Home > 1970, 20th Century, Austrian Literature, Bernhard Thomas, Theatre > Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Bernhard – Horrifying

Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Bernhard – Horrifying

Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Berhnard (1979) French title: Avant la retraite. Translated by Claude Porcell (Original title: Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele)

I’m not a total novice with Thomas Bernhard’s work. I read and enjoyed Concrete, a novella I tagged as “a beautiful grumpy rant.” I’ve seen the play Elisabeth II, where Bernhard makes fun of the Austrians and their eagerness to welcome Queen Elisabeth II in Vienna. I’ve also seen André Marcon play the main role in The Theatre Maker, (Le Faiseur de théâtre, in German, Der Theatermacher.)

The three have in common the long monologues, the rants, the old cranky man irritated by everything and everyone and especially his fellow Austrian citizen. He despises them and his characters’ rants are so outrageous that they turn out funny. Berhnard has a scandalous and dry sense of humor.

I expected the same of the play Eve of Retirement, directed by Alain Françon, with André Marcon as Rudolf, Catherine Hiegel as Vera and Noémie Lvovsky as Clara. The three actors are known to be excellent, and I was keen on seeing Catherine Hiegel on stage.

The actors and the direction were incredible. You don’t have the impression that they play a role and the direction fit perfectly with the text. Nothing superfluous, it just enhanced the power of the text and boy, how uncomfortable we felt.

We’re in the 1970s, somewhere in Germany. Rudolf Höller is a ex-SS Officer lives with his two sisters, Vera and Clara. Vera is both his mother and his lover while Clara has been stranded in a wheelchair since the war. She’s bullied by her incestuous siblings. The play happens on a single day, the 7th of October, the most important day of the year for Rudolf as they celebrate Himmler’s birthday. He’s Rudolf’s hero and everything must be perfect. This year is even more special as Rudolf is retiring from his position as president of the tribunal of their Land.

The nausea starts right away in the first act. There are only Vera and Clara on stage and as Vera describes the preparations of the clandestine festivities of the day, the spectator’s mood sets to horror. Vera casually points out how she gave their deaf-and-dumb servant her day off and why it is mandatory for them to only have deaf-and-dumb servants. They can’t afford anyone to know what’s going on in their house.

The horror grows as the play unfolds: the special diner in Himmler’s memory reenacts the “good old days”. Vera carefully closes all the curtains so that no one can peak in and see the décor of their living room for the evening. They are in hiding, well aware that their continuous fidelity to Nazi ideas is not proper anymore.

Vera chatters away, thinking ahead of all the details needed for Rudolf to have a perfect evening. She lovingly irons Rudolf’s Nazi uniforms. She’s serious when she explains to Clara that she should be happy that this year she doesn’t have to wear a deportee’s uniform. The word vomiting that comes out of her mouth is terrifying and yet normal for her. The sideration grows as Rudolf comes out as a human monster. He has absolutely no remorse, remembers with Vera how he hid during ten years in their basement, until the authorities stopped looking for him, how he changed his name and became the respected president of the tribunal.

Clara is the only sane person in the household and she’s at her siblings’ mercy because she can’t live on her own. It is awful to enter into the intimacy of a man who sleeps with his sister and is nostalgic of the Nazi regime.

As always, Bernhard writes to rip off all illusions and to show facts in their naked ugliness. Indeed, this play is based on true facts. He hates hypocrisy and bending to social standards. He wants to dismiss false historical narrative and put people in front of their actual responsibilities.

Bernhard’s play shows what a true Nazi is and why this word shouldn’t be used lightly to qualify someone or another country’s political regime. Words have a meaning. Rudolf is both ruthless and childish, which painfully reminds us that inhuman behaviors are one side of humanity’s coin.

  1. March 9, 2022 at 11:09 am

    Goodness, I’ve never seen this performed, and it must be made even more powerful as the words on the page come to life!

    Like

    • March 9, 2022 at 9:49 pm

      Have you read it?
      I agree with you seeing on stage adds to the horror.

      Like

  2. March 9, 2022 at 11:14 am

    You capture Bernhard’s “cheerfulness “ perfectly. Thank you.

    Like

    • March 9, 2022 at 9:45 pm

      He’s usually funny but here it was terrible.

      Like

  3. March 9, 2022 at 1:06 pm

    This sounds so powerful and such a tough watch. I’ve never seen this writer’s work performed but I’ll look out for him now.

    Like

    • March 9, 2022 at 9:44 pm

      I like him, usually, I find him quite funny. But here, it was chilling.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. March 9, 2022 at 1:54 pm

    It sounds very confronting…

    Like

    • March 9, 2022 at 9:43 pm

      That’s the word!

      Like

  5. March 9, 2022 at 10:37 pm

    Wow. That sounds incredibly powerful yet very hard to take. But necessary, in this day and age, to be reminded I think…

    Like

    • March 11, 2022 at 7:26 am

      I’ve rarely felt that ill-at-ease in a theatre. Bernhard outdid himself for this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. March 11, 2022 at 4:50 pm

    You raise a good point, that we should be careful-especially in times that seem to pull people into extreme positions almost reflexively-how we use words to describe belief systems and how/whether people adhere to them. At the same time, when that ideology is mimicked, it’s useful to have a reference point so that the horrors of history do not repeat. What would we do without art that encourages us to think and to re-think.

    Like

    • March 12, 2022 at 8:12 am

      I used to be tired of seeing plays and books about WWII. Now I think they’re necessary to educate the younger generations.
      We need this horror known and I really don’t like when the word Nazi is used lightly.

      Like

  7. March 12, 2022 at 2:27 pm

    I might still be tired of books about WWII, but I grew up reading them (I have 15 boxes of my father’s war books under the spare bed). But I like your point that for most people it is now ancient history and very liable to be repeated. What I was more interested in is what was the author’s thesis, that Austrians still haven’t entirely discarded their dreams of Nazism?

    Like

    • March 12, 2022 at 2:59 pm

      The play is set in Germany.
      The other books by him that I’ve read were set in Austria. And yes, his thesis is that Austrians welcomed the Nazis and that they shouldn’t be hypocrites and try to sell the idea that they were victims.

      Like

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