Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Viennese literary coffeehouse

I was stymied after reading Jo Walton's new book the other night (it arrived in my office mailbox at a point of singularly low morale, as if in response to some unarticulated but profound wish for the book I most wanted to read in the world - thanks, Torie!) as to what I could read next.

I thought I might just read Walton all over again, but delving through the stacks piled up on the living-room floor dealt me Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew, which I read with considerable satisfaction.

(For some reason I have been obsessed recently with the possibilities of the sentence - I really need this sabbatical to start so that I can get some real work done! I went to the preliminary meeting last night at the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal's new show "This is Progress", and had various conversations with other folks participating which made me realize that I am sort of uncomfortably bursting with ideas right now that I can only shed by writing books - I think the style course I've been teaching will find its way in the near future into a couple of essays, but that perhaps what I had thought of as two complementary book projects [notation of human behavior in bread-and-butter of the novel/transmission of forms of culture that are not best represented by conventional verbal forms of notation] are really a triptych [bread-and-butter of the novel/forms of culture resistant to notation/sequel to bread-and-butter that is not about epistolarity, the first and third person voices, etc. but is instead just about SENTENCES, unconventional and non-chronological ordering systems, the tension between aphoristic and narrative modes, etc.] that can only be achieved by multi-year sustained application of maniacal effort! ARGHHHHHH! I need to put myself into some kind of a trance state whereby the intellectually perceiving brain just communicates directly to the eyes and hands without the intervention of troublesome human-conscious mind - in fact I am going to go and move around the furniture in the living room now to create a better work area to facilitate this...)

Anyway, this site has a very good description of Bernhard's book, with a full excerpt of what is undoubtedly the funniest section, so I will instead quote the thought-provoking discussion of how the actors at the Burgtheater ruined Bernhard's play The Hunting Party:
The absolutely third-rate actors who performed in the play did not give it a chance, as I was soon forced to recognize, in the first place because they did not understand it and in the second because they had a low opinion of it, but being a makeshift cast assembled at short notice, they had no option but to act in it. They could not be blamed even indirectly, after the failure of the original plan to assign the principal roles to Paula Wessely and Bruno Ganz, for whom I had written the play. In the event, neither appeared in it because the whole ensemble of the Burg (as the Viennese call it, with a kind of perverse affection) joined forces to prevent Bruno Ganz from appearing at the Burgtheater. Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded--on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public--though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world. When once these matinee idols, with their celebrated names and feeble theatrical intelligence, are raised to their pedestals by the mindless theatergoing public, they maintain themselves at the pinnacle of their artistic inanity by totally neglecting whatever theatrical potential they possess and shamelessly exploiting their popularity, and stay on at the Burgtheater for decades, usually until they die. After the appearance of Bruno Ganz had been prevented by the machinations of his colleagues, Paula Wessely, my first and only choice for the role of the general's wife in the play, also withdrew. Thus, having foolishly entered into a binding contract with the Burgtheater, I had to put up with a first performance that I can only describe as unappetizing and that, as I have indicated, was not even well intentioned. For, faced with the least displeasure on the part of the audience, the totally untalented actors who were cast in the main parts at once took sides with the audience, following the age-old tradition by which Viennese actors conspire with the audience against a play and have no compunction about stabbing the author in the back as soon as they sense that the audience does not take to his play in the first few minutes, because it does not understand it and finds both the author and the play too difficult. It goes without saying, of course, that actors ought to go through fire, as they say, for an author and his play, especially if it is new and has not been tried out before, but unlike their colleagues in the rest of Europe, Viennese actors--and especially those at the Burgtheater--are not prepared to do this. If they sense that the audience is not instantly enthusiastic about what it sees and hears after the curtain goes up, they at once desert the author and his play and make common cause with the audience, prostituting themselves and turning what it pleases them, in their infantile presumption, to call the premier stage of German-speaking Europe into the world's first theatrical whorehouse.
The rest of the passage is also well worth reading, but I must stop typing up rants and get on with my day...


  1. What is a form of culture that is resistant to notation? Greeting gestures?

  2. Старая Лестница мультфильм / Старая Лестница