Bernhard, Thomas

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Nationality: Austrian (originally Dutch: immigrated to Austria, 1932). Born: Heerland, 9 February 1931. Education: Studied music and acting, Salzburg Mozarteum, 1952-57, degree 1957. Career: Grocer's assistant, Salzburg, 1947; contracted tuberculosis and spent two years in convalescence, 1949-51; journalist for the socialist Demokratisches Volksblatt , beginning 1952; contributor, Die Furche newspaper, 1953-55. Freelance writer beginning 1957. Also worked as a court reporter and librarian. Intermittent travel, to Italy and Yugoslavia, 1953-57, London, 1960, and Poland, 1962-63; settled on a farm in Ohlsdorf an Herzversagen, Upper Austria, 1965. Awards: Julius Campe prize, 1964; Bremen prize, 1965; Austrian state prize for literature, 1967; Anton Wildgans prize, 1968; Georg Büchner prize, 1970; Grillparzer prize, 1971; Austrian PEN Club Theodor Csokor prize, 1972; Hannover Dramatists prize and Seguier prize, both in 1974; Austrian Chamber of Commerce literature prize, 1976; Premio Prato, 1982; Premio Modello, 1983; Prix Medicis, 1988. Member: Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (withdrew, 1979). Died: 12 February 1989.



Stücke (4 vols.). 1988.


Frost. 1963.

Vestörung [Perturbation]. 1967; as Gargoyles, 1970.

Das Kalkwerk. 1970; as The Lime Works, 1973.

Korrektur. 1975; as Correction, 1979.

Ja. 1978; as Yes, 1992.

Die Billigesser. 1980; as The Cheap-Eaters, 1990.

Beton. 1982; as Concrete, 1984.

Wittgenstein's Neffe: Eine Freundschaft. 1982; as Wittgenstein's Nephew: A Friendship, 1986.

Die Untergeher. 1983; as The Loser, 1991.

Holzfällen. 1984; as The Woodcutters, 1987; as Cutting Timber: An Imitation, 1988.

Auslöschung: Ein Zerfall. 1986; as Extinction, 1995.

Alte Meister. 1988; as Old Masters: A Comedy, 1989.

In der Höhe: Rettungsversuch, Unsinn. 1989; as On the Mountain: Rescue Attempt, Nonsense, 1991.

Short Stories

Prosa. 1967.

An der Baumgrenze [At the Timberline]. 1969.

Ereignisse [Events]. 1969.

Midland in Stilfs: Drei Erzälungen. 1970.

Der Wetterfleck: Erzälungen. 1976.

Die Erzälungen, edited by Ulrich Greiner. 1979.

Der Stimmenimitator. 1980; as The Voice Imitator, 1997.


Die Rosen der Einöde: Fünf Sätze für Ballet, Stimmen und

Orchester (includes Die Rose ; Der Kalbskopf ; Unter den Pflaumenbäumen ; Phantasie ; Der Kartenspieler ). 1959.

Unter den Pflaumenbäumen (opera libretto; produced Vienna,1959). In Die Rosen der Einöde, 1959.

Köpfe: Kammeroper (opera libretto), music by GerhardLampersberg (produced Maria-Saal, Austria, 1960). 1960.

Der Kartenspieler (opera libretto; produced Berlin, 1967). InDie Rosen der Einöde, 1959.

Ein Fest für Boris (produced Hamburg, Germany, 1970).1970; as A Party for Boris, in Histrionics: Three Plays, 1990.

Der Italiener [The Italian] (screenplay). 1971.

Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige [The Ignoramus and theMadman] (produced Salzburg, 1972). 1972.

Der Kulterer (screenplay). 1974.

Die Jagdgesellschaft [The Hunting Party] (produced Vienna,1974). 1974.

Die Macht der Gewohnheit: Komödie (produced Salzburg,1974). 1974; as The Force of Habit: A Comedy (produced London, 1976), 1976.

Der Präsident (produced Vienna, 1975). 1975; translated asThe President, in Performing Arts Journal, 1982.

Der Berühmten [The Famous] (produced Vienna, 1976). 1976.

Minetti: ein Portrait des Künstlers als alter Mann (producedStuttgart, 1976). 1977.

Immanuel Kant (produced Stuttgart, 1978). 1978.

