“Heldenplatz” at Burgtheater, Vienna

Dana Rufolo in Austria
6 May 2024

Frank Castorf, the director of this Thomas Berhard play, certainly never learned to value keeping a clear head “when all about you / Are losing theirs” in his long career as a German Regietheater director invited to produce so-called shocking, and in this case fragmented, versions of playwrights’ scripts.  He fails to shock; Bernhard’s play cannot shock us any longer, the way it did the Austrians in 1988 when the play premiered and Bernhard’s accusation of fascist sympathies among Austrians was considered outrageous.


Marcel Hauperman and Franz Pätzold.
Photo credit: Matthias Horn.


Theatre hasn’t the same vitality it had in the twentieth century. The only theatrical event that can be treated as shocking in our era is when the playwright, director and actors – also sometimes the audience, as has been the  case with Theater Doc in Moscow – are thrown into jail, deprived of civil liberties and tortured for the sake of a play they produced or saw. (The theme is dealt with in A Mirror by Sam Holcroft seen recently at the Almeida in London.)

It just shows the inertia of Europeans in respect to the present great challenges to democracy and human rights that the director, the critics, and by implication the Burgtheater, believe that a Heldenplatz that is constructed of interpolations of Thomas Wolfe text into Bernhard lines, looming facial close-ups through live film projection meant to imply that the actors are revealing superior truths when all that is revealed is skin texture, exposing actors’ penises, poetic soliloquies of masterly delivery isolated one from another and randomly to prevent any sense of temporal or thematic continuity, a rotating stage filled with such a load of objects in incredible detail as I have never seen before (the radical opposite of Mother Courage with her lone wagon) which are often suggestive of contradictory interpretations, a rear stage wall photo of an enormous number of (Austrian) hands delivering the Sieg Heil salute on the day of “der Anschluss” – has the power to shock. It amuses, but it doesn’t disturb.

Heldenplatz is focused on the historical warm welcome Aldolf Hitler received when he came to the large square in Vienna called the Heldenplatz to announce that he had annexed Austria to Germany. That was on 15 March, 1938, but Bernhard’s theme is that fascism and antisemitism prevailed in Austria even after the war ended. The play shows Professor Schuster, who is Jewish, returning to his apartment overlooking Heldenplatz in 1988 after having spent 50 years away as a professor at Oxford. Upon returning, his wife continuously hears the cheers of the crowds saluting Hitler, and the sounds are driving her mad. The professor himself finds post-war Austria unbearable; he too hears the “Sieg Heil!” shouts, and he commits suicide by defenestration. Heldenplatz takes place directly after the suicide, as the grieving family and their live-in maids gather together to shut up the apartment and reminisce.

Heldenplatz is famous in Austria for the controversy it stirred. The Burgtheater premiered the piece in 1988 under the direction of Claus Peymann. There was a revival in 2010 at the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna with Philip Tiedemann as director, a traditional production with, however, the recorded cheers for Hitler in 1938 played backwards when, at the close, they become also audible to the audience.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Matthias Horn.


Deconstructing the original play as Castorf has done suggests that Bernhard’s Heldenplatz deserves to be excluded from the pantheon of great literature. (Nobody thinks of fragmenting Shakespeare dramas, for instance.) The decision to do so discredits Bernhard’s critical observations, which in itself speaks to the mindset of the present Austrian leadership and intelligentsia.

The truth is that as a Regietheater performance, Castorf’s Heldenplatz is modeled not on dramatic art but on the fractured world of social media, quick videos, mindless likes and dislikes, and an instantaneous succession of images for which nobody takes responsibility and that ultimately do not inspire, enlighten, persuade, instruct, or morally uplift. The coherence of drama, the narrative that rushes a drama towards its climax, the beauty of dramatic structure are all obsolete for Castorf. And this despite the elaborate rotating set that recreates street space in front of Borough Hill subway station – complete with Coca-Cola ads and an oversized frilly-skirted female (Marilyn Monroe?) cutout billboard – in one scene and the Schuster home in another, built in the Brutalist style of architecture Denys Lasdun used for the National Theatre in London. Somewhat derrière garde, there is a lot of David Belasco’s cluttered hyperrealism in this scene design (signed Aleksandr Dénic).

