from Thomas Bernhard’s Frost (Knopf, 2006)

“The landlady is disgusting to me. It’s the same disgust I felt when I was a child and had to vomit outside the open doors of the slaughterhouse. If she were dead I would, today, feel no disgust—dead bodies on the dissecting table never remind me of live bodies—but she’s alive, and living in a moldy ancient reek of inn kitchens.”

First published in German in 1963, and translated a few years ago by the fine poet Michael Hofmann, Frost may be the bleakest of all of Bernhard’s works, which is of course really saying something.

The unnamed narrator, a young medical student, is assigned by his boss to observe the boss’ brother, the eccentric painter Strauch. The painter abandoned Vienna for the dismal alpine village of Weng, with its “climate that engenders embolisms” and depraved local populace. The narrator’s first order of business is to take a room at the local inn, where the foul landlady trades sex for dog meat (her husband is away, imprisoned for killing a guest).

Strauch, it turns out, no longer paints, preferring to read Pascal, which perhaps accounts for his talent at producing gnomic and often depressing utterances, such as “People always say: the mountain reaches up into heaven. They never say: the mountain reaches down into hell.”

Not surprisingly, the narrator quickly becomes unhinged . . .

First Day

A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs, and sawing off feet; and it doesn’t just consist of thumbing closed the eyes of the dead, and hauling babies out into the world either. An internship is not just tossing limbs and parts of limbs over your shoulder into an enamel bucket. Nor does it just consist of trotting along behind the registrar and the assistant and the assistant’s assistant, a sort of tail-end Charlie. Nor can an internship be only the putting out of false information; it isn’t just saying: “The pus will dissolve in your bloodstream, and you’ll soon be restored to perfect health.” Or a hundred other such lies. Not just: “It’ll get better”—when nothing will. An internship isn’t just an academy of scissors and thread, of tying off and pulling through. An internship extends to circumstances and possibilities that have nothing to do with the flesh. My mission to observe the painter Strauch compels me to think about precisely such non-flesh-related circumstances and issues. The exploration of something unfathomably mysterious. The making of sometimes very far-reaching discoveries. The way you might investigate a conspiracy, say. And it is perfectly possible that the non-flesh-related, by which I don’t mean the soul—that what is non-flesh-related, without being the soul, of which I can’t say for certain whether it exists, though I must say I assume it does, that this thousand-year-old working assumption is a thousand-year-old truth—but it is perfectly possible that the non-flesh-related, which is to say, the non-cell-based, is the thing from which everything takes its being, and not the other way round, nor yet some sort of interdependence. Continue reading


“instead of facing life’s realities, we bury ourselves in mysticism and sex”

the great gary indiana on the saintly thomas bernhard

“an honesty practically unheard of in contemporary writing, since contemporary writing avoids all necessary cruelty and specializes in gratuitous cruelty, especially where this topic of one’s family is concerned . . . “

Saint Bernhard

by Gary Indiana

I looked forward to Thomas Bernhard‘s final novel with morbid anticipation. It arrives six years after his death, for which it seemed every book was an elaborate, nattering, malcontented, euphoric, excoriating rehearsal, a last gasp of disgust at the modern world, Austria, National Socialism, the Catholic Church, received ideas, capitalism, socialism, the middle class, the upper class, the proletariat, nature, urbanism, pastoralism, philistinism, artists, and first and foremost himself. Along with Witold Gombrowicz, after whom he named the mad Prince’s gardener in Gargoyles, Bernhard had been my decisive aesthetic and mental influence among 20th-century writers. He revealed the shrunken, petty, deformed condition of human beings as the modern world transformed them into things.

I always read this Bernhard with relief. Even though he was in Austria and not America, even though he wrote of Austria’s hideousness instead of America’s hideousness, even though he continually provoked and ridiculed the so-called cultural elite of Austria and not the so-called cultural elite of America, I felt grateful that someone, somewhere, could write exactly as he pleased with impunity, fearlessly, and that his reputation grew and grew as he became more and more disagreeable, more contrary, more intolerant of hypocrites and imbeciles. That his hatred of the state and the Catholic Church remained unassuaged, no matter how many prizes and awards were thrown at him. “No money and being pissed on,” he wrote about receiving the Grillparzer Prize, “that was intolerable “I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms,” he wrote in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, “for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him.”

I wondered, months before Extinction arrived, if it would still be possible to write something interesting about this Bernhard, whom some believed to be the greatest writer in the world, and whom others believed to be an obscure and irritating misanthrope, having made two previous attempts, once in Details, of all ridiculous places, and once in The Village Voice, because whenever I attempted to write something about Bernhard I found myself in the predicament of Rudolf, the narrator of Concrete, whose attempts to begin an essay on Mendelssohn Bartholdy have been thwarted and crushed for 20 years, by the importunate visits of his sister, for example, and then by his sudden loneliness when his sister returns to Vienna after visiting him in the country, or by his longing for the city while he’s in the country, then his conviction, in the city, that he can only write in the country. “I believed fervently,” Rudolf writes, “that I needed my sister in order to be able to start my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. And then, when she was there, I knew that I didn’t need her, that I could start work only if she wasn’t there. But now she’s gone and I’m really unable to start. At first it was because she was there, and now it’s because she isn’t. On the one hand we overrate other people, on the other we underrate them; and we constantly overrate and underrate ourselves; when we ought to overrate ourselves we underrate ourselves, and in the same way we underrate ourselves when we ought to overrate ourselves.”

Rudolf ends by saying very little about Mendelssohn Bartholdy in Concrete, though perhaps he says more than he really needs to, just as Reger, in Old Masters, says very little about Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man, the painting he’s studied every other day for 20 years in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, just as Konrad, in The Lime Works, never gets around to writing his all-important treatise on the sense of hearing, despite endless acoustical experiments on his wife, whom he finally kills with a Mannlicher carbine she kept behind her old-fashioned invalid chair in the desolation of the lime works. “Only two years ago,” Konrad says, “I was still of the opinion that the lime works would be good for my work, but now I no longer think so, now I can see that the lime works robbed me of my last chance to get my book actually written. I mean that sometimes I think, he is supposed to have told Wieser, that the lime works is precisely why I can’t write it all down, and then at other times I think that I still have a chance to get my book written down precisely because I am living at the lime works.”

Whenever a new Bernhard book appeared, I remembered that the first Bernhard novel to fall into my hands was the English edition of Concrete, for which I traded the English edition of Gombrowicz’s Operetta, a book that has vanished. I now have the French edition of Operetta, but whenever I am in England I ransack Foyle’s and all the other bookshops looking for that English version, with no luck, and of course I also recall that the person with whom I traded Operetta for Concrete is a woman I no longer talk to. A new Bernhard novel invariably reminds me of this failed relationship, so similar to Bernhard’s relationship to the so-called poet Jeannie Billroth in Woodcutters: “To think that I once loved this woman Jeannie Billroth, whom I have hated for the last twenty years, and who, also, hates me. People come together and form a friendship, and for years they not only endure this friendship, but allow it to become more and more intense until it finally snaps, and from then on they hate each other for decades, sometimes for the rest of their lives.”

As these Bernhard novels appeared one by one, I also remembered my long visits to Alter Pfarrhof, winter and summer, only a few miles across the German border from the village where Bernhard lived, not far from Wels, and Attnang-Puchheim, and the other Bavarian towns “where Catholicism waves its brainless sceptre,” as Bernhard’s grandfather put it. At that time I had many friends in Germany, and now all but a handful have committed suicide.

These suicide deaths are never far from my thoughts, especially when the books Bernhard was writing during those very years when my friends were killing themselves appear. Wittgenstein’s Nephew, for example, and The Loser, books that describe the impossibility of life, that describe the cost of living, the mental and physical toll of a few decades of disappointment, disappointment with oneself and one’s failures first of all, accompanied by the horror that is other people, the true extent of which is the only enduring surprise life has to offer, as Bernhard demonstrates, for the truth is that we always seek some acceptable level of endurable horror only to find that each time we accommodate ourselves to what we believe to be the worst that can happen this level of horror reveals itself a temporary reprieve from an even greater horror, and so on, right up to the ultimate horror of death, which supposedly releases us but is actually the biggest horror of all. We think we can dilute the horror of life by pursuing some activity, by writing books or composing music, yet everything conspires to make this activity impossible, everything stops us in our tracks, until even our wish to continue becomes an absurdity. I have always thought that Faulkner‘s Nobel lecture, with its godawful valediction that man will not only endure but prevail, is actually a sinister wish, a bit of cant unworthy of Faulkner. “I had jotted down a few sentences,” Bernhard writes of accepting the State Prize for Literature, “amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty.”


Continue reading

“You used to be in love with these ridiculous, low, vicious people”

thomas bernhard on love & hate 

You used to be in love with these ridiculous people, I told myself as I sat in the wing chair, head in heels in love with these ridiculous, low, vicious people, who suddenly saw you again after twenty years, in the Graben of all places, and on the very day Joana killed herself. They came up and spoke to you and invited you to attend their artistic dinner party with the famous Burgtheater actor in the Gentzgasse. What ridiculous, vicious people they are! I thought sitting in the wing chair. And suddenly it struck me what a low ridiculous character I myself was, having accepted their invitation and nonchalantly taken my place in their wing chair as though nothing had happened – stretching out and crossing my legs and finishing off what must by now have been my third or fourth glass of champagne . . .

. . .
To think that I once loved this woman
Jeannie Billroth, whom I have hated for the last twenty years, and who, also, hates me. People come together and form a friendship, and for years they not only endure this friendship, but allow it to become more and more intense until it finally snaps, and from then on they hate each other for decades, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

Thomas Bernhard, Woodcutters (1984)


thomas bernhard on literary scholarship

Bookseller Photo 

Character Assassination


Two philosophers, about whom more has been written than they themselves have published, who met again — after not seeing one another for decades — in, of all places, Goethe’s house in Weimar, to which they had gone, in the nature of things, separately and from opposite directions — something that, since it was winter and consequently very cold, had presented the greatest difficulties to both of them — simple for the purpose of getting to know Goethe’s habits better, assured each other, at this unexpected and for both of them painful meeting, of their mutual respect and admiration and at the same time told each other that, once back home, they would immerse themselves in each other’s writings with the intensity appropriate to, and worthy of, those writings. When, however, one of them said he would give an account of his meeting in the Goethe House in the newspaper that was, in his opinion, the best and would do so, in the nature ofthings, in the form of a philosophical essay, the other immediately resisted the idea and characterized his colleague’s intention as character assassination.


—from Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott, University of Chicago Press, 1997

mourning thomas bernard the austrian way: “commemoration of the dead and incantation of the dead…”

"Why can’t one permit a grand gesture of mourning and announce the plays of Thomas Bernhard in Austrian theaters. And then not perform anything. The audience could just sit there and simply think. There is enough to think about. ”

Stock Photo  


Marlene Streeruwitz

"Perverted Attitudes of Mourning in the Wake of Thomas Bernhard’s Death”


. . . und jetzt auch schon in der Gewohnheit, selbst das Fürchterliche als

eine leicht zu verarbeitende Alltäglichkeit hinter mich zu bringen, ein

Meister, hatte ich alle Voraussetzungen, über das, was ich immer ein-

dringlicher zu beobachten hatte, nachzudenken und mir sozusagen als

willkommene Anschauung viele dazu geeignete Anschauungen oder

Vorkommnisse zu einem lehrreichen Studiengegenstand zu machen.

Thomas Bernhard, Der Atem, 1978



Object of Study: Number One



the master, very well indeed, and met him, Thomas Bernhard, fre-

quently. In the café Bräunerhof. And took pictures, pictures that he,

the master, liked very much, just as much as the poet had always en-

joyed meeting him. And now he, the music teacher, was going to put

together a book of these pictures. A book about the master, about

Thomas Bernhard. And he, the music teacher, was going to become

famous with this book. World-famous. Of course.


The work of mourning is a difficult, existential process and painful.

It is a laborious undertaking, until all the internalized particles of the

object of mourning have been surgically removed, and it becomes all

too necessary to construe strategies for avoiding pain so as not to col-

lapse completely under the weight of a loss.


On the other hand, one can always infer from the manner that char-

acterizes the work of mourning of the bereft, whether the mourned

person was loved and respected. Or whether the person doing the

mourning is more at stake in all the laments, whatever they may be. In

the case of Thomas Bernhard we are the ones left behind, and for the

Austrian an additional sense accrues to belong to those people that

were cut out of Bernhard’s will. Relatives who are not to receive any-

thing, and are not worthy of a share.



Objects of Study of a Mixed Nature


People, whom one may have seen portrayed in one or the other plays

by Bernhard, have masses celebrated in his memory. Masses for Tho-

mas Bernhard with young nuns of the Carmelite order reading early

poems and psalms of the poet. Hopefully this helps those who attend

the mass.


It may also calm those who talk now about Thomas Bernhard as if

one had always been on close friendly terms, with all its shoulder-on-

shoulder implications and all its syndromes of hugging, the verandas in

the Salzkammergut and the hunting lodges with the many antlers on

the wall. But one was not on intimate terms. One always heard: “Tho-

mas, do you want some more noodle soup?” This retroactive intimacy

with its informal mode of address may help.


As an observer one is somewhat amazed to note how mourning op-

erates in the reverse order, how the mourned object is internalized

rather than expelled. In all honesty, one has to admit that the thought

What would he have said about it?” originates in a similar strategy of

avoiding pain as the lighthearted conversations of the salon. The sen-

tences that begin with “Thomas would have . . .,” “Here Thomas

would . . .,” “Bernhard did not . . . .”


Exegesis, substitute of God through citation, incantation of the per-

son for the duration of a citation, recalling the cited person back

among the living. Here lies the basic problem of all exegesis. In most

cases, we are dealing with reported statements, and for the most part

the personal opinion of the person reporting is clothed in a Thomas-



Commemoration of the dead and incantation of the dead belong to

the inventory of unchanging anthropological models. The dead person

is conjured up in mass or over coffee and cake or over pork roast and

beer. Everyone has to do so according to ability and belief. The salons

in the Salzkammergut where Thomas Bernhard led serious conversa-

tions about the advantages of hand-tailored shoes serve just as well as

the site of the Bräunerhof where Thomas Bernhard had a Kleinen

Braunen and read the Neue Zürcher. And perhaps the remark “Thomas

Bernhard sat here” is well intentioned. However. The old heads of state

also sit in the salons grinning while shrugging their shoulders. After all,

they have survived. But even the triumph of the living over the dead is

rather normal in its cruelty.



The Pedagogical in All This


What turns this process of coping with loss into an object of study as

given in the initial citation is the common urge to make mourning



The music teacher wants to become famous. World-famous. One

works on remembrances. Letters are written to the dead person. In in-

timate terms, of course, and the publication can no longer be held

back. Karl Hennetmair takes up two pages of the Zeit magazine. Aus-

trian broadcasting anchors and directors of the Burgtheater document

their proximity to Bernhard on pictures in which one appears together

and preferably at the Heldenplatz. Former lovers appear in rumors.

Widows have not yet been spotted.


If one were to place these pictures in a silver frame on the grand pi-

ano, for eternal memory, that would be a loving gesture. In the public,

these pictures turn easily into a cornering, a wanting-to-be-in-the-

picture of the bystanders. An index of one’s friendship with him. Per-

haps one should also look at this with regard to the technique of the

work of mourning. But media are never that friendly.


What, for example, caused Mr. Schödel (Die Zeit Nr. 32, 1989),

following immediately the advice of the photographer Rittenberg

Look at Hennetmair,” when he, as he reports, was found by him in

Switzerland, to allow Hennetmair’s rather private work of commemo-

ration turn into a public matter? Was it a question of demonstrating in

exemplary fashion how one is to cope when one’s former idol dies not

reconciled and in irreconcilable fashion and the conflict is prolonged

into eternity.


The falling out between Bernhard and Hennetmair stems from a se-

vere breach of trust. The publication of a description about a non-

functioning TV-set from 1972 can be seen as an act of remorse and an

attempt to be excused by handing it over to the public. Also the remark

of Schödel “Yes. I was a guest at the Weltverbesserer” can be interpreted

as severe breach of trust, yet an understandable case of the biographical

method and again as Schödel’s work of mourning. This has nothing to

do with Thomas Bernhard. Rather with yellow journalism. Even sensi-

tive and cautious sentences won’t help here. And towards the end of

the article in Die Zeit, one is drawn logically to the core of all discus-

sions about Bernhard, the author’s final will.


Here too, as in the quasi-citations à la “Thomas certainly would not

have . . .” the last breach of trust that can still be committed against

someone is prepared. Namely, not to respect his final decrees.


One refers to the brother. He announces a guided tour through

Bernhard’s estate. In doing so, one receives no longer an image of peo-

ple suffering in their state of mourning. A landscape in the hills of

Ohlsdorf emerges where journalists wander about and are served stories

and fragments of memories. Female adepts of the master, whose love

letters could not be considered during his lifetime, bathe in a post-

mortal intimate “you.” The man who helps out in the villa displays the

blue leather jacket that the master purchased in Sicily and immediately

gave away. The neighbor, from whom the master gladly accepted X-

mas cookies, now offers them. For sale, naturally. We all have to make a

living. And the famous publisher will one day place the manuscript of

the TV-set criticisms into our hand in a deluxe facsimile edition.

Ohlsdorf elevated to a site of pilgrimage. Nearby Mariazell for selected

groups. Preferably from a sentimental-melodramatic spectrum. The de-

scendants of idealistic chains of weeping.


Presently, we’re still searching among pieces of memory. Perhaps

somebody still owns a note where the master kept score of a game of

blackjack or jotted down scribbles and malicious caricatures of the play-

ers. As is known, one can possess the remembered person by means of

memorabilia — and not always in a non-malicious fashion. One should

bear in mind that relics, which is what we’re dealing with here, that

relics are remains and originate from either corpses or instruments of



In this pressing into the public, we may be dealing with the attempt

to externalize the mourned object. By means of this externalization, the

object can be transferred onto a larger and more remote context. The

mourning person surrenders and gets rid of the surrendered. Under the

pretext to make it available to everybody, yes having to do so, the sin-

gle person becomes free. Perhaps also free from feelings of guilt that

play a considerable role in the work of mourning. That this method

may involve a form of surrender which may neither look delicate nor

sensitive and may have nothing to do with the mourned person, par-

ticularly not his work, doesn’t really do much damage to our somewhat

dried-up yet still rather lavish baroque culture of mourning. We love

our dead and celebrate them.


We do not yet know the full scope of the planned surrender. “Only

selected groups,” says the brother. Everything else will be revealed at

upcoming book fairs. One works on the super-memorial, that much we

hear from Frankfurt.


In the Austrian TV talk show “Club 2,” we already had a chance to

listen to the benignly smiling notary, holding forth with examples of

the most incredible changes in wills witnessed in his professional career.

And that only a few really mean what is actually stated. And that the

true evil is that people die. And no longer have a chance to change the

will. In their fashion. How they would have wanted it originally. The

testators. But then nothing can be done about it anymore. And that

taught him not to take wills seriously anymore. And above all. Intel-

lectual property.


Nobody shall be embarrassed when the first play will be performed

again in Austria. Redirecting arguments via a liberal discussion round-

table à la “Club 2.”


One could have withdrawn after the first disclosure of the will into a

corner and reflected about what had happened that made such decrees

necessary and that were above all not changed anymore. Everybody

would have had a reason to reflect about what it was, here in this Aus-

trian world, which always required a superlative of atrocities. And peo-

ple elsewhere and in the Federal Republic of Germany could have

examined Austria, the poet and the will as a case study in what a climate

of intellectual narrowness does to a person. Others too know how to

repress, something we do so elegantly here. That can be done any-

where. By accident we were given a few centuries to master this art and

are nowadays powerless enough to possess nothing but this art. The re-

sult: extreme cruelty, unbelievable inconsiderateness and deepest mis-

ery, in Frankfurt as well as Timbuktu. An opportunity for reflection is

certainly given.


Why can’t one permit a grand gesture of mourning and announce

the plays of Thomas Bernhard in Austrian theaters. And then not per-

form anything. The audience could just sit there and simply think.

There is enough to think about.


Translated by Matthias Konzett




1Marlene Streeruwitz, “In der Gewohnheit das Fürchterliche,” Und. Sonst.

Noch. Aber. Texte. 1989–1996 (Vienna: edition Selene, 1999), 7–13.

from Matthias Konzett (editor), A Cmpanion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard (2002)


bernhard on the art of the aphorism

I write aphorisms, he said over and over, I thought, that is a minor art of the intellectual asthma from which certain people, above all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses’ night tables, I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist’s waiting room; the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting.”

—from Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, p. 64

“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




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


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:


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.