- Der Herr Karl by Helmut Qualtinger and Carl Merz
Der Herr Karl (1961), a one-act play by Carl Merz and Helmut Qualtinger, has a unique place in Austrian literary history. Helmut Qualtinger, playing Herr [End Page 131] Karl, immortalized the character in his presentation of an "average" Austrian, speaking in Viennese dialect and demonstrating his opportunistic outlook on life both during Nazism and in the postwar era. The monologue provoked outrage when it was first aired on the Austrian state broadcaster ORF on November 15, 1961, but has since come to be regarded as a classic. An English translation of the satire has long been overdue, and this translation by Ron E. Hassner, published by Ariadne Press, is therefore very welcome. As Hassner elucidates in his translator's note, translating Der Herr Karl poses many challenges. As Herr Karl addresses his audience, he tells his life story, which coincides with the prewar and postwar history of his country. The monologue is therefore replete with cultural and historical references specific to Austria. For Hassner, Herr Karl is "one of the most fascinating characters in Austrian theater" (3), one that "represents the 'banality of evil' in its distilled form" (4).
Hassner's translation is prefaced by "A Note on Translation" and appended by notes and a longer afterword discussing "Karl in Context: Cabaret and Memory in Postwar Vienna." It must be noted that some of Hassner's commentary, both in the preface and in the notes, is too generalizing and categorical. An example is the following assessment of Austrian memory politics: "Der Herr Karl continues to rankle Austrian sensibilities because Austrian attitudes towards the past have changed little. Austrians continue to deny their enthusiastic support for the Anschluss, the war, and the persecutions that ensued and they persist in perpetuating the myth of victimhood" (7). This statement neglects the substantial changes in Austrian self-understanding with regard to the Nazi era, brought about by the Waldheim affair of the 1980s, or the formation of a civil society and oppositional culture, in the wake of Waldheim, that has since opposed the resurgence of the far right in Austrian politics, as can be witnessed in the most recent protest movement against Austria's current FPÖ-ÖVP coalition (for an in-depth analysis of contemporary Austrian protest culture, see Allyson Fiddler's The Art of Resistance: Cultural Protest against the Austrian Far Right in the Early Twenty-First Century , also reviewed in this issue).
The substantial afterword ("Karl in Context") does offer a more nuanced discussion of Austrian postwar historical development (mentioning Waldheim, Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz, and Alfred Hrdlicka's Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus), as well as tracing Vienna's cabaret tradition. Hassner elucidates how Vienna's cabaret scene in the 1950s—and indeed Qualtinger [End Page 132] and Merz's satirical sketches at this time—offered gentle humor rather than biting social critique, making the contrast between the satire Der Herr Karl and the cabaret pieces that had gone before it all the more remarkable. To underline his point, Hassner also includes a translation of Qualtinger and Merz's lighthearted skit Travnicek on Vacation (1958) in his afterword. As the translator explains, it is not clear how Qualtinger and Merz made the shift from this light-entertainment mode to the more biting style of Der Herr Karl (114), yet the one-act play was immediately impactful, both at the time of its first broadcast and afterwards. It was certainly ahead of its time in drawing attention to Austrian complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime "several decades before anyone in Austria was willing to even discuss the matter" (118).
Hassner's translation itself is interesting on several levels. The foremost among these is Hassner's decision to render Herr Karl's Viennese vernacular in a Southern drawl, chosen "not only because of its association with certain attitudes about class, race and gender but because it was one of the heaviest yet most familiar dialects that American readers would respond to viscerally" (9–10). As Hassner elaborates...