The Theater as a Social Cesspool
Humankind is completely rotten in and of itself. So you can’t get the better of anybody, I think. Everything that you get to know at all well becomes unappetizing and unpleasant if you spend any amount of time on it. If you look at all closely at it, it becomes unendurable. I just know what definitely isn’t bad, and the work of the famous actors was bad.
I can remember : I used to go to rehearsals all the time, when I was a boy, at the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg. Werner Krauss played Caesar there. Of course the very sound of it is funny, isn’t it?, Werner Krauss playing Caesar? It’s simply moronic. I mean it’s simply as grotesque as you can get! And Ewald Balser as Brutus, right? When Krauss was a genuinely great actor and Balser a nonentity! He really was a nonentity; he had nothing but a sonorous voice, completely hollow, and his brain was like his stomach, so stupid. And I can still remember that Josef Gielen, who was directing at the time, had to explain everything to him, and then I thought, wow, and they’re so famous! How can somebody be so stupid and so famous! You’ve literally got to explain the meaning of every single sentence to them completely, and then you’ve got to tell them, look, you’ve got to think about what he just said, and now you’ve got to react to it in this way—they just don’t get it. The more famous they are, the stupider they are. At the dress rehearsal the whole play was a wreck. The soldiers didn’t enter from stage right, but from stage left, and then total chaos ensued. They lost their nerves at the dress rehearsal, and the premiere was basically a non-starter. But at the Felsenreitschule and in that whole star-studded sky, people obviously don’t see anything having to do with art; you can do what you like there as long as the scaffolding looks nice, and you can say any old thing. What they say is always the same; it’s just got to be said as sonorously and distinctly and bombastically as possible. With that you can fill up three hours. And I still remember that during the curtain call, Werner Krauss took his bow in a trench coat and with a briefcase in his hand, because a taxi was already waiting outside to take him to the airport, because he had a film shoot in Hamburg to get to that night. Then I thought, look, that’s the great world of the theater. This was in the fifties.
But music is always beautiful. Opera is beautiful, because of course it makes no difference what they sing or say or if they’re stupid. If the voices are beautiful and everybody comes in at the right time and the music is good then not much can go wrong. But you can’t convey intelligence from the stage because there’s none to be conveyed. It’s simply abominable.
Of course at the moment the Salzburgers hate me; they obviously must loathe me like the plague. Of course it’s quite amusing. But where there’s nothing a director can’t direct anything. Of course I don’t care about anything but a good performance, a reckless one, and then done, full stop. I obviously can’t have anything to do with that whole kit and caboodle that’s still put on there. Or with the truculence of those people there, the stagehands and the rest, who are super-tightly organized there and just throw everything together like bricklayers. You obviously can’t stage a play properly there. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the theater; it’s obviously a social cesspool, but it’s not a theater.
It’s like everywhere in Austria, when you go inside and open up everything. Then you get the feeling, as soon as you step outside, that everything is basically falling to pieces behind the scenes yet again. Then yet again somebody rings you up and the like; it makes no sense. You can’t even hold people to their word with contracts on anything. They always find loopholes and lawyers and stories; I’ve got no interest in that. I don’t mess around with any of that at all anymore. Either it’ll be done the way I think it should be—even then it won’t turn out the way you think—or not at all. In Salzburg of course it was all the same; of course it was always just a pack of lies and cheats in the final analysis.
Of course I’m not in touch with actors at all; I have no interest at all in that. There’s nothing more horrible than an actor, when you sit down with one afterwards; of course I never do that. I did commit that awful blunder exactly one time, though; when you do that every one of them shines an interrogation lamp on you and you have to tell every one of them that he was the best one; of course it’s incredibly loutish.
Of course they’ve chosen their vocation. I’ve chosen mine as well, deliberately. But in their case there’s really no excuse or whatever. It’s a tough business, full stop. Either you’re up to the job or you aren’t; of course that’s the only criterion there is; of course there aren’t any others. It’s got nothing to do with sentimentality or phoniness. I really can’t imagine doing anything at all with any Austrian actors. They can’t even talk.
