Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard. (1987)

Elisabeth II is one of the last plays written by Thomas Bernhard. It is set in an apartment in Vienna. The old industrial tycoon Herrenstein owns an apartment in the center of the city, ideally situated to see and cheer the passage of Queen Elisabeth II during her visit to Vienna. As a consequence, his apartment will be soon overflowing with eager relatives and acquaintances who want to see the queen. That’s the plot.

Herrenstein is an angry disabled old man. If you’ve seen the French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez, you’ll picture him in your mind. He’s in a wheelchair but insists on rewinding the clock himself. He’s cantankerous, whimsical and has an opinion about everything. He hates his family and relatives who give it right back at him, except for one nephew. His everyday life depends on his secretary/companion Richard and his housekeeper Miss Zallinger. He’s egoistical, violent in his speech. His mind runs in circles and the play is made of long monologues where he complains about this or that, trying to decide where he’ll drag Richard on holiday the morrow. He rants and raves against anything and everything: the stupidity of watching Queen Elisabeth drive under his windows, the mentality of the Austrians, the atmosphere in Vienna, his relatives, his bad health…

This is a play that needs to be watched and leaves no room for poor acting or a weak direction. The text is composed of long rants that deserve to be told and not read. The actor playing Herrenstein is stuck in a wheelchair and speaks during two hours. According to the cast and the direction, this play can be fantastic or a total disaster. Mildly successful is not an option; as its main character, the text is not forgiving for lukewarm interpretation.

I’ve seen a version directed by Aurore Fattier with Denis Lavant playing Herrenstein.

Bernhard_2_personnages

Both direction and acting were absolutely stunning. Aurore Fattier managed to make us laugh at and with this cranky old man and made the best of the almost silent second characters. Alexandre Trocki plays Richard and he’s on stage almost as long as Herrenstein but he barely speaks. He manages to impose his silent presence to the spectator as comic counterpart to his vituperating master. The coming and goings of the servants preparing the reception for all the people who invited themselves to watch the parade of Elisabeth II is full of mischief and comical effects.

Bernhard_denis_lavantDenis Lavant owns the space, incarnates perfectly this obnoxious old man. His speech, his movements and his tone are brilliant. I admire his stamina and that kind of performance is the quintessence of theatre. Why go to the theatre? Because there’s nothing like watching actors playing live a whole text, not scenes that have been put together afterwards like in a film. Denis Lavant slips into Herrenstein’s skin for two hours. During this time, he’s Herrenstein for us and the old man becomes real. Nothing compares to that.

As a spectator, we are horrified by Herrenstein’s cruelty and at the same time, we pity him. Like the playwright, he’s been ill for a long time. He’s old and at the mercy of Richard and Miss Zallinger’s services. He’s pathetic at times and needy. He’s afraid of Richard leaving him. He’d like to be strong but he’s totally unsettled by the change in his routine coming from all the fuss around the queen’s visit.

This is my first encounter with the work of Thomas Bernhard. I expected bleak, it was as bleak as books about nasty old age can be. It reminded me of The Hateful Age by Fumio Niwa.

I also knew he was harsh on the Austrian people but I didn’t expect that he would be that harsh, basically calling them weak and talking about nests of Nazis. As the crème de la crème of the Vienna aristocracy and bourgeoisie gush about how healthy he looks and how excited they are to see the queen, he hurls insults behind their back. Bernhard emphasizes on the narrow-mindedness of the upper classes and their inherent vulgarity.

Berhnard has been ill for most of his life, suffering of lung problems. Just like Proust. I couldn’t help comparing Miss Zallinger to the poor Françoise in In Search of Lost Time and to the real life servants who took care of Proust. He must have been a difficult patient and I suspect Bernhard was one too and that Herrenstein owns a bit of his creator’s nature.

As you’ve probably understood by my enthusiastic commentary, this is an outstanding but vicious play. The ending is unexpected, ironic and perfect. The version I’ve seen is flawless. Really. But I still think it was too long. In my opinion, there were repetitions in Herrenstein’s rants that could have been cut. I understand that these long monologues are Bernhard’s brand of theatre. I don’t think I’ll read his other plays but I’ll sure watch them if I have the opportunity.

