[This page by Katya Krylova]


Written for the ‘Bedenkjahr’ 1988 (Year of Reflection) marking fifty years since Austria’s Anschluss with Nazi Germany, the title of the play refers to the square in central Vienna in front of the old imperial palace where Hitler was jubilantly greeted by thousands of supporters on 15 March 1938. The play centres upon a Viennese Jewish family, the Schusters, who after having emigrated to England in 1938 returned to Vienna in the 1960s. At the start of the play Josef Schuster, Professor of Mathematics, has committed suicide (by throwing himself out of the window of his apartment that faces out onto Heldenplatz) due to his belief that the mentality of his fellow countrymen has changed very little since 1938. A central tirade delivered by Robert Schuster following his brother’s funeral, attacks the decay plaguing Austrian institutions from politics and education to the media, as well as the persistent racism and anti-semitism in contemporary Austria, asserting that there are more Nazis in contemporary Austria (1980s) than in 1938. The play was written just two years following the Waldheim affair, whereupon it emerged that the former UN Secretary General and Austrian presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim had lied about his Nazi past. Heldenplatz provoked outrage even before its premiere in Vienna’s Burgtheater as sections were leaked to the press, with prominent Austrian politicians asked what they thought about individual sentences and statements taken completely out of context. Despite vocal protests from Bernhard’s opponents during the premiere of the work on 4 November 1988 the play was a triumphant success and contributed significantly to the public discourse on Austrian Vergangenheitsbewältigung [coming to terms with the past].

Further Reading

Oliver Bentz, Thomas Bernhard: Dichtung als Skandal (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2000)

Donald G. Daviau, ‘Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz’, Monatshefte 83:1 (Spring, 1991), 29-44

Jeanette R. Malkin, ‘Thomas Bernhard, Jews, Heldenplatz’ in Staging the Holocaust: the Shoah in Drama and Performance, ed. by Claude Schuhmacher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 281-97

Fatima Naqvi, ‘Dialectic at a Standstill: The Discourse of Victimhood in Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz’, German Quarterly 75:4 (Autumn, 2002), 408-21