Basement on Stage | kulturpunkt

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Basement on Stage

Morana Novosel’s staging of Thomas Bernhard's Eve of Retirement is a logical move, a natural step and an expected item on the repertoire.

by: Igor Ružić

If it weren’t completely wrong, it would be completely right to say that the great Umberto picked a perfect time to die. Not perfect for himself, but for us, and by us I don’t mean the world that doesn’t value its giants enough, nor us little people who only read when we have the time or the concentration, but us – the part of the world known as the Republic of Croatia. Even if it won’t be called so for much longer. 

Umberto Eco died, and the state of this part of the world is such that upon his death many remembered not his great literature or crucial theory, but a text as famous as it is simple: the essay Eternal Fascism. Autobiographic in tone, written from the perspective of old age recalling its early years of perceiving the world, the text is a reminder of the world he lived in before the end of World War II, and how confining and limiting it was. Before the end of fascism, the Italian one, young Umberto, although a smart kid, knew only a two-dimensional image of reality, drawn by a simple political system containing one party, one nation and one, unquestionable and absolute, love for the equally unquestionable and absolute leader and country.  

The essay is also a catalogue of the fundamental principles and symptoms of such a system, and a call to vigilance about recognizing them in the present or past. Eco’s essay reverberates here and today, for those who can and want to hear it. Among them are undoubtedly those who recognize moral failure in extramarital passion, a knowing evasion of truth, a trip to the toilet when it’s time to pay for drinks or in skipping a visit to grandma’s nursing home, but not in a regime that systematically killed tens and hundreds. Of people! Today there are enough of these people in Croatia, or the Republic of Croatia, while it’s still called that, to understand Eco’s analysis, but also to tick too many of the symptoms’ boxes, unfortunately for them and many others who don’t know or don’t want to know anything about it.       

The Italian writer and theoretician wasn’t, of course, the first or last to write such a manual for reading reality and its devastating tendencies. Another one, who worked on it systematically, was the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, whose piece Eve of Retirement has been directed by Morana Novosel at the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka. Bernhard is relatively well known to Croatian theatre, and has been performed a couple of times: David Mouchtar Samorai staged Heroes’ Square in Gavella Drama Theatre in 2003, while Anica Tomić and Jelena Kovačić created a small and significant play The Voice Imitators in &TD Theatre, based on motives from Bernhard’s short story collection The Voice Imitator, and produced by KUFER and Metar60

Samorai hasn't returned to Croatian theatre and the writer's testament of sorts failed to make a splash, but the second play rightfully drew attention to one of the most intriguing authorial, director-dramaturge duets in contemporary Croatian theatre. Aside from the modest number of plays, local culture also boasts an edition of Selected Works of Thomas Bernhard, published by Zagreb’s Meandar, presenting that which, perhaps, could not be put on stage. It’s little, but it’s enough, because from time to time we must remember the overlooked and forgotten giants, especially when they are forgotten on purpose, maybe even in accordance with their wishes, and not as a logical consequence of their work. 

And although he was primarily fiercely critical of his own country, so much so that they were allergic to each other, Bernhard is not an author of breezy pieces and prose when he is staged in the rest of the world either, especially in those parts that, willingly or not, share the heritage of his nest, which he so successfully soiled. His criticism of narrow-mindedness, campanilism, nationalism and chauvinism, backwardness and traditionalism in no way applies only to Austria – as the saying goes, not the first occupied victim, but the first ally of Nazi Germany – because he writes about the heart of the so-called Mitteleuropa from a perspective wider than that of a world war and its consequences. 

Although he wrote about one war and its consequences the most, this is also what is most often quoted. The reactions were appropriate as well; Claus Peymann staged his plays, the protests multiplied, as did the attempts to shut the plays down, newspapers had something to write about, and the audience had a reason to go, or not to go, to the theatre. The thing with theatre is that sometimes its “price” is driven up equally by those who visit often and those to whom it is a complete mystery, in ambient, structural or poetic sense. In the end, Bernard forbid any posthumous performing and publishing of his pieces in Austria, although, as with some other acts of self-prohibition and self-forgetting, the opposite happened. Today he is praised as one of the most significant Austrian writers of the past century, and only the fact that he shuffled off this mortal coil untimely stopped him from winning the Nobel prize instead of, in many ways similar, Elfriede Jelinek.

Staging such an author today is a programmed move by the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka. For a long time, long before its institutional days, the theatre’s management has been working on “soiling its own nest”, in a way that is literally Bernhardesque, without mincing words and with success. Eve of Retirement is a logical move, a natural step and an expected item on their repertoire; it expresses the heart of our present day and emphasizes its relation to the current moment all the way to details in costume design, while the ideological is considered self-sufficient. The text from 1979 is, as is the rest of his oeuvre, Bernhard’s reaction to his surroundings and the homeland he cannot forget, and he won’t forget his misconceptions, but repress them until finally, and then hopefully forever, the time of healthy people and ideas arrives. 

