Few plays have been subjected to thousands of years of debate. Certainly, many Ancient Greek plays have been, but there is something particularly controversial about Medea that has sparked especially heated discussion for centuries on end. This quintessential Euripidean tragedy strikes themes that are still very much hot button issues today. However, Euripides’ Medea was not very well received by the public at the time of its conception in 431 BC. Medea, which is now in our Western canon only achieved third place in the Dionysian festival the year of its original production. Aristotle was particularly deprecatory of the play, criticizing its structure because he did not think it adhered to his definition of a well-made tragedy. To Aristotle and many others, it is unclear whether or not Medea is a true tragic hero and it is debatable whether or not she reaches catharsis, a necessary plot point in Aristotle’s parameters. If only Aristotle could have witnessed a production of Heiner Müller’s adaptation. Then he would certainly have much more to whine about.
Müller’s Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape with Argonauts inhabits a form that is light years away from Aristotlelean structure. While its Euripidean predecessor follows the unities, this adaptation does not adhere to any particular time or place, and instead balances precariously in a sort of dream world where all of history comes together. Müller’s non-linear style of writing employs associations between people, events, and places from all over the world and all over history. In this story about an ancient Greek sorceress, Müller refers to the “Yugoslav dream”, “Fritz Lang” and “Boris Karloff.” Written in three parts, the playwright himself suggests at the top of the text that all the sections be played simultaneously, which would certainly make Aristotle roll over in his grave. This adaptation already exhibits a cacophonic quality that would most definitely be heightened if the scenes were to be played on top of one another.
Although Müller defies the Aristotalean structure that Euripides built his play on, there is still much in common between the two works. If Heiner Müller defies the skeleton of Euripides’ adaptation, he certainly provides the heart. The emotion of Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape with Argonauts is the emotion of Medea. By referring to events and people from all over history and far off places, he unifies audiences in a way that allows for a collective experience no matter what their background is. What is so impressive in Müller’s work is that he establishes through associations a universally identifiable emotion. The themes that envelop Müller’s adaptation is exactly what is at the core of Euripides’ Medea: the colonization of material, which manifests itself as the physical Earth or women, and the unavoidable consequences and catastrophes that we human beings face because of that colonization.
Though his work bring about infinitely more questions than answers, there are definite associations with the playwright’s personal experience and the experience of his time. A Berliner of the twentieth century, Heiner Müller without a doubt witnessed colossal destruction and experienced tremendous inner-turmoil. This work was written over a period of twenty-five plus years between World War II and the Cold War, which was a time that is arguably most distressing for Germany. The first section, Despoiled Shore depicts a decaying world, perhaps a world fraught with the aftermath of a lost war, such as Germany in that time. A socialist, Müller also inserts anti-consumer capitalism commentary into this section by describing this wasteland as littered with things such as “biscuit tins”, “shredded tampons”, and “Fromm’s” condoms. This consumerist pollution might be what is responsible for the “dead branches” and “fish corpses”. In the second movement, Medeamaterial, Medea stands for more than just herself as a singular person. In the Author’s Note, Müller states that “I” in this text is the “collective”. Therefore, she is not only Medea, the individual character, but she is the oppressed. Even the title, Medeamaterial suggests that she is not limited to being human, but she is material and could thus represent anything that needs her voice. In the context of the time it was written she could be the oppressed Berliners, for example, or even the distressed Earth itself. Finally the last movement entitled Landscape with Argonauts. According to the Author’s Note, this section “presupposes the catastrophes, on which humanity is working. The landscape may be a dead star, on which a search party from another time or another space hears a voice and finds someone dead.” Unlike in the classic Ancient Greek texts where the tragic hero is destroyed by the Gods, the entire world has been destroyed, which further reinforces the representation of the Earth itself as Medea. Perhaps Müller, so distressed by the state of Germany in this time, foresaw perpetual disaster for Europe and the rest of the world. Perhaps he was saying that the only way to cleanse the Earth is by some ultimate destruction, after which we can begin again. Perhaps he wanted Germany, his home, to be able to begin again.
This piece, in the fashion of all of Müller’s work, brings about many more questions than definitive answers. Yet, despite the abundance of questions that can seem overwhelming, it is a sort of gift to embark on philosophizing and exploring this text. The open doors that this play provides is a luxury in a profession that says “no” so frequently. To decide to produce this play is to enter into the abyss, to forfeit to the unknown, to surrender to questions. Naturally, in analyzing this text one must give up on getting the “right” answer but instead acknowledge that not all the loose ends are going to be tied. Therefore, I think it is an important dramaturgical note that in the following I am relinquishing my standardized-testing-enforced need to be “correct.” Alternatively, I will attempt to revel in the tremendous chasm that is Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape with Argonauts, however, for the sake of the clarity of this statement I will hone in only a few open doors. Onward.
