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.
“He was a Teutonic Samuel Beckett,” said his biographer Gitta Honegger. “In Bernhard’s writing, much like in Beckett, the irony is that you never get to the point and the writing goes against expectation.”
Bernhard was born to an unwed Austrian mother in the Netherlands in 1931. His father was a German petty criminal who refused to accept paternity and he was raised during his early years by his maternal grandparents. After surviving the Allied bombing raids on Salzburg, Bernhard spent time in his late teens working odd jobs and taking voice lessons — all which ended abruptly in 1949 when he developed a severe lung infection that kicked off a lifetime of illness.
During his recuperation, Bernhard published his first short story. His first volume of poetry was published in 1957. His wartime experiences — along with that of his country — became a lifetime topic for his musings.
"Bernhard questioned how could you go back to the beautiful traditions of the German language — that of Goethe and Schiller — after the Holocaust,” said Honegger. “How could the [language] be poetic again after that?”
Bernhard’s style has often been compared to musical compositions (he grew up in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg) because, as one critic wrote, he “creates, holds and repeats key phrases and ideas as a composer might do in a melodic motif.” His works are not so much plot driven as concentrated on verbose description of the actions. They challenge the audience to come to their own understanding of his musings, which often feature extended soliloquies that can go on for 100 pages. He was, says Honegger, a destroyer of texts.
“In English-speaking theater you expect a psychological realism most of the time and that is not what Bernhard does,” she said. “Bernhard was interested in how language works and he deconstructs German grammar and shows how convoluted and obsessive it gets.”
He was also a keen observer of human interactions. Honegger says that though his reputation was that of a discontent loner Bernhard actually enjoyed nothing more than sitting in a cafe and humorously pontificating about the lives of the people who passed by. He did, however, resent how he was treated by the Austrian state — his will stated that there were to be no more publication or production of his works in the country after his death (his half-brother who runs his estate has since changed that decree).
Mittermayer says his contribution to post-war literature is still relevant for audiences from Vienna to London to this day. “Austrian writers began to point to these forgotten aspects of the past, to create a new image of Austria through the medium of literature,” he said. “And it was Bernhard who really helped to [drive] that change.”