Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Translation of "Mein Glückliches Österreich," a letter from Thomas Bernhard to the editor of Die Zeit

My Fortunate Austria1
Revolt against Mr. Peymann’s Tartuffe--
An Incensed Letter to the Editor of Die Zeit

First thing after absolutely cheerfully engaging in my matutinal reading of El Païs over a café nero grande on the market square at Pollença with the precision of a Swiss watch, I dealt myself the fully unprecedented sucker-punch of your issue of this week, which was enough to make my entire physical being recoil in horror and disgust from each and every item ever printed in a newspaper, an issue in which you fail to be even so unasinine as not to give column-inches to that most awful of all Burgtheater directors, Claus Peymann, and his crackpot-infernal telex informing you of his plan to stage a performance of Tartuffe.  Mr. Peymann suffers, as you know, from the incurable classics disease which, as you also know, has in his case over the last few months developed into a downright virulently galloping pathology, and as far as I can see, there is no chance that as long as he lives he will ever stop staging these repellent, primitive, and vulgar English and French and Spanish classics which are notoriously known as Shakespeare, Molière, Lope de Vega, etcetera, and which in their primitiveness and vulgarity and debility are impossible to kill off.  In my opinion, these writers of horror-showpieces have fully and fundamentally poisoned the theater throughout Europe and literally throughout the entire world, and poisoned it for the ages, which unfortunately will never again be able to rid themselves of this classics epidemic!  Chernobyl, that Soviet-orthodox laughingstock, is nothing compared to one of these Shakespeare plays that each and every day is emitted into the atmosphere at least once somewhere in the world; a Shakespearean Tempest does more damage to Europe than ten Chernobyls or even Basel catastrophes, believe me.2  Shakespeare alone has polluted and annihilated the theatrical world for centuries, if not for all time, believe me!  So Mr. Peymann has announced that in March he is going to put on a performance of Tartuffe, which, by the way, is one of the most moronic plays that has ever been written and staged, believe me.  Plays in general, no matter by whom they have been written, are the most moronic things that can be brought on to the stage, believe me, because I know how magnificent it is when a glass of beer is brought on to the stage, but never when a play is.  So Peymann intends to put on Tartuffe in March at the Burgtheater, as I said, and this is precisely the reason for my despair if not my annihilation, believe me, for Mr. Peymann promised me that this March only a single play would be performed at the Burgtheater, namely my Fortunate Austria!, believe me.  Has Mr. Peymann really forgotten that the Austrian State has shelled out 38,000,000 schillings in subsidies for this play of mine and for this production that is my very own production, by way of so to speak compensating me, against whom the Austrian State has, as he knows, committed virtually every crime that can be committed!   Has Mr. Peymann forgotten that he promised me March 11, 1988 as a dedicated date for the premiere of my play and my production?  If Mr. Peymann is actually staging Tartuffe (which, by the way, will be made much more ridiculous than it already is by the cast he claims to be working with), then this spells my annihilation with the very utmost absoluteness!, believe me, for as Mr. Peymann knows, here in Mallorca I have been rehearsing my play, my Fortunate Austria, for which I, believe me, have discovered the perfect cast.  In the light of the fact that Mr. Peymann is now putting on Tartuffe with Mr. Waldheim, I cannot help letting you in on the following secret, which until this very day has been kept strictly under wraps by Mr. Peymann and me: for five months here in Pollença, in the finca católica, I have been rehearsing my Fortunate Austria--you will not believe it—with Mr. Waldheim and Mr. Kreisky in the principal roles.  In my play Mr. Kreisky is playing the grand dubiosus, and Mr. Waldheim the cunning hors d’oeuvre, and I have signed Mr. Heller to play the swineherd in my play.  Mr. Heller is doing his gig for free, Mr. Waldheim has received an advance of six million schillings, and Mr. Kreisky only three; these all are in line with their usual fees!, believe me; both gentlemen want their honoraria absolutely tax-free, Mr. Waldheim wants his remitted to an account in Liechtenstein, Mr. Kreisky to an account in Andorra.  The sums will have been remitted by October.  I have given Mr. Heller three million for the blind in Hamburg; believe me, he accepted them with gratitude!  I regard him as the most important of all Austrians, believe me.  Mr. Waldheim wants money that is guaranteed to be black, and so does Mr. Kreisky.3.   Because Kreisky is, as you know, quite at home in Mallorca, I have decided to rehearse my play here.  By the way, he didn’t take so much as a second to agree to my offer, the old fox.  First I shall rehearse with him on his own, then with Waldheim, then with Vranitzky as well.  And here I enjoyed the most splendid conditions for rehearsing.  Finally, at last, a play of my own directed by me in an atmosphere that really comes within scraping distance of ideal! What is more, for the past few weeks here it has snowed almost uninterruptedly, a rare event in Pollença, and most of the time the finca católica has felt to me like a cottage two thousand meters above sea level, in the Alps.  The ideal conditions for a rehearsal, entirely on this Mediterranean island and at the same time in the upper elevation of the Alps, just think of it!  