- Fools on the Hill: Thomas Bernhard’s Mise-en-Scène
In his quasi-autobiographical work The Cellar Thomas Bernhard describes what he calls the most decisive time of his life: instead of continuing his high school education which had been interrupted by World War II, the fifteen-year-old became a grocer’s apprentice in the blue collar district of Salzburg. During the two year period, at his grandfather’s instigation, he also began his musical training as an opera singer. His teacher was Maria Keldorfer, who sang the part of Sophie in the Dresden world premiere of Strauss/Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier.
During the Festival weeks he loved to climb up on Mönchsberg, and sit under a tree, just above the Festival Theatre to listen to the opera rehearsals.
I had a favorite spot above the Riding School from which I could listen to the operas which were being performed there. One was The Magic Flute, the first opera I ever saw performed and one in which at one time or another I played no fewer than three parts: Sarastro, the Speaker, and Papageno. In this opera, which throughout my life I have made a point of hearing and seeing as often as possible, all my musical desires were realized to perfection. I sat there under the tree, listening to the music, and there was nothing in the whole world that I would have taken in exchange for what I felt as I sat there listening. . . . For years I went up onto the Mönchsberg in order to listen to rehearsals of operas that were to be performed in the Riding School. 1
The musical scores would echo in the syntax of his writing; the operatic archetypes would appear in a dense web of signifying chains sliding across the topography of his work; the operatic dramaturgy would provide the underpinning of his philosophical meta-theatre. From his favorite spot below Fortress Hohensalzburg, the landmark castle on Mönchsberg (Monk’s Mountain, which happens to face Nonnberg, Nun’s Mountain, with the fortress tucked between them), he must have had a dramatic view of the city below. The heavy bombings towards the end of World War II tore an apocalyptic relief into the architectural orgy of its large Italian style plazas swept by baroque churches, palaces, and arches leading through webs of medieval alleys and courtyards. Mozart’s baroque Wunderkind hell nestled in a soft bend of the [End Page 34] Salzach river: the dazzling architectural composition of monastic asceticism exploding into sensuous dramatizations of the seductive physicality of death now frozen in a surrealist inferno of gaping domes, cathedrals split in half, convents torn open, spilling its once carefully cloistered entrails. Hitler’s unfulfilled dream of a mega-Akropolis on Kapuzinerberg (Capuzine Mountain), now immortalized in Alfred Speer’s architectural plans, hovering above the unstruck scenery of his theatre of war like an unfulfilled curse. Capuzine mountain is named after the Capuzine monastery, a fortress-like structure bracing the mountain on the Eastern bank on the Salzach river, right across from Mönchsberg in full view of the young Thomas Bernhard.
Buried in the ruins of World War II was the city’s shameful Nazi past. Together with its original splendor its original sins would eventually also re-emerge and blend into the dazzlingly restored scenery. Bernhard would be the first to exhort the hypocrisy, expedience, and greed of its inhabitants and the fascist underside of its powerful Catholic legacy. For eleven centuries Salzburg had been the capital of an independent church state ruled by Prince-Archbishops.
At the time Bernhard wrote The Cellar, the city had regained its unblemished beauty. Reinhardt’s opera stage, the old Felsenreitschule, the Archbishops’ “Riding School in the Rock” which had been blasted right into the rocks had been redesigned and enlarged as the Festival’s majestic open-air stage. The many cathedrals, cloisters, and castles crowning the mountains that weave through and around Salzburg had risen from the ashes in all their awe-inspiring splendor as daunting reminders of the ever watchful eyes of godly authority.
Then as now, every fifteen minutes a symphony of bells resounding...