Socialist Past, Postmigrant Present: Renegotiating the Canon at the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin

Hans Roth*


Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater, the smallest of Berlin’s municipal theaters, was founded in 1952 in the GDR, in the wake of ongoing debates about the aesthetic norm of socialist realism. It was established as a counterpart to Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and dedicated to the cultivation of the classical bourgeois canon and the faithful adaptation of Soviet plays. Nowadays, the Gorki once again plays a crucial role in a political conflict concerning the canon of German theatre. Under its longtime artistic director Shermin Langhoff, the Gorki has become an outstanding example of a municipal theatre that follows an agenda of radical diversity and turns against long-lasting mechanisms of exclusion in the German theater landscape. The following article argues that the Gorki’s present and its institutional past are much more intertwined than has been recognized so far: Since the beginning of Langhoff’s directorship, the “new” Gorki has repeatedly referred to the history of the “old” Gorki and the political legacies of GDR theatre. Taking Nurkan Erpulat’s The Cherry Orchard and Sebastian Nübling’s adaption of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine as examples, the article shows how past and present canon struggles overlap at the Gorki. In both performances, the aesthetic and political conflicts of the socialist past are neither reproduced nor discarded but subversively appropriated for the Gorki’s attempt to criticize and renegotiate the canon of German theater.

Keywords: Heiner Müller, GDR theatre, Maxim Gorki Theater, canon, postmigrant theatre

Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin. Lopakhin, the newly rich son of a former serf of the Ranyevskaya family, is furious. There he stands in his white suit, grimly triumphant over those who had hitherto ignored him and his advice. He has just revealed to the landowner Ranyevskaya and her entourage that he has bought the indebted estate on which his father and grandfather served as serfs at an auction; now, he intends to cut down the beautiful but useless cherry orchard in order to build holiday homes—a plan he had previously proposed to Ranyevskaya in vain.

Taner Sahintürk as Lopakhin in Nurkan Erpulat’s The Cherry Orchard (Maxim Gorki Theater, 2011). Photo: Thomas Aurin

This scene at the end of the third act, in which Lopakhin reveals himself as the new owner of the estate, is the undisputed climax of Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. In Nurkan Erpulat’s staging of the play, which premiered at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater on 15 November 2013, Lopakhin’s outburst turns into an extended, raging speech, in the course of which the actor, Taner Şahintürk, seems to fall out of character. Lopakhin/Şahintürk tells a tale about growing up as the child of a Turkish greengrocer and criticizes the political treatment of the so-called guest workers (“Gastarbeiter”), who were recruited by the Federal Republic of Germany from Turkey, Greece, and Italy in the 1960s; treated for a long time as “foreigners,” they were expected to leave again soon: “Come to us and rebuild our country. And when the dirty work is done, then fuck off again or stay in your neighborhood. . . . And then say: ‘Oh, they’re just keeping to themselves, they don’t want to integrate at all.’”[1]

At the end of his tirade, in which he also addresses the discrimination against actors of Turkish origin in the German theatre system, Şahintürk abruptly turns to the back wall of the scenery and begins to tear down the wallpaper, which imitates the design of the auditorium walls. Underneath, various layers of photographs become visible, which partly refer to the history of the Maxim Gorki Theater: The building was erected in 1827 as a concert hall for the Singakademie zu Berlin; during the revolution of 1848, the Prussian National Assembly met there; and in the GDR in 1951, it became the newly founded Maxim Gorki Theater.

In Chekhov’s play, the cherry orchard is a symbol of the dawn of a new era and the detachment from the old. In Erpulat’s version, it becomes a metaphor for the Maxim Gorki Theater, which has to do with the institutional context of the production. The Cherry Orchard was the inaugural production of Shermin Langhoff’s directorship, who succeeded Armin Petras in the 2013/2014 season together with Jens Hillje and still runs the theatre today.

Exterior view of the Maxim Gorki Theater building. Photo: Tuxyso/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Langhoff’s move to the “Gorki,” the smallest of Berlin’s five municipal theatres, was perceived as a little sensation back then (Wildermann). Langhoff was not only the first director with a Turkish migrant background at a German municipal theatre but also the founding director of the Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg, one of the first institutions in the German theatre landscape to define itself through a critical engagement with questions of cultural identity, race and ethnicity, thus providing a new platform for German-Turkish, migrant and other BIPoC artists and actors (Donath). It was also Langhoff who coined the term “postmigrant theatre,” which opened up a discursive space for the examination of intercultural, intersectional and postcolonial issues in a hegemonically white German theatrical public sphere (Sharifi; Sharifi and Skwirblies 40–41).

