“Memory of a revolution”

Commemorating a revolution is always self-congratulatory as it amounts to solemnizing a victory of sorts.  Negotiating claims on the memory of the revolution, though, is a very different operation.

Heiner Müller’s The Task/Mission (1979) provides an excellent illustration.   The play works as a triple memorialisation.  First, as its subtitle states, it represents the “memory of a revolution,” which can be a French, Jamaican, German, or other historical revolt:  The play unfolds at a time when the revolution has become a disconcerting memory.

It is also a memory of an entire theatrical tradition, the theater of Kleist, Büchner, Brecht, Beckett, Genet, and others cited in diverse ways.  This tradition appears exhausted.

Last, it dramatizes the memory of revolutionary theater – both theater about revolutions and revolutionary production.  This too seems to have lost its direction.

This triple memorialisation of revolution, theater, and revolutionary theater makes The Mission a consummate postmodern tragedy.  Its many dramaturgical complications (which account for its rare productions) are an integral part of its argument.  They illustrate the problems we face when remembering the task of a revolutionary mission becomes itself a task:  To salvage a revolt from its anniversaries.

23 January 2020

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