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Austrians hated this playwright — the feeling was mutual

Thomas Bernhard targeted the antisemitism of his fellow countrymen.

    Thomas Bernhard: generally, Austrians are callous and stupid, he wrote
    Thomas Bernhard: generally, Austrians are callous and stupid, he wrote

    'If they were honest," says Professor Robert Schuster about his fellow Austrians, "they'd like to gas us today just as they did 50 years ago."

    Schuster is the Jewish philosopher character in Heldenplatz, the final play written by Austrian dramatist and novelist Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989. It arrives at the Arcola Theatre in London this month, and it contains many more of Schuster's observations about his fellow countrymen and women. "Inside every Viennese there is a mass murderer," he says. And: "Generally, Austrians are callous and stupid."

    It is not hard to see why the play caused so much offence when it premiered at the Vienna's Burgtheater. And Schuster has an opinion or two about Britain as well. "In Oxford [university] there was and still is antisemitism. It doesn't matter where a Jew goes in Europe, he's hated everywhere."

    Set in Vienna, in 1988, the year it premiered, Heldenplatz takes its name from the Viennese square where, on April 2 1938, Hitler announced the Anschluss to ecstatic crowds. Despite the play being set 50 years later, those cheers can still be heard in Bernhard's play, though only by the widow of Professor Schuster's brother, and by the audience.

    Remember, in 1988 Kurt Waldheim was still President of Austria. And remember too that when Waldheim's Nazi past was revealed, according to some polls, his popularity went up.

    Barbara Marten in the London production of Heldenplatz. Police were posted outside the theatre when the play premiered in Vienna in 1988
    Barbara Marten in the London production of Heldenplatz. Police were posted outside the theatre when the play premiered in Vienna in 1988

    Bernhard was born in Holland in 1931 and died in 1989. His unmarried Austrian mother went there to avoid scandal. But he was raised in Austria, lived in Vienna and came to hate not only his country's politics but, it seems pretty clear, its people too. Heldenplatz is not the only play in which Bernhard makes Austrians shift uncomfortably in their seats in the theatre. An earlier play, for instance, called Eve of Retirement, which Bernhard described as "a comedy of the German soul" (he made no distinction between Germans and Austrians) sees a senior judge called Rudolph celebrate Himmler's birthday by putting on his old SS uniform. One of his sisters is wheelchair-bound. For old time's sake, Rudolph likes her to shave her head and dress up in concentration camp stripes. He tells her that she would have been exterminated with all the other undesirables because she is a cripple.

    Like that play, Heldenplatz is not so much a slap in the face to Austrians as a bludgeon to the country's image as the cradle of European culture. Its first night in Vienna was greeted with boos and protests. Hundreds of police were posted outside the theatre. Waldheim, who had been president for two years, called for the play to be banned. Bernhard responded by forbidding his work to be performed in Austria after he was dead - what he called his "posthumous emigration". As far as it is possible to tell, the Arcola production will be the UK premiere. "Corin Redgrave introduced me to the play in 1995," says director Annie Castledine. "We had plans to do it, but then Corin became ill."

    The action takes place after the funeral of Josef Schuster, brother to Robert and a Jewish-Austrian academic who escaped his country's antisemitism for the first time in 1938, and has just escaped it again 40 years later by committing suicide. We discover that his return to Vienna was at the invitation of the city's mayor who promised him a professorship. And as a symbol of Josef's acceptance by the Austrian establishment, he took an apartment in a prime position overlooking Heldenplatz.

    On the page at least, the play is a fascinating and audacious piece of work. It is also hugely challenging to the actors who have to absorb great slabs of text, much of it spoken by the dead professor's housekeeper Frau Zittel (Barbara Marten) and his brother Robert (Clive Mendus), the role that Redgrave would have taken had his health had allowed. It is through these characters we learn that the antisemitic attitudes encountered by Josef on his return to Austria were no different from those that forced his family to flee in the first place. "The Viennese are Jew-haters and will remain Jew-haters to all eternity," says Robert, in one of the more moderate passages.

    With its long, dense speeches and unconventional structure - cut down by Castledine to about two hours - it has been a demanding rehearsal process. "The play has no precedent," says Castledine, "so we haven't got an established cultural attitude towards something in this form. Everyone is working in the dark."

    There is an obvious question posed by Heldenplatz. Why stage it now?

    "Corin and I saw what Bernhard was saying, about the nature of Austria and about antisemitism, which is important," says Castledine. "It speaks about Austria but the reverberations of what it says continue in the way we make our own personal connections - in the nature of our own society; its increasing racism and disintegrating values.

    "The play has been in our creative lives for 15 years, so when you start a project like this you do it for essentially aesthetic reasons," adds co-director Annabel Arden. "But of course, the terrifying thing is that, over that time, the play has remained pertinent and true."

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