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.