The Washington Post

May 22, 1990, The Washington Post

The Final Curtain of The Austrian Playwright

Thomas Bernhard's last will & banishment

VIENNA – Austrian author Thomas Bernhard characterized his homeland as a country of “6.5 million idiots and raving lunatics.” In more than 35 dramas, novels, volumes of poetry and autobiography he relentlessly attacked the “brutal and stupid people” of Austria, besotted by Nazism, inhabitants of a place where “everything is rotting away and falling apart.”

Yet a little more than a year after his death, many Austrians want to repay his loathing with adulation, and are willing to go to considerable trouble to enjoy Bernhard’s posthumous tongue-lashings from the stage.

In a parting act of contempt, he left a will barring his plays from being performed within Austrian borders. He also stipulated that none of his works could be published here. “I explicitly stress that I want nothing to do with the Austrian state and I reject not only every intervention, but also every attempt by this Austrian state to associate itself with my person and my work for all time,” he further proscribed.

Dismayed by the vexing prohibition, Bernhard’s Viennese fans are coping in a manner that might have brought a chortle from the playwright himself. Tomorrow, Thursday and Friday fleets of chartered buses will ferry theatergoers 40 miles from Vienna across the Czechoslovakian border to Bratislava for four performances of his drama “Elizabeth II.” It will be performed in its original German at the Slovak National Theater, in a guest production by West Berlin’s Schiller Theater.

When the will was written, shortly before his death on Feb. 12, 1989, Bernhard could not have foreseen the political changes that occurred just a few months later-changes that led to visa-free travel for Austrians across the former Iron Curtain and making the pilgrimage possible as part of the five-week Vienna Festival with the theme “Open Frontiers.”

The play, completed in 1987 but never produced in Austria, depicts a fashionable luncheon on the day Queen Elizabeth II pays an official visit to Vienna. Throughout, the crippled industrialist Herr Herrenstein sits in a wheelchair, fulminating against Austria’s leading stage, the Burgtheater, against the State Opera, against the air in the city and the air in the country, against the Socialists and the Nazis he sees all around him. Herrenstein simply detests Vienna and he detests all Austria.

“He should not be taken literally,” Vienna Festival president Ursula Pasterk said in an interview. “Thomas Bernhard was in the true sense of the word an artist of exaggeration. What he brought to consciousness through his outrage and exaggeration, and what he portrayed correctly, were certain currents in the population and among some political institutions. With each of his works Bernhard submitted a document for his hateful love-hateful love, but love-for this country. It is necessary and meaningful that the festival gives a final salute of honor to one of the greatest Austrian authors, and since it is not possible to do that here, I am doing it in Bratislava.”

Austria’s socialist culture minister, Hilde Hawlicek, whose conservative predecessor once remarked that Bernhard was “not so much a case for literary experts as for other scientific experts”-meaning psychiatrists-praised Pasterk’s idea as a way of keeping the flame of Bernhard’s dramatic work alive. “It is to be greatly deplored that his plays cannot be performed anymore in Austria and I hope that in this respect the heirs can be brought to reason. I cannot imagine that he truly wanted this.”

Bernhard’s longtime editor in Frankfurt, Raimund Salinger, compares the will to the final wishes of Franz Kafka, who instructed his literary executor, Max Brod, to burn his manuscripts. Salinger, however, said Brod’s disobedience will not be repeated in the case of Bernhard, whose half-brother and sole executor, Peter Fabjan, is pledged to carry out the terms fully.

Born illegitimate in a convent in Holland, Bernhard grew up with his Austrian mother and stepfather near Salzburg, suffering a miserable childhood marked by a series of family deaths. At the age of 17 he became ill with a lung inflammation after long hours as a grocer’s apprentice, when he worked in a dank cellar and carried heavy sacks of potatoes in snowfall. He was confined to a sanitarium for several months and once came near enough to death to have been administered last rites. (The pleurisy that felled him last year at the age of 57 was contracted during this period.)

Although he recovered sufficiently to study music at Salzburg’s Mozarteum Conservatory, and later to work briefly as a journalist, his continued poor health contributed to his morose, misanthropic outlook. But his work has a comic edge. Reviewing Bernhard’s novel “Wittgenstein’s Nephew” in its U.S. edition last fall, John Updike hailed the Austrian writer as “a maestro of the music of the diatribe” whose curmudgeonliness “comes close to being as droll a shtick as W.C. Fields’.”

Bernhard’s half-brother Fabjan, a physician in the tiny town of Gmunden, says the writer often spoke to a small circle of friends about his plan for the posthumous ban. “It was no spur-of-the-moment decision. He had his reasons.”

