Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Sights Unseen: Withholding Information in the Plays of Thomas Bernhard

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Sights Unseen: Withholding Information in the Plays of Thomas Bernhard

Article excerpt

We have found to our cost, once for all, that the regions of fancy and the boards of Covent Garden are not the same thing. All that was fine in the play, was lost in the representation.... (1)

Thus William Hazlitt in 1816 on a performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nowadays not too many people take Hazlitt's ideas on theater seriously; reading drama from the skewed viewpoint of English Romanticism, he reacts both to the excesses of scenery and special effects of the nineteenth-century stage as well as to the difficulties of credibly staging "moonshine." But in his Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, Hazlitt again takes up the subject of stage representations, and in that later work it seems clear that he finds fault not just with unsatisfactory performances but with the medium of drama itself. "The idea," he writes, "can have no place upon the stage, which is a picture without perspective; everything there is in the foreground. That which was merely an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought, immediately becomes an unmanageable reality." (2)

The present essay is concerned with dramatic representation in the plays of Thomas Bernhard. In particular I am interested to discover why certain events remain unseen and why important pieces of information are sometimes withheld. My concern is with those events which are absent from the stage, whether because they are undramatized or because they are represented only by narrative. The argument turns on a paradox: in a theater like Bernhard's which gives primacy, in Hazlitt's phrase, to the idea rather than to direct action, things which are not seen are in some way likely to be central to the dramatization.

I. Direct Scenic Presentation vs. Narrative Mediation

Common wisdom generally holds that actual pictorial representation is superior to narrative report--"the mind" says Horace," is much less stirred by hearing things described than it is by actually seeing them, with one's own eyes." (3) In writing about Bernhard's theater, however, I want to start by taking seriously Hazlitt's odd notion that any theatrical representation results in a loss. It will be useful to begin by distinguishing between two modes of dramatic representation and to dispel the common notion that narrated events in drama are ipso facto less adequate than actual enactments. In any given drama the events always consist of two kinds of representations, what Mantled Pfister calls direct scenic presentation, on the one hand, and "narrative mediations" on the other. (4) The death of Hamlet, for example, is open; it occurs onstage, and a skilled actor can hold the audience in thrall simply by offering his body to view. The murder of Jason's bride and her father in Euripides' Medea, in contrast, takes place behind the closed doors of the palace. Those deaths, unlike Hamlet's, are made up entirely of sentences, and the problem for Euripides then is how to represent dying without recourse to scenic enactment.

Euripides solves this problem first by forecasting the action as it will soon occur offstage so that spectators are encouraged to imagine the impending horrors. But the real work of representation in this case is performed conventionally in retrospective narrative, when a messenger recounts in graphic detail the disaster. The messenger's speech situates the audience emotionally with respect to the characters and events. It is less a representation of the event than a representation of his thinking after witnessing the event. His memory allows the audience to feel for and with the dying father and daughter; his words are in effect an optical instrument by means of which spectators can identify with their suffering even though they cannot see it.

Many people still believe that Athenian tragedians were not permitted to stage death or that Euripides used a messenger to report Medea's murder of Jason's new bride because he lacked the means to show a head melting. …

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