Mythic Identities: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Creation of National Identity in the German Democratic Republic
Much has been written about Greco-Roman myth interpretations in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a form of resistance against a totalitarian regime or, alternatively, as a redeployment of cultural icons in service of nationalism and ideology. While both of these approaches go to motive, neither accommodates a discussion of how these “classical” materials came to be pressed into service in the 1960s and 1970s and what this conscription tells us about cultural identity in the GDR. That Greco-Roman myth interpretations had by the end of the 1960s firmly re-entrenched themselves as a staple of both East and West German theater might, in another time, appear quite innocuous given their peripatetic nature. Still, the production of texts such as Heiner Müller’s Philoktet (1964) during the Cold War elicited criticism and praise for being onerous and subversive challenges to political entities on both sides of the Berlin Wall. The coincidence of texts written by GDR writers featuring Heracles, Odysseus, and other mythological personae appeared to be an orchestration, for how else could such a broad wave of myth interpretations be explained?
The party affiliation of many GDR mythopoets certainly contributed to this perception, but it was by no means the only factor. In his farcical play/interview “Wie Commander Buffalo Bill Cody den Dramatiker Stefan Schütz mit einem schweren Eisenhammer aus den Fangarmen der Nova-Polizei befreite” (“How Commander Buffalo Bill Cody Freed the Dramatist Stefan Schütz from the Clutches of the Nova-Police with a Heavy Sledgehammer”), Frank Raddatz countenances a key characteristic of GDR mythopoeism—its broad dispersion:
STEFAN SCHÜTZ: In der Tat gab es in der DDR eine geheime Nationallotterie für Mythen. Die wurde von Hacks ins Leben gerufen and betrieben. Ich hab einfach in einem Nachschlagwerk abgecheckt, wer, wann, was gemacht hat, and gesehen, daß beispielsweise ‘Laokoon’ noch frei ist und mich an die Arbeit gesetzt. (324)
STEFAN SCHÜTZ: In truth there was a secret national lottery in the GDR for myths. It was brought to life and operated by [Peter] Hacks. I simply checked a reference text to see who did what when, and then saw that, for example, Laocoon was still available and started to work.
Raddatz couches his “fantasy interview” as a post-reunification critique of the West German critical establishment, particularly of his namesake, Fritz J. Raddatz, yet his account of how GDR myth interpretations were fashioned evokes a relevant polemic on the nature of GDR mythopoeism. However improbable the jestful notion of a “national lottery for myths” may be, the diverse subject headings of dramatic mythopoeism following Peter Hacks’ Aristophanic Der Frieden (1962) does furnish somewhat circumstantial evidence of a nationalist project, at least in the sense that the wide scope of the new mythopoeism appeared to “salvage” Greco-Roman mythology for the GDR. Regardless of whether or not their myth interpretations were subsequently produced or published, playwrights such as Jochen Berg, Peter Hacks, Hartmut Lange, Heiner Müller, and Stefan Schütz worked assiduously to replenish theater repertoires with “classical” adaptations: Berg with Im Trauerland (1982, later renamed Iphigenia) and Klytämnestra (1983); Hacks with Die schöne Helena (1964), Amphitryon (1968), Omphale (1970), Die Vögel (1981), and Pandora (1982); Lange with Herakles (1965) and Die Ermordung des Aias oder Ein Diskurs über das Holzhacken; Müller with Philoktet (1964), Herakles 5 (1965), Ödipus Tyrant (1966), Prometheus (1968), Medeaspiel (1974), and Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (1982), as well as a series of Greco-Roman „Kommentartexte” in Zement (1973); Schütz with Odysseus’ Heimkehr (1972), Die Amazonen (1974, later renamed Antiope and Theseus) and Laokoon (1979).
Alongside the growing interest in an integral mythopoeic theater at the close of the decade, there developed a quite different concern with mythopoeism as a “psychological text,” that is, as the site for omniscient narration. This approach, epitomized by Christa Wolfs Kassandra (1983), had its roots in the general liberalization of permissible themes in the GDR but was brought to prominence by the growing preoccupation with cultural tensions arising from the Second World War and its aftermath. The balance point of GDR mythopoeism shifted accordingly to narrative texts, including shorter literary forms such as the lyric poem. Despite obvious genre distinctions, the transition from dramatic to narrative mythopoeism amplified rather than muted the iconographic potential of the texts and retained the themes of marginalization and spectacle invoked in the earlier dramatic interpretations. These patterns have far-reaching implications for an understanding of the appearance of texts such as Christa Wolf’s Medea (1998) in reunified Germany and of the wider influence of mythopoeism.
Myth and Literature in a Marxist World
In reading myth interpretations by Hacks, Müller, and Schütz, literary scholars have typically concerned themselves with issues such as the propagandistic elements of GDR theater, the censorship-defying strategies of its dissident playwrights, and its periodization according to ideological declarations at quasi-official writer’s conferences or meetings of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED). Far from disallowing such perspectives, this reading of GDR mythopoeism relies on them as one of the best guides to the process by which the specific psychological and social concerns of the GDR became transformed into a compelling invocation and, ultimately, a theatricalization of cultural memory and national identity.
The subject of the political motivation for GDR myth interpretations, appropriately at the center of early criticism, derives from the rather unanticipated appearance of the plays themselves. For in turning their attention to classical “masterpieces” by Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles, Hacks, Müller, and Schütz abandon “ideologically correct” literary techniques and positions, from agitprop, socialist realism, and epic theater to “Agrodramas” and the Bitterfelder Weg (Bitterfeld Way), which zealous GDR cultural functionaries successively promoted. Instead, Hacks, Müller, and Schütz appropriate and manipulate mythological motifs with exceptionally complex thematic and tropological structures at a time when an essential current of literary criticism interpreted art or literature produced by GDR writers as potential allegory, a code by which Troy might be equated with the state, Odysseus with the exiled intellectual, Heracles with the untiring socialist worker, and so forth.
