From November 14 through 17, University Theatre presented the play “Herakles Block” by the German poet and playwright Heiner M??ller in Brehmer Theater. As the audience walked onstage to choose their seats among the caf?e-style tables and chairs that circled the central area for the performance, they prepared themselves for this unique experience.
To create Herakles Block, the director, C.A. Johnson Artist-in-Residence Thomas Irmer, combined two texts written by M??ller. M??ller lived from 1929 to 1995 and wrote about 30 plays, often re-workings of Shakespearean or ancient Greek plays. In his director’s note, Irmer states that in the adapted piece, M??ller’s 1992 poem “Mommsen’s Block,” which examines how a poet and historian copes with unfinished business, mixes with M??ller’s 1972 surrealist prose writing, “Herakles 2.”
“The play aims at a theatrical confrontation of mythology, history and vision of biotechnological resurrection as it is a ‘learning play’ for the 21st century,” Irmer said.
As lines of dialogue were echoed in the performance, but said in new ways or in separate scenes that represented different times, the idea of how we tell history and our stories emerged. The actors – senior Christina Liu, sophomores Zack Abt, Alexandra Esteve and Anastassia Bougakova and first-year Laura Avram – spoke lines together in a chorus, while senior Sarah Gallina drew images and wrote words like “mankind” and “history” on a dry erase board that was projected onto the white cloths hanging over the stage. At times, parts of the words were erased, such as when the repeated “history” became lines reading “his.”
These various elements of the play illustrated the multiple methods of relating the past – we may speak about it, write about, draw images of it or act it out for each other. The mention of historical figures like Caesar, Nietzsche and Kafka reminded the audience of who we choose to remember and to consider if the present alters our perception of the past.
The stage scenery was composed of crooked bookshelves, an inflatable globe in the center and images of M??ller himself. Midway through the play, the actors shifted from conversing in a modern caf?e to speaking through voice-altering microphones on a futuristic concert platform. The play suggests that even in the present and the future, the past stays in our thoughts – M??ller wrote, and “Herakles Block” quoted, “because the ghosts do not sleep, their favorite food is our dreams.”
The work emulated M??ller’s ideas, especially his interest in the political, as he wrote partially as a response to the oppressive government he lived under in East Germany during the Cold War. M??ller’s lines, even years after his death and translation into English, ask powerful questions about art and its role in preserving history, for he reminds his audience that “to forget is a privilege of the dead.”
Sitting on the stage, viewers realized that we are a part of this process of recording and remembering the past, as we, too, felt like elements of the play. Whether actor or audience member, M??ller wished us all to think carefully about history and politics and art.
Contact Bridget Sheppard at [email protected]