Vinia Dakari [1]

Vinia_photo

“When we speak of peace in Europe we speak of peace in war”
Heiner Müller

The European Union has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for six decades of “[contribution] to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” (“Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to European Union”). The Norwegian Nobel Committee justified their choice: “The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace” (“European Union–Facts”). The “dreadful suffering” in World War II demonstrated “the need for a New Europe,” beginning with the reconciliation of Germany and France after 1945 and later established after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the settling of ethnically-based national conflicts on what has been widely perceived as the European continent.

Exposing the precarious transition from the utopia of European unity to the dystopia of European Union, Eurosceptic politicians questioned the timing of this award, occurring in the middle of the “biggest [economic and social] crisis” in the history of the EU, which “has made the Eurozone look more divided and fragile than it has for decades” (“European Union–Facts”). This controversial award prompts a debate on whether the EU truly envisions “a unity in diversity,” as Anthony Smith states, or is a postmodern mutation of premodern nationalism under the rubric of a globalization-induced uniformity (70).

Such an inner split has often been associated with an illness that devours the body/nation—in all its political allegory and thickness of flesh—from within. Once experienced as self-destructive fascism, this disintegration is lately perceived as a cannibalistic recession in the South threatening the North with aggressive metastases.

What essentially connects Müller and Schlingensief is that they both spoke of guilt not just before a German, but also a universal audience. Müller confessed in 1990: “I feel guilty for Germany. And what surprises me most about recent events is not the tumbling of the wall but the resurgence of nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism. . . . A reunited Germany will make life unpleasant for its neighbors” (qtd. in Holmberg). Schlingensief similarly approached illness as “a symptom of what society has suppressed, of something [i.e. the National Socialist past] that breaks out because it can no longer be restrained” (Malzacher 188). Helen Fehervary sees this guilt as “the pervasive cancer of German history” that destroys the body (politic) from within (86). Susan Sontag accordingly states that, when attached to social and political criticism, the illness metaphor “[is] used to judge society not as out of balance but as repressive” (74).

Heiner Müller’s and Christoph Schlingensief’s political alertness, radical theatrical visions, and personal experiences with terminal cancer provide rich ground for such a discussion. In Müller’s case, the diseased body of German history consumes itself until it completely runs out of either flesh or ideology in Germania Death in Berlin (1953-1971). In Schlingensief’s case, the diseased/dead body of the performer, in all its subjective, phenomenal terror, is politicized through its (dis)appearance in his posthumous award-winning exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011).

Müller’s Death in Berlin: Cancer as Metaphor

Heiner Müller’s Germania Death in Berlin was written between 1956 and 1971, under the impact of ideological, historical, and political transformations. There is always a major conflict at the center, one that he described as the “rebellion of the body against ideas, or more precisely, the impact of ideas, and of the idea of history, on human bodies,” especially the wounds they inflict on them (Germania 50). It is no wonder then that the spectacle of post-human, quasi-mechanical figures that return from the dead of Germany’s nationalist past to haunt a faltering socialist present, and eliminate true revolution until they dissolve, like a cancer-stricken body, into nothingness, was pressing on a raw nerve to the ideologically bankrupt post-war East German regime. The play was thus banned from stage and print in the GDR until 1988, two years before the reunification of Germany.

Müller constructs his post-ideological universe by drawing on “the German schizophrenia” (Hamletmachine 28). The idea of rupture is obvious in the questioning of German identity and ensuing ideological conflict and internal violence as the play’s thematic core; in the structural rifts conveyed through temporal discontinuities; in the way plot is fragmented in several short and mainly unrelated scenes; in dense intertextuality conveyed through a large cast of characters borrowed from German history, mythology, literature, and folklore; in spectacular violence conveyed through the violent spectacles of dismembered bodies, obscene creatures, terrorist acts, disease and death; and ultimately, in spectatorial alienation induced by these semantically dense and schematically unpresentable scenes.

What the fragmentary nature and the intense physicality of the play indicate is a body “unfinished,” mechanical, and diseased, one that “reflects the historical development of the GDR in a transitional phase” (Schivelbusch and Fehervary 104). This political debate is primarily grounded in the body-in-pain in all its pervasiveness and urgency, at once suffering and pain-inflicting, violated and violating, cannibalized and cannibalistic. This body is choreographed into a spectacle of terrorism, “the terror of Germany” in Müller’s words, on both hermeneutic and aesthetic levels. Sue Ellen Case maintains that, if “true terrorism celebrates failure, unclear distinctions, error and confusion,” then the cancer death of a communist worker in the final scene attests to “the barbarian within” the ultimate form of internal disorder (72). The repeated failure and the systematic suppression of reaction are associated with the concept of “German misery,” the inability of the German people to sustain a successful revolution and a futile wait for a progress that is never realized (von Dassanowsky-Harris 26). Cancer then becomes an apt metaphor for the “aspects of [German] history [that] have been repressed for too long” (Müller, Germania 24).

