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
(The entire section is 297 words.)
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 a place as the Burgtheater in Vienna. He won the Büchner-Prize, the Austrian Staatspreis, the Wildgans-Prize, the Literaturpreis der Freien und Hansestadt Bremen, and most of his plays have been shown on television in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. All in all Thomas Bernhard is widely acknowledged as one of the leading contemporary playwrights in German.
After having written almost exclusively poetry and narrative prose for many years, Bernhard shifted his creative interest to the dramatic genre. He has written seven plays so far: Ein Fest für Boris (1968), Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (1972), Die Jagdgesellschaft (1974), Die Macht der Gewohnheit (1974), Der...
(The entire section is 7814 words.)
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 Germany and Russia in extent and population. Between 1918 and 1938 Austria was, it is true, independent, but unwillingly so: the German-speaking part of the rump of the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted to join Germany, and it was only through the compulsion of the victorious powers after World War I that the little country remained independent. Then, in 1938, Hitler achieved the unification of Austria and Germany. It looked as though the end of Austria as a country had arrived. But, so tactlessly and cruelly did the Germans behave, so openly did they treat the Austrians as inferior, and, as the war broke out, so evident did it become that being one with Germany was far from comfortable (and Austrians are proverbially addicted to comfort) that, for...
(The entire section is 1559 words.)
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 reality. In such a moment of shock the victim inevitably looks at his own existence and his relationship with the world about him in a new light, as, for example does the painter in one of Bernhard’s episodes; at work on his scaffolding high above the people in the street, he is suddenly struck by the ridiculous nature of his elevated position:
Ein entsetzlich lächerlicher Mensch! Jetzt ist ihm, als stürze er in diese Überlegung hinein, tief hinein und hinunter, in Sekundenschnelle, und man hört Aufschreie, und als der junge Mann unten aufgeplatzt ist, stürzen die Leute auseinander. Sie sehen den umgestülpten Kübel auf ihn fallen und gleich ist der Anstreicher mit gelber Fassadenfarbe übergossen....
(The entire section is 8215 words.)
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 undiagnosed
Thomas Bernhard, Ein Fest fuer Boris, First Prologue2
On the theatre, dear Sir, even the impossible becomes entertainment and the monstrous becomes an object of study as being improbable, and all by allusion.
Thomas Bernhard, Watten3
“Everybody merely talks to himself” said the Prince, “we are in an age of monologues The art of the monologue is, moreover, a much higher art than the art of conversation” he said “but monologues are just as meaningless as conversations,” said the Prince, “albeit much less meaningless.”
Thomas Bernhard, Verstoerung4
In the German-speaking...
(The entire section is 7033 words.)
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. … …”
(from Thomas Bernhard’s “Gargoyles”)
When I left Austria twenty years ago I thought that I could also escape my native language with all its historical resonances and traps as well as the stock temperament and mentality locked forever in its syntax and rhythm. It took over ten years before I ventured out of my voluntary exile in the English language. Some long forgotten words, along with astonishing new word combinations had managed to penetrate the harness of my Americanized persona that was to protect me from the eerie silence of a Viennese postwar childhood, from a language which, in my mind, had lost forever all integrity, usefulness and promise. Words like faulen (rot), Unzucht (fornication), Ungeist...
(The entire section is 4570 words.)
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 today. The doubts sometimes expressed about the legitimacy of claiming “Austrian writer” status for such authors as Rilke, Celan, or Canetti, who grew up in parts of the Habsburg Empire long lost to Austria and who spent most of their adult, creative lives away fom Austria, are not applicable to Bernhard: with the exception of short stays abroad he has continued to reside in Austria since his earliest years in the First Republic, through the “Ständestaat” and “Anschluβ” in the Third Reich, to the present day in Austria’s Second Republic.1 And at one point in a taped conversation, in which Bernhard relates the significance of the various locations where he spent time as a child—Henndorf, Salzburg, Vienna—, he even...
(The entire section is 8601 words.)
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 worthwhile to go into the matter at a little greater depth and attempt something like a comparison.
Certainly the parallel has been noticed more than once. In 1972 the German magazine Der Spiegel summed it up in a telling, if somewhat cheap jibe, by calling Bernhard—varying a famous Austrian play’s title—an “Alpenbeckett und Menschenfeind.”
Bernhard is twenty-five years younger than Beckett, but like Beckett he has written an impressive volume of poetry, narrative prose, and drama. Like Beckett he first emerged as a poet, then as a prose writer and only relatively late in his career as a playwright, and like Beckett he is better known, at least outside the German-speaking world as a...
