The Malthouse/Sydney Theatre Company production of Thomas Bernhard's 1984 play The Histrionic is, apparently, the first professional production of Bernhard's work anywhere in Australia. The transparency of Daniel Schlusser's triumphant production makes you wonder what the problem was: why did we have to wait so long? The Histrionic is so manifestly a brilliantly written play, gripping from its
beginning to its extraordinary final moments. It's outrageous, sadistic,
hilarious, brutally bathetic, playfully and powerfully theatrical. In the most
expansive sense of the word, it's an entertainment, exploiting every
trick in the theatrical book: but here Bernhard employs entertainment as a depth charge, to destroy the submarine walls of our self-regard.
|Bille Brown as Bruscon in The Histrionic. Photo: Jeff Busby|
The Histrionic premiered nearly three decades ago. I'm well used to the fact that most significant playwrights, especially those outside the Anglosphere, are largely invisible in our mainstage culture - where are our professional productions of major contemporary dramatists such as (to stick with the Europeans) Jon Fosse, Elfriede Jelinek, Biljana Srbljanovic, Falk Richter? - but for some reason this delay struck me. If anything demonstrates the narrowness of our mainstream culture, it's this kind of catching up after the fact. It's not as if myopia is limited to overseas writers: we had to wait longer than three decades to have Patrick White's The Ham Funeral professionally produced in Melbourne, and his plays are still thought of, even by people who ought to know better, as lesser achievements than his novels. The luminously unconventional, the intransigently theatrical, the poetic, the rawly intelligent, even the beautiful, have more often than not been marginalised in Australian culture.
Nowhere do our colonial petticoats show more than in Australia's anxious love for authority. In our culture, genuine artistic originality, with its unsettling combination of disrespect for authority and serious respect for its own antecedents, can only figure as an embarrassment. It has no visible means of support, no legitimisation beyond its own artistry. In a colonial culture, the fear of being thought "wrong" overwhelms all other possibilities of reception. It even muffles outrage: the response to too many of our most interesting artists has been the white noise of silence. Bernhard is the model of another possibility, and this production of The Histrionic is one of several events that suggests that doors long sealed shut may now, very slowly, be creaking open.
Thomas Bernhard was no stranger to outrage: no writer was more embarrassing to his own culture. Shortly before Bernhard's death, President Kurt Waldheim - at the time enmeshed in controversy over his wartime service in the Wehrmacht in Eastern Europe - called his play Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) a “crude insult to the Austrian people”. It was also a crude insult to Waldheim, whom Bernhard denounced in the play as a liar. Bernhard made himself a scandal: as one of Austria's most important postwar writers, he's impossible to ignore, and yet his life's work was an attack on his homeland. His insults continued after his death: one of the provisos in his will was a ban, until copyright expires, on any Austrian production of his plays. I'm not sure we could sustain such a figure here; the only writer who remotely approaches this kind of ambiguous cultural position is Patrick White, and the comparison is an uneasy one.
Bernard was obsessed with the moral catastrophe of Austria, and in particular its denial of its Nazi past. The scar of Nazism runs through all his work, as it runs through European history: it's the giant faultline on which Europe's pretensions to civilisation crumbled into barbarism. Bernhard's response was to become histrionic, (a theatermacher, a "scene maker"). In all his work, from newspaper articles to plays to novels, he excoriated Austria as a gallery of grotesques: hypocrites and fools, liars and murderers, "a nation of six and a half million idiots living in a country that is rotting away". Yet Bernhard's role was curiously ambiguous. As his biographer, Gitta Honneger, acutely points out: "As energetically as he dramatised himself as the unwanted outsider, he constructed himself as the penultimate insider. … The renegade son laid claim to a cultural nobility Austria had forfeited." And, she added, pointing to Bernhard's qualities as a literary actor: "Such a feat required a brilliant performer…"
Given this, it's impossible not to see Bruscon, the central figure in The Histrionic, as a kind of grotesque self-portrait. Like Bernhard, Bruscon is both writer and actor: he is the fleshly embodiment of ambiguity and contradiction, the one who contemplates and the one who enacts. And he is high culture personified: he is, as he tells us, "the greatest nationally recognised performing artist / In this nation’s history". He even has "the piece of paper, the medal" to prove it. The play is basically a monologue: Bruscon is surrounded by a cast of unfortunate witnesses and enablers who act as the brunt of his abuse and sadism. For Bruscon they are the admiring, uncomprehending masses, the anti-talented slaves to his talent, the necessary ears for his long lament.