Unfortunately there are so many actors with parts in my play here that I can’t even count them, but there are certainly more than three hundred; I believe there are 329, but I have of course already named the most important of them.  Waldheim, Kreisky; next come Vranitzky, Mr. Mock, and the pope, who has already promised to take part in the dress rehearsal; and believe me, the pope has already been here three times and acted his part superbly.  He arrived here with his lines completely memorized; he arrived here at night, you understand, just like Mr. Waldheim, whom I have had flown in three times a week from Vienna, in contrast to the pope, who has had to be flown in from Rome; regarding this I must say that the costs of the flights have been defrayed by the Austrian State and the Vatican, because they obviously would have been far too exorbitant to be covered by me.  Mr. Waldheim always arrived here punctually at six o’ clock in the evening, in other words, at dusk, in order to make an entrance even before the rehearsal.  In the course of the rehearsals I have noticed that Mr. Waldheim is pretty lousy if not completely incompetent on horseback, this despite the fact that he has claimed to be an excellent rider, and in my play he must ride, ride! like you wouldn’t believe.  The pope has only a minor role in my play; he makes just a single entrance and kisses Austrian soil.  But even this has got to be rehearsed, believe me!  I have already had the pope flown in seven times for the rehearsal of this moment.  He really does quite a good job at kissing Austrian soil, believe me.  Mr. Vranitzky, whom you will know as the chancellor of the Austrian republic, is to dance a so-called reverse waltz with Mr. Kreisky; so far the pair have not managed to do it, but I am hopeful that this can also be brought off successfully by March 11.  When I tell you that Mr. Kreisky is enthusiastic about the undertaking, and that Mr. Waldheim is no less enthusiastic, and that the same thing goes for the pope and Mr. Vranitzky, you probably won’t believe me.  My play has only two acts; the first takes place at dawn at the Ballhausplatz, the second at dusk at the Hofburg.  At dawn the principal role must be played by Mr. Kreisky; in the evening it must be played by Mr. Waldheim.  Throughout the play Mr. Vranitzky is onstage without having anything to say.  But as you know the so-called silent roles are the most difficult ones of all, and so I have been rehearsing with Mr. Vranitzky in the finca católica since as far back as October.  Mr. Vrankitzky has declined every honorarium on the grounds that he already has more money than can ever be estimated, and I really do take him at his word.  Mr. Vranitzky is ideal for the so-called non-speaking roles, because, as you know, he finds it difficult to speak, and I did not wish to force him to speak half- or quarter-sentences, which in my play are spoken by a man whom I have so far forgotten to mention: the archbishop of Vienna, Mr. Grober.  This man, believe me, has shown himself to be the greatest thespian talent that I have ever taken on.  I have rewritten for Grober three scenes that were initially written with Mr. Vranitzky in mind.  Mr. Grober happens to get along well with the pope; after a rehearsal the two of them drink a bottle of (ice cold) Coca Cola, but only half of it, because they have their minds set on having only half-drunk bottles sent to the people who are dying of thirst in Eritrea.  You see, here careful thought has been given literally to everything, even to altruism, which naturally plays the principal role in my play; you won’t believe it.  Originally I had also chosen the president of your republic, Mr. Weizsäcker, for one of the leading parts, but in the end I just couldn’t make up my mind to include him.  Mr. Waldheim breaks in the first scene, and Mr. Kreisky finishes it off thus: having turned away from Austria in disgust, he says Fortunate Austria to his wife as she wakes up on a deck chair on the terrace of their house in Mallorca.  At the beginning of the second act Mr. Vranitzky jumps into the Kreisky family’s wading pool and soaks all the Kreiskys from head to toe, so that they flee the stage.  This second act is called dusk because in this act everybody realizes that the sun has set on Austria.4 Fortunate Austria is therefore nothing but an ironic punch line.  To this extent it really is just another classic play, like the plays of the classic authors.  But my classic play is a play for today, whereas the other classic plays are indisputably plays for yesterday.  When you consider that seven months of rehearsals with Waldheim, Kreisky, Vranitzky, Grober, and company (not to mention the auxiliary bishop of Vienna, Mr. Krenn, who plays the rat poison in my play!) have already brought me to the brink of total exhaustion and almost entirely depleted my 38,000,000 in subsidies, you will hopefully understand my furiousness regarding Mr. Peymann, who now intends to stage Tartuffe instead of my play.  My work is of course almost finished by now and was supposed to reach its ideal point on March 11, 1988; I was supposed to bring it on to the stage as a party for all of Austria at the Burgtheater on March 11, 1988.  I have hired myself to play the role of the killjoy in my play!  But now I see thanks to my reading of your article of February 26, that my entire commitment, which as always is naturally a total commitment, has been in vain.  It’s too bad that not only all those rehearsal hours with this most fantastic of all theatrical ensembles, but also that 38,000,000-schilling subsidy from the Austrian State, have been wasted now that Peymann is staging Tartuffe and not my Fortunate Austria at the Burgtheater.  One of the greatest of all opportunities ever afforded the theater, meaning quite simply the entire world, has been squandered, and by Mr. Peymann no less!    