In Germania, Müller attempts a reviewing of German history from medieval times to the early 1950s and the crisis in the German working class movement in a GDR setting, so as to unearth the true causes of its current social and political disintegration. To this end, he constructs paired scenes, with each first scene referring to Germany’s historical or mythical past, and its double to East German reality. The failure of the peasants’ war against Prussian monarch Frederick II in the sixteenth century appears as the precursor of the defeat of the Spartacist proletarian uprising in 1918 (as seen in the first scene, “The Street 1”). The battle of Stalingrad (in the “Homage to Stalin 1” scene) becomes “a metaphor for all futile historical battles,” culminating in the most prominent ideological conflict in modern European history: Hitler’s fascism against Stalin’s communism (Ganter 126). The Workers’ Strike in the streets of East Berlin in 1953 and its brutal suppression by the Soviet army (in “The Workers’ Monument” scene) signify the ideological disintegration within the communist movement. Dictatorial figures such as Caesar and Napoleon as man-eating zombies are paired with the Nibelung warriors, creatures found in Germanic myths, thus ascribing mythological depth to endless intra-European hostility. Another pair of scenes “The Brothers 1” and “The Brothers 2” dramatizes fratricide as “an old German situation” as Müller said (Germania 23). The conflict here is not one of protagonist against antagonist, but one of “the self at war with the self,” which is also the ruling principle in cancer metaphors (Sontag 16).

The Nibelungs walking among corpses in “Homage to Stalin 1” scene from Germania Death in Berlin, Theaterlabor Bremen 2009
The Nibelungs walking among corpses in “Homage to Stalin 1” scene from Germania Death in Berlin, Theaterlabor Bremen 2009
The bone merchant in “Homage to Stalin 2” scene from Germania Death in Berlin, photo © Silke Winkler
The bone merchant in “Homage to Stalin 2” scene from Germania Death in Berlin, photo © Silke Winkler

The motif of profound self-destruction culminates in the eleventh scene, a pantomime with the title “Nightplay.” As stage directions indicate: “A person stands on stage. He is larger than life-size, perhaps a puppet. He is wearing posters. His face is without a mouth” (Germania Death in Berlin 34). The puppet/person is mocked by an offstage agent while trying to reach a bicycle—a symbol of historical progress throughout German history (Ganter 213). After tearing his own legs and arms off, the puppet contemplates his despairing condition, his scattered limbs and the useless bicycle, lamenting his last lost chance to a successful revolution. Then, “two Beckett-spikes at eye-level close in from left and right,” and, with two movements of his head, the person/puppet blinds himself. With lice crawling out of the empty sockets, the person screams “and the mouth originates with the scream” (Germania Death in Berlin 34).

This scene poses several challenges, as it is almost impossible to be staged, except if recited or cinematically projected as a surreal animation. Similar to Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words I and II, “Nightplay” dramatizes the existential struggle of the self against a hostile universe (Kalb 166). Another obvious association can be made to Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” where the “sonorous vibration” of pain becomes visible through concentric circles on the surface of water (Jameson 63). As the physical mutilation of the puppet coincides with the crippled ideology it represents, however, Müller’s absurd stage breaks from Beckett’s “history-less world” (Kalb 165). Dassanowsky-Harris interprets it as German self-destruction on a symbolic level, and considers it to be the play’s most critical point (16). Even though “Nightplay” seems to stand in the play unpaired, it is in fact the abstract double of the cancer-stricken worker’s death throes in the final scene.

Exploring the association between body and voice in torture, Elaine Scarry states that “the goal of the torturer is to make one, the body, emphatically and crushingly present by destroying it, and to make the other, the voice, absent by destroying it” (49). Here, however, with the body gradually disappearing and the voice violently emerging, the analogies of defeat are reversed. The appearance of voice construed as a rebirth of identity has to come violently. But with no functional limbs, this rebirth is instantly deferred. Unable to be sufficiently substantiated into a revolutionary scheme, this suggestive cry is congealed into a “material signifier in isolation,” just like Munch’s scream: produced by a subject without ears, it is lost in the concentric circles of the water and into nature (Jameson 75).