With regard to public attention, Langhoff’s directorship at the Gorki marks the beginning of a new (or second) phase of postmigrant theatre. While the Ballhaus Naunynstraße, with the exception of its highly acclaimed production Verrücktes Blut, still more or less operated at the margins of the Berlin and German theatre landscape, the two new artistic directors, Langhoff and Hillje, and their first seasons at the Gorki were portrayed in numerous newspaper articles and honored with several awards (Tagesspiegel). In a similar vein, German theatre studies began to address questions of institutional inclusion and exclusion only with some delay—the early substantial scholarly contributions about postmigrant theatre in Germany predominantly came from the U.K. or the U.S. (Sieg; Stewart).

Given these changing circumstances, it is noteworthy that the term postmigrant theatre slightly receded into the background with Langhoff’s move to the Gorki. While “postmigrant theatre” for the mainstream of German theatre discourse is associated with both the Ballhaus and the Gorki, the latter has increasingly used other concepts such as “desintegration” (Czollek) or “deheimatization” (Ayata) to describe its institutional agenda. Along these lines, the Gorki has developed into a stage well-known for its diversity and transculturality—both in terms of personnel and thematics. Today, in almost every discussion about the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion in German theatre, reference is made to the “new” Gorki—its ethnically mixed, multilingual ensemble and its claim to represent the radical diversity of Berlin’s urban society (see, for example, Heinicke 67; Malzacher 23).

Under Langhoff’s aegis, many performances deal with current conflicts of identity and belonging from an intersectional perspective and frequently address the gender, sexuality, nationality and/or ethnicity of the performers—as does Taner Şahintürk in his raging diatribe, in which he refers to the German-Turkish history of labor migration. Yet, the self-image of the new Gorki in this scene is also depicted in another way: the allegorical tearing down of the old wallpaper and the uncovering of multiple layers underneath suggests that the Gorki, instead of merely focusing on the expansion or the replacement of an existing canon, takes a “multi-layered” approach in the literal sense: On the one hand, Şahintürk’s gesture illustrates the Gorki’s political claim to break up encrusted institutional structures and revise the canon of German theatre. On the other hand, the scene thoroughly reflects on the historicity of this canon by articulating its critique with reference to the theater’s past and within the setting of Chechov’s play that negotiates the dawn of a new era. Thereby, it is indicated that an institutional renewal of the theatrical canon does not seem possible without establishing a connection to the history of the institution in question.

Socialist Canonizations: The Foundation of the Maxim Gorki Theater in the GDR

Thus, it was certainly no coincidence that Langhoff and her team chose The Cherry Orchard as the opening production of her directorship. The naturalistic drama, which premiered at the Moscow Art Theater in 1904 under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky, was an unmistakable allusion to the Maxim Gorki Theater’s socialist past and its foundation in 1951. As already suggested by the choice of Maxim Gorky for its namesake, the theatre in the GDR was originally intended as a model for staging socialist realism, with a focus on contemporary Soviet and Russian drama (Schumacher, “Nachbetrachtung” 152–57; Preuß 574–80). The actor Maxim Vallentin, who since his time in exile in Moscow had become an advocate of the naturalistic, empathetic style of acting associated with Stanislavsky, was called to be the founding director (Ullrich 105–10).

Maxim Valentin (2nd row, on the right side) at a public rehearsal at the Maxim Gorki Theater. Photo: Ulrich Kohls/Bundesarchiv (183-A1228-0004-003), CC-BY-SA 3.0

