intellectual purpose, his staging of Tristan und Isolde can be seen also as the-albeit arbitrary-search for a new point of gra~it~.5~


'It led the media to speculate in vain about a possible scandal. Another example of a novice to opera and the work of Wagner staginga piece at Bayreuth is the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who in 1987 produced Lohengrin.

2For accounts of the history of the Bayreuth Festival, see: Frederic Spotts, Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (New Haven: Yale UI: 1994); Wilhelm Matthes, Was geschah in Bayreuth uon Cosima bis Wieland Wagner? Ein Rechenschaftsbericht (Augsburg: WiBner, 1996); Michael Karbaum, Studien zur Geschichte der Bayreuther Festspiele (1876-1976) (Regensburg: Gustav Bosse, 1976); Nike Wag- ner, "Bayreuth-?" Lettre internationale 21 (1993): 81-83.

3For critical accounts exploring the impact of Wagner and his works in the context of Ger- man cultural and intellectual history, see Klaus Umbach, ed., Richard Wagner: Ein deutsches ~rgernis(Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1982) and Hart- mut Zelinsky, Richard Wagner-+in deutsches Thema (FrankfurtIMain: Zweitausendeins, 1976).

4Heiner Muller, "Angst und Geometrie: Aus einem Gesprach uber Tristan und Isolde" Lettre internationale 21 (1993): 84.

%ee also Brecht's poem "Die Ballade vom


Liebestod," a parody of the Tristan-and-Isolde material, which he later included in the Hauspostille. Bertolt Brecht, Werke, ed. by Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei, Klaus-Detlev Muller (Berlin: AufbauiSuhr- kamp, 1988) vol. 11, 110-12.

6Ruth Berghaus, in 1971, also staged Zement,Muller's play about revolutionary begin- nings in the Soviet Union, thereby paving the way for the return of Muller's plays to East German stages after being banned in the 1960s.

7Heiner Muller, Krieg ohne Schlacht: Leben in zwei Diktaturen (Koln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1992) 341.

8A later important musical experience for Muller was his participation in Luigi Nono's


gShortly before his death, Muller was also working on a libretto based on Ovid's Metamorphoses intended for an opera to be com- posed by Pierre Boulez.

1°Heiner Muller, "Sechs Punkte zur Oper," Theater der Zeit 3 (1970); rept. in Theater der Zeit 4 (1989) and in Ich Wer ist das Im Regen aus Vogelkot im Kalkfell: fur Heiner Miiller: Arbeitsbuch. Special Issue of Theater der Zeit 1996: 50. See also the article by Gerd Rienacker, "Lanzelot-Tristan," ibid., 49-52.

llJoachim Fiebach, Inseln der Unordnung: Fiinf Versuche zu Heiner Miillers Theatertexten

(Berlin: Henschel, 1990) 40. For a perceptive analysis of Heiner Muller's plays from the 1970s see also Frank-Michael Raddatz,

Damonen unterm roten Stern: Zu Geschichts- philosophie und ~sthetik Heiner Miillers

(Stuttgart: Metzler, 1991).

12After his programmatic farewell to the Brechtian learning-play model and its enlight- enment tradition in 1977, Muller surprisingly returned to its revitalization once more in 1984-87. Written in the context of new im- pulses emerging through Gorbatchev's glasnost and perestroika, his Wolokolamsker Chaussee, however, is a funeral hymn to the proletarian revolution, a harsh reckoning with its unredeemed promises and a thorough reg- istration of its mutations and their absurdities.

13Alexander Kluge and Heiner Muller, "Anti-Oper, Materialschlachten von 1914, Flug uber Sibirien" idem, Ich bin ein Landver- messer: Gesprache: Neue Folge (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1996) 123.

l4Muller, "Angst und Geometrie" 84. 15Wim Wenders, dir., Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Stadten (1989).

l6For an account of Wagner's biography, I have relied on Martin Gregor Dellin, Richard Wagner: Sein Leben: Sein Werk: Sein Jahrhun- dert (Munich: Piper, 2nd ed. 1995 [1980]) and Hans Mayer, Wagner (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 26th ed. 1997 [1959]).

l7Genia Schulz and Hans-Thies Lehmann, "Protoplasma des Gesamtkunstwerks: Heiner Muller und die Tradition der Moderne" Gabriele Forg, ed., Unsere Wagner: Joseph Beuys, Heiner Miiller, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Jiirgen Syberberg, (FrankfurtiMain: Fi- scher, 1984) 51.