The Western academy’s focus on identifying and legitimating a “counter-discourse” or resistive literature in the GDR would not dominate in tendency until the early 1960s, when political strategies accelerated the deterioration of political relationships between socialist and capitalist political and economic systems. Until that time, the party-driven “cultural project” of East German literature remained on local terrain and only sporadically garnered critical attention in the Federal Republic of Germany, which initially tended to dismiss GDR writers as “ästhetisch degoutant” (Emmerich 54, “aesthetically distasteful”), an attitude that would reassert itself after German reunification in 1990. The transition to a more critical reception of GDR myth interpretations that takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s can be directly attributed to the imminence of Germany’s more permanent partitioning, which the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall visually reinforced. The realization that within the conflicting values and stances contained in a younger—now appreciated as more discriminating—East German literature lay a potential for crucial initiatives and modes of inquiry beyond the agency of the state eventually stimulated critical intervention which sought to document the political roots and ramifications of GDR texts.
At first, what most readily distinguished the study of Greco-Roman myth interpretations was the surprise expressed by contemporary literary scholars and critics that myths were being interpreted at all in the GDR. Accordingly, much work on the issue begins by addressing the notion that myth should not have a legitimate place in a professedly Marxist society. Compare for example Volker Riedel’s exhaustive survey of GDR interpretations of myth, Antikerezeption in der Literatur der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, with Emmerich’s insightful article on GDR theatrical myth interpretations, “Antike Mythen auf dem Theater.” In a move apparently intended to underscore the appropriateness of their venture, both studies begin by attacking an a priori judgment purported to exist in criticism and in popular imagination that casts the Marxist writer as necessarily mythoclast. The issues raised by Emmerich and Riedel draw on Marx’s rather terse evaluation of Greek mythology contained in his Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1859). Marx held that historical processes would progressively dilute the usefulness and relevance of myth in advancing civilization and warned of the dangers of allowing an aesthetic fascination with mythology to elevate the subject to a desirable ideal or model in the modern era:
Aber die Schwierigkeit liegt nicht darin zu verstehen, daß griechische Kunst und Epos an gewisse gesellschaftliche Entwicklungsformen geknüpft sind. Die Schwierigkeit ist, daß sie für uns noch Kunstgenuß gewähren und in gewisser Beziehung als Norm und unerreichbare Muster gelten. (31)
But the difficulty is not in grasping the idea that Greek art and epos are bound up with certain forms of social development. It lies rather in understanding why they still constitute for us a source of aesthetic enjoyment and in certain respects prevail as the standard and model beyond attainment. (Grundrisse 45)
Still, despite his obvious discomfort with a regressive and nostalgic perspective on myth, Marx held up the art and culture of ancient Greece as a more or less “positive” phenomenon, that—if understood as belonging forever to the past—could nonetheless be enjoyed aesthetically. Why, then, should a socialist reception of myth be so problematic?
Herbert Arnold, in his article on “Myth and Marxism in the GDR,” offers a few specifics on what should be troubling about the “the recurrent preoccupation with classical materials and their mythic dimension among authors who think of themselves as contemporary Marxists writing for a modern (postmodern?) Socialist audience” (58). Even assuming the “most rudimentary and commonplace understandings of myth and Marxism,” Arnold writes, these authors face “substantial incompatibilities” with Marxist thought in their mythopoeic undertaking:
Among them is the view which sees myth as incorporating essential, unchanging verities, be they rooted in the human psyche (Freud, Jung), in the religious or numinous experience of “primitive” peoples (anthropology), or in the expression of fundamental experiences of human existence (Romantics). (58)
A faithful Marxist thinker, Arnold implies, would take offense not only because Greco-Roman myths propagate the notion of a transcendental, constant historical condition but also because they neglect to address the model of class struggle. The content of myth, if understood in any of these psychological, anthropological, or ideological categories, would necessarily favor an individuated, humanist subject over more pressing objective and historical class issues, and would therefore, by extension, constitute a counterrevolutionary or conservative intervention.
A second issue raised by the resurgence of myth interpretations in the GDR relates to the status of religion in that country. Since Marxist theory repudiates the non-historical conceptualization of reality in religious and metaphysical categories, GDR cultural functionaries would paradigmatically insist on the superfluity of mythopoeism and its deities for the GDR. Fritz Raddatz captures this sensitivity well by analyzing assorted dictionary entries published by the Duden Verlag, a publisher specializing in guides on German grammar, style, idioms, and usage. After the mirror establishment of the two German states, the long-standing publishing house effectively split into an East German Duden, located in its original city of Leipzig, and a West German Duden, founded in Mannheim. Raddatz compares entries from the 1957 Ost-Duden with its 1954 West German Duden counterpart, only to find that they contain significant and provocative variations (9). Note, for example, the West-Duden entry for “Blasphemie” (“blasphemy”) and its Eastern counterpart, which is stripped of religious connotations essential to the former: “Gotteslästerung; verletzende Äußerung über etwas Heiliges” (“maligning god, caustic remarks about something holy”) versus “Beschimpfung, Verhöhnung von Personen, Überzeugungen und Bräuchen, die allgemeine Verehrung genießen” (“Insult, derision of persons, beliefs and customs that enjoy widespread admiration”). This revisionary tendency extends to complete omissions: “Am auffälligsten sind die ausgelassenen religiösen Begriffe: Gotteslohn, Passionsweg, Religionslehre, Sündenfall” (11, “Most noticeable are the elided religious terms: reward from God, passion, religious instruction, original sin”).
