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  • Comitragedies: Thomas Bernhard’s Marionette Theater
  • Bianca Theisen (bio)

Almost everything comic depends on the appearance of self-annihilation.

Friedrich Schlegel

Unsatisfied with what comedy writers have to offer, four actors band together to write their own comedy. Although each actor is supposed to write a role for himself, “each one naturally only [writes] about himself.” The actors could not have titled the comedy “they produced after weeks of painstaking study anything but The Author.” “But even with this Author, it is reported, they had no success.” 1 Thomas Bernhard could not have titled this anecdote in Stimmenimitator anything but Komödie. A different title could not have both captured the self-referentiality of the situation and comically broken it. What the actors perform is evidently not comic, but their own comedy becomes in a sense their own comedy. Insofar as the actors, portraying only themselves, no longer differentiate between role and self or between actor and author, their play The Author fails to distinguish itself from the dull productions of the standard comedy writers. The actors have no more success with themselves as authors than with the other authors.

Bernhard’s Komödie interrupts the self-reference of this “author” by differentiating, almost imperceptibly, between various levels. It is in these terms that the anecdote provides the framework in which I would like to discuss Bernhard’s treatment of genre delimitations, above all of comedy, but also indirectly of tragedy. I also want to call [End Page 533] attention to an intertextual invocation of Kleist which is relevant for this re-drawing of genre borders. If in his first novel Frost, Bernhard already brings together the two dramatic species in a single word, “Komödientragödien,” 2 this does not amount to an affirmation of the simple exchangeability or admixture of comedy and tragedy 3 (although the literature on Bernhard has repeatedly claimed as much, thereby posing questions of genre aesthetics as existential questions which are concealed by their translation into a theatrical metaphorics). 4 Bernhard experiments with the delimitations of genre, which he dissolves and draws anew as observations of observations. This experimentation with genre borders whose installation is dependent on an observer is also implicitly intertextual, if one invokes Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of ambivalence as the coincidence and differentiation of levels by which one word is embedded in another but at the same time remains a word about the other word. With this formulation, Bakhtin intended to provide an alternative to Tarski’s distinction between object-language and meta-language. 5 Rather than speaking of one word being embedded in another, one could speak—using the conceptual models developed by Heinz von Foerster and Niklas Luhmann—about different levels of observation or about the unity of the distinction between self-reference and hetero-reference. The texts I shall be examining relate the recursivity of all observation to a new delimitation of comedy and are connected intertextually with Kleist, particularly to the latter’s essay “Über das Marionettentheater,” [End Page 534] a text which also confounds us with the paradoxes of distinction-driven observation. With the literary processes of intertextuality and genre differentiation, Bernhard also displaces the problem of reference. His texts do not refer to the world as a world of pre-given history or representable objects, but construct a world intertextually out of other texts, a world which only develops from recursive observations. 6 In short, a world as a case (Fall) of distinction.


In the title of his short story, “Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy?”, which first appeared in 1967, three years before his first drama, Bernhard already seems to give the distinction between these two dramatic forms conceptual priority, evidently deciding at the end of the story in favor of comedy. The first-person narrator, who visits the theater precisely because he hates it, abandons his visit and sits in the park in front of the theater where he watches the other theater-goers enter. A man in women’s clothes addresses him, repeating the question posed in the title without expecting an answer from the narrator: “What will be performed, a comedy, or a tragedy?” The man claims...

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