In this all-but-Cartesian universe of “Nightplay” death is not an irreversible state governed by deterministic temporal frames, but rather an erratically expanding state of protracted liminality to the point of becoming a permanent condition. Arpad Szakolczai postulates that “the closing stages of a world war, especially the process of reconstruction that starts after such massive warfare, can be conceived as a rite of reaggregation. This is the moment to assess guilt and mete out punishment, but also to heal wounds, look towards the future” (215). The pain as performed by the non-yet-human puppet articulates the horror of incomplete transition, the lack of effective restoration of order and peace, and, hence, Müller’s own disillusionment with the failed ideological apparatus of the GDR. Caught in transition, the Müllerian puppet, like German communism, and the ever-expanding contours of Europeanization that were to emerge from the ruins of the Berlin Wall, represents what Johannes Birringer perceives as the redefinition of Europe: “a highly complex work in progress” (28).

The final scene, “Death in Berlin 2,” breaks away from surrealism and acquires real-life proportions. Hilse, a communist worker previously confined in a GDR prison, and whose opposition to strike is indicative of an ideological split within communist socio-politics, is dying of cancer. For Hilse, who is trapped in the past, cancer represents the impasse occasioned by his inability to reconcile his political beliefs with the new circumstances: “I’m only half of myself, cancer ate the other half. And if you’re asking my cancer, things are just fine” (Müller, Germania Death in Berlin 36). No more safely framed by a body, the subject fails to maintain his ideological integrity. His incomplete body not only signifies Germany as a physically and politically split nation, as the Berlin wall would later prove, but it also suggests an ideological division within the East and the misappropriation of communist ideals, turning this aspiring experiment into a dystopia, even among its devotees, like Müller. The parade of cannibalistic and cannibalized bodies is suggestive of the battle within Hilse’s body, a mise-en-abyme of the self at war with the self. “We are a party my cancer and I” Hilse says, and the rotten part could be either side of the coin, but always integral to the self until there is “no flesh for the cancer of myth to feed on,” Fehervary comments—an ideological, dramatic, and symbolic stasis (92).

Germania Death in Berlin chronicles a profound disillusionment as it anticipates a dark prospect of the destruction of all utopias, Müller’s own included. His personal predicament was “the two souls dwelling in [his] breast” (Hamletmachine 15)—the two Germanies. Embracing both sides, Müller admitted “standing with one leg on each side of the wall” as the only way for him to go (Germania 32-33). Sontag’s analogy of cancer as constant transit between two worlds, as “a dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick,” rhymes thus with Müller’s personal and political split: he died of cancer in 1995; and he was well known as an East German playwright with immense success in the West.

Schlingensief’s “Death” in Venice: Cancer as Spectacle

If Müller’s Germania Death in Berlin chronicles the quest for a national identity before the fall of the wall, Christoph Schlingensief’s art showcases the same conundrum after reunification. While the wall represented the apex of modernist oppositions alongside a profound identity crisis emanating from such polarities, its fall did not provide any answers. It was some time around the foundation of the European Union soon after the fall of the wall and shortly before the Balkan massacre was to take place. This is the period of precarious unity, of globalized economy and its double standards and of a loosely defined peace among nations. And while warfare in its WWII conception has been (almost) eliminated, “[the] widening gap in living standards between the prosperous North and the impoverished, chaotic, and self-destructive regions of the South” have been some of the new political challenges, according to Jurgen Habermas (59).

Christoph Schlingensief, West German filmmaker, performer, and director, also died of cancer in 2010, while working on an installation that would represent Germany in the 2011 Biennale in Venice. Early in his career, his work had been all but appropriate to be acclaimed as representative of his country, as he was criticized as an anarchist, while his art was initially rejected as pubertal and trashy. His early film work tackled contemporary taboos (i.e. Nazism, obscenities, disabilities, and sexual perversions), the guilt intertwined with German cultural memory, as well as the chain of events that led to the division and reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is evident in his Germany Trilogy in the early 1990s: 100 Years of Hitler, The German Chainsaw Massacre, and Terror 2000.

Schlingensief did not glorify the fall, however, which he believed to be another victory of colonization on economic grounds. On a European/global scale, he was interested in the West’s apathy to violence as this is occasioned by postmodern media culture. At the same time, he questioned conventional aesthetics and experimented with the effect of alternative spaces on spectatorship. During his half-satirical/half-serious art-actions, he would invite passers-by to vote for the deportation of asylum seekers in Austria, or he would propose to become the leader of a political party, or even declare his intention to attack politicians. Alternatively, he would board a ferry in New York in order to “sink the garbage of German history,” which he carried in an urn, into the waters of the Hudson River. For what audience was he performing this ritual? Unaware tourists? The ever-present media? Or himself? Baring theatricality to its bones, he would thus energize the transformative potential of the gaze.

