Play by Thomas Bernhard, 1988
Thomas Bernhard's play Heldenplatz is the story of a Jewish professor who emigrated to Oxford in 1938 when Hitler invaded Austria. When he returns to Vienna 50 years later, he finds the country still rife with anti-Semitism. His wife thinks she hears the cheers from the Nazi rally that was held on Heldenplatz many years ago. Heldenplatz, or Heroes' Square, is a big, open plaza in the center of Vienna, near the former imperial palace. There, in March 1938, Adolf Hitler announced "the completion of the most important act of my life, the entry of my homeland into the Great German Reich" and was hailed by an enthusiastic crowd of some 300,000 Austrians. Unable to deal with his situation and his wife's madness, Professor Schuster commits suicide by jumping out of his apartment window onto Heldenplatz. The play deals with his family's response to his suicide and their fears for the future.
Heldenplatz , which premiered in November 1988, was written for the 100th anniversary of Vienna's most prestigious theatre, the Burgtheater. That year also marked the 50th anniversary of Hitler's triumphant arrival in Vienna. Several editorials called for the play to be banned because of its critique of Austria. The president of Austria at the time, Kurt Waldheim, himself a former Nazi official, also denounced the play, and neo-Nazis attempted to blockade the theater by dumping a heap of manure at the entrance. Bernhard, who died several months after the premiere, continued his vilification of his native Austria in his will, where he strictly forbade the performance of any of his works in Austria for 70 years, except for the plays that were currently running at the Burgtheater. Those plays would then also be prohibited once their contracted run was over.
In this play, as in many of his others, Bernhard decries the idyllic, fairytale reputation of Austria as a quaint land of high culture and music. Instead, his characters rant about its prejudiced provincialism, calling it "a brutal and stupid nation … a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe." The deceased professor's brother, Robert, asserts that "If they were honest, they would admit what they would most like to do to us today is exactly what they did fifty years ago—gas us … I don't delude myself. If they could, they would again today—without a great fuss—murder us." Ironically, however, the deceased professor, whom his relatives and housekeeper constantly quote, seems himself rather fascist in his treatment of his housekeeper, wife, and children, and in his outlook on humanity.
Bernhard, like several other contemporary Austrian writers (Peter Handke, Paul Celan ) was influenced by the theories of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who emphasized the unreliability of language as a means for communication. Bernhard's work also resembles Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to shock audiences out of their everyday conformity and comfort zones. Bernhard's plays resemble those of Samuel Beckett's and other works of the Theatre of the Absurd in their stark settings, grotesque situations, and repetitious, exaggerated language. His plays also contain long monologues—similar to those in expressionist plays—that reveal the characters' inner obsessions. These rants are usually expressed to a silent listener who may occasionally comment on the speaker's torrent of words. Thus, the emphasis in the play is not so much on plot as on character development and the overall atmosphere and ideas of the play. For example, in the first scene, one hears the perspective of Mrs. Zittel, the housekeeper. She parrots the professor's rants, which reveal his tyrannical personality and pessimistic, even paranoid, obsessions. As she describes the professor's tyranny, she also behaves abusively towards another servant who is her subordinate. In the second scene, which takes place after Professor Schuster's burial, Robert raves about Austria's horrifying synthesis of Nazism and Catholicism. Occasionally, the professor's daughter Anna chimes in. In the final scene, the widow Schuster and her relatives sit down for a meal. Robert continues his harangue against the government, the church, society, the theater, and all high culture. The widow Schuster begins to hear the cheers of the mob on Heldenplatz again. The sound becomes more and more unbearable until she falls over onto the dinner table, presumably dead.
Significant themes in this and other plays by Bernhard include the moral decay of Austria, which comes to symbolize despair about Western civilization and the entire human condition; Nazism; death, especially by suicide; mental illness; destructive family relations; and existential fear. Many critics see Bernhard as an uncompromising pessimist; others maintain that his dark view of humanity stems from a deeply rooted idealism that was disappointed by World War II and its aftermath. Waldheim's election to the Austrian presidency in 1986 seemed to confirm Bernhard's contention that Austrians have yet to thoroughly confront their Nazi past.