why Heiner Müller’s ZEMENT is quintessential, democratic theatre; or: the importance of Possibility

I’m currently in Berlin for the 51st Theatertreffen, an annual festival of German language theatre. Each year the Theatertreffen’s jury picks the ten “most remarkable” productions of the season, which are then brought to, and shown at various theatres in Berlin over the course of 14 days. There’s also an accompanying program of panels, talks, and interdisciplinary projects. Part of this year’s line-up is Heiner Müller’s play Zement (Cement), directed by Dimiter Gotscheff at Residenztheater München.

Zement is centered around Gleb Tschumalov, a kind of Odysseus, who, in 1921, is returning home from three years of civil war. He arrives in a foreign world: the town’s cement factory is falling apart; the ideals and visions of the communist revolution have dissipated into the people’s daily fight for survival. Gleb’s wife Dascha, a Medea figure, traumatized by violence, has sacrificed her marital duties — even her child Njurka, who now lives in a children’s home — to the emancipatory, feminist ideals of the revolution.

The narrative arc of Zement is loose, but by no means non-existent; it acts like a red thread for Müller’s ruptured, fragmented, disharmonious collage of images, ideas, songs, and poems. Teresa Grenzmann of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calls Zement “a thoughtful, melancholic scenario between war and counter-war, disappointment, sufferance, exhaustion; […] a never-ending trying-without-reward weighs on this text.”

Dimiter Gotscheff, director of Zement, talks about the importance of Müller’s Gesellschaftsentwurf — his societal idea, his imagining or devising of society. To me, that’s the key to Zement. It’s not so much about society itself as it is about the act of imagining it — about the Possibility of society. Always one step removed from ‘the thing itself,’ Zement is not about capitalism or communism, revolution or utopia — it is about their not-quite-yet-being, about their not-being-overcome-yet, about a constant dialectical struggle between past, present, and future, and the question of whether, in the midst of violence and madness, utopia is even possible. Utopia has been reduced to a kind of duty, a type of labour, and exists only in a quasi-sense — whenever the dream seems to be allowed to take shape, such as in moments of tenderness, or the daughter Njurka, it is interrupted, destroyed, killed. “Hoping for utopia” is ultimately the only possibility, the safe “not-quite-yet” state, which, ironically, by its very definition, can’t be inhabited for more than a fleeting moment. The possibility of utopia thus acts as an allegory of the labourer, who can’t inhabit the moment, because he constantly vacillates between working and not-working — until the two opposites ultimately collapse into the same thing.

The result of Müller’s dialectics is total system conflation; capitalism and communism ultimately wear the same mask, become in discernible. The question of Which System becomes irrelevant; capitalism is inherently destructive, but so is communism, because the road leading to it is murderous — fascist, in a way, and thus impossible. In Zement, The System — any system — and therefore Man, is inherently destructive. System ineffectiveness and destruction manifest in the failure of love — not in its absence, but in man’s inability to live and realize it. Love has been reduced to failed attempts at intimacy; it has transformed into a constant cycle of temptation and disappointment — it has become the capitalist system, war. In a state of total alienation and estrangement, of persistent semi-capitalism and quasi-communism, intimacy has become worse than impossible: what lingers is its memory, the possibility of intimacy, which manifests as torture.


In Zement, the world is a tilting platform made of cement — it’s both product and raw source material at once. As such, the world morphs and transforms constantly, into a bed, a factory, a typewriter animated by humans. It becomes the mountain which Sisyphus climbs, and turns into a blank canvas, tilting and shedding its inhabitants as soon as it’s being painted. Certainty and stillness are death in Zement; the only Truth that exists is the non-truth of dialectical struggle. Thus, truth is found in non-truth, in the in-between, in argument, in aspiration and Possibility — in a complete devotion to absolute, fleeting immediacy: in the theatre. The theatre becomes the world — an ideal society, a place of Possibility, of learning, of transformation. Zement is societal learning, ritual learning, imaginative learning, democratic learning. Müller and Gotscheff have no “message” or “Truth,” just questions, problems, allegories, piling up at a rapid pace, coded, decoded, and recoded at high speeds, in a constant feedback loop between artists and spectators — a process of society-building.

Zement is quintessential Theatre, and it’s quintessentially democratic. This is the language of the theatre; the only language of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual autonomy that can and must unfold in the collective. Dimiter Gotscheff and Heiner Müller were remarkable speakers of this language. Gotscheff died last year; Müller died in 1995. Let’s not let this language die with them. We need it.

PHOTO CREDIT: Residenztheater München


One comment

  1. Pingback: in search of theatrical radicalism: Theatre Junction’s EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE | FANNINA WAUBERT DE PUISEAU

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