Vor dem Ruhestand: Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele [Before Retirement] (produced Stuttgart, 1979). 1979; as Eve of Retirement (produced Minneapolis, 1982), published in Performing Arts Journal, 1982.

Der Weltverbesserer [The Worldimprover] (produced Bochum,1980). 1979.

Am Ziel (produced Salzburg, 1981). 1981.

Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh: Ein deutscher Dichtertag um 1980. 1981.

Der Schein trügt (produced Bochum, 1984). 1983; as Appearances Are Deceiving, in Theater, 15, 1983.

Die Stücke, 1969-1981. 1983.

Ritter, Dene, Voss (produced Salzburg, 1986). 1984; translated as Ritter, Dene, Voss, in Histrionics: Three Plays, 1990.

Der Theatermacher (produced Salzburg, 1986). 1984.

Einfach Kompliziert (produced Berlin, 1986). 1986.

Elisabeth II (produced Berlin, 1989). 1987.

Heldenplatz [Heroes' Square] (produced Vienna, 1988). 1988.

Claus Peymann und Hermann Beil auf der Sulzweise: Nach dem ersten Jahr an der Burg (produced Vienna, 1987). 1987.

Der deutsche Mittagstisch: Dramolette. 1988.

Histrionics: Three Plays (includes Histrionics ; Ritter, Dene, Voss ; A Party for Boris ). 1990.

Claus Peymann kauft sich eine Hose und geht mit mir essen: Drei Dramolette. 1990.


Der Italiener, 1971.


Auf der Erde und in der Hölle [On Earth and in Hell]. 1957.

In hora mortis [In the Hour of Death]. 1958.

Unter dem Eisen des Mondes [Under the Iron of the Moon].1958.

Die Irren; Die Häftlinge. 1962.

Ave Vergil. 1981.

Gesammelte Gedichte [Collected Poems], edited by VolkerBohn. 1991.


Gathering Evidence: A Memoir (5 vols.). 1983.

Die Ursache: Eine Andeutung [Indication of the Cause].1975.

Der Keller: Eine Entziehung [The Cellar: An Escape].1976.

Der Atem: Eine Entscheidung [Breath: A Decision]. 1978.

Die Kälte: Eine Isolation [In the Cold]. 1981.

Ein Kind [A Child]. 1982.


Amras. 1964.

Ungenach [Trouble]. 1968.

Watten: Ein Nachlass [Mudflats]. 1969.

Gehen. 1971.

Theorie torgesteuerter Entwicklungsprozesse. 1979.

Ein Lesebuch, edited by Raimund Fellinger (selections). 1993.

Thomas Bernhard, Karl Ignaz Hennetmair: Ein Briefwechsel 1965-1974 (correspondence). 1994.

Editor, Gedichte, by Christine Lavant. 1987.


Film Adaptation:

Der Kulterer (television), 1973.

Critical Studies:

"A Drama of Disease and Derision: The Plays of Thomas Bernhard" by Martin Esslin, in Modern Drama, 23(4), January 1981, pp. 367-84; "The Works of Thomas Bernhard: 'Austrian Literature"' by Gerald A. Fetz, in Modern Austrian Literature, 17(3-4), 1984, pp. 171-92; Thomas Bernhard issue of Modern Austrian Literature, 21(3-4), 1988; Understanding Thomas Bernhard by Stephen D. Dowden, 1991; "Thomas Bernhard," in Partisan Review, 58, Summer 1991, pp. 493-505, and Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, 2001, both by Gitta Honegger; Thomas Bernhard section of Pequod, 33, 1992, pp. 52-133; Thomas Bernhard and His Grandfather Johannes Freumbichler: Our Grandfathers Are Our Teachers by Caroline Markolin, translated by Petra Hartweg, 1993; "Playing It Safe: Historicizing Thomas Bernhard's Jews" by Michael P. Olson, in Modern Austrian Literature, 27(3-4), 1994, pp. 37-49; The Nihilism of Thomas Bernhard: The Portrayal of Existential and Social Problems in His Prose Works by Charles W. Martin, 1995; "Comitragedies: Thomas Bernhard's Marionette Theater" by Bianca Theisen, in MLN, 111, April 1996, pp. 533-59; "Thomas Bernhard, Jews, Heldenplatz " by Jeanette R. Malkin, in Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance, edited by Claude Schumacher, 1998; The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek by Matthias Konzett, 2000; The Novels of Thomas Bernhard:Form and Its Function by Jonathan James Long, 2001; "Thomas Bernhard" by Thomas J. Cousineau, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 21(2), Summer 2001, pp. 41-70.

