Thomas Bernhard's utter contempt for his Austrian compatriots is central to his writing: he wouldn't even allow them to perform his plays. As 'Eve of Retirement' opens in London, Paul Taylor considers the morality of his work
Thomas Bernhard - dramatist, novelist, warped genius and misanthrope - despised his fellow Austrians with such ferocious thoroughness that, when he died of a heart attack in 1989, he left a will expressly forbidding the performance of any of his plays there. You'd have thought his compatriots would have been able to take this deprivation on the chin. There is, after all, no writer it is harder to picture holding down a job at the Austrian Tourist Board.

In work after work, he poured an avalanche of biliously comic scorn on "a nation of six and a half million idiots". "Common Nazis and Catholic half-wits" are everywhere you look, he never tired of insisting, their guilt neither confronted nor exorcised. There were near-riots - during which skinheads dumped a pile of dung in front of the theatre entrance - on the occasion of his 1987 play, Heldenplatz, named after the square where Hitler was enthusiastically welcomed in 1938 by thousands of Austrians. It focuses on a Jewish professor who returns from exile after 50 years and, finding anti-Semitism unabated, takes his own life. Kurt Waldheim, who is branded a liar in the piece, declared it "a crude insult to the Austrian people".

This didn't stop countless bus loads of Austrians from crossing the border into Czechoslovakia in 1990 to see the touring Schiller Theater production of Bernhard's late play Elisabeth II. Full of oddball compulsives and fanatics, his work is itself strangely addictive, and it's developing quite a (belated) following in this country - as is witnessed by David Fielding's British premiere production, opening tonight at the Gate Theatre, of the 1979 play Eve of Retirement.

Set in the present and subtitled "A Comedy of the German Soul", it homes in on the grotesque annual ritual which sees Rudolf Holler, a former deputy commandant of a concentration camp and now a Chief Justice, clamber into his old SS uniform and throw a private champagne dinner to celebrate the birthday of his one-time mentor, Himmler. This particular year, the only other guests are the two sisters with whom Holler lives in a suffocating Strindbergian "conspiracy". One of them carries her devotion to her brother to incestuous lengths (a relationship initiated during his 10 years of hiding in their cellar after the war); the other, hostile to the unregenerate politics of her siblings, is wheelchair-bound, having been crippled by an American bomb blast in the last days of the war.

Bernhard's first major appearance on the English stage - in 1976, with a National Theatre production of The Force of Habit - was also, it's true, a major flop. Audiences weaned on rhinoceroses, bored prima donnas and the rest of the Absurdist caboodle, were still not ready, it seems, for a play in which a rag-bag circus troupe - lion-tamer, bare-back rider et al - continues its doomed 22-year attempt to produce a faultless performance of Schubert's "Trout Quintet". The kind of cranky perfectionist who drives himself to an early grave or who indulges in endless, nerve-racked revisions, and has (so to speak) an acute susceptibility to drafts, was a continuing preoccupation with Bernhard. Not for nothing do fictionalised versions of the pianist Glenn Gould and of the philosopher Wittgenstein crop up in his uvre.

It was in the 1992-3 theatre season that Bernhard's brand of baleful hilarity first properly struck home here. David Fielding's superb production at The Gate of Elisabeth II, and Jonathan Kent's Almeida account of The Showman, starring Alan Bates, gave centre stage to that quintessential Bernhardian creation: the preternaturally irritable megalomaniac misanthrope who bellyaches and harangues the cowed company with such comprehensive loathing and unflagging stamina you end up feeling that the Jimmy Porters and Victor Meldrews of this world deserve canonising for their sweet-natured, saintly restraint.

