Thomas Bernhard 1931-1989
Dutch-born Austrian dramatist, novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, poet, critic, and scriptwriter.
Considered one of the most original German-language prose stylists to emerge after World War II, Thomas Bernhard earned a reputation as an intellectual enfant terrible for his emphasis on philosophical pessimism and his vituperative attacks upon values, institutions, and cultural and political figures of modern Austria. Compared to Franz Kafka, Peter Handke, and Samuel Beckett for his vision of isolation and despair, Bernhard often explores such subjects as physical and mental illness, death, cruelty, and decay. While his works often comment upon what he termed his “love-hate” attitude toward Austria, he chose to reside in that country throughout his life, and many critics have noted a contradiction between his preoccupation with hopelessness and failure and his prodigious literary output.
Raised in Austria and southeastern Bavaria during the Depression, Bernhard witnessed both the rise of Nazism and the aftereffects of World War II. He was largely cared for by his maternal grandparents, especially his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, a respected but impoverished novelist who introduced him to a pessimistic view of existence influenced by his reading of such authors as Michel Montaigne, Arthur Schopenhauer, Blaise Pascal, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Bernhard was sent to a boarding school for disturbed youths in Salzburg, where he was able to discern no difference between the school’s Nazi supervision and the Catholic administration, which replaced it following World War II. At eighteen years of age, Bernhard developed a form of lung disease that was considered terminal, and in 1949 he came close to death. He also contracted tuberculosis while recovering in a sanatorium, an experience that resulted in a permanent hatred and distrust of the medical establishment.
In 1951 Bernhard decided to study music and acting in Vienna. He attended the Mozarteum in Salzburg a year later and in 1956 graduated with his thesis on Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht. His initial literary work drew scant critical attention. In 1963 his first major work of fiction, Frost, was published and attracted some critical comment. At that time, his work as a dramatist was sparking controversy. Despite his expressed disdain for Austria, he continued to live there. His final drama, Heldenplatz, debuted in 1988 and inspired acrimonious public debate. The play examined Austrian anti-Semitism and the country’s complicity in Nazi atrocities during World War II. Bernhard died of heart failure and lung problems on February 12, 1989, in Gmunden, Austria.
Employing a musical yet tumultuous style in which atonality and dissonance serve to reflect the emotional states of his characters, Bernhard often focused on withdrawn, compulsive men obsessed with utopian ideals of artistic perfection who are offered no hope of religious, aesthetic, or political transcendence. Composed in unrhymed free verse, Bernhard’s plays are usually surreal in atmosphere and eschew plot development and characterization in favor of compelling icons and situations that become gradually intensified and elaborated. Bernhard’s first drama, Ein Fest für Boris (1968), reflects the influence of absurdism and the Theater of Cruelty in its blackly humorous story of a birthday party attended by a group of legless characters in wheelchairs. After presenting the hostess’s husband, Boris, with long underwear and boots, the guests discuss their various maladies as Boris pounds a drum. No one notices that he has died until the drama’s end. In Die Macht der Gewohnheit (1974; The Force of Habit), an elderly ringmaster with a wooden leg commands a caravan of musically-illiterate circus performers to rehearse Schubert’s Trout Quintet. At the play’s conclusion, he listens jealously to a perfect rendition of the piece on the radio. Helenplatz prompted heated controversy by claiming many contemporary Austrians harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. This work focuses on a Jewish professor who leaves Germany in 1938 after the rise of Nazism and commits suicide upon his return to the country in the present day.
Bernhard’s controversial plays have garnered much critical attention through the years. Many commentators have debated his place in Austrian literature as well as the playwright’s attitude toward Austrian history and culture. Several reviewers have compared his work to that of Franz Kafka, Peter Handke, and Samuel Beckett. Stylistically, his dense and compulsively repetitive prose, dominated by monologues, was considered disaffecting and strange. Yet others assert that this style is effective in depicting the fragmentation of modern existence. Although some critics have faulted Bernhard’s plots and characterizations as two-dimensional or undeveloped, critic Martin Esslin commented: “Bernhard’s theatre is essentially a mannerist theatre. If his characters are puppets, all the greater the skill with which they perform their intricate dance; if his subject-matter is venom and derision, all the more admirable the perfection of the language in which the venom is spat out, the intricacy of the patterns it creates.” Although notorious for the contempt he visited upon those who offered him literary prizes, Bernhard received many major awards, including the Bremen Prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, and the Austrian Prize for Literature.