While these East German dictionary entries superbly illustrate the increased sensitivity of cultural functionaries to permutations of language, the greater challenge to a “socialist” use of classical myths after 1945 lay in a general mistrust of “mythology” in the aftermath of the Third Reich. Though many German intellectuals returning from exile identified with Odysseus’s plight, dramatic mythopoeism actually receded from German stages directly after the war, primarily over misgivings about those propagandistic and racist “pseudomyths” employed by supporters of fascism to legitimate the regime and its policies.” Exemplified by Alfred Rosenberg’s Blut und Boden (“Blood and Soil”) writings, these “pseudomyths” utilized principles developed by Georges Sorel to lend myths “politisch-propagandistische[…] Form” (Borchmeyer 294, “political-propagandistic form”) and so imbued language with fascist ideology. Despite Thomas Mann’s postwar appeal to re-humanize myths after their abuse by fascists, many German writers appeared to turn away from the “project” of myth altogether. As Emmerich points out, the small number of trained specialists on the language, culture, and literature of ancient Greece in the GDR can be traced to a concerted post-war educational reform:
Eine breite, lebendige Tradition der klassisch-griechischen Bildung hat es in der DDR nicht gegeben. Das humanistische Gymnasium galt als Inbegriff bürgerlichen Standesdünkels und wurde vom Arbeiter- und Bauernstaat selbstverständlich abgeschafft. (“Erbe” 173)
There was no broad, vibrant tradition of classical-Greek education in the GDR. The humanist Gymnasium was regarded as incorporating bourgeois class arrogance and was quite naturally abolished by the worker and farmer state.
While these objections and complications go a long way in explaining why the once-popular profession of classical and myth studies did not take root in the newly founded GDR, it falls short in explaining the appeal of myth to a long list of socialist thinkers and proponents, including Hermann Duncker, Friedrich Engels, Paul Lafargue, Karl Liebknecht, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, Franz Mehring, Georgi and Hermann Valentinovitch Plechanov, and Clara Zetkin. Perhaps because they were educated in a German educational system that held the study of classical antiquity in high regard, their embrace of Marx’s historical project did not prompt an indiscriminate severing of their oftentimes personal relationship to Greco-Roman mythology. Volker Bohn cites the example of Karl Liebknecht, the head of the Spartacists, who, while incarcerated, addresses a letter to his son revealing the great role Ovid had played in his life and during his imprisonment. The letter serves as an example of a leftist revolutionary coping with difficult times via myth; the fact that Liebknecht attempts to communicate his enthusiasm for ancient writers to his son contradicts the assumption that a committed Marxist would spurn myth as counterproductive or counterrevolutionary (Bohn 80). It should be noted, furthermore, that the study of myths fulfills for Liebknecht a psychological and emotional role that goes far beyond the purposes of myth allowed by Marx. Even Alfred Kurella, the first administrator of the Institut für Literatur in Leipzig (renamed Johannes R. Becher Institut in 1958) and one of the most outspoken orthodox Marxists, greeted conference participants on “Das klassische Altertum in der sozialistischen Kultur” by proclaiming the indispensability of myth for the development of a “socialist personality:”
Und ich kann mir keinen Sozialisten denken, der nicht verstünde, daß die Welt der Ideen und Bilder, der Begriffe und Gestalten, der Mythen und Theorien, die die europäische Antike hervorgebracht hat, nicht nur zur selten in Anspruch genommenen eisernen Ration, sondern zur täglichen Nahrung der sozialistischen Persönlichkeit gehört. (Kurella 6, ctd. in Emmerich, “Antike Mythen” 79)
And I can’t think of a socialist who would not understand that the world of ideas and pictures, of concepts and figures, of myths and theories, produced by European antiquity belongs not to the all-too-rarely ingested iron ration but to the daily nourishment of a socialist personality.
The very actuality of a nationwide conference devoted to the role of classical antiquity in socialist culture suggests that the theoretical objections supplied by Arnold played but a modest role in the problematization of myth in the GDR.
Accordingly, the emphasis shifted—perhaps too quickly—from the question of why Greco-Roman myth interpretations were appearing en masse in the GDR to the conditions and timing of their appearance (cf. Arnold; Bernhardt; Emmerich; Gelbrich; Riedel; Trilse). Within this critical trajectory, the question of why certain myths were chosen led to a familiar methodology: the flourish of dramatic mythopoeism became linked to specific historical events in the GDR. Scholars asked why Hacks would choose to reinterpret Aristophanes’ Der Frieden (The Peace, 1962) so soon after incurring political ostracization for two plays, Die Sorgen und die Macht (Anxieties and Power, 1959), which noted inherent contradictions in GDR production norm policies, and Moritz Tassow (1961), a comedy targeting early land reform initiatives by the party. “Did his decision to adapt a text from ancient times then constitute a departure from ‘social engagement’ or ... East German industrial reality”[WE1] (Scheid 120), as Brettschneider and Rischbieter have separately argued? Or, in another formulation, was Hacks’s promotion of a “socialist classicism” an attempt to enter into the proverbial ivory tower, where only aesthetics and theory play a role for the writer? Similarly, what impact did Müller’s exclusion from the East German Schriftstellerverband (Writer’s Association) in 1961 have on his decision to write Herakles 5 in 1964 and Philoktet a year later? Did the grounds for his exclusion—primarily the official judgment that his play Die Umsiedlerin oder das Leben auf dem Lande (The Resettler or Life in the Country, 1961) contained “objektiv konter-revolutionär” (Storch 224, “objectively counterrevolutionary”) tendencies—prompt an “escapist” interest in Greco-Roman mythology?