18Andreas Huyssen, "Monumental Seduc- tion" New German Critique 69 (1996): 189-91.

lgFor a discussion of fragmentation in Hei- ner Muller's texts, see Vlado Obad, "Zu Mullers Poetik des Fragmentarischen," Frank Hornigk, ed., Miiller-Material (Leipzig: Re- clam 1988) 157-64.

20Muller's statement that Wagner's music has become an essential ingredient of both American and Russian film music (Krieg ohne Schlacht 341) reverberates the well known the- sis in Adorno and Horkheimer's chapter on the "Culture Industry" in The Dialectic ofEnlight- enment according to which Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk was consummated and at the same time destroyed by film and the Broadway mu- sical.

"See Kluge/Muller, 'Anti-Oper," 125-26; see also "Tristan und die Wanzen: Siegfried Gerlich im Gesprach mit Heiner Muller," Der Pfahl: Jahrbuch aus dem Niemandsland zwi- schen Kunst und Wissenschaft (1994): 227-38; see further Muller's statement about Robert Wilson concerning the necessity to isolate ele- ments in order to work against the synthesiz- ing tendency of the Gesamtkunswerk in order to give the audience the opportunity to link the elements with their own experiences in Holm Keller, Robert Wilson (Frankfurtmain: Fi- scher, 1997) 87-88.

22The news articles about this press confer- ence also mention that eggs were thrown at Gorbatchev and his host, the Bavarian prime minister, but they do not say anything about the motivation behind this assault.

23See Joachim Kaiser, "Gorbatschow sucht Mazene: Zu einer hochbesetzten Pressekonfe-


renz in Bayreuth" Siiddeutsche Zeitung 26 July 1993: 10.

24Already once before, though with entirely reversed premises, the work of Richard Wag- ner had served to affirm a German-Russian po- litical alliance. In 1939, the Jewish filmmaker Sergej Eisenstein received an order from the Soviet government to stage Richard Wagner's Valkyre,the German-national musical epic, as a symbol for the German-Russian alliance that had been confirmed through the Hitler-Stalin pact. The premiere under Eisenstein's direc- tion took place in November of 1940, purposely scheduled just one day after the Soviet delega- tion, led by Molotow, had returned from a sum- mit in Berlin. In 1993, the former Soviet chief of state Gorbatchev, and the renowned East German playwright Heiner Muller, despite their different roles and attitudes regarding the political transformation that had taken place since the crumbling of the Soviet Union, appeared as the best guarantees of the-doub- tlessly well-meant-gesture of reconciliation and demonstrated cultural alliance. For details about Eisenstein's production of Wagner's Valkyre see Oksana Bulgakowa, Sergej Eisenstein: Eine Biographie (Berlin: Potemkin, 1997) 245-50.

25Heiner Muller, "Die Kuste der Barbaren: Glosse zum deutschen Augenblick" Frankfurter Rundschau 30 September 1992: 8.

26Heiner Muller, Werke 1: Die Gedichte ed. by Frank Hornigk (Frankfurtmain: Suhr- kamp, 1998) 245.

27Heiner Muller quoted in Eckhard Roelcke, "Geometrie des Todes" Die Zeit 6 August 1993: 15.

28Heiner Muller quoted in Wolfgang Seif- ert, "Liebestod-der einzige Ausweg," Berliner Zeitung, 27 July 1993: 26.

29The reviews of the Bayreuth premiere in Germany's major newspapers reflect this mixed response. Neues Deutschland, for exam- ple, the daily newspaper owned by the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor of the former East German communist party), while it published a lengthy article about Gor- batchev's appeal at the press conference, did not find Muller's opera debut worth more than a short press note. The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, by comparison, published a slangy and polemical article, which criticized Muller's production for "postmodern arbitrariness."

