Heiner Müller emerged in the 1950s as one of the most remarkable of the disciples of Bertolt Brecht, completing his artistic apprenticeship at Brecht's Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin where many years later he would be appointed Artistic Director until his death in 1996. In the fifties his plays included works like The Correction (1958) and The Scab (1956) which confronted the contradictions in trying to build socialism in the context of East Germany. Those plays relied heavily on the Brechtian model. But with works like The Battle (Scenes from Germany), structurally inspired by Brecht's Fear and Misery in the Third Reich - but revealing a flair for the grotesque reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch - and Mauser (an oratorio on the corruption of revolution by its need for ruthlessness) and Quartet (1980) - an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses which pre-dates Christopher Hampton's more "loyal" stage and screen adaptations by just under a decade - Müller cast off the tremendous weight of Brecht - the pillar of modern German theatre - and blazed a new path for himself and the European avant-garde. He also became labeled as a dissident Marxist under a "Socialist" regime.
Fascinated by the example of Georg Büchner's famous unfinished play fragment Woyzeck, Müller began writing "synthetic fragments," for the stage, offering more freedom to directors, choreographers and designers who needed to find new way to attack the material for each new production. A Müüller text may retain the same name, but each production is intended to be virtually a new play: Müller "material" or "Stoff" as the Germans say, sculpted by new hands. He accused Brecht of having abandoned the portrayal of contradictions for a smoother style and edifying "lessons" in his later works. Thus the Marxist dissident Müller gained a reputation of being the "anti-Brecht" (The term has more to do with German dialectics than religion though Müller probably delighted in the apocalyptic connotations of this.)
"I'm not interested in answers and solutions,"Müller stated in an interview with his translator Carl Weber-another influential theatre man groomed at the Berliner Ensemble. "I don't have any to offer. I am interested in problems and conflicts." He also stated "I am neither a dope dealer nor a hope-dealer."
Quartet's opening directions calls for it to be performed in a "time-space" which starts in a parlor before the French Revolution and ends in a bunker after the Third World War. The aristocrats created by the opportunist aristocrat Choderlos de Laclos in his novel, are creatures of the Age of Reason. This is not a play of animal passion. They calculate their victories; they anatomize their victims; they turn their game of sexual conquests into a sport or game, which they claim to approach scientifically. Merteuil decides quite young, she says, to "observe and reflect." In Quartet Valmont and Merteuil are in an ambiguous playground-theatre hell, constructed by themselves, and are coursing through time. Time here is relentless. Their time-machine of human manipulation is moving irreconcilably toward their extinction and they know it: eternally playing and replaying their story and fending off the terrible Void which yawns before them by "stuffing" it like a orifice-as they say-full of their conquests. On the one hand they are Nietzcheans (and Müller quotes Nietzsche in the text) taking up the challenge: "Man must venture into the hostile world"-living on the razor's edge. They are Sadeans (Sade is also quoted) in their use of the body for "philosophy"-while they are also victims of the Absurd. Valmont seeks to conquer a woman (La Tourvel) whose life is dominated by God. He would like to replace God in that relationship, to overcome "the torment of living and not being God." They acknowledge the world as a theatre, in which they create roles of their own invention: and they create themselves.
All of this makes Quartet Müller's most existential drama. There are many resonances of Genet, in form, style and content. The two are players against the abyss. In approaching the play for the Washington production, director Zeljko Djukic has found that there is a parallel to Beckett, but notes that Beckett's characters are not driven in their games by passionate sexuality, or passionate fear of oblivion. Valmont and Merteuil are in no way resigned or detached from their existence. Though their power games take place on the stage of life afloat in black emptiness, they play with passion and eros and fire. But their mortality encroaches, and then they are driven by despair, as they anticipate the pealing away of their only tools: the tools of the body, of conquest in the world of matter and senses. This pealing away as an endgame of aging, the slow devastation of time, for those whose god is life's vital force-nothing else.
These wealthy aristocrats who lived before the cataclysm in France, are like those who played games to deny the void in Chekhov's Russia-like many people today living in developed nations, and the wealthy elites in undeveloped ones, who seek ever more personal conquests for themselves while walling themselves off in their communities, with high security cars, and security systems-who deny the realities of the world they have created through their quest for power. They are people living in bubbles, driven by emptiness to further ruinous game playing-on the market, in up-scale playgrounds and casinos, and the cynical use of other human beings for their own projects and games. Against this backdrop we may secretly admire Valmont and Merteuil for their vitality, or we may see in them a horrifying futility.
Müller might say they are just eminently human. They want to direct the play on the stage of life rather than be passive characters in it. Müller's life-long concerns had much to do with this human problem. Many of the Nazi leadership who dominated his childhood were frustrated artists, who made political society into their own "artwork." We can use exploit and even rape the earth-and do the same to the people in it-in the name of a science of conquest, of progress, in the name of "me"-or "us". We can learn to confront death with more equanimity, or we can seek immortality through destruction. We have heard frequently in recent times of people who were prepared to drag others down with them in a drive toward conflagration and destruction. The question is whether such people are less obscene than Laclos' irrepressible aristocrats. This is the meaning of Müller's "Time-space." But our victories, the tangible people we use or exploit, the ones we've conquered, are only our own mental constructs in the end. To give meaning to life. Meaninglessly.
- Joe Martin, Dramaturg