While the case can be made that Hacks, Müller, and Schütz are fleeing from the aesthetic constraints of the Bitterfelder Weg and Socialist Realism, the charge that with their myth interpretations they have withdrawn into the proverbial “ivory tower” is not tenable (Mitchell 7; Alleman 33). To be sure, Hacks, Müller, and Schütz do not explicitly reference current events in their mythopoeic texts, nor does the appearance of Greco-Roman myths by itself constitute a spontaneous assault on the hegemony of a stifling cultural apparatus and on its refusal to devolve literary expression to the author (Brettschneider 163; Rischbieter 25). However, no dimension of mythopoeic theater specifically precludes a strong political content. As Frederic Jameson asserts, the “political perspective ... [is] the absolute horizon of all reading and interpretation” (17), regardless of a text’s content or author. Jameson posits that the study of a given text’s social and historical “resonance” (17), which may or may not stipulate a political component, originates in a consciousness of the object under study without acknowledging the position of the observer or critic. As he writes in his book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act,
the historicizing operation can follow two distinct paths, which only ultimately meet in the same place: the path of the object and the path of the subject, the historical origins of the things themselves and that more intangible historicity of the concepts and categories by which we attempt to understand those things. (9)
While Jameson clearly emphasizes the extra-literary, his distinction between the “path of the object ... and the subject” has particular application to this study of GDR theater in its distinction between a play script and a performance text. It should be remembered that theater played a remarkable role in East Germany from its very founding. Herbert Lederer estimates that nearly half of the country's seventeen million citizens attended theater productions annually, and that "every man, woman, and child in the GDR [attended] a play at least once every two years" (1). Subsidized ticket prices, abundant seating capacity, and generous state support go a long way to explain the popularity of theater in the GDR but do little to account for its successful export to other nations, preeminently the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The theater economy of the GDR rivaled if not surpassed the theater of other German-speaking countries from the mid-1960s on, and a considerable number of East German plays and playwrights successfully transplanted their theatrical innovations from such major centers of GDR theater as Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Erfurt, Magdeburg, Halle, and Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), or from smaller venues in Rostock, Schwerin, Frankfurt (Oder), Gera, Suhl, and Cottbus, to major stages across Europe and North America.
During this period, more than 65 new dramatic interpretations of Greco-Roman myths premiered on East German stages from 1960 to 1985. Of these, more than a third appeared in the 1960s alone, with the bulk appearing in the latter half of that decade. A second bundling of myth interpretations occurred during a five-year span from 1978 to 1983, when more than a third of all GDR interpretations of classical Greek myth ever staged appeared.
Much of the turbulence generated by critics about the phenomenon of mythopoeism in the GDR revolves about ideological reasons given to explain a writer’s choice of material, and, consequently, the notion of a performance text recedes in the study of the political implications of a given mythopoeic text. For Christoph Trilse, the tide of myth interpretations sweeping GDR stages in the 1960s and early 1970s was but a manifestation of the GDR’s intention to establish a “national theater,” the implication being that its playwrights consciously contributed “appropriate texts” to this project. The adaptation of Greek myths, Trilse insists, provides a clear indication of a national project with one priority: “to make the classical heritage their own”. While Trilse’s argument opens the discussion to the possibilities of a “curriculum” in GDR cultural policy, the establishment or continuance of a “national theater” by itself seems less interesting when viewed solely in terms of the ideological discourse between East and West during the period.
Even so, it is doubtful that the appearance of myth interpretations derives solely from this impulse. The concerted “Aneignung” or appropriation of mythological topoi interrogated by Trilse, Volker Riedel, Wolfgang Emmerich and others, does not occur by placing “traditional” mythic material on a Procrustean bed to purge or sanitize preceding mythopoeic texts of underlying assumptions in conflict with contemporary policies. Many critics have speculated that GDR cultural functionaries would necessarily view a recurrence of myth interpretations in their country as ideologically suspect and thus unsuitable for staging, primarily because their existence might implicitly threaten the officially proclaimed arrival in “real existing socialism.” Classical Greek myth interpretations, as Michael Rohrwasser and Michael Engelhardt contend, could not receive explicit official sanctioning by the state and its cultural apparatus because they challenged their credibility. To support their argument, Rohrwasser and Engelhardt cite from an entry on “myth” in the Kulturpolitisches Wörterbuch, a quasi-official publication of the state:
[myths have] symbolic meanings that are connected to the mythological origin of figures and conflicts but are hardly any longer existent in the present. They might be rationally understood by means of relevant scientific information but can hardly be experienced aesthetically any more.
However, if the notion of myth really posed such an ideological problem for the party, why then would its censors allow many myth interpretations to be staged and published at all?
For the early 1970s, particularly after East German First Secretary Erich Honecker’s famous but short-lived call for a liberalization of the arts, the appearance of Greco-Roman myth interpretations might be explained as a deliberate attempt by a state to wear its newfound toleration for difference and dissent on its sleeve. At the same time, this argument might continue, the project of a “national theater” could be realized as part of a sanctioned political forum, thus enabling the “socialist personality” to realize its literary potential. However, regardless of whether the “renaissance” of mythopoeism in the GDR appears as a concerted effort to reestablish modern German socialist literature as an aesthetic successor to a greater range of German literary production or as but a direct challenge to that very attempt, the phenomenon of mythopoeism appears as a milestone in the aesthetic development of GDR literature as a whole and thus would raise eyebrows on both sides of the wall.
Barring the possibility that GDR censors simply did not know enough about mythopoeism to do their job, the multivalency of mythopoeism for contemporary arguments appears key to its success in both camps, as it were. This can be seen in the divergent interpretations and evaluations of mythopoeism by critics closer or antagonistic to the regime to explain these mythopoeic breaks with prevalent literary and aesthetic traditions in the young GDR as a political statement. Thus, the immediate novelty of the new, mythological theater was the abandonment of the role-model protagonist favored by cultural functionaries, namely the model of the untiring socialist worker, in favor of less idealized protagonists, that is, flawed heroes in revised versions of familiar stories. While this move seemingly purposefully elevated tales of compromise and pettiness over those of heroic valor, critics could nonetheless recover a given play merely by judging it to be addressing “capitalism,” “socialism,” “totalitarianism,” or “imperialism” according to their preference. And indeed, the nature of the plays constituting the mythopoeic “trend” lends itself well to such dual interpretations. Plays featuring “minor” mythological characters, or familiar personages in compromising, often humorous, circumstances can then be seen as disregarding the image of the positive champion or as promoting the underclass.