According to the GDR theatre-scholar Ernst Schumacher, the opening of the Gorki can be understood as a “Gegengründung” (“counter foundation”) to the Berliner Ensemble, the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel, founded in 1949 (Schumacher, “Gegengründung”). Although Brecht’s partisanship for socialism and the decision to locate his theatre in East Berlin were enormously prestigious for the GDR, his epic-dialectical theatre was anything but uncontroversial. In the 1950s, the leading cultural-political cadres of the SED still very much clung to the Stalinist condemnation of formalism and modernism (Hasche et al. 15–26). Instead of orienting itself towards the leftist avant-gardes of the Weimar Republic or the tradition of agitprop performance, the theatre was to focus primarily on taking care of cultural heritage and developing further the “advanced” elements of bourgeois culture, which meant primarily Weimar Classicism and nineteenth-century realism (Ackermann). Anything that was not compatible with this conception ran the risk of being denigrated as “decadent” or “petty bourgeois formal play” —which led to a dilemma for those artists who sympathized with the GDR but were aesthetically more oriented towards Brecht and epic theatre (Hasche et al. 28–37). In 1953, this campaign culminated in the first German Stanislavski Conference, at which the psychological-realist style of acting associated with Stanislavski was propagated as the only legitimate form of socialist theatre—a plan that was not successful in the long run, but, for a long time, made it difficult to interpret classical plays in an unconventional manner and to pursue new aesthetic approaches (Hecht 147–62).

The “New” Gorki: Radical Diversity Beyond German-German History?

At first glance, it seems as if these debates about socialist realism have little in common with the battles over the German theatre canon being waged at the Gorki today: In the GDR, the conflict between a strict orientation towards realism and the bourgeois heritage, on the one hand, and a rather experimental form of dialectical-materialist theatre, on the other hand, was ignited predominantly by aesthetic and theoretical questions concerning different acting styles or the dramatic form.

In contrast to this, today’s debates are more or less centered around theatre as a social institution that, in its current form, only represents a small, privileged part of society. In this regard, Shermin Langhoff has repeatedly spoken of outright “Verteilungskämpfen” (“distributional conflicts”) (Laudenbach; Çiğdem and Hackbarth) in the field of theatre, to which the Gorki answers with an intersectional, radically diverse approach, creating a public platform for previously underrepresented positions and perspectives.

Keeping this in mind, it is rather surprising that the new Gorki, in its very first production under Shermin Langhoff’s leadership, decisively referred to the theatre’s past and its former purpose as a socialist stage. Given their different political contexts and goals, one could expect the new Gorki to not show great interest in the histories of German division and reunification. Even more so, because in public discourse Germany’s national identity has long been defined almost exclusively in terms of the Nationalist Socialist past, the Cold War and the construction and fall of the Berlin Wall—which is one reason why so many municipal theatres still struggle to acknowledge the significance of migration and cultural diversity for German society. Furthermore, migrant and East German life realities in reunified Germany are repeatedly played off against each other, especially regarding the election successes of the right-wing populist AfD in the former GDR: an alleged disinterest of left-wing intellectuals in economic issues and an increasing focus on the representation of social minorities are made responsible for a growing alienation between “metropolitan leftists” and East German protest voters (for a critical overview, see Lierke et al.).

Concerning Berlin’s theatre landscape, the question of how to deal with the legacy of the former GDR and demands for institutional diversification are usually discussed separately too. In fact, they are often even treated as opposites: Especially those theaters that explicitly and willingly place themselves in the tradition of GDR theatre, such as the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz or the Theater an der Parkaue, appear as predominantly white institutions.

This juxtaposition between East German and post-migrant topics also plays an occasional role in the Gorki’s self-description and -understanding. In her inaugural visit to the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Berlin Senate, Shermin Langhoff announced that the Gorki from now on would increasingly open itself up to “other biographies, origins and backgrounds” (Abgeordnetenhaus Berlin)—a hint to her predecessor Armin Petras, during whose tenure the Gorki defined itself strongly through the examination of the German-German past.

A similar observation is made by theatre scholar Matt Cornish in his 2017 book Performing Unification: History and Nation in German Theater after 1989. In the epilogue of his study, Cornish discusses the Ballhaus and the Gorki as recent examples of engaging with questions of national identity in contemporary German theatre. But compared to canonical performances such as Einar Schleef’s staging of Rolf Hochhuth’s Wessis in Weimar or 50 Aktenkilometer by Rimini Protokoll, which he discusses in the main part of his study, Cornish emphasizes the differences: “The new Gorki is still obsessed with history. Just not necessarily German-German history” (185).

