The Liberation of Prometheus is a prose text which Heiner Müller has dropped into his play, Cement, like an erratic block - a real stumbling block for the theater which cannot do it justice with ordinary theatrical methods. Whether I can manage it, I don't know; but I'm trying - with independent musical means which, in the hierarchy of expressiveness, are not beneath the text but equal to it (with song forms, collages, flashbacks and the kind of editing used in films) - to make at least two things audible:
- the great fascination I feel at the unbelievable dimensions of work and time, filth and stench in the text,
- and the new (since André Gide and Kafka) political perspectives of myth interpretation with which Müller humorously and incisively endows the double character of Prometheus: as the fire-stealing benefactor of mankind and the privileged guest at the table of the gods.
This enables me to make analogous association with other texts by Heiner Müller (for example from his play Der Auftrag) and let Prometheus drop 10000 years down (or up) as a mid-level employee in an elevator on his way to see the boss. Acceptance of oppression, nostalgia for the elevator, a longing for the beloved eagle on the rock, - all these are stronger than the quest for altered living conditions.
The Liberation of Prometheus
Prometheus, who brought lightning to the humans, but did not teach them how to use it against the gods because he sat at the gods' table and their meals would have been less sumptuous if shared with the humans, was, either on account of his action or his omission, and on order of the gods, fastened by Hephaestus the smith to the Caucasus, where every day a dog-headed eagle returned to his constantly regenerating liver to feed. The eagle, which considered him to be a partly edible rock formation capable of small movements and, especially when being eaten, of discordant song, emptied his bowels over him. The faeces were his nourishment. He passed them, in the form of his own faeces, on to the rock below, and so when, after three thousand years, Herakles, his liberator, reached the top of the unpopulated mountains, he was able, even from a great distance, to make out the prisoner, glistening white with bird faeces. But, repelled again and again by the wall of stench, he circled the massif for another three thousand years, while the dog-headed eagle fed off the liver of the prisoner, so that the stench grew to the degree that the liberator became accustomed to it. At last, helped by a rain which lasted five hundred years, Herakles managed to approach within shooting range. He held his nose with one hand. He missed the eagle three times for, stupefied by the wave of stench which struck him, he took his hand away from his nose to stretch his bow and involuntarily closed his eyes. The third arrow wounded the prisoner slightly on his left foot, and the fourth killed the eagle. Prometheus, it is told, wept aloud for the eagle, his only companion in three thousand years and his provider for twice three thousand. Am I supposed to eat your arrows, he cried out, forgetting that he had known other food: Can you fly, peasant, with your feet of dung. And he vomited from the stable smell which had clung to Herakles since he had cleaned out the stables of Augeas, because the dung stank to high heaven. Eat the eagle, Herakles said. But Prometheus could not grasp the meaning of his words. He also knew full well that the eagle had been his last link to the gods, its daily pecking his remembrance of them. More flexible' than ever in his chains, he cursed his liberator, called him a murderer and tried to spit in his face. Meanwhile, Herakles, bent double with nausea, looked for the fetters which bound the raging Prometheus to his prison. Time, weather and faeces had made the flesh indistinguishable from the metal, and both indistinguishable from the rock. Now, loosened by the more violent movements of the prisoner, the fetters became discernible. It turned out that they had been eaten by rust. Only at his sex had the chain grown together with the flesh because Prometheus had, at least during his first two thousand years on the rock, occasionally masturbated. Later he must have forgotten even his sex. The liberation left a scar. Prometheus could easily have freed himself if he had not been afraid of the eagle, unarmed and exhausted from the millenia though he was. His behaviour during the liberation shows that he feared freedom more than the bird. Roaring and foaming at the mouth, he defended his chains with tooth and claw against the grip of his liberator. Once liberated, he howled on his hands and knees from the torment of trying to crawl with his numb limbs, and he cried out for his quiet place on the rock beneath the wings of the eagle, where nothing moved unless shaken by an occasional earthquake decreed by the gods. Even after he was able to walk upright again, he struggled against the descent like an actor who does not want to leave the stage. Herakles had to hump him down from the mountain on his shoulders. The descent to the humans lasted a further three thousand years. While the gods rooted up the mountains, so that the descent to the humans was more like a plunge, Herakles carried his precious booty snuggled like a baby against his chest. Clinging to the liberator's neck, Prometheus indicated in a low voice the direction of the projectiles, so that they were able to dodge most of them. Meanwhile, screaming loudly to the heavens darkened by whirl of rocks, he declared his innocence in the liberation. There followed the suicide of the gods. One after the other they hurled themselves down from the heavens onto Herakles back and shattered in the rubble. Prometheus worked his way back onto the shoulders of his liberator and assumed the pose of the victor who rides in on a sweat-bathed horse to meet the cheers of the people.
(Heiner Müller: Zement. © Henschel Verlag Schauspiel, Berlin, vertreten durch den Verlag der Autoren, Frankturt/Main)
1 January 2000