Thus, Hacks’s musical libretto Die schöne Helena (1964), which foregrounds the intrigues of temple priests, can be understood as a critique of capitalism and religion or as an indictment of a hypocritical political system in the GDR. His comedy Omphale (1970), which deals with Heracles’s temporary enslavement to the Queen of Lydia, addresses either the exploitation of the working class or the US intervention in Vietnam. When Amphitryon (1968), Hacks’s most successful play, introduces Mercury’s doubling of Sosias, a philosopher-fool, to the more traditional cast of Alcmene and Zeus, the innovation can be seen as a critique of either Western or Eastern intellectuals. Müller’s selection of two “disallowed” labors for his plays Herakles 5 and Herakles 2 oder die Hydra (1974, as part of Zement), that is, the cleaning of King Augeas’s stables and the killing of the Hydra, can be announced as indicative of the futility of human labor or as a condemnation of the profit motive. Müller’s most discussed myth interpretation, Philoktet, which casts the traditionally sly but heroic figure of Odysseus as an advocate of “rational instrumentality,” the Enlightenment attitude Horkheimer and Adorno linked to barbarism in their book Dialektik der Aufklärung, can be seen to refer to either “fascist capitalism” or “totalitarian socialism.” Following Hacks’s and Müller’s lead, Stefan Schütz’s concentration on the “flip-side” of myths popularized by ancient writers, notably in his Odysseus’ Heimkehr (1972), allows one critic to see the play as an attack on Western market capitalism, and another to view it as a critique on whitewashing efforts by a totalitarian regime. Schütz’s story of Antiope and Theseus (later renamed Die Amazonen, 1974), which centers on the relationship between the Amazon queen and the Greek leader stripped of its tragic pathos, is rarely read as a love story but instead as a tale of imperialism or capitalism. Schütz’s Laokoon (1979), which reinterprets from Laocoon’s perspective the disastrous decision of King Priam to reject his warnings against the Trojan Horse, contains similar arguments.
From the preceding discussion on mythopoeism’s compatibility with, relationship to, and function in a socialist state, it should be evident that the primary difficulty of dealing with GDR myth interpretations is that they originated in a totalitarian state in which issues of censorship and critique had become paramount. Yet as Donald Thomas reminds us in his study of literary censorship in England, “The relevant question is not ‘Does censorship exist?’ but rather, ‘Under what sort of censorship do we live now?”. Rather than exploring the reasons why the development and the continuation of mythopoeism should have been impaired, if not made impossible, in the GDR, a more constructive approach is to ask how the preoccupation with myth in the GDR constituted itself as a cultural entity in relation to and against an ideological system that attempted to control all aspects of literary production in the country. If, as John Fiske specifies, “the term ‘culture,’ used in the phrase ‘cultural studies,’ is neither aesthetic nor humanist in emphasis, but political” (254), then the task must be to understand not how myths were allowed in the GDR, but rather how myths “functioned,” what “necessitated” them, and how they fit into a larger cultural context.
Progressively, GDR mythopoeism presented a much more complicated formulation of humanity — or inhumanity — than could be uncovered with such a selective view of myth. By stressing those aspects of myth that were thought to corroborate and legitimate a “productive relationship to tradition,” Riedel, Trilse, and others glossed over a minatory feature of myth’s historical role in German culture and politics—its repeated co-optation into a political program. The issues for postwar leftist intellectuals had changed substantially from those faced by early twentieth century Marxists and socialists and are not well served by Riedel’s informative but ultimately incomplete portrayal of the mechanics behind the reception of myth in a socialist society. National Socialist Germany and its Holocaust in particular created a crisis of language that extended far into the reception of myths. While myth’s subsumption into an ideological framework with political aims was not a first, the level to which it was taken by the Nazis was unmatched. Though the National Socialists favored Germanic myths to profess their superiority and rationalize their racist theories, Greek culture played a great role in their visions for the thousand-year Reich, as can be seen in the architectural plans for Berlin, and theater in National Socialist Germany incorporated many of the mystical strains of thought already present in the Weimar Republic. For example, the neoclassicism of Paul Ernst, evident in his early plays Ariadne auf Naxos (1914) and Kassandra (1915), was held in high regard by the Nazis for its idealization of the “kämpferischer Mensch” (Garten 222, “militant man”). Ernst’s antipathetic attitude towards Naturalism and Neo-Romanticism followed a well-documented line of National Socialist thought, which ultimately reemerged in the mantra of “Blut and Boden” popularized after 1933 (Garten 222-9). The concerted marshaling of mythology for racist theories and propagandistic purposes clearly required a careful consideration of symbolic modes of literature after 1945, including new interpretations of Greco-Roman mythology.
Ironically, the promotion of myth—properly sterilized of malicious and misanthropic elements, of course—is quite in line with a totalitarian manipulation of mythological figures and topoi. The history of the National Socialist campaign against “Entartete Kunst” (“degenerate art”), which attacked expressionist art and primitivity, serves as a reminder of how actively the Nazis were engaged with issues of language and art. The patrician humanism that had popularized Greco-Roman mythology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries now marked the point of departure for an ideological myth reception that foregrounded concepts of heroism and purity in support of fascist ideology.[WE2] In terms of a socialist reception of Greco-Roman myths, the experience of anti-primitivism and anti-expressionism by the Nazis did not result in a markedly new definition of myth’s utility. Indeed, the Soviets in particular readily adapted the model of myth reception set out by the National Socialists, partly because of ramifications of the Formalism debate and the development of socialist realism. Rohrwasser and Engelhardt explain this curious similarity in myth reception by the National Socialists and the Soviets in a shared distrust of primitivism, with expressionism thought to be a “Rückkehr zum Primitiven”33 (15, “return to the primitive”):
Die Ohnmacht des Primitiven oder die primitive Macht des Tötens, auch die primitive Gestaltung der Partialtriebe mußte den Nationalsozialisten in der Tat als zersetzend gelten. In diesem Rückgriff der Expressionisten lag die Gefahr der Demaskierung der eigenen Gesellschaft—eine Einschätzung, die der Stalinismus mit dem Nationalsozialismus teilte. (15)
(The swoon of the primitive or the primitive power of killing as well as the primitive construction of partial drives must have indeed counted as subversive for the National Socialists. In this reversion of the expressionists lay the danger that their own society would be laid bare—an appraisal that Stalinism shared with National Socialism.)