Schlingensief in "Please love Austria" (Photo: Baltzer)
Schlingensief in “Please love Austria” (Photo: Baltzer)
CHANCE 2000 on the '98 election campaign (Photo: Schlingensief)
CHANCE 2000 on the ’98 election campaign (Photo: Schlingensief)

Anticipating the precarious unity of European states under principles of economic manipulation rather than meaningful support, Schlingensief belonged to a generation of politically alert artists who used the post-wall East German bankrupt socialism to “make—as malignantly as possible—the disease in the national body of Germany the subject matter of theatre and to create feelings of uncertainty,” Frank Castorf said. In his pre-cancer work, therefore, illness becomes a symptom of what society and the individual have suppressed, bringing together the represented with the real. After his diagnosis with lung cancer in 2008, his preoccupation with sickness and death even crossed the borders of the metaphorical and essentially became a lived experience, one that he should not remain silent about. Schlingensief presented the unpresentable, the fear for the stranger in him. It was this existential as much as socio-political split this retrospective exhibition of the German pavilion at the Biennale negotiated.

The German pavilion, a stone neoclassical “tomb of history” that was built in 1909 and redesigned by the Nazis, is a “suspicious representational building,” Schlingensief admitted. In it, he was working on what would prove to be his remaining life’s commitment: the creation of an opera village in Burkina Faso, West Africa. It would consist of teaching facilities, recreation sites, and accommodation. The pavilion would therefore familiarize spectators with this project in its celebration of the Third World.

Performer interacting with a video projection of Schlingensief in Via Intolleranza II, Theatertreffen 2011, Berlin, May 2011 © David Baltzer
Performer interacting with a video projection of Schlingensief in Via Intolleranza II, Theatertreffen 2011, Berlin, May 2011 © David Baltzer

As those plans were disrupted by Schlingensief’s death, the curator of the German pavilion decided to devote the exhibition to his career as symptomatic of a double-edged suffering, Germany—the political­—and cancer—the personal (Diez and Reinhardt). The exhibition therefore combined the three milestones of Schlingensief’s art: on the right wing there were projections of his early splatter films about Germany. The left wing was dedicated to his operation in Africa, featuring the projection of a filmed expedition to the construction site. Images of peaceful African landscapes were juxtaposed with scenes from his play Via Intoleranza, in which Schlingensief himself, and, after his death, his filmed double, expressed his concerns about Africa and its pillaging by the West. Finally, the main hall was occupied by the sets of his 2008 Fluxus oratorio “A Church of Fear vs. The Alien Within.” The church-like setting dealt with his illness and the concomitant turn in his art from boldly political to painfully personal. During the mass/performance, Christ-like Schlingensief would distribute the Eucharist to the crowded auditorium saying “This is not my body. This is your body.” He would thus cross the borders of performance, by reminding those taking part of the dying performer and the incontestable reality of their own deaths.

Christ-like Schlingensief distributing the Eucharist in The Church of Fear, September 2008 © David Baltzer bildbuehne.de
Christ-like Schlingensief distributing the Eucharist in The Church of Fear, September 2008 © David Baltzer bildbuehne.de

The day the pavilion’s doors opened, however, the altar was empty of live actors. In their place were the artist’s x-rays and a hospital bed. A domineering image of a beast with red lungs complemented the funereal atmosphere, while projections of the artist as a child counterposed those of him towards the end of his life, ravaged by illness. The main screen above the altar projected scenes from The Current State of Things, where he was heard dictating disheartening medical reports. Deliberately attacking the audience’s comfort zone and blurring the lines between “honest sharing, exhibitionism, [and] emotional blackmail” (Malzacher 191), Schlingensief posthumously made spectatorship a painful process by awakening the fear of one’s own encounter with death.

Schlingensief’s posthumous exhibition at the German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 4 June – 27 November 2011 © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de
Schlingensief’s posthumous exhibition at the German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 4 June – 27 November 2011 © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de
Details from the altar. German Pavilion, © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de
Details from the altar. German Pavilion, © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de
The artist’s x-rays on display. German Pavilion, © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de
The artist’s x-rays on display. German Pavilion, © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de

Being a heavily haunted space, the German Pavilion thus becomes at once an historical metaphor, a performative site, and a commodity that transpires and expires before an audience. The filmic reproduction of the artist’s life, art, and suffering creates the same enclosed universe seen in Germania Death in Berlin. Although at a first glance the pavilion’s stage is empty of actors, the stage is the pavilion itself, as an international crowd of visitors populates it. Space is literally and figuratively given to them to mourn the national (German) and private (Schlingensief’s) tragedies exhibited. Yet, as the author/artist is literally and figuratively dead, spectators find themselves confronted by an unprecedented freedom. The spectacle is released from all meaning, allowing for a limitless perception and reception, as spectators gravitate toward the semi-ontological cleft caused by the absent artist.