|L-R: Katherine Tonkin, Bille Brown and Kelly Butler. Photo: Jeff Busby|
The conceit is this. Our hero (Bille Brown) has arrived at the Black Hart inn in the tiny pig-farming hamlet of Utzbach (280 people). He is on tour with his family theatre company, his son Ferruccio (Josh Price), his daughter Sarah (Edwina Wren) and his consumptive wife Agatha (Jennifer Vuletic). But here in Utzbach, Bruscon is casting pearls before swine: the performance of his masterpiece The Wheel of History - an allegorical absurdity featuring the great figures of history, from Napoleon to Stalin - is threatened by the local fire chief, by the incompetence of his actors, even by the fact that in the Black Hart the staff is busy with Blood Sausage Day. Bruscon bullies the landlord (Barry Otto), the landlady (Kelly Butler) and the landlord's glaucomic daughter Erna (Katherine Tonkin). Almost all of the supporting cast suffers from injury, illness or deformity: Otto's landlord has so many tics and twitches he is almost a blur; Ferruccio's hand is broken after a third floor fall sustained on the way to the toilet; Madame Bruscon is suffering from a malady of the lungs which makes her particularly allergic to the stench of pigs. Bruscon himself is, of course, a monster.
Every line in the play is shot through with a corrosive irony and ambiguity. Bruscon is ridiculous, patently pathetic; his play, as we see it through his descriptions and rehearsals, is a nonsensical, ahistorical fiction in which every fact is comically wrong. He insists that every picture is taken out of the hall, aside from a cobwebbed portrait of Hitler. "Everyone here is Hitler," he tells his son. "So leave the picture here / As a reminder." He is the model of misogynist, patriarchal tyranny: in a disturbing scene with his daughter, he tortures her until she informs him that he is the greatest actor that ever lived. And yet his criticisms are deadly serious, and hit home: "There was once a forest / Now there’s a quarry / There were once wetlands / Now cement works / There was once a human being / Now there’s a Nazi..."
The declension in each case is from organic complexity to brutal simplicity, the reduction of things and people to objects of use. And this is where Bruscon's contempt attains the "cultural nobility" that Gitta Honneger says Bernhard claimed for himself: it is the sour lees of the never-realised ideals of the Enlightenment, the remains of the respect for complex human possibility, now destroyed beyond the hope of its even being perceived. That's a lament by no means confined to 1980s Austria: this reduction to use is the machinery which is most powerfully at work in our contemporary world. Just as the Nazis burned people in their ovens, our reductive vision is reducing our living planet, forest by forest, to ash. It's no accident the landlord's daughter is half blind.
And yet, just as he embodies the desolate remnants of high culture, so Bruscon gives us its culpability and complicity. Like everyone else, he is Hitler. The central moral question of Western culture after World War 2, as rehearsed through thinker after thinker, from Steiner to Adorno, from Handke to Jelinek to Fassbinder, was how one of the most evolved cultures in world history spawned the genocidal atrocity that was Nazism. It's a question that Bernhard presents, without giving us an answer: and it's a question that, rather than retreating into the shadows of the 20th century, strikes hard now.
The Histrionic is a satire on many things, but perhaps first of all it's a satire on history itself. At its centre is the play that we never see performed. The Wheel of History is, as Bruscon informs us, a comedy that comprehends all of human history, but all we get to see of his masterpiece is Bruscon himself. To complicate his ambiguity, Bruscon becomes, to borrow a distinction from Walter Benjamin, at once symbol and allegory. He combines the particular aspects of symbol and the general aspects of allegory: he is an individual with a specific historical biography, and an abstract embodiment of the vicious futility of a tragic history.