For Rohrwasser and Engelhardt, the early leftist “boycott,” or hesitation to incorporate myth into a Marxist world view, occurred then not only because of its previous utilization in National Socialism but also for its reflection on Stalinism. This position was certainly embraced by a number of vocal orthodox Marxists such as Alfred Kurella (a.k.a. Bernhard Ziegler) and Träger, who drew similar conclusions from the similarities between primitivism and myth. This reasoning has proved to be the source of much misunderstanding about the Left’s relationship to myth by again assigning myth a historically fixed position. Nazism and Stalinism, equated in this way, both evidenced a preference for myths that best served the needs of their totalitarian systems. Hence, traits such as heroism were praised in myth, while most troublesome aspects of myths were rejected as a “recourse to primitivism” understood in Jungian terms.
The anti-expressionist and anti-primitive position that emerged from the Soviet formalism debate was related to a distrust of bourgeois language that existed separately from the general anti-fascist stance. As Fritz Raddatz notes, the effects of the campaign against formalism in art and literature begun in the Soviet Union quickly carried over into GDR theater (404). The apparent plea for reinstating familiar German literary and cultural traditions to forge a new identity for East Germans alarmed those who associated the new interest in mythological forms as a dangerous effect of a literary motif already thought “nationalist” and “bourgeois.”
To better understand mythopoeic drama’s role in the GDR, we must turn our attention to the transformative power of drama in shaping cultural identity. In The Recurrence of Fate: Theatre and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia, Spencer Golub examines the performative nature of Russian history and its role in a self-conscious fashioning of cultural memory, what he terms the “theatrical memory” of Russia and its metamorphosis into something called “Soviet culture.” The Leninist-Bolshevik transformation of Russia, Golub argues, conflated revolutionary ideology and experience into a blend of great Russian nationalism based on a mythic past and of Marxist utopianism based on the theorized “scientific” Soviet society. Spanning the period of 1900 to 1980, Golub’s project emphasizes a host of figures, actors, playwrights, but also images and correspondences, in which the “(self)-martyred intellectual” is the protagonist in a cultural mise en scene of staged history (1). Golub’s project addresses the complicity of cultural texts in the evolution of this ideological-nationalist project and the subsequent erasure and re-inscription of history. In doing so, Golub poses two questions:
Is it possible to honor the history of class and cultural memory without succumbing to the siren song of a constructed fate, the allure of a singular destiny? What are the moral consequences, not so much of forgetting, which the state periodically prescribes and the intelligentsia appropriately reviles, but of opting out remembrance as a rehearsed rite? (7)
In other words, Golub questions whether the obeisance paid the class struggle and the emphasis placed on shared but ultimately constructed “memory” would necessarily result in the assumption of a manifest cultural, economic, and political destiny at the cost of a critical and differentiated understanding of Russian history.
Golub’s analysis offers a valuable means to link Russian-Soviet and German theater discourses, which I argue contributed greatly to the evolution of GDR dramatic mythopoeism. His questions and their implications lay the groundwork for an interrogation of theater’s early role in cultural self-theatricalization and memory-making in the GDR, as suggested by German theater’s quick recuperation after the Second World War. The first post-war theater performances appeared in the East within a mere month of Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, and by December of that year, seventy-five new or renovated theater houses dotted the landscape, proof positive of the occupying Soviet forces’ active encouragement and support of theaters for their wartime enemies (Emmerich, Literaturgeschichte 96; Raddatz, Traditionen 403). While it presented itself as an ideal and necessary vehicle for reeducation and reconstruction of the defeated nation, theater functioned as more than a “mass medium” and culturally sanctioned art form—it anticipated the project of international communism.
In his 1974 essay “‘Mass Cultural Activity’ in the GDR: On Cultural Politics in Bureaucratically Deformed Transitional Societies,” Gerd Hennig postulates some provocative explanations for the importance of “traditional” forms of cultural productions in the GDR. While clearly dated, his essay provides informative links between the social-psychological situation in the GDR and the rise of theater. Hennig identifies two complex factors contributing to the transitional building of socialism in the GDR different from those found in the USSR and China. First, “the destruction of the fascist state machine was not a result of the revolutionary action of the German working class but, instead, a result of the actions of foreign nations;” second, “the phase of socio-economic reconstruction was determined by the different interests of the allied victors and therefore prohibited the development and realization of a German common interest” (39). As a result of these combined factors, one of the basic causes of the difficult situation in which the SED found itself was the insufficient identification of the people with the processes of the socialist revolution instituted by the SED—the interests of the GDR populace were subordinated to those of the occupying powers (39). Consequently, Hennig maintains, the working class of the GDR failed to become the subject of social change and could not envision the revolution as its own (different from the revolution in Russia years earlier). The expression of this limited action was then “defined by the obstruction of all possible revolutionary initiative on the part of the working class or of a ‘special German path to socialism,’ and became the “‘mimetic praxis’ of the Socialist Unity Party: the ‘imitation and institution of Stalinistic forms in politics and the economy’ (Hennig 40). As a result, the SED emerged as a “deformed bureaucracy” which felt the constant need to legitimize itself in the absence of a legitimate revolutionary impetus. The legitimization manifested itself in a “‘permanent pressure to produce in terms of quantity”’ (41).