I got a look at this funeral in Vienna; I was passing by in a streetcar as that Hörbiger affair was taking place. Then I saw these stage-prop obelisks for the burial. Then I thought, “I’ll get out now and take a look.” Then I was standing there like a journalist in my light-colored coat, staring greedily at this pseudo-necropolis, and I listened in and looked at them all; they all looked so horrible. Because of the way they were all roaming around at a trot, completely dilapidated, gone to seed, rickety, knackered, mendacious, from the ninety-five year olds all the way down to the kids, but they were all striding around together, because that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to do. Actors get appendicitis and die. Letters don’t die; that’s the advantage of prose!
I don’t earn any money from the prose works anyway. Then you can accept all the young writers, who all earn much more. Because there’s nothing to them and they vault over two thousand copies, like with beginners, nothing at all beyond that. It’s still the same way today; there’s nothing to be gained from it; the publisher covers his costs, but just barely, because he doesn’t do anything extra, and I don’t force him to, because it’s really all the same to me. If I make any money, it’s off the plays, or whatever you want to call them. I don’t know whether they’re really plays; it really makes no difference anyway; they’re something for the theater, and that’s that. And it’s really just something I get a kick out of, and that a certain actor gets a kick out of. And that’s the main thing: if nobody gets a kick out of it, if they never stage it, then I don’t need to worry about it anymore. The moment nobody’s getting a kick out of it, nobody will stage it. It’s really quite simple and clear-cut. Nobody is being forced to perform something somewhere or to read anything; these people are all doing it of their own free will. But I can easily put a stop to it, if I get the feeling that this free will is really an end in itself or that it’s giving me a bad name or spoiling my mood.
Of course it would be completely unproductive to have the books acted out onstage. Can you really picture a country doctor coming on to the stage over and over again, with his son and his little doctor’s bag? Within a quarter of an hour, or if a really great actor was involved, a half an hour, the curtain would fall. Of course I’m of the opinion that you can even make a theatrical event out of a pile of shit. The curtain rises, and there’s a big pile of turds there, and more and more flies keep flying in, and then the curtain falls. So I mean, when you come right down to it—that kind of thing really happens in the theater; of course it always has done. Whether when the curtain rises a pile of cow manure or Hermann Bahr is lying there, it pretty much makes no difference. If it’s well done. You can’t argue with it if it is.
Of course you can make people prepared for anything. You can fill a theater with certain people who have been fortified by newspapers and so forth. When they’ve been told for months or years that some big event is on its way, you can actually infect the public. You can treat the theater in general exactly in the same way as a general hospital. Infect the general public and then you’ll catch the audience and you’ll catch the critics as well. Then any old thing can be acted out for three hours, and they’ll think it’s grand. And of course it might actually be grand, because absolutely nobody’s said that it isn’t. I actually even think that it might be magnificent for a great actor just to sit on stage for three hours and shake his foot or whatever.
I think actors genuinely vie for parts in my plays. So the general managers of the theaters basically dislike my stuff, because they don’t make much money off of it, and it doesn’t attract much interest from the public, but it still gives actors something to do. Sure, I know that at the Burgtheater there are actors who don’t care to perform in these things because they find them too difficult, and on top of that and in the background there’s no guarantee of success at the outset. Actors are like that. Of course they want to serve up delicious first-rate food, like at the Zauner, and they want to be sure of the price they’re going to get. And that it says in advance on the menu how much they’re going to get for what they do. In the case of my plays, they serve up stuff, and they really get nothing in return.
