„This is not the message we want“ – Heiner Müller’s Discarded Greeting for World Theatre Day, 1975

World Theatre Day was an unexpected but great success for the International Theatre Institute (ITI). In 1961, the 9th World Congress of the ITI adopted the Finnish ITI’s proposal and declared the annual opening day of the Theatre of Nations Festival in Paris, March 27th, as World Theatre Day, celebrated this year for the 59th time. Each year, the ITI commissioned known theatre personalities to write a message about the importance of the theatrical art in its social context, whether critical or optimistic. This now long list of writers includes famous theatre artists such as Jean Cocteau, Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook, Dimitri Chostakovitch, Luchino Visconti, Pablo Neruda, Ellen Stewart and Wole Soyinka. (A collection of all authors and all messages can be found here)

Logo of the GDR Centre of ITI (Archive of ITI Deutschland)

In my research into the work of the former GDR Centre of the ITI (undertaken within the framework of the ERC project Developing Theatre), I coincidentally discovered in the files of the Ministry of Culture such a message by the East German playwright Heiner Müller that had never been used for its intended purpose.

World Theatre Day was widely celebrated in the GDR as well, driven by the efforts of the very active East German ITI Centre. However, because of the huge cultural and political significance asigned to the theatre in the GDR, getting the international messages published often proved difficult. Many of them, although hopeful of the theatre’s ability to transcend borders and make the world a better place, were considered “not suitable for us”[1] because they were either written by the wrong people or expressed artistic views incompatible with GDR cultural policy. The solution was often to ignore the international message altogether and to distribute a separate national message written by an East German artist, which placed the same political expectations on the theatre as the state and the party did.

Another international World Theatre Day message is rejected. (GDR Centre of ITI. 1973. Protokoll Direktoriumssitzung 14.4.1973. Direktorium DDR 1971-1974. Archive of ITI Deutschland. p.3)

In 1975, to replace the international message of Ellen Stewart, Heiner Müller was chosen as the author of a national message. Müller had been a controversial figure in East German theatre life. In the 1960s he was repeatedly caught in the crosshairs of the SED, some of his plays were banned in the GDR and he was at times prohibited from working. While his plays were performed and published abroad, his rehabilitation in the GDR was slow. Despite the active support of his theatre colleagues, he was still regarded with suspicion by the state censorship authorities. For this very reason, I found it remarkable that Müller was commissioned to address the theatres of the GDR in a message.

This was the text that Müller submitted to the East German ITI Centre:

„A Buddhist legend tells of a woman who was elevated to the gods. But on the threshold of nirvana, she heard the cry of the world and turned back to mankind. Since sacrifice has become tragedy and orgy has become comedy, theatre has come to this threshold from time to time. These are the times when there is talk of crisis. When it crosses the threshold in the wrong direction, it gives up the condition of its existence. Humanity can live without the theatre, with imperialism it can no longer. Its problems are such that they can only be solved together, and not together. Not with war and not without violence. What can theatre do in the world of hunger and wars that needs to be changed? It does not satisfy hunger, heal wounds or raise the dead. But its illusory world is the semblance of a world without hunger, war and privilege. To all who work on this only possible future, our greetings on World Theatre Day 1975.“[2]

But as with many of Müller’s plays, the assessment of this text in the East German Ministry of Culture was negative. „This is not the message we want” (in the German original „So geht das nicht“) is the opinion shared by the ministry officials in a handwritten comment underneath.

Heiner Müller at the Alexanderplatz demonstration 1989 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1104-047 / Link, Hubert / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

At short notice, it was decided instead to ask the actor Wolfgang Heinz to write an alternative message. Heinz wrote about his friend and fellow actor Hans Otto, who, as a member of the communist party, had been abducted and murdered by the Nazis in 1933. This personal starting point was quickly undercut by the obligation to be ideologically clear and affirmative. Thus, the text asked the East German reader to realise „30 years after the victory over the fascist murderers“ that “in the GDR we created and are developing a state in which arts of a pure, truthful and useful kind have their home for good reason.“[3]

Heiner Müller’s text remained in the drawer. In many ways his critical reflections on the world-changing potential of theatre were much more akin to the international messages that the ITI headquarters distributed for World Theatre Day. Like these and like many of his plays, however, it was dismissed as unsuitable for East German audiences and thus not published.

[1] GDR Centre of ITI. 1973. Protokoll Direktoriumssitzung 14.4.1973. Direktorium DDR 1971-1974. Archive of ITI Deutschland. p.3 [translation mine, RS]

[2] Heiner Müller. 1975. Botschaft zum Welttag des Theaters 1975. BArch DR1/13620 [translation mine, RS]

[3] Wolfgang Heinz. 1975. Botschaft zum Welttag des Theaters 1975. BArch DR1/13620 [translation mine, RS]

About the author

Rebecca Sturm (M.A.) is a PhD student of the ERC project Developing Theatre at LMU Munich. In her dissertation, she focusses on the international efforts of the East and West German centres of the International Theatre Institute during the Cold War.