(The entire section is 4689 words.)
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 him to several hospitals and lung sanatoriums for the following three years. During that time his grandfather and his mother died (1949 and 1950), severing both his most rewarding and his most difficult relationship up to this point in his life. At the sanatorium Grafenberg he started to write his first prose out of a lack of anything else to do. After his recovery, however, he did not immediately launch into a writing career but pursued his longstanding interest in music. Thus he enrolled at the music academy in Vienna in 1951 and a year later at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, from where he graduated in 1956 with a thesis on Artaud and Brecht. With no family to support him Bernhard worked in Vienna as a laborer as well as an attendant for a...
(The entire section is 10055 words.)
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 the nihilism is perceived leads one to suspect that it is perhaps a façade covering something else and that Bernhard might well be a poseur, “a literary figure excelling in brilliant but destructive artistry using nihilism as an expedient” rather than a “true nihilist who bases his beliefs on valid data about the world surrounding him,” as A. P. Dierick has suggested.1 And, from a similar perspective, Martin Esslin has observed that, as far as Bernhard’s plays are concerned, although the themes are the same as those of his prose works, there is an atmosphere of ambivalence about them. This, combined with certain changes in style resulting from the move from prose to drama, produces what Esslin calls “a strangely...
(The entire section is 5041 words.)
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 through impatience.’1 There can be no doubt that ennui has become one of the most debilitating and chronic afflictions of our age. Moreover, the diagnosis is now almost as commonplace as is the syndrome. All needs seem to be satiated, all unknown terrain has been explored, all taboos have been broken. The disillusionment is complete. Only inveterate humanists like the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim will still speak out publicly against the ennui général and maintain that human life is not pointless.2 Such claims, however, have become curiously dated. By the same token, the recognition that ennui is one of the most pervasive phenomena of post-industrialist society is no longer merely the prerogative of the cynic....
(The entire section is 5267 words.)
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 Peymann, Bernhard’s usual director, did not stage the production; the usual Bernhard stars (Bernhard Minetti, Bruno Ganz, Edith Heerdegen, Paula Wessely) did not participate; and the master himself was dead. The play was a failure with the public and the critics. Somehow the fire had gone out.
The reasons seem clear enough. Bernhard’s dramas are not intended to be masterpieces. They are immediate and direct, sensational and spontaneous, tied to time, place, and even to particular actors. The plays are brief spectacles that pierce the heart of a transient mood and then die. When read, Bernhard’s works for the stage seem thin and ephemeral in comparison with his prose fiction. They lack the concentrated intellectual energy...
(The entire section is 5626 words.)
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. …
It is good that you are there and that you are listening to me We are a conspiracy.
Ein Fest für Boris
Of character in the works of Thomas Bernhard one might say what Claude Rawson said once of character in Swift’s satires, that discussing it led only to “deserts of circularity.”1 Certainly the figures in Bernhard’s plays are as stupidly and savagely hostile as any of Swift’s cannibals, clergy, or politicians, and, like Swift’s characters, they profess with heartfelt conviction the most appalling opinions. Sadists, megalomaniacs, pedophiles, Nazis-in-exile—no mask, no manner of hatred, no gross violation of culture or common decency is too outré for...
(The entire section is 17297 words.)
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 comedy. Although each actor is supposed to write a role for himself, “each one naturally only [writes] about himself.” The actors could not have titled the comedy “they produced after weeks of painstaking study anything but The Author.” “But even with this Author, it is reported, they had no success.”1 Thomas Bernhard could not have titled this anecdote in Stimmenimitator anything but Komödie. A different title could not have both captured the self-referentiality of the situation and comically broken it. What the actors perform is evidently not comic, but their own comedy becomes in a sense their own comedy. Insofar as the actors, portraying only themselves, no longer...
(The entire section is 11414 words.)
Criticism: Der Ignorant Und Der Wahnsinnige
SOURCE: “‘The Greatest Uncertainty’: The Perils of Performance in Thomas Bernhard’s Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 23, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 385–92.
[In the following essay, Gross discusses Bernhard’s treatment of death in Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige.]
Thomas Bernhard’s recognition of the omnipresence of death has provided the background for all of his dramatic works to appear thus far. For Bernhard, death is not a single, unique event that occurs at the conclusion of each life, but a current of negation that runs throughout the whole of human existence, manifesting itself in sickness, exhaustion and decay. The Writer in Die Jagdgesellschaft presents the Bernhardian vision of death in its most unadorned form:
Wir sind allein oder nicht allein wir hören Musik oder wir hören nicht Musik Jeder Gegenstand gnädige Frau ist der Tod(1) (We are alone or not alone we hear music or we do not hear music Every circumstance dear lady is death).