Visitors at the German Pavilion. © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de
Visitors at the German Pavilion. © Roman Mensing, artdoc.de

Schlingensief’s performative absence subsequently poses a challenge on both aesthetic and hermeneutic grounds: what remains of performance once its generic constituents cease to apply? Does the death of the performer (actual and represented) equal the death of the spectacle? Since the ontological precondition of performance is the co-presence of actor and spectator, Being-ness is substantiated through the exposure to others, and “society becomes the spectacle of itself,” Jean-Luc Nancy maintains (67). By means of their participation, spectators also turned themselves into spectacles and were left to complete the unfinished artwork on their own. Within this liminal space, spectators are clearly apart from the performer, as they are alive while he is not, but also in communion with him, as they are actively taking part in the spectacle he consciously created for them before he died. Negotiating the borders between the symbolic and the lived, Schlingensief haunted the already haunted site not as a man-devouring apparition, like Müller’s ghost of history, but as the very body of history in transition, reflecting the very idea of Europe as an ongoing project.

Schlingensief thus gave a literal dimension to his aesthetics of the unfinished. According to Barthes, “to give a text an Author is to impose limits on that text . . . to close the writing” (147). “The birth of the reader,” then, must occur “at the cost of the death of the Author.” This new orientation can no longer be personal; the reader, according to Barthes, is one “without history, biography, psychology” (148). Schlingensief’s posthumous meta-art in Venice, as much as Müller’s Germania Death in Berlin, therefore, can be re-appreciated for their capacity to invite new readings and affect a timeless and universal audience.

Politicizing the Personal: Müller’s and Schlingensief’s Open Endings

The fact that both Müller and Schlingensief died of a condition they had previously aestheticized intensifies the experience of reception. Sontag’s response to the question of the aesthetic quality of cancer was downright negative, considering it to be too obscene, to woefully linked to undecorative dying to leave any space for etherialization and poetic sensibility. Interestingly, it was through a series of poems that Müller chose to speak about his own illness. In one of them, he wondered: “Was I proud of my unvanquished/Tumor/One moment long flesh/of my flesh” echoing the ambivalent embrace of death anticipated by his ending to Quartet: “we’re alone now cancer my lover.” (“I Chew the Sick Man’s Diet Death” 109; Hamletmachine 118). Schlingensief’s reaction to cancer similarly exudes the pride of a megalomaniac, when he once said: “I am convinced I’ll get cancer . . . like Heiner Müller” and later: “I sometimes think that perhaps I instigated it somehow” (qtd. in Malzacher 198). “Could cancer be the new romantic disease?” Malzacher asks. Or is it purely the outcome of a long repression of national and personal guilt, as Sontag would have been quick to notice?

These aesthetic and political negotiations of the represented and the real as concurrent states disclose the ongoing appeal of the works of Müller and Schlingensief. And yet, they shared much more than their ideological opposition, obscene aesthetics, and private suffering. They both sought to escape from their country’s (and Europe’s) poisonous polarities–and, symbolically, from their dying bodies. “I’m waiting for the Third World . . . this big waiting room, waiting for history” Müller once said (Germania 15, 33). Schlingensief likewise wanted the Opera Village to be a prosthetic lung, a place where he could breathe: “The opera house must be built out of those materials that can be found in Africa. That is the last breath I want to take.”

Works Cited

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<http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/death-in-venice-resurrecting-schlingensief-at-the-biennale-a-766151.htm>.
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Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Penguin, 2002.
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Umathum, Sandra. “Theatre of Self-Questioning: Rocky Dutsche, ’68, or the Children of the Revolution.” In Christoph Schlingensief: Art Without Borders, edited by Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer, 57-70. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2010.


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[1] Vinia Dakari is currently completing her doctoral thesis on illness aesthetics in contemporary cancer plays and performances (Department of American Literature and Culture, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece). She has taught undergraduate courses on drama and critical writing. Her work has been presented at international conferences, and her essays have appeared in academic journals and edited collections. She is currently researching on Narrative Medicine techniques in theatre and performance, which she has implemented during workshop presentations and fieldwork in cancer hospitals.

 

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From Heiner Müller’s Death in Berlin to Christoph Schlingensief’s “Death” in Venice: Metaphors and Spectacles of Illness on the Occasion of a Nobel Prize