Even as his novels and stories have experienced a sustained surge in popularity over the last ten years, vaulting them from cult favourites to canonical classics, Thomas Bernhard's work for theatre remains largely unknown across the Anglophone world, this despite his on-going status in Europe as one of the modern era's most important playwrights.
Part of the problem is that his translated plays aren't as engrossingly funny as the novels or the stories.
"Whereas the novels are deeply funny on the page, you have to put a lot of faith in the plays," explains director Daniel Schlusser who originally pitched the idea of doing Bernhard to the STC. "When I first read The Histrionic, I had to trust that in performance it would be as compelling as a novel like Cutting Timber [Holzfällen]. Though it's not on the page, I assumed that the humour would be there. And sure enough it is."
As Schlusser sees it, many of the existing translations of Bernhard's plays are not necessarily written for performance. "It's the same problem we have for a number of German playwrights. An American academic has done the translation, and it doesn't really work for our ear."
It's a problem which the STC's Tom Wright, who has been working on a new translation for Schlusser, is keenly aware of.
"I think a lot more energy has gone into making sure the novels and the short stories are translated to a very high standard," he says. "But I'm not convinced that there's a strong tradition of translation for Bernhard's plays. The ones that I'm aware of are nearly all North American, and as is the case with nearly all American translations of European drama, they tend to be obsessed with fidelity. And also they tend to render modernist texts into naturalism and things like that. I think Bernhard's best translations are yet to come."
But Wright also emphasises that we shouldn't expect the comedy in the plays to present in the same way it does in the novels.
"The humour in a novel like The Lime Works [Das Kalkwerk] is a subtle one which creeps up on the reader, in the great modernist tradition where you form a complicit relationship between the narrative voice, the voice of Bernhard himself and the reader. It almost feels like a kind of private joke. That's obviously a very different experience to the social experience in a theatre."
Thus the characters that Bernhard has written for theatre are often more publically monstrous than privately disastrous, as in the novels, and the humour is coarser, more carnivalesque.
That is certainly the case with The Histrionic, which tells the story of a tyrannical actor touring a comedy called The Wheel of History through provincial Austrian villages. As he prepares his performance in the rotting hall of an obscure country inn, he rails cruelly against his family, who are performers in the show, against the locals, who he sees as ignorant, and against Austrians generally, who he denounces as essentially fascist.
This coarseness is one of the key problems for translators. While still very much popular in German-speaking countries, such humour is not well appreciated in Australia. And the fact that Bernhard's slapstick is pitch black in tone only makes it more difficult. But Tom Wright does see a way.
"When I was translating it," he says, "I was thinking, you know, this is just Statler and Waldorf, from The Muppets. It's that level of humour. It's a little bit like a Germanic Blackadder, appealing to the pleasure you take in watching another's cruelty. And that is a kind of humour that the English-speaking world does understand."
Another curious avenue into the script that Wright sees for Australian audiences is the near homophony of Austria and Australia.
"I really love that whenever Bruscon, the lead character in the Der Theatermacher, starts railing against the provincialism or backwardness of Austria, you could very easily mishear it as Australia, as so much of the Western world does – for that reason alone, I'm attracted to it."
But there is no question that the text is a difficult one, especially when it comes to connecting Bernhard's obsessive concern with Austrian culture circa 1985, with Australia, 2012, without betraying the playwright's distinctive voice.
To cut through this problem, Wright believes two things are necessary.
The first is a director with a unique vision, one who isn't caught halfway between Vienna and Melbourne, but rather creates their own place.
"When you hit a monologue, which is what this is essentially," says Wright, "the core question is, well, what is the theatrical world in which the production takes place? How is it not just an act of recitation? Some of Daniel's skills in enabling actors the freedom to construct a reality for themselves will be quite useful in this regard."
The second is casting a well-known actor in the lead, someone whose confidence and familiarity are capable of drawing the audience into a foreign world. That's why having veteran actor Bille Brown play Bruscon is such a coup.
"I didn't really feel compelled to do this play until I worked with Bille," says Schlusser. "We happened to be on a Playwriting Australia gig together, working on a Ross Mueller play, and I just loved him, and he was comfortable with me playing in the way that I do. That's when this project started coming together in my mind, when I started thinking, ooh, I know exactly what I want to do with you."
For Wright, the prospect of seeing a great Australian actor like Bille Brown construct a grotesque vision of tyrannical modernity is what makes this project so exciting. "With the possible exception of Geoffrey Rush," he enthuses, "there are not many other Australian actors who could actually play this part."
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