This is not simply another occurrence of the memento mori trope; death is not personified as a character who hovers around unsuspecting mortals, waiting to carry them off at any moment. For Bernhard, all persons carry their mortality within them every moment of their lives. This belief in the imminence of death within the living places Bernhard closer to Martin Heidegger...
(The entire section is 2849 words.)
Criticism: Die Macht Der Gewohnheit
SOURCE: A review of Die Macht der Gewohnheit, in Books Abroad, Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 537–38.
[In the following review, Bachem provides a mixed assessment of Force of Habit.]
In his earlier play Die Jagdgesellschaft Thomas Bernhard had already commented that we never know what is a comedy and what a tragedy. Certainly this is true of Die Macht der Gewohnheit (Force of Habit), which is superficially designated as a comedy. But what could be comical about a three-act play featuring an aging circus director, a vain juggler, an obscene lion tamer, a silly clown whose only routine seems to be to let his cap slip off his head and catch it again, and the director’s equally silly granddaughter. The comedy is merely external, due to the presence of stock comic characters in a stock comic setting.
The action is at best ludicrous: for years the director Caribaldi has been obsessed with the idea of practicing Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. As the title suggests, rehearsals, if one may call them that, are eternally carried on, but the group never plays together. One hears a sequence of long and deep notes from one of Caribaldi’s celli—he has three—and an occasional pizzicato from a violin. Caribaldi has forced four of his employees to take up instruments which they hate to play; in fact he himself hates his instrument, but some time ago a doctor...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
Criticism: Die BerüHmten
SOURCE: A review of Die Berühmten, Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, p. 436.
[In the following essay, Schlant offers a negative review of Die Berühmten.]
Die Berühmten is one of Thomas Bernhard’s four recent plays to deal with the performing arts and artists. The other plays are Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (1972), Die Macht der Gewohnheit (1974; see BA 49:3, pp. 537–38) and Minetti (1976). In Die Berühmten the high life of international opera performers is mercilessly ridiculed. There is no action to speak of in the two Vorspiele and the three scenes of the play. On three different occasions the “famous ones” assemble for dinner or afternoon collation in a castle near Salzburg (and near the Salzburger Festspiele), bought and renovated with “half a season’s salary” by a basso. In this “natural” environment the “famous ones” are off duty and off guard. They eat, drink and talk. Throughout the play the characters remain nameless, identified only by their artistic skills (basso, soprano, tenor, conductor, et cetera) and the hero images they have picked for themselves and which, in the course of an evening, they destroy.
Language is the exclusive tool for revealing who these “famous ones” are. Thomas Bernhard reflects in the inanity of their conversations the shallowness of their characters and their...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Criticism: Der Weltverbesserer
SOURCE: A review of Der Weltverbesserer, in World Literature Today, Vol. 54, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 424–25.
[In the following negative review of Der Weltverbesserer, Rosenfeld finds the play “tedious and boring.”]
When the curtain rises on Thomas Bernhard’s play, which bears as its motto Voltaire’s “Ich bin krank. Ich leide von Kopf bis zu den Füssen,” it is five o’clock in the morning. The “Weltverbesserer,” a real or perhaps only imaginary invalid, seemingly confined to his sickroom by disease but possibly by self-imposed isolation from the outside world, is preparing to receive representatives from the town and university, who bear him an honorary degree. For the “Weltverbesserer” is the author of a treatise on improving the world, which has received wide acclaim and has been translated into many languages, although it is understood by no one and in truth proposes nothing less than the radical abolition of everything.
Dedicated to the actor Minetti (to whom, in 1976, Bernhard had devoted his Minetti: Ein Porträt des Künstlers als alter Mann) and intended to be played by him, Der Weltverbesserer is a monumental monologue, delivered by the central figure almost without interruption. When the curtain falls after the Nachspiel, it is noon of the same day, and while much has been spoken, little has happened. The invalid has...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Criticism: Vor Dem Ruhestand
SOURCE: “How German Is It? Thomas Bernhard at the Guthrie,” in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1981, pp. 7–25.
[In the following essay, Honegger chronicles the 1981 Minneapolis production of Eve of Retirement.]
… I’m returning from the edge of forgetfulness.
