Thomas Bernhard has already made one cameo appearance in this year’s German Literature Month, and today’s post sees him featured again, for the fifth November in a row. However, unlike my previous choices (all novels), this latest selection examines another side of his writing. You see, Bernhard is just as known for his drama as for his fiction, and the play I’ve chosen today is one of his most famous, and controversial, works. However, if the genre is unfamiliar, the content is not – there’s the usual discontent and a whole lot of bile directed in the direction of the Austrian capital…
Heldenplatz is a three-scene play first performed in 1988 as part of the centenary celebrations for Vienna’s famed Burgtheater, but anyone who has tried Bernhard’s work before will be less than surprised to hear that it’s not the most generous of presents. Cleverly, and nastily, the writer chooses to focus the action of his work not on one hundred glorious years of Austrian theatre but on a rather less impressive milestone. Yes, Bernhard’s gift to the good people of Vienna on this momentous occasion was a play digging up memories of Austria joyfully allowing itself to be annexed by Germany, celebrating fifty years since Hitler made the announcement of ‘Anschluß’ at the main town square, Heldenplatz. Happy anniversary, everyone!
The play is set in 1988 in a noble apartment in the middle of Vienna, and the first scene sees two women clearing up the apartment, with suitcases and bags everywhere. As the housekeeper, Frau Zittel, prattles on, with the occasional interjection from Herta the maid, the reader (or spectator) wonders what is going on. We eventually learn from the chatty housekeeper that the bags were intended to be sent off to Oxford, in advance of their owner’s (Professor Josef Schuster), return to England. However, an unforeseen event has necessitated a change of plans, namely his decision to plunge headlong over the balcony of his Viennese apartment.
Over the course of the play, we learn why the good professor felt compelled to end his life so violently. The second scene takes place outside the cemetery, with the two daughters of the deceased, Anna and Olga, talking to their uncle Robert, another professor who spent time in England. Then, in the third scene, we are taken back to the apartment for a last supper before the rooms are vacated. As Frau Zittel serves up the meal, the Professor’s widow is still haunted by the memories of 1938 and the ghosts outside her walls. As it turns out, the late Professor himself was far more disturbed by the present, and the threat of history repeating…
The key to it all is Bernhard’s decision to look at Austria’s past and present. Having escaped the inevitable attack on the Jews fifty years ago just in time, the Professor’s wife regrets their return to Vienna, especially her husband’s decision to seek out a home in the middle of the city:
Aber es hat nichts genützt
kaum ist sie im Speisezimmer
hört sie das Geschrei vom Heldenplatz
Immer wieder hat sie ihn angebettelt
er soll die Wohnung aufgeben
aber das hat er nicht getan
Scene 1, p.29 (Suhrkamp, 2015)
But it was no use
no sooner does she enter the dining room
than she hears the screams from the Heldenplatz
Time and time again she begged
him to give up the apartment
but he didn’t do so
*** (my translation)
The cries she hears are not those of the present but of the past, ghostly memories of the atrocities of 1938. It’s little wonder she wants to escape when she’s haunted by the howls of the Nazis in her own home.
The Professor himself, though (from what we are told), was far more concerned with the present than the past, with Austria today well on the road to repeating its mistakes. As Anna explains, remembering her father’s laments:
…ich kann hier nicht mehr existieren
ich wache auf und habe es mit der Angst zu tun
die Zustände sind ja wirklich heute so
wie sie actunddreißig gewesen sind
es gibt jetzt mehr Nazis in Wien
du wirst sehen
alles wird schlimm enden
Scene 2, pp.62/3
…I can no longer exist here
I wake up and must deal with the fear
the conditions today are exactly
as they were in thirty-eight
there are more Nazis in Vienna now
than in thirty-eight
it will all end badly ***
On hearing these views for the first time, many readers will suspect the professor of exaggeration or even slander, but when his brother makes his first appearance, he’s even more vehement in his views, leading us to wonder if there’s something to his opinions.
Professor Schuster himself is sadly not present, of course,but he’s a central figure in the drama, nonetheless. Frau Zittel paints a picture of a tyrant needing to have things his own way, with a nature that demands perfection not only in his mathematical studies but also when it comes to folding his shirts. He’s a figure tortured by his love for, and hatred of, his home town; like many Bernhardian protagonists, he’s far too intelligent to fit in, and while we only meet him after his death, we sense he was doomed long before.
This isn’t the only connection in Heldenplatz to the rest of the Bernhard oeuvre. We have the customary exaggeration, with the speakers spiralling into monologues of rage, and a choice selection of the writer’s favourite words (‘Vernichtung’, ‘Unrat’), and the family tendency to end up in the Steinhof medical centre /mental institute has echoes of Wittgensteins Neffe (Wittgenstein’s Nephew). The placing of the second scene in the Volkspark is no accident, either. There are prominent mentions of the Austrian parliament and the Burgtheater in the background, both frequent targets of Bernhardian bile.
There’s a lot to like about Heldenplatz, not least the usual, angry monologues once the characters get going. It can be funny in places, too, such as when Frau Zittel’s lengthy monologues are interrupted by Herta’s unrelated queries. However, as a play, not a novel, there are limitations when it’s simply read, and it does drag in places (scenes one and three, in particular, start rather slowly). The pace always picks up eventually, but these lulls affected my enjoyment a little.
Still, it’s an interesting read, and I’d love to watch a production one day, as I can imagine that, when done well, Bernhard’s text could light up the stage. There’s also the message he wants to get across to his home town (even if the timing could have been better…), a reminder that we must always be careful to ensure that the mistakes of the past are avoided:
dürfen Sie doch nicht vergessen
daß Sie sich in dem gemeingefährlichsten aller europäischen Staaten befinden
wo die Schweinerei oberstes Gebot ist
und wo die Menschensrechte mit Füßen getreten werden
Scene 3, p.148
you mustn’t forget
that you find yourself in the most murderous of all European states
where indecency is the name of the game
and where human rights are trampled under foot ***
Still, almost thirty years have passed since Heldenplatz appeared, and I’m sure Austria is a far more tolerant and welcoming place now…