The Panther Always Runs Diagonally Uphill

Stage designer Erich Wonder about Heiner Mueller's sense of time

3 Jun 1996
Ten to Eleven
Heiner Müller
Müller's circle: Erich Wonder


In this interview, Alexander Kluge speaks with Austrian stage designer Professor Erich Wonder about his cooperation with Heiner Müller. Among other things, Wonder created for Müller the stage design for the plays "The Mission," "The Scab," "Hamlet"/"Hamletmachine" and "Tristan."

The conversation begins with their thoughts on Müller's funeral that took place the same day in Berlin, and that both men had attended. It was freezing and everyone was cold, but they "warmed each other." During the ceremony, Müller's former wife threw a whiskey bottle onto the coffin that broke with a loud noise. Wonder describes this moment as a "mix of abstraction and actuality," as "fascinating and awe inspiring."

In the second part, Kluge and Wonder discuss the plays that emerged from the collaboration with Müller. According to Wonder, working with Müller was very different from working with other directors – in his opinion, Müller was not a "professional stage director," but that was exactly why he appreciated the liberating, and sometimes confusing, collaboration. For Müller, artistic work was always autonomous.

Kluge describes Müller's way of connecting his own text to external influences, for example Wonder's stage design: "He tries to figure out if he and his words can live alongside, or live inside it. Or possibly just live next to it. To see if they can be neighbors."

During the development of his plays, Müller does not seem particularly interested in the question of realistic and common rules of stage production. This is how he came up with productions during which wild big cats ran around on stage, and Wonder – based on Müller's cue "The people in the audience are voyeurs" – decided to wrap the auditorium and the portal and only leave a triangle for the audience to look through that sometimes even showed rain and snow. The frame constantly changed, depending on the spectator's perspective and the position of the actors. This made a set in the classical sense unnecessary ("The Mission," premiere 1980 at the Volksbühne Berlin).

Toward the end of the conversation, Kluge inquires about Müller's personality during production, which Wonder describes as the opposite of a fight: he waits. The "waiting" is something he observed not only in Müller himself, but also in the people around him – there was no measure of time. When friends of Müller's dropped in on the rehearsals, Wonder would stand right in front of them to see what would happen. But they just stayed put and waited – unthinkable for someone from the West, according to Wonder. Müller's relationship to time especially shows in his "Tristan" production, as "he's in no hurry to produce" (Wonder).