The day I arrived in Minneapolis, Guthrie Managing Director Don Schoenbaum gave an Open House Party. It was a beautiful midsummer afternoon. A live band evoked what I assumed a beautiful-people affair in the heyday of Glenn Miller must have looked like as Guthrie dignitaries, including many familiar New York theatre faces, mingled with the local corporate aristocracy, headed by Mr. and Mrs. Pillsbury, on the back lawn of a stately, well, not mansion, but in any case, impressive, home. Meeting all those New York actors, among them some friends, gave me the feeling that I had just arrived from the mainland, on a visit to a very prosperous colony. There was a spirit of exuberance and triumph—after all, Liviu Ciulei, the new artistic director, and his team had just conquered not only this city but the whole country, with two nationally acclaimed productions: Ciulei’s own Tempest and Richard Foreman’s Don Juan, followed by Alan Schneider’s much less breathtaking, but extremely popular production of Our Town. But there...
(The entire section is 6544 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Vor dem Ruhestand, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1981, p. 92.
[In the following negative assessment of Vor dem Ruhestand, Acker contends the play reinforces several of Bernhard’s recurring themes and stylistic techniques.]
At first glance it might appear that Thomas Bernhard has written a drama [Vor dem Ruhestand] that is vastly different from his previous contributions to this genre, for the play is a direct allusion to recent political events centering around the former Minister President of Baden-Württemberg. It is set in the concrete milieu of contemporary Germany and seems to take a committed stance against aberrations in the West German political system. Yet a sublayer of ideas emerges which remains consistent with the pattern Bernhard has established in his other nine plays.
Each year on the 7th of October Rudolf Höller, a chief judge, dresses up in his old SS officer’s uniform in order to celebrate with his sisters Clara and Vera the birthday of his former Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler. This year is slightly different from others, for Höller is near retirement and fearful of the loneliness that will soon be his lot. In reviewing the sorrows and glories of his past life and their possible present consequences, he becomes quite drunk at the birthday party and excites himself to such fervor over the Nazi ideas...
(The entire section is 397 words.)
Criticism: Der Schein TrüGt
SOURCE: A review of Der Schein trügt, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 408–09.
[In the following review, Hoover offers a laudatory review of Der Schein trügt and compares Bernhard with the dramatists Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.]
With the play Der Schein trügt (Appearances Are Deceptive) Thomas Bernhard transcends earlier critical perceptions of his work (see WLT 55:4, pp. 603–607). His initial literary success, crowned by several prizes in the 1960s, rested on novels of gloom and morbidity stemming from his homeland, Austria. His first play too, Ein Fest für Boris (A Party for Boris; 1970), however comic, projected a grotesquely limited picture: a birthday celebration among about a dozen persons, all in wheelchairs and without legs. The party ends with the title character’s fatal collapse. Though Der Schein trügt is hardly more hopeful, it gives a broader view of, alas, likewise all too human characters.
The play’s eight scenes, divided asymmetrically into two acts, show in the six scenes of act 1 the ugly, uncomfortable room of Karl on a Tuesday, when he can always expect the visit of his younger brother Robert. The two scenes of act 2 then represent about the same lapse of an hour’s time in Robert’s comfortable room on the Thursday thereafter, the day of Karl’s regular visit to...
(The entire section is 523 words.)
Criticism: Ritter, Dene, Voss
SOURCE: A review of Ritter, Dene, Voss, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter, 1986, p. 105.
[In the following essay, Haberl offers a negative review of Ritter, Dene, Voss.]
The book jacket informs the reader that the three characters mentioned in the title of Bernhard’s play Ritter, Dene, Voss are derived from the names of the actresses Ilse Ritter and Kirsten Dene and of the actor Gert Voss. This is confirmed in a brief note by the author at the end of the play in which he also mentions that, while writing the work, he concentrated his thoughts on Ludwig Wittgenstein. Thus the protagonists of the play emerge as Ludwig Worringer and his two sisters. Ludwig is meant to be a portrait of the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein (1889–1951).
The action, such as it is, takes place in a dining room in a villa in the fashionable Viennese district of Döbling. Ludwig has just come home (at Dene’s insistence) from the insane asylum Steinhof. During the first act the two sisters make preparations for an elaborate lunch and converse, mostly about themselves and Ludwig. During this exposition their fatuousness, the emptiness of their lives, and certain incestuous tendencies vis-à-vis Ludwig become apparent. During the interminable lunch (act 2) Ludwig dominates the scene, alternating between madness and lucidity, discoursing on the futility of his life and that of his...
