Thomas Bernhard Bernhard, Thomas - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

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

Heldenplatz 1988

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

Alfred Barthofer (essay date 1978)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Martin Esslin (essay date Spring-Summer 1978)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Hans Wolfschütz (essay date 1980)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Martin Esslin (essay date January 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Gita Honegger (essay date Winter 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

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

(Ingeborg Bachmann)

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...

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Gerald A. Fetz (essay date December 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Martin Esslin (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Gudrun Brokoph-Mauch (essay date 1987)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Nicholas Eisner (essay date March 1987)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Rüdiger Görner (essay date 1988)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Stephen D. Dowden (essay date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

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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William E. Gruber (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

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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Bianca Theisen (essay date April 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

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.

—Friedrich Schlegel

Unsatisfied with what comedy writers have to offer, four actors band together to write their own...

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Criticism: Der Ignorant Und Der Wahnsinnige

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Die Macht Der Gewohnheit

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Die BerüHmten

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Der Weltverbesserer

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Gitta Honegger (essay date 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

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.

Walter Abish

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...

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Robert Acker (review date Winter 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Der Schein TrüGt

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Ritter, Dene, Voss

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Der Theatermacher

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Elisabeth Ii

(Drama Criticism)

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,...

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Criticism: Heldenplatz

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


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.


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