Thomas Bernhard

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Thomas Bernhard Drama Analysis

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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...

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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 marking the General’s death, intensifies structurally the nihilistic denouement of the play. By varying the traditional musical form, in which a resolution would normally occur in the last movement, Bernhard ends his play decisively on a note of death and decay.

Similarly, Bernhard’s motto from Heinrich von Kleist’s Über das Marionettentheater (1810; About the Puppet Theater, 1950) suggests the author’s view of man as a mere marionette. Die Jagdgesellschaft, Bernhard’s third published play, described by some critics as a step toward total pessimism, reveals that death and decay extend beyond individuals and into nature itself: The infestation of the General’s forest by insects parallels his own death. An atmosphere of hopelessness from which there is apparently no recourse unfolds before the viewer’s eyes.

The three scenes, or movements, of the play are labeled “Vor der Jagd” (before the hunt), “Während der Jagd” (during the hunt), and “Nach der Jagd” (after the hunt). The play’s limited action transpires at the General’s hunting lodge over a short span of time. The General’s wife, a writer, two ministers, a prince and princess, a cook, and a servant round out the cast of characters. The hunter becomes the hunted: The mortally ill General commits suicide, and his treasured forest is totally destroyed, as he is relentlessly pursued by death.

The first scene centers on a disjointed conversation between the General’s wife and the writer in the cold, damp lodge. The writer is occupied with composing an aphorism for which one essential word escapes him. Language is incapable of encompassing reality, as his monologue fluctuates from one thought to another and reiterates the same key words. The General’s wife is preoccupied with her husband’s health (he suffers from glaucoma, has lost his left arm in the battle of Stalingrad, and was once injured by a chain saw) and with the state of his forest. In this opening scene, both characters reveal their introverted concerns; their conversation never progresses beyond mere juxtaposition of individual viewpoints. The card game in which they engage pacifies the General’s wife and releases her from the unsettling consciousness of the drudgery and misery of existence; the writer acknowledges the underlying meaninglessness of the card game but nevertheless accepts its therapeutic value. This activity, like the characters’ speech, is merely an attempt to “bridge the emptiness of time,” an emptiness the writer intellectually comprehends but intuitively seeks to avoid. The damp cold and darkness symbolize human beings’ inability to escape reality. Bernhard’s characters may be mad, paranoid, and eccentric, but the world around them is equally so, and humankind is powerless to halt death’s ruthless march, as the ravaging of the forest by bark beetles exemplifies. Science, too, the sum of humankind’s intellectual capability to order and control its environment, is powerless in the face of nature’s self-destructive rage, the rage of destruction on life itself. The deathly sickness pervading nature penetrates each and every individual human being as well. The General’s wife attempts to shield him from the realization of the pervasiveness of death by hiding information from him concerning the true state of the forest. His eye disease blinds him from perceiving the approaching onslaught of death. In contrast to the somber mood of his wife and the writer, the General’s cheerfulness as he enters near the end of the first scene serves as musical and thematic counterpoint. As a floundering symbol of life, power, and control, the General is at odds with the writer’s pessimistic outlook.

The second scene, “During the Hunt,” offers a modicum of sustained dialogue as the General’s wife and the writer continue at cards. Games are won and lost, but they have no relationship to life and reality. Bernhard expresses his anti-idealistic stance concretely through the lines of the writer in the play: “Human beings are despairing human beings; everything else is a lie.” The unavoidable outcome is realized as shots from the hunters’ weapons ring out in the background.

The final scene, “After the Hunt,” intensifies the theoretical and philosophical differences between the General and the writer. The writer views all history as nothing but an unfolding disaster. The General’s various ailments all point to the gradual deterioration of his life. His stay in the hunting lodge is only a brief respite in this ongoing process; death is at work in this natural setting just as it is in the city from which he has fled. The General’s attempt to shield himself from reality is further symbolized by his aversion to the writer’s conception of theater, yet he cannot find consolation in the obvious deceptiveness of the Christmas plays his wife puts on. Death haunts everyone, as the writer readily recognizes. In the end, a shot resounds; the General is discovered lying dead in an adjoining room, and his forest is immediately cut down. The common denominator among human beings is the experience of death, whose sickness entirely penetrates both the physical and the metaphysical realm.

Immanuel Kant

In Immanuel Kant, which Bernhard labels a comedy, the author draws for the first time on a historical figure for a main character, although Bernhard’s Kant bears only the vaguest physical or intellectual resemblance to the historical philosopher of pure reason from Königsberg. Bernhard’s Kant, transposed into a contemporary setting, remains a wooden character like his predecessors; he is confused, schizoid, eccentric, diseased, and infirm. It is worthy of note that by using a quote from Artaud for the motto of the play (“that is not meant to say, that one should represent life in the theater”), Bernhard reveals a desire to transcend historical and biographical accuracy, to operate on an aesthetic plane where mimesis becomes irrelevant. What evolves is an “essence” that has as much validity as “objective” reality. Life (theater) becomes both meaningful and meaningless at the same time—meaningful because it constitutes the only means for an individual to confront destructive reality, and meaningless because no objective measure of its accuracy is verifiable. This contradiction is at the very heart of Bernhard’s art.

The play begins on the front deck of an oceanliner, as Kant, suffering continually from the cold, is being assisted by his wife, by Ernst Ludwig (the caretaker of the philosopher’s beloved parrot, Friedrich), and by the ship’s steward. Kant treasures and pampers this bird, which mimics his words incomprehensibly, more than he treasures human beings and their natural surroundings. The importance Kant attaches to this parrot reveals conclusively the insanity and incomprehensibility of his “philosophy,” and ultimately man’s inability to structure his world in any logical fashion. All that remains for Kant is the hope of arriving in the United States, where, besides receiving an honorary doctorate from Columbia University, he is to undergo eye surgery, performed by the world’s best doctors. Kant’s failing eyesight parallels his intellectual decline. Only sound remains as a means of representing reality. Kant is very careful to avoid damage to Friedrich’s eyes, which symbolize Kant’s remaining contact with the physical world. Disjointed repetition of words divorced from meaning and visual association are the only remnants of the universe that the philosopher has tried to systematize.

Life’s unpredictability is revealed in Kant’s unavoidable dependence on idiotic types such as Ernst Ludwig. As he exploits those around him in an attempt to preserve a position of dominance, Kant merely reveals his powerlessness all the more graphically. In the end, there is no first principle for all truths. That Kant reads only old newspapers indicates his inability to order future events. Königsberg, long the symbol of the historical Kant’s stable, ordered life, floats in time and space. That Königsberg can now be found wherever Kant is reflects the growing mental imbalance, the subjectivity of human experience, and the confusion of natural limits. Kant’s mental stability is further jeopardized by his confusion of historical fact: His supposed friend Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz actually died before Kant was even born. Kant’s statement that “seasickness is the proof of everything” perfectly epitomizes Bernhard’s scorn for philosophy in the face of ultimate absurdity, as does the magnificent tautology: “Everything which is not, is not; everything which is, is.” The clear distinctions that existed for the historical Kant between thought and reality are shattered. Kant’s dictum in the play, “The world is the opposite side of the world/ truth the opposite side of truth,” admits only an unrelenting progression toward death and destruction, symbolized by his command: “Full speed ahead!” Banality has replaced the sublimity of the historical philosopher’s message. For all their pessimism and despair, however, Bernhard’s plays nevertheless reveal a striving toward final meaning and purpose. When the characters cease talking, life will also cease. As long as they continue to talk, death is put off. The sheer persistence of Bernhard’s voice belies its hopelessness.


Thomas Bernhard Long Fiction Analysis