SALZBURG, Austria — There’s an unfamiliar name among all the stars on the posters for this summer’s truncated Salzburg Festival: “Zdenek Adamec.”
It’s the title of a new play by Peter Handke, his 22nd, which received its world premiere here this week. But the name is also that of a Czech student who in 2003 doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square in central Prague. He was just 18.
“I am another victim of the democratic system, where it is not people who decide, but power and money,” Adamec wrote in a letter he left behind.
Adamec’s shocking final act echoed another, by Jan Palach, an activist who self-immolated at the same location in 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Yet unlike the death of Palach, who captivated the world and became a symbol of resistance to Soviet oppression, Adamec’s fiery suicide hardly resonated beyond the Czech Republic, and he has been largely forgotten.
It has taken a Nobel Prize-winning author to make Adamec’s name live again, at least in an act of literary imagination.
Despite his stature in the world of European letters, Handke is perhaps best known for a longstanding controversy that was reignited when he won the literature award last year. Critics said he was a supporter of the Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, whom Handke has referred to as “a tragic human being.” (A planned demonstration outside the theater on opening night by the Mothers of Srebrenica, an organization of victims’ relatives from a 1995 massacre ordered by Milosevic, failed to materialize.)
Bestowing the award on Handke, the Swedish Academy ignored speculation about the author’s politics and praised his exploration of “the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”
And it’s hard to think of a more marginal figure than Adamec, whose rage against the world went ignored. In “Zdenek Adamec,” Handke a creates a speculative portrait of the young Czech, mixing poetic and colloquial language.
At the beginning of the play, Handke gives a lengthy stage direction, the only one in the work. The broken-up lines of dialogue that follow belong to no speaker in particular; the number of required actors is not specified. “Five, six, seven, eight, as many as this game of ours will need,” Handke writes in this prologue of sorts, which is read out loud at the start of Friedericke Heller’s production.
The director places her seven actors on a dark stage with unadorned steel arches that suggest the shell of a bombed-out cathedral. (The cast, per Handke, is a gathering of “locals, newcomers, natives, foreigners, young people, old people, all with our various accents.”) Here, they conduct a lengthy, and frequently digressive, conversation about Adamec, his biography, his family, his joys and disappointments.
Through their dialogue, they try to reconstruct Adamec’s final hours, imagining his slow walk to Wenceslas Square, his last interactions and encounters, the possible doubts that may have almost made him turn back.
On the page, these speculative disquisitions are compelling, alternating between ironically playful and serious; heavy and light. But “Zdenek Adamec” fails to ignite onstage: All the yammering quickly grows tedious.
At least that’s how it was in Heller’s production, in which most of the actors look lost on a set that’s halfway between a club and a ruin. They stand around, sit, and pace back and forth while the stage rotates. Things perks up whenever an offstage band begins to play: Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee” (belted out by the actor Hanns Zischler) or a few notes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
But I felt bad for the fine actors who were expected to bring this difficult text to theatrical life with precious little guidance from the director. Was it an accident, I wondered, that the dialogue sounded least stilted when spoken by the French actress Sophie Semin, Handke’s wife? Did she have some personal insight that Heller did not?
On the whole, it was a rather muted, even sterile performance. Those curious to discover Handke’s latest work should just go out and buy the book.
Through Aug. 16 at the Salzburg State Theater in Salzburg, Austria; salzburgerfestspiele.at.