‘An admired talent for the theatre / Even when I was small / A man born of the stage you see / Histrionic / Setting snares even when very little.’ Such is the epigraph to Thomas Bernhard’s The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher), drawn from the play’s principal character, the megalomaniacal Bruscon. The image of the snare, or trap, is a common one in the work of Bernhard, typically figuring a moment of exposure: the individual left open by falsehood or deceit to the calumny of the world.
For Bernhard’s characters, such traps are frequently a source of obsessive disquiet, signalling society’s hostility toward their outsider status. But for Bernhard himself, the provocateur, the setting of traps was also one of life’s chief delights, an opportunity for the outsider to revenge himself upon society. In this, the theatre was his preferred deadfall, a place where he could provoke and outrage directly, exposing the hypocrisies and moral enfeeblement of his audiences.
Enter Bruscon, self-described actor and writer of genius, and a typical Bernhard bait, full of offensive opinions, mostly about his fellow countrymen. Disgusted with the state theatre, he is touring his own historical epic,The Wheel of History, through the backwoods of Austria. His sad company, which he ceaselessly derides as untalented saboteurs, consists of his wife and two children. We never see The Wheel in performance, but allusions to an enormous wheel of cheese that the family has been dragging from town to town do not augur well.
The eccentric troupe has arrived at the Black Hart of Utzbach, a country inn with a small theatrette staffed by a decrepit landlord. Inside hang dusty pre-war portraits of Adolf Hitler. Outside they are slaughtering pigs. Not that Bruscon minds the pigs so much, or even Hitler for that matter. They lend authentic colour for his opus. Bruscon’s real concern is with the emergency exit light, which he insists must be extinguished at the play’s climax to achieve perfect darkness.
The reference here is to Bernhard’s histrionic behaviour at the opening of his play The Ignoramus and the Madman (Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige) at the Salzburg Festival in 1982, two years before he premièred The Histrionic. During previews a complete blackout was permitted, but on opening night the venue management, under orders from the city, forbade the masking of the signs. Bernhard, predictably, was outraged and immediately cancelled the season, declaring that ‘A society that can’t deal with two minutes of darkness can do without my play.’
The other key source is King Lear, a work that Bernhard returned to numerous times in his career. Just as Bruscon’s Wheel is a ‘comedy / which is in fact / a tragedy’, Bernhard’s burlesque treatment of Lear describes a tragedy that is in fact a comedy. The text is littered with direct references to Shakespeare, some that Tom Wright, the translator, ingeniously transposes from the German, others that remain untranslatable, such as the punning penultimate lines ‘Saal is leer / leer is der Saal / vollkommen leer’ (‘The hall is empty / empty is the hall / completely empty’). But it is from the portrait of a deranged and pitiable old man, ranting and raving as a storm breaks overhead, trapped in the absurd mechanism of inevitable failure – ‘a theatre trap’ – that Bernhard develops his most hilarious and compelling scenes, highlighting through Bruscon all that is ridiculous in Lear, particularly in relation to the demands he makes of his family.
In Wright’s impressive translation and Bille Brown’s bravura performance, Bruscon’s rants acquire the energy of an Elizabethan pamphleteer, snarling and pithy, but with a persistent undertone of resentment and denial – perhaps the aggrieved bile of Robert Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit. Wright, who has previously cited Bernhard as an influence, dances nimbly between the Austrian and the Australian, never dropping the European context in which Bernhard’s writing is anchored, but managing to subtly pick out through well-chosen idiomatic phrases and gently massaged translations unexpected affinities between the two cultures. A particularly resonant example is his take on Bruscon’s bitter critique of rural Austria:
Wherever we tour
Tiny little minds
White-hot hatred of art
Deep suspicion of abstraction
Violent loathing of the intellect
Where else in the world
Could be like this
Wright relishes the opportunity to join with Bernhard in laying snares. While this production winds back to some degree Bruscon’s vitriol against actors and women (though there’s still plenty of sharp abuse in that direction), it does concentrate and at times exaggerate Bruscon’s mockery of the physically and mentally disabled. Although it is an open question whether this makes for a more incisive performance, it is unquestionably in the Bernhardian tradition, and Wright girds his cruel verse with explicit references to a number of other Bernhard works.
Director Daniel Schlusser and designer Marg Horwell dress the set as what looks like a cave of lost props, with a farrago of somewhat shabby, oversized objets de théâtre heaped around a raised platform. Partly this manifests the ‘gruesome kitsch’ of subalpine Austria, but it also neatly suggests Bruscon’s magnified vision, the grotesque and tawdry world that he describes in his obsessively critical commentary. In completely opening out the Merlyn Theatre, with the audience tucked away in one corner, Schlusser evokes, in an oblique way, both the grandeur of the Alps and the dinginess of the Black Hart, and also creates room for Bruscon’s mighty ego to attain its full height. The supporting players drift around the margins in an almost choric arrangement, picking their way through oversized fruits and vegetables, furtively working at the various menial tasks associated with either running an inn or prepping a theatre. Schlusser creates a fascinating tension here between the centre and the periphery, between the demonstrative and the self-effacing, between performance and anti-performance.
Brown efficiently commands this cavernous space in a virtuoso performance of what is essentially an interrupted monologue. There is a ripeness or sensuality to his characterisation that is new to Bernhard’s work – Bruscon burst-ing into a flirtatious aria on discovering that the landlord’s wife is Italian, for instance – and also a quality of self-doubt, which, on occasion, he is too candid in verbalising. But the fierceness is there, the arrogance and the cruelty, and most importantly the comedy. Brown’s impeccable comic timing, his control of the room, even as he juggles Bruscon’s hysteria and the essential undernote of tragedy, is the standout feature of this production.
Bernhard is rarely performed in Australia, but that could change given the potential here exposed. In one of this production’s more surreal interpolations, Wright, Schlusser, and Brown contrive to sneak in a few bars of ‘There’s Something Nice about Cripples’, a song from the play Kill Hamlet by Zijah Sokolović, which Schlusser performed at La Mama thirteen years ago. This unexpected but not idle reference points not only to a minor though persistent Austrian influence on the Australian stage (Sokolović is currently head of Theaterland in Salzburg, while Schlusser’s director at La Mama was the Austrian actor Justus Neumann), but also to how far the postwar European tradition, with its revelatory and expressionistic mingling of theatrical experience and human reality, has advanced in Australia, particularly at the Malthouse and the Sydney Theatre Company, co-presenters of this production.
The Histrionic, by Thomas Berhard, presented by Malthouse Theatre and the Sydney Theatre Company. Malthouse Theatre, performance attended 10 April. The production moves to the Sydney Theatre Company, 20 June–28 July.