(The entire section is 386 words.)
Criticism: Der Theatermacher
SOURCE: “The Laughing Sisyphus: Reflections on Bernhard as (Self-) Dramatist in Light of His Der Theatermacher,” in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 21, Nos. 3–4, 1988, pp. 107–15.
[In the following essay, Meyerhofer analyzes the autobiographical elements of Bernhard’s work, particularly his play Der Theatermacher.]
Die Idee ist gewesen, der Existenz auf die Spur zu kommen, der eigenen wie den andern. Wir erkennen uns in jedem Menschen, gleich, wie er ist, und sind zu jedem dieser Menschen verurteilt, solange wir existieren. Wir sind alle diese Existenzen und Existierenden zusammen und sind auf der Suche nach uns und finden uns doch nicht, so inständig wir uns darum bemühen. Wir haben von Aufrichtigkeit und von Klarheit geträumt, aber es ist beim Träumen geblieben. Wir haben oft aufgegeben und wieder angefangen, und wir werden noch oft aufgeben und wieder anfangen.1
Readers familiar with contemporary German literature already know that Thomas Bernhard is one of the most prodigious writers of the twentieth century. Since 1957, when he published his first book, a slender volume of poems entitled Auf der Erde und in der Hölle, he has maintained his literary output at a truly prolific pace. Two more collections of lyric poetry appeared in 1957 and 1958, but not until Bernhard turned to prose did the German-speaking...
(The entire section is 3271 words.)
Criticism: Elisabeth Ii
SOURCE: A review of Elisabeth II, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 452–53.
[In the following mixed assessment of Elisabeth II, Daviau maintains that “Bernhard offers a very small slice of life here, and though the trip through the work is pleasant enough, one is left wondering whether the journey has been worthwhile.”]
Thomas Bernhard has convincingly proved to everyone’s satisfaction that he is a virtuoso of linguistic technique. No author in Austria today uses language more effectively to express character. His protagonists give the impression that they are talking in everyday terms, arguing, complaining, criticizing, and nagging, but the result is a total exposure of the inner being of the individual. We have experienced this technique in drama after drama in rapid succession, and the latest play, Elisabeth II, which bears the designation “Keine Komödie,” fits into the same pattern.
The play is neither a comedy nor a tragedy but a character study, essentially in the form of a monologue with a few other Stichwortbringer to give it the marginal semblance of a dialogue. On the basis of the contents it could just as well have been written in narrative form using the stream-of-consciousness technique. The result would be the same: an unfolding of the personality of Herr von Ehrenstein, a wealthy industrialist, who is...
(The entire section is 585 words.)
SOURCE: “The Scandal Maker: Thomas Bernhard and the Reception of Heldenplatz, in Modern Drama, Vol. 38, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 378–88.
[In the following essay, Kiebuzinska enumerates the many reasons for the controversy surrounding Bernhard’s Heldenplatz.]
The violent discussions in reaction to Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square)1 in the Austrian press even before its opening on 14 October 1988 (as the play selected to celebrate the one-hundredth-year anniversary of the Burgtheater) were influenced by a number of factors. The Burgtheater represents a tradition rooted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the repertoire of the Burgtheater historically reflected that tradition. Consequently, the appointment, not too long before the commemorative celebrations, of the tradition-breaking German theater director Claus Peymann to what is considered the most prestigious and influential post in the performing arts in Austria set off heated discussions in the press about the nature and responsibility of the Burgtheater to foster Austrian culture. Peymann, who before assuming the post at the Burgtheater had been the artistic director in Stuttgart and Bochum, has a reputation of provoking the public, and as a result, criticism against Peymann focused not only on the fact that he was a “foreigner” but also on his open sympathies for the left. At the same time, Bernhard...
(The entire section is 4863 words.)
Dowden, Stephen D. Understanding Thomas Bernhard. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991, 99 p.
Critical study of Bernhard’s plays, novels, short fiction, and memoirs.
Honegger, Gitta. “Acoustic Masks: Strategies of Language in the Theater of Canetti, Bernhard, and Handke.” Modern Austrian Literature 18, No. 2 (1985): 57–66.
Discusses the works of Elias Canetti, Peter Handke, and Thomas Bernard and analyzes the role of language in their plays.
Modern Austrian Literature 21 (1988).
Special issue devoted entirely to Bernhard.
Additional coverage of Bernhard’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88, 127; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 32, 57; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 32, 61; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 85, 124; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1.
(The entire section is 116 words.)