Friday, 6 November 2009

Thomas Bernhard at Vienna's KHM Theater Museum.

[image courtesy of Wikipedia]

The exhibition to mark the 20th year of the death of the writer Thomas Bernhard begins in the courtyard of the KHM's Lobkowitz Palace museum where a loudspeaker blares out the recording of the scandal; the opening night of Bernhard's strongest and most controversial anti-Nazi play Heldenplatz. The audience consists of a dozen black crows who sit on rose bushes wrapped in sacking. The sacks are stamped with 5 and 6 digit numbers, reminding the visitor of the Nazi penchant for numerical tattoos.

Heldenplatz, the large square in front of the Hofburg, is best known to modern historians and viewers of old newsreels as the place where Adolf Hitler addressed the jubilant citizenry of Vienna following his unopposed march into Austria. These days the Hofburg Palace houses, not a royal family or a 3rd Reich bureau, but the office of Dr. Heinz Fischer the President of the 2nd Republic, the National Library Archives and various historical museums.

It is November and it is foggy in Vienna, as it often is. And so in the courtyard of Palais Lobkowitz, on this 20th anniversary of Bernhard's passing, I begin to peer through the slowly dispersing fog into the life and works of the author who was regarded by many Austrians as the nest spoiler, the world famous writer from Austria who was never awarded his nation's highest literary prize, a writer who will always remain an enigma and a thorn in the side to most Austrians.

Ex-Wehrmacht officer Kurt Waldheim, the Hofburg's incumbent at the time of the scandal, who would soon have to deal with his own scandal in respect of his controversial autobiography Im Glaspalast der Weltpolitik promulgated the following: Heldenplatz is an insult to the Austrian people.

President Waldheim's remarks were blazoned across the front page of organs like the Kurier newspaper. Austria's most popular tabloid the Kronen Zeitung printed a full page of carefully chosen text from the play, as if to prove Waldheim's point. Waldheim's reaction was the official line which Austria's press dutifully followed.

I come next to a weather-beaten park bench in the museum foyer. The bench is similar to the one on which Bernhard is sitting in the mist in the Volksgarten, a stone's throw from Heldenplatz, for one of his last photographs. It's theatrical. He sits alone quietly like someone meditating. He wears a scarf covering neck and chest, his weak points. It's the onset of winter. The picture was taken by Sepp Dreisinger in 1988 the year before Bernhard died. The bench may or may not be the actual Bernhard bench. We are not told. But more than likely it's not.

There are two rooms containing the main exhibition. A white room and a black room. The white room is titled Einerseits (On the one hand) and the black room is titled Andererseits (on the other hand).

On the one hand there is a glass box which you can enter to be bombarded with endless shouts of Hitler! Hitler Hitler! from the Heldenplatz crowd of 1938 and on the other hand there is a place where you can read Bernhard's sarcastic opinion on the idea of promoting Salzburg as the German Rome: Rome, Church, German, Nazi. A wonderful mixture.

There are many video-clips of scenes from various plays. I particularly enjoyed watching the 3-minute snippet of conversation between Bruno Ganz as a mad psychiatrist dressed in black (Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige) and Ulrich Wildgruber as the blind man in the fawn mackintosh. Ganz, a superb actor, reminded me of Peter Sellers.

Later I sat at a long dining table set for three and watched two video clips of Ritter, Dene, Voss. On the tablecloth there was some food for thought embroidered along one side: We hate all embroidery, even if grandmother embroidered it and on the other side: The one embroiders and the other philosophises all through life.

There was no problem with accessing the various headphones, videos and using the several chairs in the two rooms since the exhibition, on this its first day following its official opening, was not exactly crowded. During the time I was there (mid-afternoon) there were perhaps just a dozen visitors.

A special treat for me was to view a short extract, featuring Martin Schwab and Kirsten Dene, from the first Thomas Bernhard play it was my pleasure to see (in 1988): Claus Peymann buys trousers and goes with me to eat. Many letters and photographs were on display. It will require another visit to take it all in.

On leaving, I found I was pondering a niggling question: Was it meant to be a tribute or an apology? And I really couldn't answer that. Perhaps it was a curious mixture of both; Einerseits a tribute and Andererseits and apology (of sorts). Whatever it is, or was, at least it is something, and something is probably better than nothing.

Österreichisches Theater Museum
Thomas Bernhard und das Theater
5 November 2009 - 4 July 2010
"Austria is nothing but a stage"
Thomas Bernhard and the Theatre
Exhibition only suitable for German-speaking visitors. No English information.

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