The Burgtheater is like this: I can remember that the first of my plays at the Burgtheater, which was The Hunting Party, I was expecting Paula Wessely to star in it, along with Bruno Ganz, and it had in fact been written for them. And Ganz even gave up certain things, plays at the Schaubühne, just so we could do it there, and then at the Burgtheater the actors all stood up and went to the management as a delegation, I don’t know how many of them there were, and said he can’t come here to the Burgtheater, if he does we’ll make a stink or whatever, and Paula Wessely made it contingent on that, she said, well if he isn’t in the play I won’t be in it either, and I had such a stupid contract that I couldn’t get out of it anymore without ruining myself completely, and then it ended up being done I must say truly wretchedly, with Joachim Bissmeier. So that’s the Burgtheater for you. It’s like that everywhere in Austria.
With normal actors you can’t get anything done; they give you at most six weeks, and in six weeks you can’t rehearse something like that. It worked when Minetti was the star, because he wouldn’t let anything interfere with his work; he did it completely for himself, and Dorn just stood by him and Minetti worked it all out. In cases like that it works. To a certain extent. Minetti just has an incredible amount of experience, decades of it, and he’s taken part quite deliberately. And so not just like some timeserving bureaucrat of an actor, but with the utmost refinement, the utmost abominableness. With him you can have a really pleasant chat. Because he’s so forthright, and that’s kept him in good form. He comes across as genuinely young, but with the added bonus of all that experience he has. He often reacts like a twenty-two- year-old, whereas these other people, if they’re thirty-five, are already worn-out and nothing but marionettes of the theatrical world. They let themselves be juggled and have got nothing of their own left.
But at the same time he’s had operations and has got actual nails in his bones; it’s all chrome-plated and screwed in. And considering that he’s now nearly eighty and acts there all evening four times a week. Then he flies to Bochum, has a lie-down for an hour, then he acts again and is on the stage for hours, for the whole evening. Then he goes out on the town until two in the morning, and then he says he’d like to show up yet again for breakfast. And most people are older than dirt at sixty; they don’t get involved in anything new, they have their single-family house somewhere and make everything center on that, as their theater career keeps rolling along, so everything centers on their little vegetable garden and the beloved little walk they take every day.
I have good luck with Peymann. You really mustn’t hire any bad actors. If you do that things go pear-shaped. And whenever I compromised the thing ended up dead in the water.
It was my own fault, because I must have seen that myself, and I certainly did see it, but I lost my nerve. And once you lose your nerve, it’s all over. And you take all the blame for it, obviously; it logically all falls on to your shoulders.
There are so few intelligent actors; in Vienna you can’t find a single one. Of course I know an actor doesn’t actually have to be intellectually brilliant or highly cultured, but then again he’s got to have a quality like—I don’t know, like what Käthe Gold or somebody like that’s got. Peymann himself is surrounded by total idiots; he’s got to deal with politicians, because if didn’t he’d have to pack his bags and leave town tomorrow. But that’s all truly abominable. He’s got to have dinner with wastes of space who’ll do anything to trip you up, and he’s surrounded by total deadweights, by total assholes who hang on to him like lead and do nothing but lay on great dollops of schmaltz. But all that stuff in Vienna is just horrible. It’s no skin off my nose, really, in the final analysis, as long as he’s in charge of the production. I really like Peymann, full stop, period. As a person.
They say nobody goes to see them, that they’re boring. But of course that’s completely untrue. Because more people go to see my plays than to the plays of any other living author. But it’s completely untrue, the received opinion. When I think of the fact that I’ve already sold out the Schiller Theater ninety times, can you believe that? A one-man play with a little girl. I told him he could do whatever he wanted with it. I never thought that he would play the role at all, ninety times; it defies imagination. But then Mr. Blaha says, “This is an author everybody walks out on, because he’s so boring.” I can’t think of anything else that people find so entertaining. But that doesn’t mean anything, the fact that it’s good enough for me. Collaborating with these people is the main thing.