One of the experiences that most agitated Bernhard occurred in 1984. Then Austrian police raided bookstores to seize his novel “Holzfaellen” (“Woodcutting”) after a libel suit filed by a composer who saw himself featured in its wicked, tragicomic portrayal of contemporary Viennese artistic circles. The book became an overnight success, as Austrian readers ordered thousands of copies from West German bookshops by mail. The suit was eventually dropped, but it left Bernhard all the more embittered.

“Heldenplatz,” Bernhard’s last play, caused such a heated nationwide uproar that the best drama took place before the opening curtain even rose. It was November 1988, 50 years after Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, and the country’s nerves were still raw over allegations that President Kurt Waldheim was a war criminal. Bernhard was in full venomous cry.

“The Viennese are Jew-haters and they will remain Jew-haters for all eternity,” a character asserts in “Heldenplatz.” (The title comes from the vast Vienna square where hundreds of thousands jubilantly welcomed Hitler in 1938.) Waldheim is denounced as a “crafty, lying lowbrow.” The government chief, Franz Vranitzky, is “incapable of correctly completing a sentence.” Bernhard’s play bemoans ad nauseam the intolerable mediocrity of Austrian newspapers, universities and industry.

Foreign Minister Alois Mock, a staunch defender of Waldheim against charges of involvement in Nazi atrocities while serving in the German army during World War II, demanded that culture minister Hawlicek ban the play. She refused. Vienna’s biggest-circulation tabloid, the right-wing Neue Kronen Zeitung, raised the temperature further by running advertisements depicting the grand Burgtheater building in flames on the day of the premiere.

Then, on opening night, an angry protester dumped a pile of steaming manure eight feet deep outside the theater’s Ringstrasse entrance. Inside, the cream-and-gilt auditorium resounded with shout of “Insolence!” and “God Save Austria!” from the spectators.

While “Heldenplatz” went on to become one of the Burgtheater’s greatest postwar successes-it was performed 70 times before about 85,000 spectators-Bernhard still arouses deep passions.

Vienna University professor Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler recounts how a student in his Bernhard seminar this month went to purchase a paper from a downtown Vienna newsstand. The vendor noticed the student carrying a volume by the contentious author and queried, “Are you reading this Bernhard?” When the student said he was, the news agent growled, “I can’t sell you the newspaper. He is a traitor to the fatherland,” and grabbed the paper back.

President Waldheim, who assailed “Heldenplatz” as a “crude insult to the Austrian people” before having seen or read it, told an interviewer after Bernhard’s death that his work “has done no good for our country. All those who do not love Austria zealously take up his words. Without a doubt he spread a negative view of our land which does not do justice to reality.”

Bernhard’s defenders argue that such criticism misses the mark. In Schmidt-Dengler’s view, “Bernhard re-created in an exaggerated manner the ways of living in the second half of the 20th century as hardly any other author has done. Bernhard always disfigured reality in that he showed its negative side, but through this negative disfiguring he made us aware of many things. … People start to talk about Bernhard and in this way they classify themselves. One talks about Bernhard, one insults Bernhard and one betrays oneself.”

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the esteemed German literary critic who calls Bernhard “German literature’s gloomiest poet and most bitter prophet,” has written that had the writer stayed in Holland, or grown up anywhere outside of Austria, he would have seized with equal vengeance upon the traits of another land.

Hermann Beil, the literary manager of the Burgtheater, who worked with Bernhard on 15 productions of his plays, believes Bernhard composed his will with an acute awareness of a view he thought was held by many Austrians-that the only good author is a dead author.

“In Austria it is a veritable tradition that during his lifetime an artist, a writer, a musician or a painter is received with hostility to the point of excess. When he is dead he will be embraced and honored. Thomas Bernhard hated this canonization.” Not for him the sort of memorial plaque affixed to dozens of Viennese houses where Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert once lived.

His rage, now vented from the grave, means that Bernhard is set to disappear from the Austrian stage, at least for the next 70 years, the period covered by copyright limitations on a deceased author’s work. His German publisher can keep shipping books to Austrian stores so long as they comply with the will by being printed on West German soil.

Since Bernhard’s death, the state-run Burgtheater has been able to continue staging the five productions already in its repertory under existing contracts with the book publisher. Legal experts concur that an author cannot annul such contracts through a last will and testament. But the theater cannot continue with the same productions indefinitely and no new ones are permissible.

“This ban is genuinely painful because there are many people here who truly love and esteem Thomas Bernhard, since in him they see their own anxiety, need, longing and wishes vicariously formulated,” said Beil.

In frustration, Beil toyed for a while with the idea of staging a reading from one of Bernhard’s novels on the extraterritorial premises of a foreign embassy in Vienna. He decided against doing so out of respect and reverence for the man who wrote that “Austria is the greatest stage setting there ever was,” and heaped uproarious drama upon it.

“There is a legally recognized will and it is expressly there, entirely clear, plain as daylight in its rigorousness,” said Beil. “It is final.”