* * *

In most of his 15 novels, 18 plays, and 6 autobiographical works, Thomas Bernhard investigates the effects of Nazism and the Holocaust on the individual. However, only two of his plays, Heldenplatz and Eve of Retirement , use the background of the Holocaust as the primary motif.

Bernhard's firsthand experiences with illness, death, Nazism, Catholicism, the educational system, and Austrian culture provided him with the recurrent themes of his life's work. Born to an unwed mother, Bernhard knew early in life what it felt like to be a social outcast. His main authority figure was his grandfather, who displayed the tyrannical behavior of some of his grandson's fictional characters. Bernhard also experienced World War II and recalled seeing corpses on the streets of Salzburg after the bombings. His hatred of Nazis stems in part from the humiliations he suffered at the hand of a Nazi teacher. In addition, after the war he was sent to convalesce at a sanatorium headed by an unrepentant former Nazi who terrified his patients as the schoolmaster had his students. Bernhard's obsession with illness, death, and decay stems also from his loss of good health in his teens when he contracted tuberculosis. Bernhard wrote, "I always take up the subject of those dreadful times, but people just shake their heads. In me these terrible experiences are just as present as if they had been only yesterday." In both Heldenplatz and Eve of Retirement , Bernhard does not simply refer to the history of the Holocaust, he also voices his fears about contemporary Austrian Nazism.

In Heldenplatz the main character, a Jewish professor, has committed suicide after returning to Vienna 50 years after Hitler's takeover only to find it even more anti-Semitic than it was in 1938. His wife is going insane because she can still hear the cheers from the Nazi rally that was held on the main square, Heldenplatz, many years ago. In Eve of Retirement two sisters and their brother, a former Nazi, secretly celebrate Heinrich Himmler's birthday and rejoice in the fact that their president is also a former Nazi. The brother dresses up in his SS uniform, while one of the sisters, Clara, an invalid who hates the other two, waits to see if she will have to don a concentration camp uniform as she did the year before. Both plays were written, in part, in response to the election of Kurt Waldheim to the presidency of Austria in 1986. Waldheim, who worked in a concentration camp, at first denied his Nazi past. Later, when the truth was revealed, many Austrians rallied to his defense and elected him.

Bernhard's plays exhibit the influence of the Theatre of the Absurd; they are similar to Samuel Beckett in their grotesque situations (such as the two siblings in Eve of Retirement , who sit and thumb through the photo album of the brother's life as a Nazi while they drink champagne and listen to Mozart, and the widow's ability to hear the crowd's cheers from the past in Heldenplatz ), their repetitious and exaggerated language (such as the long rants in Heldenplatz ), and their general themes of disease and despair. In addition, like Theatre of the Absurd and the plays of George Tabori , Bernhard's plays include black humor.

Like other Austrian writers of the postwar generation (especially Peter Handke and Paul Celan ), Bernhard was influenced by the speech theories of another Austrian, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's "speech criticism" involves a skepticism about language's ability to effectively communicate. In Heldenplatz the persistent ravings of the professor's brother, Robert, seem so exaggerated that one begins to wonder about their truthfulness. In Eve of Retirement Clara, who is bound to a wheelchair, radically disagrees with her Nazi siblings, but she is unable to articulate her views because of the torrents of words spewed at her by her more powerful siblings. Because of his skepticism toward language, Bernhard rejected the documentary mode of the late 1960s in Germany utilized most famously by Rolf Hochhuth in The Deputy and Peter Weiss in The Investigation. He wrote instead that "truth itself is quite impossible to communicate." Therefore, Bernhard deals with deliberate distortions in order to shock the audience into trying to figure out the truth for themselves. Moreover, his characters' fate always symbolizes the fate of Austria: his plays are populated with people who are either morally or physically diseased.

Bernhard's recurring themes of disease, death, moral decay, Nazism, suicide, madness, fear, alienation, and the horrible weight of history reveal his moral pessimism. Even though both plays feature characters who radically disagree with the Nazis, their positions are hopeless and helpless. They are driven to suicide, they die, or they simply suffer silently in the face of the horror.

—Susan Russell

See the essay on Heldenplatz.

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