Quartet is a complex and nuanced fantasy in which Heiner Muller uses sexual excess to parallel the selfish and destructive trajectory of the fate of humankind. In the world of Quartet, the traditional roles and boundaries that hold society together are suspended and replaced with sexual debauchery. By switching the gender roles of his two antagonists, Mertuille and Valmont, Muller comments on the superficiality of gender stereotypes and attempts to highlight the sexual fluidity between genders.
One of the backdrops that Quartet is set against is an air raid shelter after World War III. It is established from the beginning that the world the theatergoer is entering is destroyed or on the brink of destruction. As such all forms of societal codes of conduct that has been cultivated by civilizations are nullified. Morality, especially sexual morality, is suspended and both males and females are allowed to be sexually deviant. In Muller’s world, chastity and faithfulness becomes forms of repression of ones true sexual nature. When Valmont seduces the chaste Madame Tourvel he argues “this instrument of our bodies, isn’t it given to us so it may be played upon until silence breaks the string” so as to imply that it is a sin to deprive oneself of sexual pleasure. The ultimate goal of sexual acts is therefore not to procreate but for attain pleasure.
Muller does not use the gender role reversal technique for the portrayal of a post apocalyptic world only. While men have traditionally been stereotyped as sexually aggressive and women as sexually repressed, Muller’s antagonists breaks with such stereotypes by being equally sexually deviant. Valmont seduces a married woman and Merteuille encourages him to seduce an innocent virgin. Merteuille who breaks from the traditional female stereotype of sexual repression says to her lover “you know well enough that every man in one man too few for a woman.” Neither she, nor her lover have redeemable qualities and thus are equally condemned in their post apocalyptic environment.
Muller once said in an interview, when asked about feminism in his works, that he didn’t believe in – isms but rather he deals with reality. He then further challenged the interviewer by asking him to define what “a real female character” is. Muller’s response reveals his aversion to gender stereotypes. Mertuille is not a “real female character” because her sexuality doesn’t fit the mold of a stereotypical woman but Muller undoubtedly portrays her as a person who suffers from love, lust, jealousy and other maladies so associated with women. Muller deals with the issue of gender and sexuality at length in Quartet but he provides no solution because of his belief that the subject matter of gender is a non- issue. By reversing the gender role, Muller is almost daring his audience to make gender an issue and then pointing out the audience’s own hypocrisy.
Heiner Muller’s Quartet is a novel analysis of what can be otherwise considered overwrought subjects. It is not the first to comment on gender and sexuality nor will it be the last. However, what sets Quartet apart is its unapologetic refusal to provide conclusions, thereby allowing its audience to engage themselves in the performance and come to their own deductions.