I partially agree with Cornish that for the negotiation of German identity attempted at the Gorki, “unification itself has become less important for imagining that identity” (172). Among the performances at the Gorki—for example, in Yael Ronen’s research pieces and Marta Gornicka’s choral works—German division is merely one component in negotiating the complex and multiple lifeworlds of contemporary Berlin and its transnational communities (Cornish 186;Gorke et al. 186–207). From my perspective, however, quite a number of productions at the new Gorki have linked this examination of “hybrid and hyphenated identities” (Cornish 172) with German-German history and the GDR theatre. Nurkan Erpulat’s The Cherry Orchardis an excellent example of these attempts: far from rejecting the Gorki’s past, the reference to socialist realism indicates that the new Gorki is not only about opening a new chapter in German theatre history but also rewriting this history anew from a post-migrant perspective.

Another attempt to bridge post-migrant canon struggles and German-German history, already mentioned by Cornish, would be the staging of Volker Braun’s Die Übergangsgesellschaft (The Transitional Society) directed by Lukas Langhoff in 2013, the (former) husband of Shermin Langhoff and descendant of a famous (East) German theatre dynasty. Braun’s drama, which premiered at the Maxim Gorki Theater in 1988 and was then directed by Thomas Langhoff, Lukas’ father, is often considered an exemplary snapshot of the time and the mood around the Wende. However, the Gorki’s attempt to transpose this play to the present situation of post-migrant society was largely regarded as a failure: the work was unanimously disapproved by critics and subsequently dropped with haste (Cornish 171).

In contrast, a more sustainable form of renegotiating GDR theatre history can be found in the Gorki’s repeated reference to Heiner Müller, probably the most famous writer of the GDR. Müller, who died in 1996 and who himself worked briefly at the Maxim Gorki Theater in the late 1950s, is one of the most frequently performed authors in the Langhoff era, with productions such as Zement (Cement, 2015), Der Auftrag (The Mission, 2016), Die Hamletmaschine (The Hamletmachine, 2017) and Herzstück (Heartpiece, 2019)—a frequency which is quite surprising for an old white man who is considered the GDR’s most prominent dramatist.

The Ambivalent Legacy of GDR Theatre: The Case of Heiner Müller

Heiner Müller worked at the Gorki at a time when the theatre’s narrow orientation towards socialist realism was somewhat loosened. Müller’s plays Der Lohndrücker (The Scab) and Die Korrektur (The Correction), which premiered at the Gorki in September 1958, didn’t follow the dogmatic interpretation of Stanislavsky’s method held in high esteem in the GDR. Both plays, written together with Inge Müller, were rather oriented towards Brecht’s learning play and aimed at a realistic examination of the economic contradictions and problems of the young GDR (Hasche et al. 35–38; Schumacher, “Nachbetrachtung” 155). They belong to the genre of so-called production plays which dealt with questions of socialist management or collectivization of the countryside in parable-like form. The phase of production plays ended in the early 1960s, culminating in two proper theatre scandals: In 1963, Peter Hack’s Die Sorgen und Die Macht (Worries and Power), directed by Wolfgang Langhoff (Thomas’ father, Lukas’ grandfather) at the Deutsches Theater, was canceled after high-ranking members of the SED had publicly spoken out against the play. Already in 1961, the year the Wall was built, Heiner Müller’s Die Umsiedlerin (The Resettled Woman) had been banned after a public rehearsal and condemned as a “reaktionäres Machwerk” (“reactionary piece of trash”) (Hasche et al. 170). Heiner Müller was, subsequently, expelled from the GDR Writer’s Union, and the director B.K. Tragelehn was sentenced to probation in production (Braun).

As a result of the controversies surrounding Die Umsiedlerin, numerous plays by Müller could not be performed and published in the GDR until the 1980s, or only with great delay. This also applies to Die Hamletmaschine, published in 1977 in the West German theatre magazine Theater heute and premiered in Paris in 1979. In the short text, which runs just under nine pages, Müller combines fragments of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with grotesque bodily images and a wider reflection on the intellectuals’ situation under socialism, which is characterized by hopelessness and agony. Although the text is divided into five parts like Shakespeare’s tragedy, and the names Hamlet, Ophelia and Polonius appear, there is neither dialogue in the classical sense nor a coherent plot. In his autobiography, Müller himself described Die Hamletmaschine as a “shrunken head” (“Krieg ohne Schlacht” 230)—the result of an aborted attempt to transfer the story of a melancholic, dithering Danish prince to the socialist present. The text deals with “the impossibility of coming into dialogue with the material, of transporting the material into the world of so-called real-life socialism-Stalinism. There was no more dialogue.” In view of this “inability to dialogue” (230),. Die Hamletmaschine appears as a paradigmatic example of a postmodern and postdramatic theatre text (Weber 463–502). The numerous metatheatrical and intertextual insertions, as well as contemporary historical allusions to the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the RAF and the Tate-LaBianca murders do not create a coherent stage reality but a sequence of unfinished, nightmare-like scenarios.