(Klaus Umbach, "Pfiffe in der Lustkurve" Der Spiegel 2 August 1993: 14043.) Others were ambivalent or negative (Klaus Geitel, "Ein wenig Kuhnheit brodelt in der Tiefe" Die Welt 27 July 1993: 8; idem, "Der Opern-Novize auf dem Wagner-Olymp" Berliner Morgenpost 27 July 1993: 8; Klaus Kaiser, "Hat Tristan die Isolde nie geliebt?" Siiddeutsche Zeitung 27 July 1993: 9). Still others were more positive (Sybil1 Mahlke, "In der Meditation lebt der Tod" Der Tagesspiegel 27 July 1993: 15; Wolfgang Seifer, "Liebestod der einzige Ausweg" Berliner Zeitung 27 July 1993: 26). Especially the reviews that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Frankfurter Rundschau, and Die Zeit were more ac- claiming and paid closer attention to detail, al- though they did not conceal one or the other weakness of the production (Gerhard R. Koch, "Erlosung, nur ein Wort" Frankfurter Allge- meine Zeitung 27 July 1993: 23; Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, "Hin und wieder wagemutig uber Wagner hinaus" Frankfurter Rundschau 27 July 1993: 7; Eckhard Roelcke, "Geometrie des Todes" Die Zeit 6 August 1993: 15.) In com- paring these feuilleton reviews, we observe that the more substantial and sophisticated the review article, the more positive the tenor in general.

30For a detailed account of Wagner's musi- cal drama and a documentation of its context and reception see Richard Wagner, Tristan und Zsolde: Texte Materialien Kommentare eds. Attila Csampai and Dietmar Holland (Rein- bek: Rowohlt, 1983).

31Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Trag- edy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vin- tage, 1967) 126-27.

32Friedrich Dieckmann, "Die todliche Frei- heit der Spangenmenschen" Theater der Zeit 3 (1993): 30.

33KlugeiMiiller, "Anti-Oper" 63; Muller, "Angst und Geometrie" 84.

34The shepherd's line in the last act of Tristan und Isolde, "how bleak and empty the sea," reappears-possibly via Miiller's reading of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land-as an ironically distorted citation, as an obscene punch-line, in Quartet. See Heiner Muller, Quartett in: idem, Herzstiick Berlin: Rotbuch, 1994 (1983) 83. In an interview, Miiller has argued that Quartett is almost the logical sequel of Tristan und Isolde. See Muller, "Angst und Geometrie" 85.


35Wagner's production of Tristan und Isolde in 1952 undertook the deconstruction of Wagner's mythology by microscopically focus- ing on the subject matter to lay bare the musi- cal structures, hence discarding the traditional Teutonic character of the staging and dimin- ishing the mise en sc2ne to only a few symbolic elements. Yet unlike Muller's staging, this as well as the second version in 1962, which drew upon archetypal symbols, emphasized the uni- versal and metaphysical dimensions. They both staged Tristan und Isolde as a psychologi- cal drama of the fatal power of Eros and Tha- natos. Wolfgang Wagner's 1957 Bayreuth pro- duction of Tristan und Isolde is of a similar kind. All three reverberate Adorno's claim from the early sixties according to which only experimental and interventionist productions of Wagner's operas were justified in order to make transparent the works' ideological di- mensions. Theodor W. Adorno, "Wagners Aktualitat" in: idem, Gesammelte Schriften ed. Rolf Tiedemann, vol. 16. (FrankfurtIMain: Suhrkamp, 1984) 543-64.

36Meyerhold, who became one of the lead- ing protagonists of the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s, was a strong influence on Heiner Muller and other East German artists in the postwar period. Meyerhold's opera debut with Tristan und Isolde was based on the concep- tion of the turn-of-the century theater theorist, Adolphe Appia. In his programmatic essay "The Music and the Mise en ScPnen (1899), Ap- pia had developed a concept of production op- posed to Wagner's illusionism, requiring in- stead a set reduced to minimal signs and the creation of spatial effects primarily through the use of lighting.

37Miiller,Krieg ohne Schlacht 340.

38KlugeiMuller, "Anti-Oper" 126.

39Richard Wagner, Tagebuchblatter an Mathilde Wesendonck (Berlin: Sternfeld, n. d.) 12 October 1858, 104. 40Quoted in Mahlke, "In der Meditation lebt der Tod" 15.

