Thomas Bernhard: Heldenplatz [Heroes' Square] (1885 words)

  • Gerhard P. Knapp (University of Utah)

Thomas Bernhard's last play, Heldenplatz, was written at the instigation of his friend and stage collaborator, German producer Claus Peymann. The flamboyant and provocative Peymann, who had recently been appointed artistic director of the Vienna Burgtheater, suggested a play commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the National Socialist annexation (“Anschluss”) of Austria in March 1938. After some hesitation, Bernhard agreed. The text was to be premièred on 14 October 1988, the hundredth birthday of the “new” Vienna Burgtheater, that most imposing of all cultural icons in Austria. Rehearsals progressed more slowly than expected; meanwhile the contents of the play were leaked to the press, and a heated public debate preceded the première: an unprecedented scandal about a drama nobody had actually seen yet. Right-wing politicians and parts of the press tried to prevent the staging. When the play was finally premièred on 4 November 1988, the uproar did not die down. Bernhard, who had been ill for some time, was appalled by this explosion of public rage. Although he was at odds with his native Austria all his life – and consistently decried as gadfly and “Nestbeschmutzer” (someone who dirties his own nest) – the events surrounding Heldenplatz deeply wounded him. He died on 12 February 1989. His testament prohibits new productions of his plays in Austria “for the duration of the legal copyright”.

To glimpse some of the factors contributing to the Heldenplatz scandal, one must consider not only the shift in Austrian politics to the extreme right in the 1980s connected with the names of Kurt Waldheim, Jörg Haider and others, but also that historians had just lately dispelled the myth of Austria as a helpless victim of Nazi aggression, and had focused on the crimes committed against Jews and others by Austrians in willing collaboration with Germans. After World War II, both German states had attempted a break with the past, and an effort was made to come to grips with individual and collective guilt. Austria had failed to do so. Much was repressed, much forgotten until in the spring of 1988 when, as part of the annexation and Holocaust commemorations, public interest in the country's past was awakened. Gaps in the Austrian cultural memory were finally exposed to scrutiny and became festering sores. They are the target of Bernhard's play and, at the same time, provided the conflict zone of the public outrage, fueled in particular by defamation strategies from the political right. It is significant that the première of Heldenplatz practically coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the so-called “Kristallnacht”, the Nazi pogrom on 9/10 November 1938 during which throughout Germany and Austria synagogues were burnt, cemeteries desecrated and tens of thousands of Jewish citizens brutalized and arrested.

Equally significant is the play's setting near and around Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square), the very square where Hitler was greeted by jubilant masses when he arrived in Vienna on 15 March 1938. Heldenplatz and the Burgtheater are situated at opposite ends of the Volksgarten park. In the immediate vicinity are government buildings, including the palace housing the offices of the president (then Kurt Waldheim) and the former Ballhaus where the republic's chancellor sits. The proximity of the historical past with present governmental structures, of cultural traditions and political institutions, creates a powerful spatial subtext of the inextricable connections between Austria's history and culture, her lapse into Nazi barbarism and the denial of guilt. In Peymann's production, the spatial correlations were masterfully highlighted.

Bernhard's vast œuvre is a huge recycling system. Character similarities, motific parallels, stylistic commonalities with other texts, in particular with the preceding plays, abound in Heldenplatz. Many of Bernhard's characters are at best eccentric, at worst half-mad malcontents who torment themselves and their listeners with ritualistic hateful and misanthropic soliloquies. The dramaturgic fiber of his plays is not provided by action and development, rather by repetitive and circuitous language and the revelatory effect of stream-of-consciousness. All this applies to Heldenplatz, albeit with the unique qualification that this play's characters are, for the most part, Austrians and Jews, and that their discourse is about being Jewish and living in Austria.

The play takes place in March 1988, immediately after the funeral of Professor Josef Schuster, its (absent) main character, who had committed suicide by throwing himself out of a third-floor window of his apartment near Heldenplatz. The first (overly long) scene (=act), set in the apartment, has Schuster's housekeeper Frau Zittel and Herta, his maid, cleaning, packing and ironing the deceased's belongings. Their conversation provides several layers of information: first, Schuster's background and the events that lead to his suicide. The Jewish professor was forced to emigrate to Oxford after Austria's annexation. When he and his wife returned from exile to Vienna, they did not feel welcome. For the past ten years, Mrs. Hedwig Schuster appeared to suffer from auditory hallucinations: she heard the masses shouting their frenetic welcome to Hitler on nearby Heldenplatz. This is one of the text's leitmotifs. Treatment in the mental institution Steinhof was to no avail. The old couple decided to return to Oxford, but Josef Schuster, dispirited and hopeless, killed himself just before their departure. On a second layer, the employees' dialogue fleshes out Schuster's personality: his voice “speaks” through Frau Zittel (his closest associate and alter ego) and portrays him as an egotist, a user of others, particularly his family, a skinflint, a pedantic dandy, a hateful, despotic misanthrope and a repressive father to his children. Ironically, there is no scorn in Zittel's portrayal. A third, much more elusive layer of discourse is provided by the fact that Zittel and Herta – who are not Jewish – discuss Schuster and the Schusters as the “other”, not only as members of a different social stratum, but also as Jews. Close reading does not reveal whether Zittel's devastating characterization of Schuster is informed by anti-Semitic clichés – or just by her thorough knowledge of his personality.

