The first ever performance of Thomas Bernhard’s Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (The Fool and the Madman) was as a commissioned work for the 1972 Salzburg Festival. The Salzburg references are clear: part of the play is set in the dressing room of a sop-rano singing the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute and its cannonades of invective against a decrepit culture industry can easily be recognized as a sarcastic commentary on how the festival is run. There was, however, only one performance. To comply with Austrian law, it was not possible to achieve the complete blackout scripted at the end of the play. The writer and director responded by withdrawing the production. The whole matter became notorious as the Salzburg ‘emergency light scandal’ and there was no shortage of derisive observations from critics of Bernhard or the play who saw the protest as a skilful marketing ploy and effort at legend-building. Both the derision and the scandal can now be happily forgotten. And the references to Salzburg are no more than a marginal – if appealing – curiosity. The play’s merits lie elsewhere and its literary qualities are such that it appears as fresh and unspoilt today as it was on the first day it was performed.
The play as I understand it is a genuine tragedy of professionalism, expressed in the form of a philosophical comedy. Two men wait in the dressing room for the famous singer, about to sing the role of the Queen of the Night for the 222nd time: her blind alcoholic father and her boyfriend, a passionate pathologist. As the singer is going through a personal crisis, arriving at the theatre later and later, the doctor tries to calm her nervous father by describing an autopsy, the dissection of a human corpse. He is interrupted by the father repeating himself and the doctor’s own remarks about the father’s alcoholism, the daughter’s lack of consideration, but also the difficulty of her art and general broadsides about the culture business. The singer arrives, far too late, has to be got hastily into costume and make-up by Ms Vargo, her personal dresser, and just about manages to reach the stage in time for her first entrance.
In Part Two, the three are eating after the performance at ‘The Three Hussars’ restaurant, served by the waiter Winter. The doctor continues his lecture on dissection, the father carries on his relentless drinking, and the singer complains of the intolerable pressure she is under to perform, suffers increasingly from a cough, considers whether she should give up singing and, with Winter’s help, cancels all further appearances by telegram (the year is 1972). Ultimately, as the stage becomes progressively darker, she collapses.
We experience not only the ostensible story of pressure to perform and specialization, of dehumanization and lack of communication: what we experience above all is a highly intellectual and enjoyable game based on the alienated relationship between outer and inner worlds, a game which revolves around a social model – father, daughter, boyfriend – played out in all its Ibsenite and Strindbergian tonalities to the point of suspected incest. We experience the dance of death of three isolated creatures who share a remorseless compulsion towards repetition: repetition not as a tiresome ritual habit, but a search for perfection, which ultimately drives them all mad: the image of a schizophrenic culture entirely divorced from nature.
And we also experience a game of artificial language, an opera for actors, which not only delights in deconstructing and parodying The Magic Flute, but also succeeds in transforming the dry contents of a pathology manual into arias and structuring the language of the play by means of musical rhetoric, contrasting the sound-absorbing effect of darkness with the extended sound of accomplished writing, of joyous music-making.
Ambiguity is always a sign of a philosophical attitude, and just as Bernhard manages to bring the perspectives of the whole and of the individual, of the tragic and the comic, so close together that they are practically interchangeable, this tragedy of déformation professionnelle is simultaneously a comedy.
‘The tale is entirely musical.’ This line from Novalis is placed at the beginning of the play as an epigram and is evidence not only of Bernhard’s link to romanticism, to grief at nature and mankind being torn apart, but, for all Bernhard’s sophistry as a philosopher of laughter or preacher of hate, it also leaves open a tiny glimpse of utopia: that of music.
Even if pressured language is no longer capable of turning into music, in the doctor’s relationship with the singer, a Tamino/Pamina relationship which is distorted and doomed to failure, one can still sense a desperate desire, the desire of Tristan and Isolde, that their sickness might be resolved through music.
Their panic when faced by the icy cold of loneliness, by the impossibility of building bridges to another person out of words, gives rise to these protective walls of verbal gymnastics – however, sometimes the words combine to form, as Bernhard once said, a ‘musical notation of fear’.
(Translation: David Tushingham)