On the cultural front, then, this push towards a quantifiable production of an identifiable bourgeois culture appeared in an “over-emphasis of traditional value systems”:
Concomitantly, the expressed warning not to regard the working class as the ‘simple executor of the estate’ of bourgeois humanist ideas, thus preventing the development of personality traits and ideals unique to the working class, was rejected as ‘ideological iconoclasm’ (Bilderstürmerei) which can lead to the destruction of the cultural heritage. (Hennig 46)
In a complex and staged sleight of hand, then, the state approved activities which were predominantly traditional in scope, which explains the increased attendance of concerts, museums, and, of course, theater. And, as Hennig concludes, the growing number of cultural-educational plans, museum tours, books taken out of factory libraries, and theater visits were easily used by the Party to “quantitatively corroborate the effectiveness of its cultural policy” (49). Because qualitative changes such as identity and personality structures are impossible to measure, conclusions regarding state-imposed transformations are always gauged through “measurable data”—the numbers attending “cultural events.” These factors also go a long way in explaining how so many of the potentially subversive plays authored by GDR mythopoets escaped the censors. Hennig notes a “more generous policy of publication” in the wake of the “official rediscovery of divergent interests and the resulting new concept of the theory of contradictions” produced on the cultural front. Even after reimposed restrictions, the effect of state-promoted attendance of “traditional” performances of bourgeois culture was already manifest in the increased production of mythopoeic drama.
The rapid rise of theater in the GDR, which first prospered as workers’ theater, did not however completely represent a disaffected imposition of alien (Soviet) ideology on indifferent German intellectuals. Writing retrospectively in 1948, Bertolt Brecht welcomed this new sponsorship and revival of German theater: “der mit solcher mühe niedergerungene feind wurde in die theater eingeladen. die ersten maßnahmen des Siegers [sic] sind brotversorgung, wasserinstallation and öffnung der theater!” (qtd. in Emmerich, Literaturgeschichte 96, “the enemy, subdued with such great effort, was invited to the theater. the first actions of the victor were to supply bread, provide a water supply, and open the theater!”). Inadvertently, Brecht’s celebration highlights the victor’s hidden ideological project for the war-torn, hungry, and disillusioned nation: by making theater the intellectual and spiritual sustenance of the defeated Germans, the Soviet intelligentsia reified its own long-standing investment in a “staging of the utopian future and reenacting the ‘genuinely real’ past in the present” (Golub 9). The promise of a deterministic notion of history coupled with the effective mobilization of large portions of the working class initially translated in German theater as a continuation of the agitprop theater developed by Piscator and later expanded by Brecht. Soon, however, the monumentalization of ideology on German stages would assume a similar synthesis of the eastern theatricalization and memory “stylization” that Golub has posited for Russian stages.
The moral consequences of Golub’s formulation of both “forgetting” and the “opting out of remembrance,” I would argue, were played out on the stages of the German Democratic Republic for the newly constituted national audience—particularly in dramatic mythopoeism. However, the significance of this impetus, born of the horrors of the Second World War and the Russian Revolution’s “living example of class culture at work” (Friedman 113), lay less in specific transgressions against memory than in an understanding of the true nature of Stalinist repression, what Müller and other GDR intellectuals repeatedly blame for the betrayal of GDR socialism. The resultant discourse challenged the hegemonic “mythological” identity of the Russian Revolution that operated on both an intellectual and grass roots level in the Soviet Union without a rejection of its utopist vision. At the same time, the attempt to address the consequences of Stalinism necessarily would involve a re-imagining of East Germany in terms of a familiar historical and cultural national trope. Thus, what on the surface appears as a broad intellectual rejoinder to the state’s political, social, and cultural efforts to cultivate legitimacy in its transition from occupied zone to autonomous nation, the remarkable resurgence of “Grecomania” in dramatic, lyric, and narrative GDR texts is testimony not to a concerted nationalist appropriation but to a spontaneous renunciation of once idealized German cultural icons. The portrayal of Greek and Roman mythology, once exalted in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature as offering imaginary redemption from cultural discontent, now invokes powerful associations with a Germany of many pasts, whose complex realities are subsumed into an idealistic matrix that would ultimately define and confront the imagined community of the German Democratic Republic.
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1 Fritz Raddatz’s outspoken censure of GDR literature after reunification may have motivated Frank Raddatz to cast the critic as the gruff Inspector interrogating Stefan Schütz (Emmerich, Literaturgeschichte 445).
2 Franz Fühmann, author of the programmatic essay „Das mythische Element in der Literatur” (1974), contributed Das hölzerne Pferd (1968), Irrfahrt und Heimkehr des Odysseus (1968), Prometheus. Die Titanenschlacht (1974), and Der Geliebte der Morgenröte (1978), comprised of the short stories "Hera und Zeus," "Marsyas," and "Das Netz des Hephaistos." While many texts presented close imitations of previous myths (i.e. Stephan Hermlin’s "Die Argonauten"), others went far beyond a moderate adaptation, notably Wolf’s Kassandra.
3 See Arnold; Emmerich, “'Antike Mythen' and Literaturgeschichte"; Gelbrich; Riedel; Rohrwasser and Engelhardt.
4 Trilse notes that Marx could read and write ancient Greek and Latin and had read Aeschylus in the original. Not surprisingly, Marx’s favorite mythological characters were Spartacus and Prometheus, prototypes of the “working class” (Antike 39).
