"Bernhard’s love-hate relationship to theatre is used as a recurring motif throughout his novels and plays: Theatre as entertainment and diversion, a sign of human weakness when it comes to facing the ultimate truth, or what is perhaps even more disgusting and cause for much anger and (self?) hatred, a source of the masochistic pleasure people derive from making art out of their misery.”
By Gitta Honegger
The most unbelievable deeds reported here
took place in real life.
The most incredible conversations recorded here
were spoken word for word.
These contents are the contents of the years
preserved only in bloody dreams
WHEN OPERETTA H EROES ACTED OUT
THE OF TRAGEDY MANKIND
The above quote is from the prologue of one of the major German language
theatre events of the seventies: Hans Hollmann’s stage version of Karl
Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind, orignially performed in Basel and re-
staged this summer in Vienna, Kraus’s native city. The original work,
published in 1926, is one of the most monumental, prophetic and influential
pieces of Austrian literature, a two-volume drama, never intended for production,
dealing with events—chiefly of ordinary people and their peculiar mentality—which
led to World War I and prepared the way for Hitler and World War II.
Austria’s famous tourist image as the land of operetta, kitsch, schmaltz
and schlag becomes for those living in it, and whether intentionally or not,
living in it at least occasionally, a double-edged legacy, as infuriating and
confusing as it is inescapable and, at times, deadly. Operetta heroes and
heroines or characters fashioning themselves after those models, acting
out the tragedies of mankind, not necessarily on the highest political level,
but in their personal lives, haunt the plays of Schnitzler; they provide the
deceptively sweet facade for Odon von Horvath’s devastating humor. And if
today, after two world wars, the collapse of the Empire together with its
aristocracy and high style, and the most unspeakable atrocities committed
by operetta beaus and beauties, this mentality still persists, it seems a
macabre reconstruction of old prop-and-costume pieces from the stock
room of history, which in the case of Austria has always been a very
theatrical and a very pompous one.
This is Thomas Bernhard’s Austria. It helps understand his peculiar brand
of theatricality, intentionally frozen, mechanical, a "reconstructed" one.
Freely borrowing from other sources, his dramaturgy is deeply rooted in a
tradition which has been drained of its original life and serves now only as a
crutch, an artificial device, ultimately as "entertainment" in the sense of
diversion from the overpowering obsession with decay and death. Yet
therein lies also the paradox—another much loved, much hated trademark
of the Austrian mentality, of Austrian art: this obsession with death is in
itself the greatest diversion, the great duality of Baroque art, so perfected in
the architecture of Salzburg, where Bernhard spent much of his youth dur-
ing World War II.
Bernhard’s love-hate relationship to theatre is used as a recurring motif
throughout his novels and plays: Theatre as entertainment and diversion, a
sign of human weakness when it comes to facing the ultimate truth, or what
is perhaps even more disgusting and cause for much anger and (self?)
hatred, a source of the masochistic pleasure people derive from making art
out of their misery.
I don’t go to the theatre
it is somethingquite disgusting
wheneverI am in the theatre
I am constantlyreminded
how disgusting it is
even though I can’t explainit to myself
what makes it so disgusting
but it is disgusting
But maybeyou deal so muchwith theatre
because you are so disgusted with it.
says the General in The Hunting Party to the Writer,who turns everything he
sees into what he calls a "comedy," although the General does not agree
with this definition.
Theatre, on the other hand, is the ultimate artifice (and it always must em-
phasize its artificiality) people develop, next to other constructs, such as
science and philosophy, as a bulwark against nature, which to Bernhard is
always a brutal, decaying, dark and deadly one.
Most of Bernhard’s central characters are obsessed with such a construct.
In The Force of Habit the circus director Caribaldi forces his troupe to prac-
tice Schubert’s "Trout Quintet" for twenty-two years, even though they
never manage to get through the whole piece; in Minetti, the actor Minetti
practices passages from King Lear every day for thirty years in front of the
mirror in his sister’s attic in Dinkelsbuehl; in Immanuel Kant it is philosophy
(with the ultimate irony that this namesake of the philosopher is a contem-
porary invention, just as Minetti’s namesake, the famous German actor
Bernhard Minetti, who created many characters of Bernhard’s plays and
who also played this Minetti, is a dramatic invention, whose story has
nothing to do with the "real" Minetti’s biography). What keeps the title
character in The Utopian (Der Weltverbesserer) famous and alive is his
study dealing with the improvement of the world, which will be accom-
plished by its total destruction; the Judge, a former camp commander in
Bernhard’s latest play Eve of Retirement insists on celebrating Himmler’s
birthday year after year, for which occasion he dresses up in full SS uniform
and forces his paraplegic sister to shave her head and wear the uniform of a
camp inmate. The General in The Hunting Party is working on some uniden-
tified study, his life work. In The Fool and the Madman (Der Ignorant und der
Wahnsinnige), the doctor (and madman of the title) keeps talking about his
love of dissecting corpses while waiting in the dressing room of the famous
opera singer who is just performing the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute.
If in her case music is the last (and very Austrian) vestige for a once
possibly meaningful existence, it is in grotesque contrast to her pathetic
stock character and the play ends in (literal) darkness and chaos.
In these plays science, philosophy, art are presented as crutches to keep
the mind alive, if only on the brink of madness in the face of an unrelenting-
ly crippling, decaying nature. His first play, A Party for Boris (Ein Fest fur
Boris), deals with actual cripples. The Kind Lady, who has lost both legs
and her husband in a car accident and presently lives with Boris, also
without legs, prepares a birthday party for him and 12 other legless cripples
from the asylum next door. Between the preparations and the actual party,
a macabre dance of death, accompanied by Boris beating the drum until he
collapses dead amidst the laughter of the guests and the Kind Lady, there
is a scene of the Kind Lady returning from a costume ball where she forced
her servant to appear as a legless cripple.
The Writer of The Hunting Party says:
All the time we talk about somethingunreal
so that we can bear it
because we have turned our existence
into an entertainment mechanism
nothing but a shoddy entertainment mechanism
into an artificial natural catastrophe.
Human nature, as it presents itself, is always a theatrical one, leading back
to the tacky operetta heroes. The cast list of The Hunting Party reads like
the Dramatis Personae from an operetta: The General, the General’s Wife,
the Prince, the Princess, 3 Ministers and a servant. In The President the title
character takes a bath after barely escaping an assassin, who might have
been his son suspected of being a terrorist, while his wife is preoccupied
with the death of her dog, who suffered a heart attack during the assassina-
tion attempt. Later, the President busies himself with a mediocre young ac-
tress in Portugal, not too much concerned with the political situation, and
his wife apparently amuses herself with a butcher and a chaplain to satisfy
her physical and spiritual needs.
And, of course, the Kind Lady in her wheelchair, playing her power games in
the guise of kindness with her servant and the cripples, is easily associated
with Beckett. However, this seems less an imitation than a conscious and
legitimate quote (just as the connection between The Cherry Orchard and
the forest in The Hunting Party) in the context of Bernhard’s use of pre-
existing theatrical images and themes to construct a world which is
theatrical inasmuch as it employs all available devices, "ready-mades," to
animate the process that diverts from lifelessness, the source of disfigura-
tion and madness.
Bernhard’s plays are not dramatic, cannot be dramatic in the conventional
sense of conflict, be it psychological, political or moral. Where there is no
choice, there is no conflict. Death is a matter of choice only insofar as it can
be staged. Thus suicide becomes a profoundly theatrical event, a self-
directed performance, ridiculous in its mometary, stagey pathos, tragic in its
ultimate inevitability. But even the character who perceives this duality, the
Writerof The Hunting Party, apparently one of the more distant observers in
Bernhard’s work, is a pathetically indulgent (typically Austrian) "Raunzer,"a
cry-baby, in love with his misery, and a laughable figure in the end.
Most of Bernhard’s plays feature one or more characters who are either
obsessive speakers or those who listen. This emphasizes the performance
quality, not just as a theatrical device, but as an existential necessity. His
characters cling to their speeches for dear life, they unravel sentence after
sentence like Ariadne’s twine to lead them out of the maze of their brain, the
source too of their understanding of the world as a dying one. But the only
way not to die is to pursue their thoughts. These are not necessarily new,
startling ones; at times they are banal, sometimes profound, often repeated,
circling around the same themes, carefully constructed in seemingly endless
rhythmical patterns. In his plays Bernhard does not use any punctuation.
There may be a very simple reason for this: As soon as there is a period, there
would be an actual end to the sentence, a full stop, both for the speech and
the speaker, who would die and, in many cases, does.
Bernhard creates a free verse form out of the rhythms inherent in the intricate
syntax of the German language, its baroque complexity also a relic, now re-
constructed, of the old, official, upper-class language of the monarchy. It is
also broken down into its components, which form the rhythmical basis, a
music-like notation system, again, a most accomplished artifice destroying
the natural flow of speech without ever being able to deny its profound
connection to and understanding of it-ultimately transcending the limitations,
the limit of nature through art. Bernhardis, above all, a master of language.
What may seem indulgent at first sight (especially to the Anglo-Saxon,
American sensibility) is deeply connected to his characters’ existential ex-
"Endless speaking" says Michel Foucault "or, for that matter, speaking in
order not to die, is an activity probably as ancient as the word itself. For the
time of the narration, the death-bringing phenomena remain necessarily
suspended, speech, as we know, has the power to stop arrows mid-air."
Thomas Bernhard was born on February 10, 1931, in Holland. His father was
an Austrian farmer, his mother the daughter of the Austrian writer Johannes
Freumbichler,who was a great influence in his life. He spent much of his
chlildhood in Salzburg, where he studied music and acting. Until 1955 he
worked as a journalist. His first collections of poems and short stories were
published toward the end ofthe fifties. His first great breakthrough came
with his first novel Frost in 1963. He received numerous literary awards. Since
1965 Bernhard has lived on a farm in Upper Austria.
Novels and short stories:
Der Italiener, 1963
Verstorung (Gargoyles, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1967
Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1970
Midlandin Stilfs (A collection of stories), 1971
Der Kulterer, 1974
Die Korrektur , (Correction, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1975
Die Ursache (The Cause), Der Keller (The Cellar), Der Atem (Breath), 1975
Der Stimmenimitator, 1978
Die Billigesser, 1980
Plays: (Dates of publication)
Ein Fest fur Boris (A Party for Boris), 1968
Der Ignorantund der Wahnsinnige (The Fool and the Madman),1972
Die Jagdgesellschaft (The Hunting Party),1974
Die Macht der Gewohnheit (Force of Habit),1974
Der Prasident (The President), 1975
Immanuel Kant, 1978
Der Weltverbesserer (The Utopian),1978
Vordem Ruhestand (Eve of Retirement),1979
Gitta Honegger is a director and translator who has translated five plays of
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