"A talented actor is as rare as an arsehole in the face," moans the grandiose itinerant ham in The Showman. In these plays, a good word for humanity would, you reckon, be as much of a find as a face-boasting arse. In Elisabeth II, set during our own dear Queen's first state visit to Austria in the early Sixties, the Windsor clan is vitriolically dismissed as "dressing- up dolls for Burberry and Hartnell, with their stupid smiles and with their dogs... the whole brood is frightful". Her Majesty is in good company on this crippled millionaire protagonist's shit-list, though, alongside such luminaries as Goethe ("Goethe has not sullied your world," he tells his manservant, "he's progressively ruined mine"), and Mozart, for whose operas he can muster only grudging reverence: "They bore me, too, but at the highest level."

It's significant that nothing short of the set's collapsing around them can shut these monologuists up. The conclusion of Elisabeth II - in which dozens of partying extras bound on, swiftly establish the all-round repulsiveness of the Viennese, and then, while watching the royal procession, plummet to their deaths from a disintegrating balcony - is typical of Bernhard's cavalier, callously comic approach to normal theatrical constraints. A dramatist whose first piece, A Party for Boris, had 15 wheelchairs whizzing across the stage, he gives a whole new meaning to the term "disabled access".

But in what sense can plays with such attention-monopolising central figures be considered dramatic? Partly, it's the sheer outrageous energy and lack of let-up: listening to these characters, you find yourself thinking (pace Beckett), "He can't go on. He's gone on." Your incredulity induces mild hysteria. Partly, it's a case of dramatic conflict deriving not from any effective external opposition but from Bernhard's own divided attitude to his round-the-clock ranters. He may agree with the opinions of these skewed self-portraits, but he also sees that, in the flailing futility of their fulminations against unrepentant Austria, they may constitute the biggest joke of all.

On the face of it, Eve of Retirement is a different proposition. Holler, the camp-commandant-turned-Chief Justice, is no authorial mouthpiece, but a spokesman for everything Bernhard loathed. Still brimming with sentimental nostalgia for pre-war Germany, still blaming practically everything on the Jews, he seems to have learnt nothing from his experiences and is impervious to the irony of a man with his past now fighting, on environmental grounds, plans to build a poison gas factory near his house.

There's a grotesque scene in which he and his like-minded sister leaf through a photograph album, reacting in much the same chatty way to snaps of family trips ("Pentecost in Vienna/ Oh what a lovely time that was") as to the cheek-by-jowl images of atrocity ("The Jews of Hungary were a tricky case/ It really was scraping the barrel"). Not since the episode in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound - where a pair of drama critics show each other colour slides of theatre marquee quotes from their reviews - has blinkered self-centredness been dramatised more effectively through behaviour with photographs.

Yet, for all its still topical subject matter, one would be loath to describe this egregious play as political in the sense of agitating to bring about change. Bernhard is often compared to Beckett in the images he offers of deathly symbiosis, compulsion and paralysis, the difference being that, in the former's work, these states are found within a named and identified state: Austria. As with John Osborne, another author to whom he is sometimes likened, on account of his fondness for the dramatic tirade, there was a complicated relation between the public stands and the private neuroses. Both playwrights, for example, had severe mother-trouble. Deserted by his father, Bernhard's mother would repeatedly shout: "You're all I needed!" at her little illegitimate son, who was acute enough to realise he was copping his father's punishment. Not a policy calculated to reconcile a young boy to the world.

This is not to question the sincerity of Bernhard's public attitudes. But, given his abnormally touchy psychology, you may feel that, if modern Austria had not existed, Bernhard would have had to invent it. A sublime misprint in The Independent's fine obituary referred to his retreat to "a position of absolute solecism (sic)". You may wonder how a solipsist and rabid perfectionist who wrote an obsessive novel entitled Correction would have coped with that little blunder.

Speaking (in a 1980 interview with the newspaper Der Spiegel) of men like his character Holler, Bernhard remarked that such monsters "are in me, just as they are in everyone else". Is this evidence of solipsism or of objective moral insight? Will the dramatic power of Eve of Retirement prove, in Fielding's production, to derive from a compelling confusion between the two?n

'Eve of Retirement' opens tonight, Gate Theatre, London W11 (0171-229 5387). To 6 Sept

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