  1. January 7, 2016 at 1:44 am

    I discovered Thomas Bernard through Stu’s Thomas Bernard Week at Winston’s Dad, and I was very impressed by the novel I read, Concrete. But I did not know he was a playwright. Was the play you saw translated into French?

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    • January 7, 2016 at 10:57 pm

      I have Concrete on the shelf, (waiting for next German Lit month?)
      I’ve seen the play in a French translation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. January 7, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Thanks for reviewing this. I am a huge fan of Bernhard’s prose (yes he can be scathing and bleak but with a large measure of black humour), but have not yet dipped into his poetry or plays. Something to correct this year.

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    • January 7, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      There’s a lot of black humour in this play too. The ramblings were a bit too long sometimes but otherwise it was great.
      Which of his novels would you recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 8, 2016 at 12:33 am

        Bernhard’s novels tend to a long, rambling, single paragraph style, but I he has a musical rhythm (he wanted to be a musician but for his health and loved Bach). His shorter early prose pieces may be more accessible but are more difficult to find. I still have much of his work to read but I believe Gargoyles is and excellent introduction. His second novel, the first half is more conventional – the tale of a young man accompanying his country doctor father on his rounds – the second half is a long rant by a crazed prince. You meet a range of Bernhard’s common character types and there are some very wise observations along the way.

        Otherwise, Wittgenstein’s Nephew is my favourite. A shorter, later novel it is remarkably warm and fuzzy for Bernhard. It is a memoir of sorts honouring his real life friend Paul Wittgenstein, a relative of the famous philosopher and trying to make amends for possibly abandoning him in the end. Bernhard reflects a lot on his own chronic lung condition and his friend’s lifelong battle with mental illness. It’s still Bernhard all the way but the rants are toned down and much more personal.

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        • January 8, 2016 at 12:36 am

          By the way, in Wittgenstein’s Nephew he takes some swipes at those producing his plays, a factor you might appreciate having started with a play!

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  3. January 7, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Sound very powerful, which fits with my impression of Benhard as a writer. Like Lisa, I hadn’t realised that he was a playwright as well as an author of books, He seems to be a favourite among some of the bloggers I follow – I recall seeing quite a few reviews over the last couple of years.

    I’d like to see a few more plays this year, maybe through the NT Live initiative as it’s a little more convenient than trying to get into London in the evenings.

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    • January 7, 2016 at 11:02 pm

      He wrote several plays, actually. I need to try one of his novels.
      Elisabeth II is uncompromising: Herrenstein doesn’t mince his words and the text is uncompromising for the actors. It needs the best acting.

      I love going to the theatre. Nothing compares to the gift of actors playing just for the audience.

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  4. January 7, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    Terrific review. So great that you got to see it.

    A clip from this play, about – what else – how the character both loves and hates Vienna is running in a loop in the Jewish Museum in Vienna.

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    • January 7, 2016 at 11:04 pm

      Thanks Tom

      I’ve been to the Jewish Museum in Vienna but I don’t remember this clip. I suppose it was all in German.

      PS: have you been to the Literature Museum in Vienna? Very unfriendly for foreigners, everything was in German and nothing was translated.

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  5. Tom Cunliffe
    January 7, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    Your review is a tour de force – it certainly makes me want to see the play. I found an extract on YouTube and it looks fantastic – even though I don’t understand German!

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    • January 7, 2016 at 11:07 pm

      Thanks, Tom. On the theatre’s web site, they say that this play has a reputation of being impossible to play. So the real tour the force was on the actors.

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  6. Tony
    October 14, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Yep, that sounds like Bernhard! One for the future, perhaps (but I’ve plenty of novels and stories to get through first…).

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    • October 16, 2016 at 8:30 am

      It was fantastic on stage, really. It’s a shame it’s not available in English.
      I’ve rarely heard a writer so harsh with their fellow citizen. Harsh against a regime, a goverment, a system, yes. But against the people of the country, rarely. Have you?

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