Bernhard, Thomas

(1931-1989)
   Playwright. Bernhard was born in Holland but grew up in Austria. Most of his plays in the 1970s and 1980s were scathing critiques of Austrian history, particularly of Austrian comportment during the Nazi era. In his play Histrionics (1984), he defined Austria as "the pus-filled boil of Europe." The implication, however, was that he had the moral authority to lance the infection so that healing, one day in the far distant future, might ultimately take place. In the meantime, however, he felt compelled to remind Austrians of their appalling conduct after 1938, when they invited native son Adolf Hitler to rule over them, carried out his orders, and afterward tried to convince the world they were "Hitler's first victims."
   Bernhard came to prominence in 1972 with Claus Peymann's production of Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (The Ignoramus and the Madman) with Bruno Ganz at the Salzburg Festival. It set a precedent for his long collaboration with the director and an uncompromising vituperation toward his countrymen. Bernhard's plays often consisted of long, rambling monologues that attempted through literary devices to puncture and deflate his country's comfortable view of itself. His work was rarely performed outside the German-speaking world because in translation many audiences find it nearly incomprehensible. The "characters" in his plays, such as they are, speak in the idiom of practiced banality, somewhat in the manner of Ödön von Horvâth.
   Bernhard's Vor dem Ruhestand (Eve of Retirement, 1979) differed somewhat from his earlier works, first because its topic was German history instead of Austrian and second because the characters were less fragmented. It featured a prominent jurist who was a Nazi judge and Heinrich Himmler protégé, now in line for a prestigious post in the West German government. In secret, however, he celebrates Himmler's birthday every year, occasions for which he dons his old SS uniform and has sex with his sister. Bernhard's best play was Heldenplatz (Heroes''Square, 1988), which Peymann (by then intendant of the Burgtheater) commissioned for the centenary of the Burg's reconstruction in 1888. The year 1988 also marked the unfortunate 50th anniversary of Austrian native Hitler's triumphal march into Vienna, where he received a hero's welcome. Bernhard's play is a vitriolic attack on the "unheroic" embrace accorded Hitler when he came to Heroes' Square and declared an Anschluss (annexation) of Austria into the Reich. The play set off waves of ideological denunciation and—literally—piles of manure on the Burgtheater's ornate entryway steps the evening of the play's premiere. The performance itself generated a likewise generous amount of applause and standing ovations, which competed with an equally vociferous chorus of hoots and catcalls.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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