In act two, photos of naïve 28-year-old John F Kennedy in his travels around National Socialist Germany admiring its orderliness imply that fascism is ready to pounce on the world anywhere, even in America– which is, in addition to a suggestion that immigration is no panacea – the important message of this evening.

But no message is clear; an over-the-top clutter of images is presented too chaotically to do more than hint, which feels cowardly and unsatisfying for an audience eager to comprehend. And then the intrusion of Jewish images: the orthodox shtreimel hats when all the other hats worn in the play are fanciful, the Yiddish song sung by the widow Schuster as we watch a film of the family peeling potatoes in preparation for the funeral meal when the original play gives no suggestion that the Schusters actively practiced their religion, and the constant background music of all kinds, always suggestive, always absorbing our attention so that the words of the playwright or of Wolfe are submerged in the din, not unlike how the Schusters endured the tinnitus of Austrians cheering Hitler (and also not unlike the trumpeting sound each rhinoceros lets loose in Eugene Ionesco’s eponymous play about the herd instinct in human beings – Castorf wrote his theatre thesis on Eugène Ionesco as a political dramatist). Mimesis is always substituted by physicality.

The 2024 Heldenplatz fragments coalesce only because of the strength of the actors. The cast include, firstly, Birgit Minichmayr whose tender fool as a support to Gert Voss’s Lear stands out in the history of interpretive acting. And that was 17 years ago. She has grown as an actress, and she displayed great skill in portraying a myriad of moods with a distinctive voice that has an intriguing raspy sound to it at times, dressed in a myriad of costumes designed by Adriana Braga Pretzki, including an outfit ringed with plastic bananas and many sets of headgear.

The highlight of her performance comes when she delivers a speech as the brother of Professor Schuster, Robert. He says in a typically Bernhardian flow of words, while talking about a village conflict, “I am not protesting, I am not protesting against anything, I no longer wish to protest; all protest is forbidden when one has reached the end of life” (“Das weiß ich, ich protestiere nicht, ich protestiere gegen nichts, ich protestiere gegen nichts mehr, alle Proteste verbieten sich am Lebensende”). Minichmayr, clad in a mummy dress, will go down in theatre history for how she extends the moment when she eyes the chair she sits on to deliver these lines so as to figure out how to deposit herself, in her stiff mummy wrapping, onto it; the incongruity of her balancing like a top on the seat and delivering these lines is worth a thousand laughs.

Inge Maux as Frau Schuster plays a quiet character that matches what appears to be her vulnerability on stage. The elderly Branko Samarovski was given few lines, but whether featured in live film or onstage, his stolid presence was dominant; he is, like Maux, a revered Burgtheater actor. Franz Pätzold and Marcel Heuperman eloquently braved through the majority of Bernhard speeches that were delivered helter-skelter, and Marie-Luise Stockinger introduced sensuality into the production with her abundant tears and her dancing. The actors all seemed driven; they, rather than the plot, pushed the evening along.

Given that the American author Thomas Wolfe felt (mystically) that his German ancestry made him predisposed to anti-democratic tendencies, plundering his texts and giving them a weight equal to Bernhard’s is a temptation if one wants to see the play as having international implications. Castorf makes the journey from Vienna to New York a short one: just a few subway stops and a staircase away. Castorf used Wolfe’s 1937 story Only the Dead Know Brooklyn for the opening scene, and the other interpolated texts from Thomas Wolfe are derived from his 1935 collection From Death to Morning.

To convey the tone of Wolfe’s writing, this quote is from his 1935 novel Of Time and the River: “Where shall the weary rest? When shall the lonely of heart come home? What doors are open for the wanderer? And which of us shall find his father, know his face, and in what place, and in what time, and in what land? Where? Where the weary of heart can abide for ever, where the weary of wandering can find peace, where the tumult, the fever, and the fret shall be for ever stilled.”

The opening scene in this Heldenplatz where Wolfe’s words are put into the mouths of impoverished German refugees on a rickety swaying tram car in downtown New York – the Jews who fled Germany and did not have the good luck to partake in The American Dream – express perhaps the most serious statement in the production: the miseries of fascism are multifarious and they influence destinies far from the killing fields of action. Professor Schuster was homesick in Oxford, clearly, like Stefan Zweig, the Austrian author whose language, writing skills and identity were obliterated in exile; unable to “go home”, he found no other solution than to commit suicide.