Die Hamletmaschine (Hamletmachine), is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet written in 1977 by Heiner Müller. A lifelong socialist and supporter of the GDR (though not an uncritical one), Müller translated and adapted several texts to reflect his political concerns.

Just nine pages long, Die Hamletmaschine is enigmatic and allusive, suffused with Marxist philosophy and postmodern theory. Despite the phantasmagoric nature of the text, the parallels Müller draws between Shakespeare’s play and an autocratic surveillance state are clear:

THE ACTOR PLAYING HAMLET I’m not Hamlet. I don’t take part any more. My words have nothing to tell me any more. My thoughts suck the blood out of the images. My drama doesn’t happen any more. Behind me the set is put up. By people who aren’t interested in my drama, for people to whom it means nothing. I’m not interested in it any more either. I won’t play along any more.

After GDR censors refused a license for Die Hamletmaschine to be performed in East Germany itself, it was eventually premiered in Brussels in 1978.

Yet this was not quite the end of the story. A decade later, invited to direct at the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin, Müller decided to stage an epic version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with his own Hamletmaschine spliced into the text. When the production went into rehearsal in August 1989, the GDR was already beginning to topple; by the time it went on stage the following March, the Berlin Wall was down and it had utterly ceased to exist. As so often in German Shakespeare, history was waiting in the wings.

This image shows a 1992 production of Die Hamletmaschine produced by the University of California, Irvine, as a bloody fantasy set in a ‘Frankenstein laboratory’, in which industrial meat hooks served to ‘float’ Ophelia.

Label written by Andrew Dickson