P.S. I have rented the Burgtheater for all of March 1988, but of course Mr. Peymann doesn’t abide by contracts!  Mr. Waldheim has taken leave from the Hofburg for the entire month of March so that he can perform in my play as the cunning hors d’oeuvre, just as Mr. Vranitzky has done from the Ballhausplatz.  And at St. Stephen’s cathedral throughout the month of March no masses will be sung and no Lenten sermons will be delivered, because I have firmly incorporated Messrs. Groher and Krenn into my schedule, and, you won’t believe this, they’re working for a pittance!  In the dusk act Mr. Waldheim (as the cunning hors d’oeuvre) is strangled while still in his dressing gown by both Kreisky as the grand dubiosus and the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and afterwards the Vienna Philharmonic plays the first half of the Eroica symphony.  Mrs. Waldheim (who in my play is called the young nazissus) throws herself out of the Hofburg’s presidential bedroom on to the Ballhausplatz.  Mr. Peymann has defaulted on the contract for my Fortunate Austria as he has defaulted on a thousand earlier contracts, and he has broken his promise regarding my Fortunate Austria as he has broken a thousand earlier promises.  Mr. Peymann is a promise-breaker and a cynical contractual ignoramus!  Thanks to his March 11 Tartuffe I am being annihilated!  I shall never again put on a production of anything like Fortunate Austria, even if sometime in the future Mr. Peymann should come begging to me on his hands and knees, because I shall never again be able to assemble such an ideal cast, and I shall never again be in the mood to put on a production of a single unrepeatable play that put me in a good mood at a single unrepeatable time, believe me!  I have lost seven months of my life to Mr. Peymann’s promise-breaking and contractual ignoramushood!, believe me.  With this March 11 Tartuffe Mr. Peymann has annihilated not only my play but also my entire existence!  Now I have no choice but to incinerate my Fortunate Austria in the black-bread oven of the finca católica and to forget all about my production and to climb up the cliffs of Formentor and to throw myself off the most forbidding peak of the cliffs of Formentor into the sea as a casualty of Mr. Peymann’s inter-millennial bashfulness.  Farewell, my dear sir; you are only an editor, whereas I, the writer of this letter to the editor, am an author for the stage who has been battered, nay, annihilated, by a nonentity of a Burgtheater director!

Yours, Thomas Bernhard   



  1. Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011), pp. 288-295.  Originally published in the Die Zeit, Hamburg, on March 11, 1988.

  1. By the “Basel catastrophe,” Bernhard probably means the city-leveling 1356 Basel earthquake, presumably chosen in preference to larger-magnituded temblors because of its occurrence in central Europe.

  1. Black money [schwarzes Geld] is, as one would expect, money tainted by criminal activity, but as black is also the color of Waldheim’s conservative Austrian People’s Party, as against the red of Kreisky’s Social Democratic Party, Bernhard is effectively saying here not only that Kreisky and Waldheim are corrupt but also that Kreisky is in bed with the political right.

  1. As a freestanding entity, this sentence would be better translated as “This second act is called dawn [Dämmerung] because in this act it dawns  [dämmert] on everybody that Austria is lost,” as “dawn” and “dusk” are both possible renditions of Dämmerung. But as the context makes it evident that Dämmerung is not being used in the “dawn”-y sense here, one is obliged to be a bit less pithy.

THE END


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson