“we have turned our existence into an entertainment mechanism… an artificial natural catastrophe”

"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.”


 

Thomas Bernhard

An Introduction

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

on principle

it is somethingquite disgusting

the theatre

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

endureit

because we have turned our existence

into an entertainment mechanism

nothing but a shoddy entertainment mechanism

madame

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-

periences.

 

"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:

 

Frost, 1963

Der Italiener, 1963

Amras, 1964

Verstorung (Gargoyles, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1967

Prosa, 1967

Ungenach, 1968

Watten, 1969

Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1970

Midlandin Stilfs (A collection of stories), 1971

Gehen, 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

Minetti, 1976

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

Thomas Bernhard.

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