Ein Fest für Boris [A Party for Boris or A Feast for Boris] 1968
Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige [The Ignoramus and the Madman] 1972
Die Jagdgesellschaft [The Hunting Party] 1974
Die Macht der Gewohnheit [The Force of Habit] 1974
Der Präsident [The President] 1975
Die Berühmten [The Famous Ones, The Stars, Notabilities, and The Big Names] 1976
Minetti: ein Portrait des Künstlers als alter Mann [Minetti: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man] 1977
Immanuel Kant 1978
Vor dem Ruhestand [Eve of Retirement or Before Retirement] 1979
Der Weltverbesserer [The World Reformer] 1979
Am Ziel [At One's Goal or The Goal Attained] 1981
Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh: Ein deutscher Dichtertag um 1989 [Rest Beyond the Peaks] 1981
Der Schein trügt [Appearances Are Deceiving] 1983
Ritter, Dene, Voss 1984
Der Theatermacher [Histrionics] 1984
Einfach kompliziert [Simply Complicated] 1986
Elisabeth II 1987
Auf der Erde und in der Hölle (poetry) 1957
In hora mortis (poetry) 1958
Unter dem Eisen des Mondes (poetry) 1958
Die Rosen der Einöde (ballet sketch) 1959
Frost (novel) 1963
Amras (novel) 1964
Prosa (prose) 1967
Ungenach (prose) 1968
An der Baumgrenze (short stories) 1969
Ereignisse (prose) 1969
Verstörung [Gargoyles] (novel) 1969
Watten: Ein Nachlass (prose) 1969
Das Kalkwerk [The Lime Works] (novel) 1970
Midland in Stilfs (short stories) 1971
Korrektur [Correction] (novel) 1975
Die Ursache: eine Andeutung [An Indication of the Cause] (memoir) 1975
Der Keller: eine Entziehung [The Cellar: An Escape] (memoir) 1976
Der Wetterfleck (short stories) 1976
Der Atem: eine Entscheidung [Breath: A Decision] (memoir) 1978
Der Stimmenimitator [The Voice Imitator] (short stories) 1978
Ave Virgil (poetry) 1981
Die Kälte: eine Isolation [In the Cold] (memoir) 1981
Beton [Concrete] (novel) 1982
Ein Kind [A Child] (memoir) 1982
Wittgensteins Neffe: eine Freundschaft [Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A Friendship] (memoir) 1982
Der Untergeher [The Loser] (novel) 1983
Holzfällen: eine Erregung [Woodcutters] (novel) 1984
Alte Meister [Old Masters] (novel) 1985
Auslöschung: Ein Zerfall [Extinction] (novel) 1986
In der Höhe: Rettungsversuch, Unsinn [On the Mountain: Rescue Attempt, Nonsense] (memoir) 1989
SOURCE: “The Plays of Thomas Bernhard—A Report,” in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1978, pp. 21–48.
[In the following essay, Barthofer explores possible influences on Bernhard’s dramatic style and provides an overview of his early plays, contending that they do not “fit easily into commonly accepted categories of literary classification.”]
Thomas Bernhard is at the moment not only one of the most prolific and versatile but also one of the most successful young writers in the field of German drama. His plays have been performed in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Essen, Zürich, Basel, at the Salzburg Festivals, and even in as conservative...
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SOURCE: “Contemporary Austrian Playwrights,” in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 3, Nos. i–ii, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 93–8.
[In the following essay, Esslin places Bernhard within the context of contemporary Austrian dramatists and compares his plays to those of Irish writer Samuel Beckett.]
Austrian writers use the German language and there is thus not little confusion about whether a world-renowned playwright and novelist like Peter Handke is German or Austrian. Yet the distinction is not without importance, and is becoming increasingly so. Present-day Austria is the remnant of the nucleus of what was, until 1918, one of Europe’s great Empires, rivaling...
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SOURCE: “Thomas Bernhard: The Mask of Death,” in Modern Austrian Writing: Literature and Society After 1945, edited by Alan Best and Hans Wolfschütz, Oswald Wolff Ltd., 1980, pp. 214–35.
[In the following essay, Wolfschütz traces Bernhard’s literary career and investigates the thematic and formal consistency found in his poetry, novels, and plays.]
Thomas Bernhard’s early prose collection Ereignisse (Events, written in 1957) takes the form of a sequence of anecdotally-fashioned episodes each presenting a variation on that most central of concepts in modernist writing, the intrusion of ‘Schrecken’ of terror and horror, into everyday...
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SOURCE: “A Drama of Disease and Derision: The Plays of Thomas Bernhard,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 23, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 367–84.
[In the following essay, Esslin summarizes the plots of Bernhard’s major plays, noting his use of repetitious dialogue and “almost total absence of surprise, suspense or development.”]
The diseased and the crippled rule the world everything is ruled by the diseased and by the crippled It is a comedy an evil humiliation
Thomas Bernhard, Die Macht der Gewohnheit, Scene I1
We stand towards each other in a relationship of disease the whole world consists of such sickness all of it...
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SOURCE: “Wittgenstein’s Children: The Writings of Thomas Bernhard,” in Theater, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 52–62.