Writing about German tragic drama, or Trauerspiele, Benjamin said: "Everything about history that, from its very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face - or rather is a death's head. And although such a thing lacks all 'symbolic' freedom of expression, all classical proportion, all humanity - nevertheless, this is the form in which man's subjection to nature is most obvious and it significantly gives rise not only to the enigmatic question of the nature of human existence as such, but also of the biographical historicity of the individual. This is the heart of the allegorical way of seeing, of the baroque, secular explanation of history as the Passion of the world; its importance resides solely in the stations of its decline. The greater the significance, the greater to subjection to death, because death digs most deeply the jagged line of demarcation between physical nature and significance."
Bruscon is Bernhard's death's head, marking the stations of History's decline. We are here to witness his crucifixion.
"Allegories," as Benjamin said in the same essay, "are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things." In Bernhard's world, the disaster has already happened: we stand in the ruins of culture, surrounded by the rubble that is all that remains of its vainglory. When we walk into the Merlyn, we encounter Marg Horwell's set, which is an apparently structureless space littered with absurd kitsch: gigantic plaster statues of eagles or neo-classical hands, overblown paintings casually leaning against the wall, bare rostra strewn with sawdust or crumbs that an automatic vacuum cleaner, buzzing to and fro, is vainly attempting to clear. The landlord's family is lounging about doing nothing in particular; Madame Bruscon stalks on, wearing an inhaler and dragging a suitcase. Nothing happens, aside from the casual markings of insignificant activities, until Bruscon arrives to prickle the cast into guilty activity as he surveys the scene with contempt. "My God... complete cultural wasteland..."
Tom Wright's translation is robust and theatrical, with a hint of Australian colloquialism that serves this production well; terms such as "proletarian" have been transposed to "suburban" or "battlers", subtly habituating the text to local conditions without any crass parallelism. Schlusser's production strings this text across the stage with an apparent artlessness, and makes it resonate.
There's been a lot of discussion recently about auteur theatre, not much of it to the point, which makes Schlusser's arrival on the main stage of particular interest. For years he has been creating some of Melbourne's most essential theatre. So far his most interesting work has been investigations of classic plays - Peer Gynt, A Doll's House, Life is a Dream - which have been meticulously undone and represented in a kind of radical uber-naturalism. In The Histrionic, Bernhard has written a text in which everything is already dislocated: Schlusser's job is to enable the process of decline, as it occurs before our eyes. What is perhaps most striking about this production is how, while it is unmistakeably a Schlusser production, it exposes the essential modesty of his practice.
The nature of the play is, in fact, particularly suited to Schlusser's performance-centred approach. Almost all of the text belongs to Bille Brown, who gives what must be the performance of his life. He is all the colours of the histrionic, with the deeper black of sorrow rising up within his acting like silt, until he is trapped in a final, tragically absurd stillness. The rest of the cast, all six of them, are dim foils to Bruscon's brilliance. Yet even when they aren't directly involved in scenes, we are aware of their constant, uneasy presence about the stage: they labour awkwardly to clear the dance hall of its rubble, picking up gigantic props and putting them down pointlessly elsewhere, involving themselves in inscrutable tasks that engage all their attention.
This is choreographed with a precise sense of rhythm that works contrapuntally to Brown's central drama. The result is a performative richness that emerges, paradoxically, from the deliberate visual poverties of the stage. It means that when the production shifts to full-blown theatricality, as it does towards the end, this movement has a sense of evolution, rather than its appearing out of nowhere: in the background, the theatricality has already been sketched for us.
The usual criticism of auteur theatre is that one only sees the director's ego at work. This production is saturated with the director's vision, but in performance his hand becomes almost invisible. What we witness is the enabling of performance, which itself reveals the living tissue of the text. It's exhilarating to see a play of this intransigent quality given such an intelligent, unapologetic production. Unmissable.
The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher) by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Tom Wright, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Sets and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design and composition by Darrin Verhagen, With Bille Brown, Kelly Butler, Barry Otto, Josh Price, Katherine Tonkin, Jennifer Vuletic and Edwina Wren. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until May 5; Wharf 1 Theatre, STC, June 20 to July 28.