“The majority thinks like we do and can only do it in secret, though they claim otherwise. They are all national socialists, you see that all the time, but they won’t admit it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think like we do… That’s horrible, actually… that we don’t show the world who we are…”, says, on the family’s special day, in the specific combination of verse and dramatic sentence, the sister of a former concentration camp second-in-command, today a president of a local court on his way to honourable retirement. A small and “happy” Mitteleuropean, or maybe just Austrian, incestuous community, they have a very special ritual: every October 7, the Höller (translatable as Hellish) family - judge Rudolf and his sisters Vera and Clara – celebrate, with different degrees of personal enthusiasm, Heinrich Himmler’s birthday. Rudolf proudly wears an SS uniform, his faithful sister Vera is quite obliging, while the third person, the renegade and rhetorically rebellious Clara (the names are in no way a coincidence!) has a clearer view of the entire ceremony and is sometimes awarded the role of a prisoner in the somnambulist masquerade. 

The distorted perspective of hidden passion, secret histories and family story is like another genre, or genres, whose traces are revealed through the monologues long enough to almost be non-functional, that only pose as dialogue in the majority of the text. Drawn in, the reader or spectator, who is mostly a listener anyway, first makes sense of the characteristic motives, from the ritual in the basement, which was a particularly Austrian association long before the media exposure of Fritzl and his like, to the unsuccessful denazification, the ten years in hiding and the later career as judge, and all the way to Clara’s disability as the family’s victim of Ally bombing… Through the too-long lines that reveal and hide, or more precisely, reveal enough to seem like they are hiding something, the family’s history is spoken, as well as the history of a wider community, which is making an effort to keep silent because they no longer know or never even knew why they should keep quiet. Because they, says Vera, all think the same, except for those few who should not be taken seriously or counted on, tomorrow or in a bit more distant future, when the ritual will no longer be staged in the basement.

The pitch black that Bernhard depicts may at first glance, due to the spectacular uniforms and incestuous relationship, seem to be the continuation of criticism that used kitsch to explain Nazi kitsch and decapitate it by its own means. However, the uniform and the admiration for the uniform and for himself in it, successfully played by Dean Krivačić as Rudolf, as well as his fascination with Himmler who saved him with a fake pass, is a minor problem, while the greater one is the typical reversal of the system in which love and loyalty create tradition, and tradition creates a system of ritually renewed absolute truths. Therefore, even though Rudolph was a guard in the concentration camp, the more important and the more “main" character is Vera, outstandingly played by Olivera Baljak, who at least hints at understanding, to some extent, that something is not completely right with her loyalty and practices, in terms of classic morality as well as social norms, but she agrees to her roles because she had agreed to them long ago.

The author's metaphor of a family relationship as a social relationship is pretty clear: the criminal concealed by sisterly love stays true to himself and his sister, while the third person, both the rebel and the representative of the victim, remains the nominal reason for the status quo. In this way Bernhard depicts the whole of Austria in the seventies, with its silenced history and unspoken present, where everyone holds on to each other in a vow of silence and/or state of powerlessness. However, the original text indicates that the division of roles is not that simple, and the play emphasizes this by making Aleksandra Stojaković as Clara get up from her wheelchair from time to time, and even physically protest in the Austrian/Bernhard basement, crammed onto the stage of the Croatian Cultural Centre in Sušak, but she still remains a toy in the hands of her family, and agrees, through tears, to the renewal of the game of subordination and mutual family hatred.

The director – surprisingly, given that she introduced herself to the general theatre audience with the very successful original project A Logical Place to Meet – staged this piece completely in accordance with the realist principles of the text, but with plenty of cuts to keep the short form short in terms of time. This, unfortunately, annulled the potential of masochistic soliloquies, Bernhard’s specific instrument for both actor and spectator coercion. Just like in music scores, with their ups and downs, length is also necessary in Bernhard’s dramaturgy, and monotony – in a paradoxical, but stylistically very accurate way – is needed to convey the protagonists’ positions, the ritual tension of being and the simultaneous futility of any attempt of breakthrough or resolution. Through his characters’ speech, Bernhard writes decades of history of agreeing to the ideological structure that binds together even when it is supposedly forbidden, and shows how thick the web of repression and collaboration is, even when it moves beyond the context of a family, or when it (no longer) has to stay in the basement.

This thread is lost in the show’s stage dynamics, which is easy to justify with the desire to give "paper" Bernhard a bit more stage meat, but the effect is the opposite, since it almost invokes the conclusion that everything it’s talking about, despite what is being said, is still short-lived. Unfortunately, our local reality confirms that it is not, and that everything that we read in Bernhard, as a consequence that won’t go away, and in Eco, as a prescription for reading both Bernhard and the present reality on both sides of the Atlantic, and both sides of the local rivers that separate as much as they connect, is not accidental and not transitory. So it's good that this Bernhard's basement is on stage, because too much of the underworld is already stepping on it. No, of course, only in theatre.

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić.
Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 24.03.2016