Die Hamletmaschine at the Maxim Gorki Theater (2017)

Whereas Müller’s Hamletmaschine examines the political stagnation of socialism in the Eastern Block, Sebastian Nübling’sstaging of Die Hamletmaschine, which premiered on 24 February  2017, can be read as an attempt to transpose it to the political situation in the Middle East today: the “CLOWN IN THE SECOND COMMUNIST SPRING” (Müller “Hamletmaschine” 545) that appears at the beginning of Müller’s text now becomes the “Clown in the Third Arab Spring” for the 2017 performance. This thematic shift has to do with the biographies and backgrounds of the actors involved in the project: Die Hamletmaschine was the second production of the Exile Ensemble, a group of actors and artists based at the Gorki who are unable to return to their home country for political reasons. With this project, funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the Gorki established a counter-model to the often short-lived theatre projects with migrants that many municipal theatres briefly included in their program since the refugee movements of 2015: Instead of a temporarily and potentially voyeuristic form of amateur theatre, the Exile Ensemble offers exiled artists from Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan a professional working environment, including collaborations with directors such as Yael Ronen or Sebastian Nübling (German Federal Foundation).

The most striking feature of Nübling’s Die Hamletmaschine lies in a juxtaposition of the textual dimension of the performance and its other elements: the spoken text is also in a large-scale onto a gauze curtain during the performance. Müller’s German text, which apart from minor interventions remains largely unchanged, is supplemented by Arabic texts by Ayham Majid Agha, the artistic director of the Exile Ensemble; in a loose emulation of Müller’s style, they reflect on the civil war in Syria and its violence. While the visualization of the text in white letters projected into the empty, dark space of the stage evokes a sober coolness, the actors’ play shows a clear orientation towards the grotesque: All seven actors wear garish clown costumes with red noses, white masks and warped grins. At the beginning, they enter the stage one by one and perform a series of typical circus poses: shaking a coke bottle, fiddling with balloons, swinging an oversized hammer and so forth. When the actors finally speak on stage, it is just a shrill buzzing that is barely understandable due to technical distortion of their voices. The audience can only grasp the meaning because of the simultaneous projection of the first sentences from Müller’s Hamletmaschine: “Ich war Hamlet. Ich stand an der Küste und redete mit der Brandung BLABLA, im Rücken die Ruinen von Europa” (Müller, “Hamletmaschine” 545).[2] Consequently, the first word that can to some extent be understood is the nonsense expression “Blabla.”

On the one hand, this ostentatious gibberish can be interpreted as an ironic reference to the inability of coming into dialogue negotiated by Müller. On the other hand, the incomprehensibility appears as an ironic commentary on the multilingual character of the performance, which anticipates possible prejudices about the refugee actors’ language skills and their fluency in speaking German. Even when the actors recite parts of the text in a more “understandable” German, English or Arabic, there remains a basic tension between the sobriety of the projected text and the clownish bearing of the actors. By underscoring the images of violence and decay evoked in Müller (and Agha), the actors appear less as mere jokers than as gruesome horror clowns. At the same time, however, the tragic, pessimistic undertone of Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine recedes into the background and the absurd and farcical features of the text become more dominant—a shift in aesthetic form that is all the more striking in view of the parallels that the performance draws on a political level.

Ayham Majid Agha, Karim Daoud, Tahera Hashemi and Hussein Al Shateli in “Die Hamletmaschine”, directed by Sebastian Nübling (Maxim Gorki Theater, 2018). Photo: Ute Langkafel/Maifoto

The comic tendencies of Nübling’s Die Hamletmaschine also become apparent in a mocking treatment of Heiner Müller, who, as one review of the performance puts it, is a “local hero” (Philipp) at the Gorki. The actors repeatedly refer to the canonical status of the author and the text with ironic comments. At one point, for example, Maryam Abu Khaled turns to the audience with a broad grin and asks them about their judgment of the text projected onto the gauze: “Do you like it? Yeah? Is it interesting? It‘s Heiner Müller: ‘Wie einen Buckel schlepp ich mein schweres Gehirn.’ I recommend it! Think about it!” Similarly, Ophelia’s suicide, which occurs in Müller’s second section “Das Europa der Frau,” is subjected to an ironic-critical deconstruction on stage: Maryam Abu Khaled, Tahera Hashemi and Kenda Hmeidan perform as a clown chorus that plays out the possibility of a feminist reading of Müller’s version of Ophelia’s suicide:

Ich bin Ophelia. Die der Fluß nicht behalten hat. Die Frau am Strick Die Frau mit den aufgeschnittenen Pulsadern Die Frau mit der Überdosis AUF DEN LIPPEN SCHNEE Die Frau mit dem Kopf im Gasherd. Gestern habe ich aufgehört mich zu töten.

Müller, “Hamletmaschine” 547[3]

At first, the three seem quite enthusiastic about the passage (“Heiner Müller, I love this text! I feel it so much, it’s amazing!”), but then distance themselves from the stereotype of the weak, vulnerable woman: “I don’t want to be this woman: ‘Ich gehe auf die Straße gekleidet in mein Blut’—No, thanks!” Even the half-hearted objection that Müller at least tried to be a feminist (“We should respect Heiner Müller’s effort!”) fails to convince: “The aggressive mood in this text is not the solution anymore . . . If I start a revolution, and this is the result—‘gekleidet in mein Blut’—I don’t want it” (547).

As these comments on the patriarchal tendencies in Müller’s portrayal of Ophelia make clear, the performance is not only about reenacting Müller but also about making certain blind spots in his writings visible. By transferring Müller’s tragic palimpsest into the framework of a grotesque clown show, it is suggested that Müller’s examination of the “ruins of Europe” and the world of socialist states cannot easily be transposed onto today’s situation of “Fortress Europe” and the experiences of the Arab Spring. Nübling’s Die Hamletmaschine does not ascribe any timeless validity to the original but updates it, as it were, with reservations and in an alienated form.

I would even argue that it is precisely through this approach that the Exile Ensemble and the Maxim Gorki Theater place themselves in Müller’s tradition: In his post-dramatic rewriting of Hamlet, Müller, too, draws on a canonical text of European theatre history and questions the validity of its source material in light of contemporary political crises and disappointments. Herein, Müller’s treatment of the Hamlet tragedy contrasts with its vernacular reception in the GDR.

Since Gustav Wangenheim’s 1945 production of Hamlet at the Deutsches Theater, there had been a tendency to read the play as an allegory for the young socialist state and to valorize Shakespeare as part of the theatrical canon to be preserved (Richardson 77–81). In contrast, Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine presents itself as the metatheatrical processing of a failed attempt to transfer the drama to the socialist present: “Mein Drama findet nicht mehr statt” (Müller, “Hamletmaschine” 549).[4] In consideration of these tensions, it almost seems as if Nübling’s staging applies Müller’s method to the latter himself: As Müller’s Hamletmaschine tells the story of a rejected inheritance, the gesture of ironic alienation is paradoxically a very consistent form of paying tribute to the playwright.

Nevertheless, I think that the Exile Ensemble’s production contradicts Müller’s intentions in at least one crucial aspect. As Müller himself once stated, Die Hamletmaschine asserts an end point from which it is no longer possible to continue, to which it is no longer possible to connect (Weber 138). In Müller’s case, this statement refers to his previous attempts to find a form of political theatre that, in laying bare the contradictions of socialism, is nonetheless committed to the socialist cause: “From THE SCAB to THE HAMLETMACHINE, everything is part of one story, a slow process of reduction. With my last play THE HAMLETMACHINE, this has come to an end” (Müller, “Neue Dramaturgie” 133). In Die Hamletmaschine, this gap between aspiration and reality evokes a post-utopian mood of “end times,” in which historical progress has come to a standstill: “Die Hoffnung hat sich nicht erfüllt” (Müller, “Hamletmaschine” 549).[5] In the fourth section of the text, at the end of which Marx’s, Lenin’s and Mao’s heads are split, this loss of utopia culminates in an allegorical assassination of Marxism-Leninism (553).

The Exile Ensemble’s Die Hamletmaschine partially breaks down this pessimistic character of Müller’splay. The farcical undertone of the performance is not so much to be understood as a positive, optimistic counter-proposal, but nevertheless makes clear that Müller’s pessimism  might stiffen into a pose of defeatism. Where Die Hamletmaschine states a dead end and negotiates a comprehensive failure of the efforts of political emancipation with a view to the socialist states, the Exile Ensemble updates this horizon of experience for the present. At the same time, the transposition of the “second socialist spring” to the “third Arab Spring” shows that history still continues after its end—and would carry on even as a grotesque horror show. As the Exile Ensemble’s Hamletmaschine indicates, the sense of disillusionment and loss of utopia negotiated in Müller’s text may well be applied to the political context of the Arab Spring, but the playful nature of this appropriation and actualization counteracts Müller’s historical hopelessness.

Tahera Hashemi in “Die Hamletmaschine” directed by Sebastian Nübling (Maxim Gorki Theater 2018), Photo: Ute Langkafel/Maifoto

As we have seen, Nübling’s staging of Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine is far from being in awe of author and text but, with its farcical character, keeps a distance from them. Insofar as this countermove seems paradigmatic for the Gorki’s approach towards its socialist past, it is relatively obvious that the theatre does not deal with its institutional heritage in the sense of an unbroken lineage or the preservation of a timeless canon but in a deliberate and self-reflexive way. The new Gorki can refer to the old Gorki—but it does not have to. The performative reference to the German-German past, thus, serves as an institutional self-dramatization: the program pursued at the Gorki today continues but also extends the aesthetic and political canon-struggles already conducted in the GDR.

Taking this into account, the Gorki’s strategic extension of the past into the present differs significantly from other forms of dealing with GDR theatre. The Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz under Frank Castorf, for example, has always understood itself as a successor to a non-conformist tradition of GDR theatre associated with Heiner Müller and Benno Besson. While the institutional identity of theatres such as the Volksbühne or the Berliner Ensemble is very much defined by the past of these institutions, the self-image of the Gorki is determined much more by the political conflicts of the present.

Instead of reenacting or preserving GDR theatre history in a rather nostalgic way, the Gorki’s institutional past, its present and its future stand in a non-linear, non-organic relationship. On the one hand, the GDR appears far away from the post-migrant realities the theatre is dealing with today. On the other hand, it is precisely this distance that enables the Gorki to illuminate certain political and aesthetic parallels and continuities that are anything but obvious: In the 1950s, against the backdrop of socialist realism, the Maxim Gorki Theater was founded in midst of a struggle over the aesthetic principles and the political function of theatre; in the 2010s, the Gorki has become an institution that negotiates similar questions in light of contemporary conflicts over flight and migration.

For me, this institutional constellation shows that the theatrical canon is by no means a static entity but must rather be understood as a political and aesthetic reservoir for the negotiation of contemporary conflicts. When the new Gorki relates back to its socialist past, it is neither caught in an institutional compulsion to repeat nor is it just rehashing old stories. The “old” Gorki and the socialist disputes about the theatrical canon, to which productions such as The Cherry Orchard or Die Hamletmaschine refer both ironically and self-confidently, represent neither a historical burden nor an endpoint, but prove to be productive and illuminating material for one’s own struggles, those of the present and future.


[1] In German, Şahintürk says: “Kommt zu uns und baut unser Land wieder auf. Und wenn die Drecksarbeit getan ist, dann verpisst euch wieder oder bleibt in eurem Kiez. . . . Und dann sagen: ‘Oh, die bleiben ja nur unter sich, die wollen sich ja gar nicht integrieren.’”

[2] “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLABLA, the ruins of Europe in back of me” (Müller, “Hamletmachine” 53).

[3] “I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep. The woman dangling from the rope. The woman with her arteries cut open. The woman with the overdose. SNOW ON HER LIPS. The woman with the head in the gas stove. Yesterday I stopped killing myself” (Müller, “Hamletmachine” 54).

[4] “My Drama doesn’t happen anymore” (Müller, “Hamletmachine” 56).

[5] “The hope has not been fulfilled” (Müller, “Hamletmachine” 56).


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*Hans Roth is a research associate at the Institute of Theatre Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. From 2015 to 2023, he worked at the Collaborative Research Center 1171 “Affective Societies” at Freie Universität, where he was part of a project on postmigrant theatre and the institutional transformation of the Berlin theatre landscape. In 2022, he published his PhD thesis on the political ambivalences of humour and ridicule (German title: Die komische Differenz. Zur Dialektik des Lächerlichen in Theater und Gesellschaft, Aisthesis, 2022).

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