5 During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a preference for the Odysseus myth could be seen in the small number of mythopoeic plays that were staged after World War II: Csokov’s Kalypso (1942), which formed a trilogy called Olymp and Golgatha with two other plays, Pilatus (1946) and Cäsars Witwe (1953); Hans-Joachim Haecker’s poorly received Der Tod des Odysseus (1948); Christian Collin’s Odysseus 51 (1952); and Kurt Klinger’s Odysseus muß wieder reisen (1954). Other notable Odysseus-related plays dealing with homecoming issues are Ilse Langer’s Iphigenie kehrt heim (1948) and Klytämnestra (1949). Athough two classicist adaptations surrounding the Odysseus myth enjoyed widespread success, namely Ponsard’s Ulvsse (1851) and Gerhart Hauptmann’s Bogen des Odysseus (1914), few Odysseus plays would succeed on GDR stages until Karl Mickel’s Nausikaa play in 1968 (Trilse 74).
6 The historical development of “pseudomyths” has been studied by many theorists, including Ernst Cassirer, Kerényi, Eliade, and Kurt Hübner, to name a few (Borchmeyer 294). In a broader sense, the abuses of language by Hitler’s regime in its propaganda and racist theories manifested itself in a distrust of language itself. Symptomatic of the new relationship to words after National Socialism is Kahlschlagliteratur, which was characterized by a Spartan, pragmatic use of words nearly devoid of “double-meaning” and emotion. Kahlschlagliteratur was a term used by Weyrauch to describe a post-1945 (primarily West German) writing style intent on purifying the language of Nazi and war terminology. This type of literature was closely related to the Trümmerliteratur typified by the writings of Heinrich Böll, who often provided literary “inventories” of post-war Germany from the perspective of various characters. The situation in the GDR, however, was more complex with the official adoption of propagandistic language in the era of Stalinism.
7 Sorel argued near the turn of the twentieth century that revolutionaries could conscientiously utilize myth to achieve their goals. He understood “myths” to include not only those frequently designated as being of primitive-historical origin, but also those (ideological) constructs used by religions, revolutions, and ideologues to “motivate the troops,” so to speak. A proponent of violent “general strikes” intendant on “sweep[ing] away” existing social structures wholesale, Sorel particularly hailed the latter variety of “myths” for their subliminal powers to manipulate the proletariat into actually believing in the eventual triumph of a given cause, though he himself considered the realization of such revolutionary causes to be illusory (Baumer 634-40).
8 Mann had written: „Man muß dem intellektuellen Faschismus den Mythos wegnehmen und ihn ins Humane umfunktionieren. Ich tue längst nichts anderes mehr” (Kerenyi 100, “One must wrest myth away from intellectual fascism and reprogram it into the humane. I have long been doing nothing but that”). Naturally, GDR cultural functionaries agreed with Mann’s antifascist message but would insist on a didactic/propagandistic tone for any such refunctionalization of myth.
9 Bernhardt cites a similar case of an incarcerated communist turning to Greek mythology in his time of need. Wilhelm Girnus repeated in an interview that the images of the Odyssey followed him into the “abgedunkelte Einzelzelle hinein und manchmal ließen sie mich trotz großer Übermüdung lange nicht einschlafen, oder ich träumte von ihnen im Schlaf … Seitdem sind diese Gesänge der Odyssee mir besonders teuer” (cit. in Bernhardt 18-9, “darkened cell ... and sometimes would not let me sleep despite great exhaustion, or I dreamt of them in my sleep ... Ever since, these songs of the Odyssey have been especially dear to me”).
10 In his Handbook of East German Drama 1945-1985, Lederer lists the price range for theater tickets in the GDR as being between 1 and 15 Marks (1). Most seats could be had for less than a dollar, even at the official 1986 GDR Mark-Dollar exchange rate. Fritz Raddatz notes that productions in the GDR generally filled theaters. In 1967, Rostock’s six theaters (Großes Haus, Kleine Haus, Intimes Theater, Theater für Prozesse, Kleine Komödie in Warnemünde, and the Ernst-Barlach-Theater in Güstrow) sold 92% of the combined 1700 seats available to the public on a nightly basis (Raddatz, Traditionen 408). Confirming Lederer’s rather broad price range, Raddatz lists the admission prices for best seats in the first three theaters as DM 6,00, DM 4,00 and DM 5,20, respectively, prices comparable to the era’s West German movie admission price (408). It should be noted that no private theaters existed in the GDR (Lederer 1), a fact that can be partly explained by the currency reform of 1948, which many private theater companies did not survive (Raddatz, Traditionen 403). While Lederer’s and Raddatz’s figures appear reliable, they are necessarily based on state-mediated record-keeping.
11 These figures are based on a count of plays with classical Greek mythological themes listed in Lederer. Trilse provides more detailed information about the frequency of particular myths on German stages in a separate study, Antike und Theater heute (1975).
12 Gottfried von Viterbo, who argued euhemeristically in the 12th century that mythological gods were the ancestors of the sovereign class, thus refunctionalizing myths in service of the contemporary monarchy, gives an early example of the political use of myth.
13 Compare Garten’s summary of official raison d’être of art under National Socialism: First, the Third Reich was a totalitarian society molded into a uniform pattern and directed towards a single aim, namely, the assertion of national power and racial supremacy; any individual efforts not conforming to this pattern were forcibly suppressed. Secondly, the only recognized values were ‘heroic’ virtues, and the only dramatic conflicts those arising from the struggle of the hero against a hostile and malicious world; all other issues were disdained as pertaining to the ‘individualistic’ society of the past. Thirdly, Nazi society had sprung, by its very nature, from a revolution of the masses; it scorned every intellectual and artistic activity as potentially dangerous to its interests. Lastly, the self-imposed rupture of all international contacts in the field of art and thought produced a mental isolation which excluded Germany from the intellectual movements of other countries. (Garten 230-1).
14 Fred Oelßner’s Kampf gegen den Formalismus in Kunst und Literatur provoked debate on the subject in East Germany.
15 The notion of theater as a “mass medium” is given by the construction of larger and larger theaters as a consequence of rapid urbanization and industrialization, and more importantly by the idea of “spectacle”—which is predicated on a literate or “post-rural” society.