Histrionics: Three Plays
The President and Eve of Retirement
After the ructious reception of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) at the Vienna Burg-theater in November 1988, just three months before the author’s death, President Kurt Waldheim denounced the play, in which he is called a liar, as a “crude insult to the Austrian people.” It tells the story of a Jewish professor who left Austria in 1938 when the Nazis annexed it, returned fifty years later, and, finding the attitude toward Jews unchanged, committed suicide. In the play, the professor’s brother characterizes Austria as “a nation of six and a half million idiots living in a country that is rotting away,…run by the political parties in an unholy alliance with the Catholic Church.” The statement expresses one of Bernhard’s major themes.
Following Bernhard’s instructions, his death of a heart attack, at home in the town of Gmunden two days after his fifty-eighth birthday, was not announced until after he had been buried. The obituary in the London Times said that he is “thought by many of his compatriots to be one of the greatest writers of the century,” while acknowledging that in his native land detractors are equally numerous. One can understand from the available translations why his novels and plays have aroused such strong reactions, for even though Bernhard is a stylist foremost, and much of his power lies in his use of German, his work has crossed language barriers with some success.
Less than half of Bernhard’s work has been crossed into English : the autobiography, seven of his twenty or so plays, and, of sixteen books of fiction, only six, not including the first and paradigmatic Frost, the last and longest, Auslöschung (Extinction), and Der Untergeher, the so-called “Glenn Gould novel” (inspired by “unser freund, the greatest pianist of the century”). Since none of the poetry (collected in Auf der Erde und in der Hölle), short stories, cabaret sketches, film scripts, or criticism (his 1957 school paper on Artaud and Brecht) has appeared in translation, readers with no German will not be able fully to grasp Bernhard’s diversity. Still, enough of his work is now in English to enable them to appreciate that he is a writer of great originality and fascination.
Perhaps Bernhard’s autobiography, Gathering Evidence, published originally in five separate volumes between 1975 and 1982, should be read after the novels, the artistic transmutations before their source—although, as Bernhard told a Le Monde interviewer, Evidence is “not as it really was—there’s no such thing as objectivity—but as I see it today.” Indeed, he sometimes refers to himself in the book in the third person to distinguish “how I felt at the time and the way I think now.” In this account of his first nineteen years the author inevitably looms like a doppelgänger next to his characters. “I continually trick up myself, for I incessantly describe myself,” he says in Evidence: “I do not write my own acts, but myself …