[In the following essay, Honegger discusses the influence of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein on Bernhard’s work and philosophy.]
I with the German language this cloud around me that I keep as a house drive through all languages
The stupidity of entrusting oneself to the German language, my dear Doctor— absurd! And not only the German language, I think, but still the German language above all. The stupidity resulting from German, I think. … …”
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SOURCE: “The Works of Thomas Bernhard: ‘Austrian Literature?’” in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 17, Nos. 3–4, December, 1984, pp. 171–92.
[In the following essay, Fetz discusses the defining characteristics of Austrian literature and how Bernhard’s work fits within that category.]
The question posed in the title of this essay appears, at least on the most literal level, to be rather simple if not downright simplistic. Certainly the works of Thomas Bernhard form a part, even a very significant part of Austrian literature. Bernhard’s ancestors far into the past were Austrians and he still resides in Austria...
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SOURCE: “Beckett and Bernhard: A Comparison,” in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1985, pp. 67–78.
[In the following essay, Esslin presents several parallels between the lives and works of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard.]
It occasionally happens that I am asked to name some of the more important continental playwrights. And occasionally, if I mention among them the name of Thomas Bernhard and am asked what kind of writer he is, I am tempted to sum it all up by saying: “A kind of Austrian Beckett.” Like all such attempts at a snap judgment, this is, of course, highly superficial. But there is also a grain of truth in it. That is why it may be...
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SOURCE: “Thomas Bernhard,” in Major Figures of Contemporary Austrian Literature, edited by Donald G. Daviau, Peter Lang, 1987, pp. 89–115.
[In the following essay, Brokoph-Mauch explores the defining characteristics of Bernhard’s poetry, novels, and plays.]
Thomas Bernhard, the grandson of the Austrian writer Johann Freumbichler, was born 10 February 1931 out of wedlock as the son of a peasant. He grew up in Southern Bavaria and lived there until he entered a boarding school in Salzburg in 1943. In 1946 he exchanged school for a two-year apprenticeship in a grocery store in a poverty-stricken district of Salzburg. There he contracted a lung disease that sent...
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SOURCE: “Theatertheater/Theaterspiele: The Plays of Thomas Bernhard,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 30, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 104–14.
[In the following essay, Eisner contests Bernhard’s reputation as a nihilist.]
Because of the concentration on illness, madness and death in his work as a whole, Thomas Bernhard and his work have until recently often been classified—and dismissed—as nihilistic, without further thought being given to the matter. As can be seen from a reading of any of Bernhard’s texts, whether prose or drama, nihilistic is a suitable, but nevertheless incomplete, classification of this product. It is incomplete because the ease with which...
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SOURCE: “The Excitement of Boredom—Thomas Bernhard,” in A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, edited by W.G. Sebald, St. Martin’s Press, 1988, pp. 161–73.
[In the following essay, Görner asserts that “the question of what sustains the individual, given the overwhelming sense of pointlessness, is one of the main concerns in Thomas Bernhard’s dramatic works.”]
‘Sometimes boredom was unobtrusive and sometimes nauseating and when I could no longer stand it’, Sartre wrote in his autobiographical essay Les Mots, ‘I would succumb to the deadliest temptation. Orpheus lost Eurydice through impatience; I often lost myself...
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SOURCE: “Bernhard as Playwright,” in Understanding Thomas Bernhard, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 71–84.
[In the following essay, Dowden asserts that for Bernhard’s plays to be fully understood and appreciated, they should be considered in light of how they were performed as well as the conditions surrounding their performance.]
The last Thomas Bernhard drama to premiere was Elisabeth II. The play was published in 1987 and appeared on the stage two years later, at the Schiller-Theater in Berlin in November 1989, nine months after Bernhard’s death. The play was vintage Bernhard—hard-bitten, uncompromising, and musical—but Claus...
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SOURCE: “Mental Life in Thomas Bernhard’s Comic Types,” in Missing Persons: Character and Characterization in Modern Drama, The University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 108–54.
[In the following essay, Gruber provides a psychological analysis of Bernhard’s characters and surveys his literary techniques.]
Answer M D’s and Mrs. Dingley’s letter, Pdfr, d’ye hear? No, says Pdfr, I won’t yet, I’m busy: you’re a saucy rogue. Who talks?
Journal to Stella
What time is it No don’t tell me what time it is. …
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SOURCE: “Comitragedies: Thomas Bernhard’s Marionette Theater,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 111, No. 3, April, 1996, pp. 533–59.
[In the following essay, Theisen examines Bernhard’s treatment of genre in his work—particularly comedy and tragedy—and asserts that the playwright “experiments with the delimitations of genre, which he dissolves and draws anew as observations of observations.”]
Almost everything comic depends on the appearance of self-annihilation.
Unsatisfied with what comedy writers have to offer, four actors band together to write their own...
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