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Two decades later, are audiences ready for "Heldenplatz"?

Thomas Bernhard's controversial play opened in London without protest.

A view of the historic Hofburg palace at Heldenplatz square in Vienna taken May 26, 2008. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — Compared to the 1988 Viennese premiere of Thomas Bernhard’s “Heldenplatz,” the opening of the play last week at London’s Arcola Theatre was a muted affair. There was both intense applause and intense conversation afterward, but no police presence, no protesters, nor any politicians calling for the play to be banned.

When “Heldenplatz” debuted at Vienna’s celebrated Burgtheater almost 22 years ago it sparked public protest as well as private angst over its portrayal of an Austrian Jewish family. Bernhard, who was one of Austria’s most loved and loathed writers, had been commissioned to write a new play to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Nazi annexation of Austria. The play, which takes its name from the Vienna square in which supporters gathered in 1938 to greet Adolf Hitler, tells the story of a family that emigrates to the United Kingdom during World War II and returns to Austria in the 1980s to rebuild its life.

Though today the Cold War seems like a surreal footnote, Austria in 1988 was nestled in the midst of a divided Europe and the country’s historical memory was firmly focused on the glory days of its 19th-century empire and rich musical legacy. It was not yet ready to confront its Nazi past and legacy of anti-Semitism, subjects Bernhard felt were ripe for reflection. Two years before the play's premiere, Kurt Waldheim — a former United Nations Secretary General who had also been a Nazi intelligence officer during the war — had been elected president of Austria and Bernhard made pointed jibes in “Heldenplatz” that the country had “more Nazis in Vienna now than in 1938.”

The 1988 premier ended with a 45-minute mix of clapping, booing and shouting.

“Bernhard’s work forced Austrians to look in the mirror and face the [proverbial] corpses in the cellar, and that really hurt,” said Manfred Mittermayer, a lecturer of modern literature at the University of Salzburg.

Though Bernhard’s work — which includes 11 novels and over 20 plays — may not be well known in English-speaking countries, critics have hailed him as one of the most important post-war European literary figures. After his assisted-suicide death in 1989, an influential Madrid newspaper went as far as to state in his obituary that he was the father of Spanish realism.