41Slavoj Ziiek, Tarrying with the Negatiue: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993) 175.

42Slavoj Ziiek, "Wagner as a Lacanian" New German Critique 69 (1996): 7-35. In this essay eiiek analyzes Tristan und Isolde as an attempt to compress the triad (the Ethical, Aesthetical, Religious) into a dual opposition "between the spiritualized passion and the so- cio-symbolic universe" (9).

43Susan Sontag has pointed out the misogy- nist logic inherent in Wagner's work as a result of which women typically function as both healer and seductress. Susan Sontag, "Wag- ners Flussigkeiten: Neuschopfung des Erha- benen-Letalitat des Lyrischen" Lettre inter- nationale 21 (1993): 77-80. For another feminist approach that also draws upon an- thropological insights, see Catherine ClBment, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, transl. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988).

44Correspondingly, the printed edition of Quartett accompanying Muller's production of the play with the former Ufa-star Marianne Hoppe and Martin Wuttke at the Berliner En- semble in 1994 contains photos about redis- covered subterranean bomb shelters from World War Two. (Drucksache 7 Berliner En- semble "Quartett" Heiner Miiller "Das befremd- liche Wort" Jean Genet (Berlin: Berliner En- semble, 1994). Previously, in his production of Mauser at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1991, Muller inserted a sequence from Quartett, thus establishing a link between the politi- cal, Bolshevik terror and the violence of inti- mate relations. See: Regie: Heiner Miiller Der Lohndriicker 1988, HamletIMaschine 1990, Mauser 1991, Deutsches Theater Berlin (Berlin: Zentrum fur Theaterdokumentation und -information, 1993).

45Although Muller's production, while go- ing beyond the modernist tradition without fully detaching itself from it, makes transpar- ent "the crack in the fantasmatic unity of the Wagnerian project," his version differs from the postmodernist bricolage Slavoj Ziiek envi- sions as the adequate model for a staging of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Slavoj eiiek, "Wagner as a Lacanian" 32-33.

4"ohn Deathridge has put forth an analy- sis that examines the extra-musical signifi- cance of Isolde's "Liebestod" in relation to the appropriation of Wagner's music by national socialism. He argues that the seductive and thrilling orchestral effects accompanying Isolde's "Liebestod" (which happened to be Hitler's favorite piece) and bringing about its emotional intensity, through the oceanic, or in- fantile feeling of wholeness they arouse served to deepen the mystification of death in Nazi ideology and therefore had a special appeal to Hitler. John Deathridge, "Post-mortem on Isolde" New German Critique 69 (1996): 99-126.

47Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner, transl. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 1991).

48Miiller, "Angst und Geometrie" 85.

49See for instance: Johannes Birringer, "'Medea'-Landscapes beyond History" New German Critique, 50 (1990): 103.

50In conversation with Ruth Berghaus, Muller has argued that "a result of the post- modern is: let's go to the last design. The world becomes replaceable through representation." "Ruth Berghaus und Heiner Muller im Gesprach" in: Heiner Muller, Gesammelte Irr- tiimer vol. 2 (Frankfurtmain: Verlag der Autoren, 2nd ed. 1996 [1992]) 91. This point of view, though different in its emphasis on rep- resentation, reverberates some of the theoreti- Spring 1999

cal presuppositions of Jean Baudrillard since his Simulacra and Simulation. Jean Baudril- lard, Simulacra and Simulation, transl. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: Michigan UF: 1994).

51See the interview with Heiner Muller: "Denken ist grundsatzlich schuldhaft. Die Kunst als Waffe gegen das Zeitdiktat der Maschinen" Trans-Atlantik 7 (1990): 36.

521n conversation with Alexander Kluge, Muller ponders, "We are in a vacuum at the moment. And whirls emerge from this vacuum. And if you find the right point in this vacuum ...," Kluge concludes, "you have suddenly dis- covered gravity." To which Muller replies: ". . . quite arbitrarily. But it is not possible without arbitrariness." Alexander Kluge and Heiner Muller, "Ich schulde der Welt einen Toten" in: idem, Ich schulde der Welt einen Toten. Gesprache (Hamburg: Rotbuch, 1995) 99.

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