When Everything Stinks of Decay
(Oberon Books, 2010)
When Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) premiered in 1988, self-appointed defenders of Austria’s noble heritage unloaded a truckload of horseshit in front of the steps to the Burgtheater in Vienna. The year marked a turning point: it was the 50th anniversary of the Nazi occupation, and the Waldheim affair had reached its pinnacle, with the Austrian president and former Secretary General of the United Nations having nothing better to say to the alleged atrocities of his wartime past than that he’d done his patriotic duty. Austria was undergoing a profound identity crisis: Long comfortable in its role as the uncontested first victim of National Socialist aggression, the country could no longer deny the darker nature of its participation in recent European history or masquerade its enduring anti-Semitism and fascist undercurrents. Although known and feared as the enfant terrible of Austrian letters, Thomas Bernhard was vilified when he probed the political, ethical, and intellectual reality in Austria and found the predominance of hatred, ignorance, and moral degeneration to be even more endemic in 1988 than it had been 50 years previously.
Bernhard’s diatribe on Austria, however, is not only as fresh today as it was over 20 years ago; much of it remains almost universally true. As one character observes:
It doesn’t make any difference what government we’ve got / they’re all the same / it’s always the same people / it’s always the same deals these people make / it’s always the same interests / it’s always these out and out corrupt people / driving the state to ruin day after day.
Heldenplatz: this is where the old Professor Schuster, a Jewish intellectual who has returned to Vienna from English exile, leaps to his death because he can no longer stand Austria and the continued prevalence of anti-Semitism; this is where his wife, who hears the crowds screaming “Sieg Heil!” as Hitler announces the Anschluss in March of 1938, goes slowly insane. It matters little that the professor’s wife is the only one who can hear the jubilant cries; her madness merely articulates what each member of the Schuster family already senses.
Bernhard’s play, which premiered three months before he died, was probably the greatest scandal in the history of Austrian theater; by far his most political work, it is said to have hastened his demise. Director Claus Peymann had commissioned Bernhard to write the piece to commemorate the centennial of the Burgtheater at its present location, and while Bernhard was not one to shy away from defaming the fatherland, Heldenplatz proved far more damning than his critics’ worst apprehensions. Calling Austria a “nation of six and a half million feeble-minded raving mad people,” Bernhard is “surprised the entire Austrian people didn’t commit suicide long ago.” The play unleashed a wave of righteous indignation; two hundred policemen had to be stationed around the theater to prevent a riot. Waldheim himself called Heldenplatz an abuse of freedom and “a crude insult to the Austrian people,” to which Bernhard responded: “Yes, my play is atrocious. But the piece that’s being staged all around it now is just as atrocious.” Austria itself had become the setting for the author’s last dramatic work, and Bernhardian exaggeration the conduit for igniting an explosive taboo.
Unfortunately, the scandal surrounding Heldenplatz also drowned out much of its subtlety. This new translation by Meredith Oakes and Andrea Tierney, published in tandem with the play’s 2010 English-language premiere at the Arcola Theatre in London, reproduces the musical cadences in Bernhard’s prose while deftly conveying the work’s many nuances and ambiguities, in which victim and aggressor are sometimes, disturbingly, blurred. Speaking about her mother, the professor’s daughter Anna remarks: “Her attacks are her way of asserting power / they’re the way she manipulated father for the last two decades / in the beginning it probably wasn’t an act at all / it might not be an act even now / and yet she’s acting / illnesses like that are real illnesses and also an act.” Schuster is a misanthrope; his relationship to his family is poisoned by a deeper-lying alienation that belies a prevailing misconception of the play as the quintessence of the Bernhardian vituperative rant:
We always want our children to be different from what we finally have to realize they’ve become […] Suddenly one day you discover your own children are non-humans he said / we think we’re raising human beings / and then they’re just carnivorous cretins / hysterics megalomaniacs chaotics.
Tyranny, it seems, is handed down from parent to child, from master to servant, while annihilation ultimately stems from within. Reflecting upon her father’s suicide, Anna muses: “Married people always murder each other / the only question is who gets exterminated first / who lets themselves be destroyed and exterminated first / that’s what marriage is based on…”
Bernhard’s prose is famously infectious, irresistibly inviting fans and critics alike to imitate his circular syntax in a kind of slapstick pastiche that misses the finer points of his logic. Twenty-three years after its turbulent premiere, after all the indignation and rage have simmered down to quiet murmurs of posthumous reverence, Heldenplatz emerges as something far more complex than a mere invective against Austrian society: as the work probes the pernicious endurance of anti-Semitism, it simultaneously examines the intricate relationship between complicity and individual responsibility in the body politic—a theme that grows more and more urgent every day.
When everything stinks of decay and everything screams out for destruction / the voice of a single person has become useless / it’s not as if nothing is said or written against this disastrous process / every day things are being said and written against it / but whatever is said and written against it is not being heard or read / the Austrians do not hear any more and do not read anymore / that’s to say they hear something about catastrophic conditions but do nothing about them / and they read about catastrophic conditions but do nothing against them / the Austrians are a people full of indifference toward their catastrophic condition.
Replace “Austrian” with “American” or any other adjective of national allegiance, and you’re left with a cogent criticism of contemporary political apathy in a world where mindless hatred wears many masks, but remains everywhere largely the same.