But as for the prose, what can you do with it? You can hand it in and say, “I’d like it to look this way.” I design the covers of my books myself as well. I do everything myself, because of course if I didn’t everything would turn out awful. Because only if you make it simple will it look good and also be effective. If you leave it up to graphic designers, who’ll go berserk with it, then of course it’ll be unsightly, repulsive, and ghastly. I completely put the kibosh on all that. Graphic designers don’t have any say in my stuff anymore, because they believe that you’ve got to put a picture of a shoe on the book because somebody takes a walk in it. Which of course is horribly crude.
And theater in itself has always fascinated me, ever since I was a child. It’s certainly nothing new; it’s something I just play with. You write a play, which is for them [i.e., I believe, “these people” above (DR)] and for the public, and then they perform it, if it gets produced. Theater is a difficult, characterless business. Of course no play has ever had character as its starting point, or morality either. They’re total swines or total pipsqueaks. And under certain circumstances, they can produce something grand or something atrocious. And what’s more, the productions are never all that great. I was at the playhouse recently, and it was more atrocious, more ghastly, than any performance I had ever seen in my life! Unmotivated, brainless, and the actors even reacted appropriately, as they were sitting there and taking everything at face value. It was as good as nothing. Because the actors were impossible. That’s the way they’re still acting it now, after a full year. So I march into the theater and write it all off and then march straight back out. Of course that’s got nothing to do with my idea of theater. It works for a run of at most ten, twelve performances. Up to that point it’s rising to its peak, but then of course it just sags back into nothing. Then ideally you should take hold of them again, flog them all, and start all over again at the beginning and tell them all how atrocious they are. If you let it keep going, it’ll turn into something so ghastly that you can’t and won’t have anything more to do with it. It’s like making butter in a dairy.
I’m no great fan of stage directions, which are obviously the ruin of any play. The dialogue itself should direct the actor’s performance. And writers who use them are invariably the worst ones. The more stage directions there are, the less elbow room there is for the actors and the director. The text should be so compelling that everything that it’s about comes directly out of it, and if the text isn’t strong enough, then stage directions are absolutely useless, like in Hochhuth or people like that, where the thing is five-quarters stage directions, and a quarter of them are impossible, with lame dialogue, meaning that it’s unintellectual, unemotional, unpoetic—basically everything beginning with “un.” In Shakespeare there are no stage directions. Aside from “Scene: a palace or a throne room,” “exit” or “enter” “left” or “right,” there aren’t any. Everything emerges directly from the dialogue. That’s the way it really should be. Which means, of course, that you see everything; you obviously don’t have to spell it all out everywhere. But actors are so loutish and stupid that you actually have to tell them everything, unless they’re absolutely outstanding. But fame is no defense against stupidity. At the age of seventeen, eighteen, I would attend rehearsals where I would bury my face in my hands and think, “What is this, a world-famous man, and the director still has to tell him, ‘When your partner says this, you’ve got to think this.’” And that’s how they work on plays. It’s really insupportable. And with names that made you fall on to your backside with admiration when you were a child. And these people aren’t even worth rapping on the knuckles with a wooden spoon. But it’s like that all the time and everywhere.
Apart from making me money the theater allows me to maintain my friendships, or people, my relations with other people. Because in the theater you’re forced to get together with other people whether you like it or not. You get together with a set designer and you talk and chat with him about the way the set should look, and then you run into an actor, and then you see, aha, I last saw him three years ago; now he’s three years older and you are as well, now he’s got a better sense of humor or a worse one, now he’s limping on the left side or isn’t; that’s all quite thrilling. And then one of them falls ill and another one dies and a third one doesn’t want to do it anymore; it’s all very upsetting.
The possibilities you have with an actor like that [i.e., I believe, Minetti, Ganz, and Gold (DR)] are of course really much greater, but the thing itself on the other hand is quite lame, the actual realized performance is always lame. On the one hand it’s often better than I was expecting but often also different. So again it’s unsatisfying.
Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 79-92.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson