Thomas Bernhard Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas Bernhard Drama Analysis

The plays of Thomas Bernhard reflect the major thematic tendencies evident in his prose and poetry. Although the search for religious consolation so prevalent in the Austrian baroque tradition to which Bernhard’s poetry can be linked is much less apparent in his prose and dramatic work, Bernhard’s writings nevertheless remain fragments of one great opus. Bernhard alludes to this fact in Die Berühmten (famous persons): “They make this observation with reference to all significant artists/ they all only create a single work/ and always alter it continuously within itself, imperceptibly.” Writing thus assumes the function of self-assertion and constant “correction” for Bernhard, as the title of his novel Correction illustrates. Bernhard’s private life and personal tribulations are intensely and artistically, if not factually and straightforwardly, expressed in his very individualistic writings, yet this expression symbolizes a common human suffering and malaise. Though diverse in their social backgrounds and intellectual consciousness, the characters of Bernhard’s plays are subjected without exception to a consistent, destructive fate. Neither social reform nor revolution, political philosophy nor religious conviction, provide relief from the cosmic deadliness of a solipsistic universe, as a discouraging line from the novel Verstörung (1967; Gargoyles, 1970) reveals: “There are no future teachers and the prior ones are dead.”

Anamnesis, the inability to forget the past, intensifies Bernhard’s sense of cultural pessimism. Each individual is forced to fend for himself or herself in an attempt to escape a reality that is predicated on the recognition and confinements of a ruinous past. Tradition embodies the crimes of the past, for which only universal (and therefore pointless) culpability can be assigned. Humans are trapped in a deadly realm of antitheses from which there is no escape. Life is no longer organic but rather chaotic; humanity’s experience in time and space is reduced to a circuitous hodgepodge of disjointed repetitions and illogical associations. An acknowledgment of life’s absurdity becomes the only possible solution. Bernhard writes in another autobiographical work, In the Cold: “Artistic endeavor derives justification from its freedom, its independence from any absolute standard of judgment.”

Death, lurking behind life’s absurdities, is Bernhard’s essential theme because it is life’s universal common denominator. Life becomes an exercise in futility because death ultimately symbolizes both the greatest possible unity and the greatest possible alienation between ego and world. The process of individuation described by Arthur Schopenhauer provides as little comfort for Bernhard as humanity’s eventual return to nothingness. Yet despite all of life’s traumatic and absurd details, Bernhard continues to cling to it and is unwilling to allow himself to be blotted out by his own gloom and doom. His only recourse is to continue to confront life’s absurdities in his art. By attempting to find words and phrases to describe personal and general experience adequately, Bernhard combats the inaccuracies of accepted social convention and opinion (“reputation”) yet continues to create inaccuracies of a new kind: “When we open our mouths, we kill a reputation; we simultaneously kill a reputation and kill ourselves. But if we do not open our mouths we are soon crazy, insane, there is nothing left for us” (Gargoyles).

Musical qualities intensify the philosophical and thematic content of Bernhard’s plays. Occasional commentary by the author on the musical structure of his plays and the actual treatment of musical themes establishes the significance of this abstract art form for Bernhard’s writings. The author’s language indicates especially a reliance on musical structure for his art. Statement-restatement, point-counterpoint, repetition, variation, and circular linguistic phraseology are essential elements of Bernhard’s dramatic style. Such stylistic devices sustain the author’s philosophical viewpoint, which A Party for Boris typifies: “Everything is every day, day after day, a repetition of repetitions.” When viewed from a musical perspective, where the text’s semantic meaning is less significant than its rhythmic, musical quality, Bernhard’s language escapes the criticism of excessive repetition and thematic “overkill.”

Because Bernhard nevertheless uses words and linguistic structure, his plays must also be dealt with from a semantic perspective. The monotony of his characters’ language suggests a linguistic crisis paralleling that of Georg Büchner or Hugo von Hofmannsthal, yet for Bernhard, it is the essence of reality, and not linguistic inadequacy per se, which predetermines this crisis. Martin Esslin, in an essay comparing Bernhard and Gert Jonke, a contemporary Austrian writer, accurately places Bernhard in a deep-seated Austrian tradition of linguistic analysis and language skepticism, supremely expressed in the work of Wittgenstein. Esslin connects this tradition with Bernhard’s toward the theater. Like Peter Handke, another contemporary Austrian writer influenced by language skepticism, Bernhard frequently adopts a hostile and even mocking stance toward the theater audience.

Die Jagdgesellschaft

Die Jagdgesellschaft (the hunting party), which premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna, is composed of three movements, as Bernhard explains in his appended note to the play. By structuring the last movement as the adagio, Bernhard has redefined classical sonata or symphonic form. This last movement, a funeral march...

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