Heiner Müller was born and raised in Eastern Germany however much of his work was censored there due to the oppressive political climate. This spurred him to move to West Berlin where his work was gaining popularity, but he was often divided between his home in the East and the freedom of the West. Müller wrote of worlds torn apart by war and despair, but in a way he was writing about himself as a man torn. Bonnie Marranca says it best in her essay Despoiled Shores: Heiner Müller’s Natural History Lessons, “Even when Müller writes of himself, his subject is Germany.”(B. Marranca) Throughout all of his work, Müller was concerned with giving a voice to the voiceless, whether they be Jews in a concentration camp, censored East Berliners, or anyone else in world history that has ever suffered oppression. He often centered his plays around the colonized. He seemed to consider colonization a universal and timeless event, but he was particularly interested in the theme of women, as a sex and gender, the colonized. Strong female characters are common in his work. Hamletmachine, for instance reimagines Ophelia as an irreverent rebel who rejects her former subservience. Her final monologue and the last image of the play marks very accurately how Müller gave a voice to his female characters:
WILDSTRAINING / IN THE FEARSOME ARMAMENTS / MILLENIA10
Deep sea. Ophelia in wheelchair. Fish wreckage corpses and body-parts stream past.
While two men in doctor’s smocks wrap her from top to bottom in white bandages. Here speaks Electra. In the Heart of Darkness. Under the Sun of Torture. To the Metropolises of the World. In the Names of the Victims. I expel all the semen which I have received. I transform the milk of my breasts into deadly poison. I suffocate the world which I gave birth to, between my thighs. I bury it in my crotch. Down with the joy of oppression. Long live hate, loathing, rebellion, death. When she walks through your bedroom with butcher’s knives, you’ll know the truth.
Exit men. Ophelia remains on the stage, motionless in the white packaging.
She is enraged, carnivorous, and completely unladylike. Shakespeare’s Ophelia is a distant memory in this text. The shy, quivering girl has been unmasked and is revolting against all that has oppressed her, all the men that have oppressed her. Medea has never been a ladylike character. She is a barbaric sorceress, a creature from a distant land. Müller further reinforces these parts of her in her monologue. He does not invent a fierceness in her because there is no need; it has been there for thousands of years. What he does innovate is the Earth as a character.
The Earth, much like women, is seen in our Western culture as passive. Something to be acted upon and something that must be owned. Yet, the Earth, much like women, has the capacity to be unruly, wild, and unpredictable. In these instances it is a great thing to conquer the Earth. It is empowering to build a city, build a levee. It is impressive to harness natural resources for the benefit of man. However, with this oppression of the Earth comes an enormous risk. What if the Earth revolts against he trees being mowed over and her oil being sucked out? What if she despises the bombs we drop and she rebels by crumbling our cities and breaking our levees? The Earth has no voice box and cannot form words, but that does not mean she will keep quiet. Just as Medea revolts, so will our colonized planet. This is Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape with Argonauts. There are many things it can be, but this is surely an option. What is unquestionably true is that this is a play about the collective. There is nothing more collective on Earth than the Earth itself and all its history.
Collectivity can be explored through casting and design as well. Many past productions have employed more than one Medea. The Free Theatre’s 1995 production had five Medeas and five Jasons, each duo exploring their relationship simultaneously but in different ways. In 2000, City Garage in Los Angeles produced the play with three actresses in the title role, each moving in and out of the action as Medea or her alter ego. The 2002 production at Queen’s Theatre used multiple types of media as a way to bombard the audience’s senses by employing projection and distorted music in addition to the live action from the players. The use of multiple actors playing the same part has the same purpose as using multimedia: the effect can be cacophonic and enveloping. It also points to Medea being the collective and not just one person.
This play is difficult. There is no way to get around that. It inevitably will leave an artist with more questions than there is time to answer, especially in a four to six week rehearsal period. However, perhaps if we narrow down the questions from the awesome abyss that is Müller’s play into a few avenues that speak to us as an ensemble (such as environmentalism and feminism) we will be more successful in our production. In a work with so many open doors, specificity is an ally. Because there is no way (even if we spent years in production) that we could ever answer all the questions in Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape with Argonauts. Maybe some of them are better left unanswered.
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