The second scene, set in the Volksgarten, shows Schuster's daughters Anna and Olga, together with their uncle Professor Robert Schuster, the dead man's frail brother, on their laborious walk back from the cemetery. A focus of their conversation is Neo-Nazism in Austria. Anna sums up her fears: “there are more Nazis in Vienna now / than in thirty-eight [...] I am amongst many Nazis / they just wait for the signal / to openly move against us [...] In Austria you have to be either a Catholic / or a National Socialist / nothing else will be tolerated / everything else will be annihilated”. Anna's tirade is first countered by Robert who calls her parents – and, by implication, herself – paranoid. But in short order he concedes: “the Viennese are Jew haters / and they will be Jew haters / in all eternity”. Robert, now fired up, launches a passionate diatribe against Austria, the socialists and Austrian anti-Semitism:

They would like best
when they are honest
just like fifty years ago
to put us into the gas chamber
that's a part of their nature
I am not mistaken
if they could
they would today without any ado
do away with us

In the third scene, back in the apartment and around the dinner table, Robert, Anna and Olga are joined by the Liebigs and Herr Landauer. Later, the widow Schuster and her son Lukas arrive. Robert – he appears to be as grotesquely miserly, misanthropic and paranoid as his late brother – bludgeons the group with his tirades about Vienna (“there is a mass murderer in every Viennese”), his apocalyptic predictions of a new National Socialist reign in Austria and the impending doom for Austrian Jews (“for people like us the cemetery has always been the last refuge”). Hyperbole and repetition are used to create ironic distance and, perhaps, some slight comical relief from Robert's frantic perorations. But Robert's speech turns back on himself and on his Jewishness: when he lashes out against Austrians and their anti-Semitism, he disturbingly reveals himself as an Austrian and as a participant in this malignant discourse on otherness that describes the “other” as a negative counter-image of the self. In the end, Robert articulates little meaning of Jewishness beyond its victimization by rampant anti-Semitism. During the meal, Hedwig Schuster (and with her the audience, but not the other characters) hears the masses shouting from nearby Heldenplatz: a slow crescendo increasing in volume every time until, at the very end of the play, it becomes intolerably loud. Mrs. Schuster collapses face first onto the table. For a moment at least, it is 1938 once more, and Hitler has come to Vienna. This mise-en-scène of a paranoid nightmare come true, when the immediate future erupts with the clamor of a dreadful déjà vu, provides a magnificent ending for an otherwise rather mediocre play. After the curtain falls, the audience, at long last fully engaged with the play's dialectics, will certainly ponder the ending.

As should be expected from Bernhard, the ending raises more questions than the text – or the audience – can possibly answer. Is it true that those decried as insane, as Cassandra of Troy, might possess the gift of prophecy? If so, Hedwig's (and the audience's) hearing the unbearable clamor indicates the very distinct possibility that history may indeed tragically repeat itself. In this case, the rantings of Anna and Robert are anything but paranoid. If, on the other hand, Bernhard's coup de théâtre is only a spoof, a final ironic twist to his play's resounding verdict on Austria (“a sewer without mind and culture / that spreads its pervasive stench in all of Europe”), the text will be read as a comedy, perhaps an insidious or even perfidious satire that hit its mark only too well and stirred the hornets' nest. One might ask: to what end? It is obvious that Bernhard's characters (re)enact – in a small ensemble and through their bizarre and monomaniacal parlando – strands of the public discourse outside the theater and thus (re)engage the (silent) audience from a different viewpoint in this discourse. Whether this “private” re-enactment of “public” conflict has a lasting effect on the audience, or whether it remains mere provocation and therefore an exercise in painful but futile Austrian self-flagellation, is difficult to determine. Critics tend to agree on the latter.

One disconcerting layer of the text remains. Tragic, comedic or satirical, the play is clearly a warning of the enduring and resilient forces of anti-Semitism in Austria. As is the hallmark of Bernhard's work, his characters in Heldenplatz are, once more, unpleasant and obnoxious. They are also, to a certain extent, tragic in their hopelessness, caught in a vicious circle of fear and despondency. But – as opposed to other Bernhard texts – these characters are Jewish and sadly incapable of defining themselves in their Jewishness by any other means than hateful response to victimization. They become entrapped by, assimilate and recycle the very language of intolerance, hatred and anti-Semitism they have learned to fear. As this language takes over, their Jewish identity is ultimately reduced to a cliché: the object of persecution. Thus they essentially re-affirm the “otherness” historically ascribed to them by the pernicious discourse of anti-Semitism. Surprisingly, studies on the play's reception have yet to focus on this aspect and on the inherent contradictory communicative strategies of the text. These could even – as Robert's tirade does when it adopts the voice of the “Jew haters” – turn against themselves and inadvertantly lend the play a subtle anti-Semitic flavor counteracting its intent. Only time and ongoing performance practice will tell.

Knapp, Gerhard P.. "Heldenplatz". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 20 May 2004
[, accessed 25 June 2017.]

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