Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Translation of "Salzburg wartet auf ein Theaterstück" by Thomas Bernhard

Salzburg is Waiting for a Play [1]

We are waiting.  We keep waiting and waiting for the Salzburg State Theater finally to put on a play that can be argued about in culturally significant terms.  For two years we have been waiting for such a play, and for a production worthy of such a play, and with the passage of each half-year theatrical season our dissatisfaction has been growing.  Soon even our last glimmer of hope will have vanished and the stage on the right bank of the Salzach, the stage of this peerless Austrian chamber-theater, will be nothing more than a fairground of dilettantism.
Another operetta joins the chain of operettas, another exercise in tastelessness surpasses its predecessors in tastelessness.  I mean, for crying out loud, what is theater anyway?  Does it really consist of nothing but cut-rate, shopworn entertainments?  If the answer is yes, then it really ought to be shut down first thing tomorrow morning!  But how, one pointedly asks oneself, can a city like Salzburg, which every summer is transformed into a European music and theater center of the first rank, stand to own a state-sponsored playhouse that for the remaining ten months of the year sinks to the abysmal level of a music hall for hayseeds?  Do they really think the citizens of this town—a town that is if not actually well-disposed to culture then at any rate not positively hostile to it–-do they really think them such idiots that they cannot safely present to them anything but fairy-tales slathered in curdled cream, day after day and year after year?  Apparently in the Schwarzstrasse more than anywhere else the realization has yet to sink in that there is such a thing as living theater even in these times, that since the days of Hebbel, Ludwig Thoma, and company a number of substantial plays have been written for the stage—and even for the stage of this theater, and by Austrian authors no less!  We recognize the needs of authors; we understand that consideration is due to every local season-ticket holder; we cannot, however, fathom why since Bernanos’s magnificent “Blessed Fear” (from three years ago), and the two abortive but nonetheless courageous attempts with Felix Braun and Georg Rendl, it has proved impossible to bring to the stage of this theater a single play that meets if not all then at least some of the desiderata of good drama.  To say absolutely nothing of the classics, the bulk of which have been basically spoiled for good by our grammar-school pupils’ competitions for the coveted three-schilling prize.  This playhouse is bedridden by a chronic lack of imagination and unmatchable discontent.  Anxiety or convenience, that is the choice here!  (One need only compare the repertoire with that of the other state capitals!)  It is if from the highest to the lowest levels there were an absence of every form of “consciousness,” to say absolutely nothing of enthusiasm.  What is more—we say this in all benevolence and without a trace of malevolence—the stage, however rusticated it may be, is simply not an insurance company.  Everybody is aware of the situation in this neck of the woods: the decent actors—of which there are a handful—are told to hit the road, while the lousy ones—lousier than lousiness itself—sing in operettas; and on many nights the theater is empty.  Not that we have anything against operettas, but the kinds of things that go on in the current house-monopolizer Easy Odette (a piece of hackwork of the shoddiest sort) really just shouldn’t be happening.  As a last, desperate remedy we would prescribe a lexicon of the literature for the theater, to include such names as Williams, Faulkner, Eliot, Miller, and all Austrian writers whose works are sited on the far side of the border between insignificance and significance.  What we crave is controversy!  Is it not true that the only place Salzburg goes to for nourishment is the tavern?
Years ago for some inconceivable reason somebody here choked the life out of opera, in which considerable interest persists to this day; we did the same thing to spoken drama.  Two years ago it was announced that we would soon be seeing an interesting new contemporary play.  And ever since then we have been waiting…
Untrammeled by this state of affairs, the Mozarteum Academy’s acting seminar under the leadership of Rodolf E. Leisner has for many years been staging the works of the most interesting avantgardists with great aplomb and conscientiousness.  The defrauded Salzburgers file into the Studio Sankt Peter in droves.  We recall many exceptionally good productions of Graham Greene’s The Living Room and Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix too Frequent, as well as an accomplished performance of Fodor’s play Night Tribunal from last year.  The studio inaugurated its current season with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

[1] Editors’ note: Die Furche, Vienna, 3 December 1955, above the signature “Thomas Bernhard, Salzburg.”  This article earned Thomas Bernhard his first lawsuit: in Vienna in January 1956 the then general manager of the Salzburg State Theater, Peter Stanchina, brought a private civil suit against Thomas Bernhard for “defamation of character.”  The suit went through two courts and was finally settled by a compromise agreement in July 1959.  Bernhard refers to this lawsuit in his 1969 article "In Austria Nothing Has Changed."              

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

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).

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