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To Confront Paradox:  New World Performance Labs HamletMachine

 Heiner Müller is considered one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century and HamletMachine, his greatest work.  On the other hand, Shakespeares Hamlet is considered the greatest play ever written.  With these two points of departure, the New World Performance Lab (a company with strong links to the work of Jerzy Grotowski) began a long-term exploration of the Hamlet myth in January 2000.  The result of the first part of the project was a production of HamletMachine that premiered at the Cleveland Public Theatre in May 2000.  I directed the production and it featured company members Jairo Cuesta, Salvatore Motta, and Debora Totti.  (The second part of the project, Electra adapted by Adrienne Kennedy, premiered in March 2001 at The University of Akron).  NWPL continued to perform HamletMachine in Colombia, Italy, and at other sites in the USA.  The final performance was on September 10, 2001 at Ashland University.  After the events of September 11, the company decided to put Mullers apocalyptic vision to rest and begin work on a new project. 


The New World Performance Lab is a company whose vision and working methods grew out of the two artistic directors long relationship with Polish master Jerzy Grotowski.  Jairo Cuesta and I both collaborated for many years with Grotowski in various phases of his research from the mid-70s through the 90s.  Grotowski, most known for his concept of poor theatre in which the actor takes precedence over any of the other accoutrements of theatre production, emphasized the personal relation of the actor to his/her role and often shunned overtly political theatre.  Some people familiar with NWPLs work expressed surprise at the Labs choice of HamletMachine.  How could a Grotowski-inspired troupe embrace this post-modern, political collage?  


In HamletMachine, New World Performance Lab, known for its detailed physical and vocal work, created a very non-high-tech version of Mullers landscapea triangular empty space filled only with three actors, three lights, a telescope, and four small boxes of personal memorabilia.  Critics responded enthusiastically to the ensembles work:


In the Labs rendering, Mullers piece becomes the springboard for a series of inventive surrealist images and transformations:  Imagine a multilingual version of Ginzburgs Howl and Sartres Nausea, crossed with Bunuel/Dalis Andalusian Dog.  A woman eats a rose; a gravediggers shovel becomes a seesaw; Hamlets telescope becomes a machine gun.  In 65 action-packed minutes, Cuesta, Totti, and Motta somehow manage to embody not just Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Horatio, and Ophelia, but a lightning-quick panoply of contemporary characters, from soldiers to atrocity victims to TV pitchmen.  Its a dizzying achievement of performance prowess, especially given the impossibly hermetic nature of the text.  (Linda Eisenstein, The Plain Dealer, April 30,2001)


This unique enactment of Mullers text incorporated fragments of Shakespeares play and songs from the actors personal histories.  The work evolved over a period of four months as the actors, along with the director, built a series of highly personal action-responses to Mullers imagery and Hamlets story.  The Actor who played Hamlet enters a space that might be the cemetery of civilization.  Here he confronts not only Hamlets ghosts, but his own personal ghosts and the ghosts of his culture. 


NWPLs Hamlet is still Mullers Hamlet is still Hamlet, in a violent, yet gentle, acrobacy of thought and words (for example, the beautiful dramaturgical invention of placing a telescope on the stage, that sees far and looks behind things to make them bigger)even if the actors dont hide their Grotowskian heredity (personally elaborated, of course), they also dont lose sight of Mullers axiom that art comes from the body the histrionic and bio-mechanic actors of NWPL, magnificently marked by Grotowskis lessons on the physical and vocal plain, try to surpass the unsurpassable [Mullers text] using memories from their own autobiographies  (Carmelita Celi, La Sicilia, June 10, 2001).


After the American premiere, NWPL created another version of the play to perform in South America and Europe.  This second version utilized the actors mother tongues, Spanish and Italian.  In order to help audiences from very different cultures enter the world of the performance, I wrote a series of program notes:


·        HamletMachine was written in 1977 and had its first production in France in 1979.  Müller lived and wrote in the former East Germany.  The play reflects his critique of the intellectual in conflict with history.  He views Hamlet as a man between the ages.  The play (a montage only four pages in length) is Müllers most complicated and difficult to decode.  The spectator may recognize many references to 20th century history, philosophy, and social/economic conditions.  Müller says, It is the description of a petrified hope, an effort to articulate a despair so that it can be left behind.  The play takes us to a deadend, as human beings we cannot continue in this way.  Müller shatters Shakespeares play.  His text is like shards of a mirror, each shard reflecting and distorting both Shakespeares Hamlet and our own contemporary world.

·        Shakespeares Hamlet tells the story of a young Danish prince.  The King (Hamlets father) is killed by his own brother, Claudius, who then marries Gertrude, Hamlets mother.  Hamlet is confronted by his fathers ghost who asks him to take revenge on his death.  The play involves Hamlets dilemma as he tries to decide how to act.  Ophelia (in love with Hamlet), her father, Polonius, and Hamlets best friend, Horatio, are all key characters in Hamlets journey toward understanding and action. 

·        Paradox confronts us at each moment in Shakespeares Hamlet and it is precisely this paradox that Müller dramatizes so starkly.  For this reason, the Lab has used Müllers text as an entry into the Hamlet myth.  With Müllers play as a basic structure, NWPL interpolates scenes from Shakespeares drama and elements of the actors own autobiographies to create a montage in which paradox can be explored as a mode of consciousness.  In his book Wandering God:  A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2000), cultural historian and social critic Morris Berman defines paradox as the experience of space, a diffuse or peripheral awareness.  He says it is not characterized by a search for meaning, an insistence or hope that the world be this way or that.  It simply accepts the world as it presents itselfOne does not deal with alienation (the split between Self and World) as much as live with it, accept the discomfort as just part of what is.  How to embody this state of paradox can be viewed as Hamlets dilemma:  To be or not to be:  that is the question. It is precisely this question of embodiment that NWPL confronts in its rendering of HamletMachine.

·        One way in which NWPL chooses to explore paradox is through the use of various languages.  Müller wrote his text in German and English.  In NWPLs production, the actors use their native languages (Spanish and Italian) as well as English (particularly in the Shakespearean scenes).  This Babel of languages creates a nomadic stage culture that constantly puts into question contemporary paradigms of power.

·        One more key to viewing this play:  Dont be concerned with narrative.  View the performance as a poem in action, as a piece of music embodied.


Morris Berman ends his account of paradox and nomadic spirituality, Wandering God, by quoting Octavio Paz.  He substitutes the word paradox for poetry in Pazs argument and, in doing so, he challenges us to rebel against a world submerged in a business culture and ruled by commercial values.


The relationship between man and [paradox] is as old as our history; it began when human beings began to be human.  The first hunters and gatherers looked at themselves in astonishment one day, for an interminable instant, in the still waters of a moment of [paradox].  Since that moment, people have not stopped looking at themselves in this mirror.  And they have seen themselves, at one and the same time, as creators of images and as images of their creations.  For that reason I can say, with a modicum of certainty, that as long as there are people, there will be [paradox].  The relationship, however, may be broken.  Born of the human imagination, it may die if imagination dies or is corrupted.  If human beings forget [paradox], they will forget themselves.  (Octavio Paz, The Other Voice, trans. Helen Lane, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1991, pp. 159-160.)


Audience members around the world reacted strongly to NWPLs rendering of Mullers play.  Comments like:  I realized that I, too, am Hamlet, or Its a return to the roots of theatre, were not uncommon.  HamletMachine was a major step in NWPLs development and helped to solidify the companys artistic goals. 


In this staging, North American director James Slowiak, Italian actors Debora Totti and Salvatore Motta, and Colombian Jairo Cuesta, reveal a fine teamwork where the concept, the precision of the staging, the quality of the acting, and, finally, the professional level, are the main reasons for a dramatic experience that no theatre enthusiast should miss.  (Fernando Toledo, El Tiempo, Colombia, July 10, 2000)


Ludwik Flaszen, literary director of the Polish Laboratory Theatre, enthusiastically responded to NWPLs performance in Colombia, reacting strongly to the nausea in the piece and remarking also that it was very anti-Grotowski.  I laughed at this because, as director of the piece, I often felt we were being very anti-Muller in our approach to the text.  Two more paradoxes:  In being true to our Grotowskian roots, it seems we had created a very political performance and, in reacting against the popular, multi-media approach to a Muller text, it seems we had come close to fulfilling the playwrights intentionNow is the time to turn the theatre into a space for the imagination.[i]  Whatever the result, NWPLs HamletMachine was a performance that left its mark on all of us who participated in its creation and perhaps caused a small ripple in the lives of those who witnessed its embodiment.


ãJames Slowiak




[i] Heiner Muller quoted in Cicely Berry, Text in Action (London:  Virgin Pulishing Ltd, 2001), p. 4.