The Mission (play)
The Mission: Memory of a Revolution (Der Auftrag: Erinnerungen an eine Revolution), also known as The Task, is a postmodern drama by the (formerly East) German playwright Heiner Müller. The play was written and first published in 1979. Müller and his wife Ginka Cholakova co-directed its first theatrical production in 1980, at the intimate 'Theatre im 3.Stock' studio space of the Volksbühne in Berlin (opening on 16 November). Müller also directed a full-house production in 1982 at the Bochum Theatre in West Germany.
Composed with a "collage-like" dramaturgical structure, the play stages intertextual relationships with a range of classics from the modern theatre, each dealing with the models and ethics of revolutionary action: Brecht's The Decision (1930), Büchner's Danton's Death (1835), and Genet's The Blacks (1958), among others. The play also uses motifs from Anna Seghers' story "The Light on the Gallows" (which Müller had treated in a poem of 1958) and, Müller adds, "biographical events are involved, a trip to Mexico among others that was very important for me in connection with the play." In addition to its dramatic and often self-consciously theatrical scenes, the play is punctured by several lyrical and narrative elements.
A lengthy narrative section bisects the play, arriving unmotivated within the immediate terms of a traditional dramatic logic. It is written in the first person as a 'stream of consciousness' but it lacks a discernible character-assigning speech-heading (this strategy, which leaves the text 'open' or 'writable' in Barthes' terms, is characteristic of Müller's dramaturgy). Adopting a 'Kafkaesque', subjective perspective (the outlook, as Brecht put it, "of a man caught under the wheels"), the protagonist of this section narrates a nightmarish dream sequence in which time and space become unhinged and dislocated as he travels in an elevator to receive, he anticipates with both pride and alarm, an important mission from the 'boss' ("whom I refer to in my mind" he says with epistrophic emphasis, "as No. 1"). While recalling Kafka's similar dislocations of time (in "Give It Up!", for example) and the subjective anxieties and alienated horrors of the expressionist drama, this section also has a more directly referential origin; in a prefatory note taken originally from his autobiography, Müller explains that:
- "[a]n experience that became a part of this text is one of my approaches to Honecker in the House of the Central Committee, going up in the paternoster. On every floor a soldier with a machine gun sat opposite the entrance to the paternoster. The House of the Central Committee was a high security jail for the captives of power."
The play's structure, in which these different texts and experiences are articulated, is complex. "[T]he form or dramaturgy of my plays," Müller explains, "results from my relation to the material" (a relation which Brecht would call a 'Gestus'). He goes on to suggest that it may be the play's activation of many different historical periods (his own 'post-revolutionary' time, the late twenties of Brecht's Lehrstücke, that of post-revolutionary France) that has produced its collage-like "deviation from some dramaturgical norm." Müller links his dramaturgical experimentation explicitly with the attempt, given its most programmatic formulation by Strindberg eighty years earlier, to render a dream-logic in dramatic terms:
- "I have always been interested in the structure of stories within dreams, how it is free of transitions, and associations are overlooked. The contrasts create acceleration. The whole effort of writing is to achieve the quality of my own dreams. Independence from interpretation, too. Faulkner's best texts have this quality."
- Benjamin, Walter. 1973. Understanding Brecht. Trans. Anna Bostock. London and New Yorl: Verso. ISBN 0-902308-99-8.
- Kafka, Franz. 1994. Collected Stories. Ed. and trans. Gabriel Josipovici. Everyman's Library Ser. London: David Campbell. ISBN 1-85715-145-3.
- Müller, Heiner. 1979a. The Task. In Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage. Ed. and trans. Carl Weber. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984. ISBN 0-933826-45-1. p. 81–101
- Müller, Heiner. 1979b. The Mission. In Theatremachine. Ed. and trans. Marc von Henning. London and Boston: Faber, 1995. ISBN 0-571-17528-7. p. 59–84.
- Müller, Heiner. 2001. A Heiner Müller Reader: Plays | Poetry | Prose. Ed. and trans. Carl Weber. PAJ Books Ser. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6578-6.
- Strindberg, August. 1991. Author's Note to A Dream Play. In Strindberg: Plays Two. Trans. Michael Meyer. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-49750-X. p. 174.
- Weber, Carl. 1984. Note on The Task. In Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage. by Heiner Müller. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984. ISBN 0-933826-45-1. p. 82–83
- Weber glosses this line as a reference to the easily recognized yellow shoes of the secret police during the Hungarian revolution of 1956, which betrayed many of them to execution by the revolutionaries (Weber 1984, 82).
- Quoted in Weber (1984, 82).
- Weber (1984, 82).
- Weber (1984) and Müller (1979b).
- Quoted by Weber (1984, 83).
- The example of Müller's re-working may have formed an influence on the American playwright Tony Kushner, who developed the image of the 'angel of history' in the two parts of his Angels in America (stage plays 1991–1992; TV series 2003), since Kushner was taught drama by Müller's American translator at New York University, the Brechtian dramaturgy and directing professor Carl Weber. Kushner wrote the Foreword for the most-recent English-language collection of Müller's work (Müller 2001).
- Quoted by Benjamin (1973, 111).
- Kafka's "Give It Up!" illustrates the relation to Müller's text succinctly: "It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel quite uncertain of the way, I wasn't very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: 'You asking me the way?' 'Yes,' I said, 'since I can't find it myself.' 'Give it up! Give it up!' said he, and turned with a sudden jerk, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter." (Kafka 1994, 465–466). There are many examples in both the English and German languages of expressionist drama, but the stream of consciousness passages in Sophie Treadwell's Machinal (1928) or Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine (1923) provide useful English-language examples.
- Müller (1979b, 60).
- Radio interview for Deutschlandfunk, quoted in Weber (1984. 83).
- Müller (1979b, 60). Strindberg's formulation is given in his prefatory note to his A Dream Play (1901): "In this dream play the author has, as in his former dream play, To Damascus, attempted to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream. Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns; a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations. The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble. But one consciousness rules over them all, that of the dreamer; for him there are no secrets, no illogicalities, no scruples, no laws. He neither acquits nor condemns, but merely relates; and, just as a dream is more often painful than happy, so an undertone of melancholy and of pity for all mortal beings accompanies this flickering tale. Sleep, the great liberator, often seems a tormentor, but when the agony is harshest comes the awakening and reconciles the sufferer with reality—which, however painful, is yet a mercy, compared with the agony of the dream" (Strindberg 1991, 175).