Academic journal article European Studies

Austria's Post-89: Staging Suppressed Memory in Elfriede Jelinek's and Thomas Bernhard's Plays Burgtheater and Heldenplatz

Academic journal article European Studies

Austria's Post-89: Staging Suppressed Memory in Elfriede Jelinek's and Thomas Bernhard's Plays Burgtheater and Heldenplatz

Article excerpt


The Austrian memory device doubtlessly changed after the so called Wende in 1989. However, the decisive shift did not take place in 1989 but in the years before. On a political level the Waldheim affair brought about lasting changes of Austria's political landscape. But the erosion of the main memory narrative, i.e. the 'victim myth', commenced from the cultural sphere, accompanied by numerous fierce debates. The scandals around Elfriede Jelinek's farce Burgtheater and Thomas Bernhard's play Heldenplatz, which took place before and after the Waldheim affair, illustrate allegedly stabilising mechanisms of defence memory vis-à-vis challenging stratas of memory turning up in these plays. Besides, both Jelinek und Bernhard implicidy draw on stratas of memory in regard to the Holocaust which only in the 90s - before Austria's entry to the European Union - reached Austria's cultural memory as post-memory.

Vienna in 1989 was a palimpsest of Europe's complicated, overlapping pasts. In the early years of the twentieth century Vienna was Europe: the fertile, edgy, self-deluding hub of a culture and a civilization on the threshold of apocalypse. (. . .) After Germany was defeated Austria fell into the Western camp and was assigned the status of Hitler's 'first victim'. (. . .).

(Judt 2005, 1-2)

Austria's historically and geographically close relationship with countries of the former Eastern bloc may suggest an important shift of its sociopolitical memory in 1989. However, a crucial caesura did not take place in 1989 but in the years before. Especially the Waldheim affair in 1986 brought about decisive changes. The focal point of the affair was Austria's problematic memory politics concerning National Socialism, which has regularly been dealt with in the cultural sphere but scarcely direcdy in the political sphere. The years between the 'Anschluss' in 1938 and the foundation of the Second Republic in 1 9451 not only faded by reasons of international law, sustained by post-war power politics, but the years also disappeared from Austria's historiography. Furthermore, hardly any cultural productions such as novels, plays, poems or operas deal with the Second World War and the Holocaust, which is all the more surprising against the backdrop of Austria's widely accepted status as a cultural nation.

Institutions like the Salzburg Festival, the Viennese Opera or Burgtheater, play an important role concerning Austria's cultural self-image. But beside the positive representations of Austria there exists a firmly established tradition of negative representations (Bentz 2000). Representatives of the 'black myth' are, doubtlessly, Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard who since the 1960s acquired the roles of 'troublemaker'. Both authors were publicly characterised as 'Nestbeschmutzer' (someone who fouls his/her own nest). In 1995, after Austria's entry to the European Union, an election poster of the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) put Jelinek in the pillory as 'socialist state artist' (sozialistische Staats - kiinstlerin). Both authors reacted to these insults with interdictions. Thomas Bernhard, who died three months after the premiere of Heldenplat^, prohibited in his last will any new productions of his plays or publications of unpublished work in Austria. However, twenty-two years after his death he is among the most recognised authors of Austria and beyond. Jelinek too prohibited the production of her plays several times, but regularly withdrew the decision. When Jelinek received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 the reactions were expectably controversial. Meanwhile her plays are regularly performed at the Viennese Burgtheater or at the Vienna Festival, though more often than not as guest productions from German theatres.

Although both Jelinek's and Bernhard's work caused irritation on a regular basis, the scandals around the performances of Burgtheater in Bonn (1985) and Heldenplat^ at the Burgtheater in Vienna (1988) exceeded any previous public agitation. …

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