Yesterday evening to mark the 20th year of the passing of the playwright sometimes called the Austrian Beckett, Vienna's Burgtheater presented Thomas Bernhard's play Der Schein Trügt. In English it would be The Shine Deceives; meaning appearances can be deceptive.
Two elderly half-brothers Karl (Martin Schwab) and Robert (Michael König) meet each Tuesday and Thursday. They are obsessed with proving to each other and to themselves that they are still alive.
The only other player in this dark comedy is a blind-in-one-eye canary. Maggi belongs to Karl. Karl inherited Maggi from his life-companion Mathilde. Robert, who knew Mathilde before Karl knew her, and who once took her to Rome, inherhited her small house in the country. And so the spoils were unfairly divided. Mathilde's funeral service, we were informed, had required less than 12 minutes.
Martin Schwab, faultlessly convincing as a one-time artist and juggler, opens the first scene alone, except for the bird. He is to be seen crawling around on the floor of his bedroom dressed only in his long underwear. He is looking for something. It turns out that he is looking for his lost nail-clippers. Today he must look his best for it's Tuesday and brother Robert, the retired actor, is due to visit.
During this simple act of crawling around the room, peering under the bed and so on, there begins a unending Martin Schwab monologue; it must be more than an hour long. How Schwab recalls the text, never mind about the top quality acting, is nothing short of a wonder. The only listener is the canary. Schwab badgers the caged bird with a series of senseless questions and observations; the musings and rantings of a lonely old man: How do actors remember unending monlogues? and The glasses I once read Voltaire with I now need to see my toe nails.
Half-brother Robert arrives, late as always. The brothers have nothing to say to each other, for what they say to each other is what they said last week, what they will say next week and all the following weeks. Each brother is in reality speaking to himself, to his inner personality, chewing over the same old cud. It's rather like Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot in which nothing happens. Time goes by. We wait only to die. And death, as Bernhard points out, is the ultimate comedy. It's the last laugh.
Two days later Karl, dressed in his charcoal grey funeral suit, the suit which the tailor delivered 8 days too late for Mathilde's funeral, visits Robert. The basic scene repeats itself. Nothing is achieved. There is the usual airing of opinion. It ends as always in disharmony. But we know that Robert will be back at Karl's on Tuesday. Maybe the play is still going on, for it is a play almost without an end. Go back to the first scene and start again. We know it can only end when one of the characters dies or they become too frail to visit each other.
Like characters in a French novel we should raise our hats to Martin Schwab whenever we see him in a Thomas Bernhard play. The late Bernhard would be proud of Schwab's long years of dedication to the cause. Indeed, there was much warm and heartfelt applause and even an outburst of bravo-ing from the Burg audience; but on this special Thomas Bernhard 20th anniversary evening one has to ask: Where was the man's bouquet?