Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?

Thomas Bernhard

Photograph by Kevin Kunstadt

Not having been to the theatre any more for weeks, I had wanted to go to the theatre yesterday, but already two hours before the start of the performance, in my room, therefore, even as I was still engaged in my scholarly work, it was not quite clear to me whether in the foreground or the background of the medical sphere, and which I must at last bring to a conclusion, less for the sake of my parents than my overstrained head, I wondered whether I should not after all do without going to the theatre.

I haven't been to the theatre any more for eight or ten weeks, I said to myself, and I know why I haven't been to the theatre any more, I despise the theatre, I hate the actors, the theatre is nothing but a perfidious impertinence, an impertinent perfidiousness, and suddenly I'm supposed to go to the theatre again? To a play? What does that mean?

You know that the theatre is a nasty business, I said to myself, and you are going to write your study on the theatre, which you've got in your head, this theatre study, which will hit the theatre where it hurts once and for all! What the theatre is, what the actors are, the playwrights, the theatre managers and so on...

I was more and more dominated by the theatre, less and less by pathology, a failure in my attempt to ignore the theatre, to forge on with pathology

A failure! A failure!

I dressed and went out into the street.

It is only a half-hour walk to the theatre. During this half hour it became clear to me that it was impossible for me to go to the theatre, that going to a theatre, a theatrical performance, was once and for all out of the question for me.

When you've written your theatre study, I thought, then it will be time, then it will be permissible for you to go to the theatre again, so that you can see, that your treatise is right!

It was only embarrassing to me that it could have come to this at all, that I bought myself a theatre ticket--I bought the theatre ticket, was not given it--and that I have tormented myself for two days with the idea of going to the theatre, of watching a theatrical performance, actors, and behind all these actors to scent a miserable and stinking director (Mr T.H.!) and so on... but, above all, that I had changed for the theatre. You've changed for the theatre, I thought.

The theatre study, one day the theatre study! One describes best what one hates, I thought.

With five, possibly seven, sections, under the title THEATRE--THEATRE? my study will soon be finished. (Once it's finished, you'll burn it, because it's pointless to publish it, you'll read it through and burn it. Publication is ridiculous, wrong aim!) First section THE ACTORS, second section THE ACTORS IN THE ACTORS, third section THE ACTORS IN THE ACTORS OF THE ACTORS and so on...fourth section STAGE EXCESSES and so on... last section: SO, WHAT IS THE THEATRE?

With these thoughts I reached Volksgarten park.

I sit down on a bench by Café Meierei, although at this time of year to sit down on a Volksgarten bench can be fatal, and observe, intently, with pleasure, with tremendous concentration, who goes into the theatre and how they go into the theatre.

It pleases me, not to go in.

But you should, I think, go in and, in view of your poverty, sell your ticket, go in, I say to myself, and while I'm thinking that, I take the greatest pleasure in rubbing away my theatre ticket between the thumb and index finger of my right hand, rubbing away the theatre.

First of all, I say to myself, there are more and more people going into the theatre, then less and less. Finally, no one is going into the theatre any more.

The performance has begun, I think, and I stand up and walk a little way in the direction of the central part of town, I'm cold, I haven't eaten anything and, it occurs to me, not spoken to anyone for more than a week, when I am suddenly addressed: a man has addressed me, I hear a man asking me what the time is, and I hear myself exclaim, 'Eight o'clock.'

'It's eight o'clock,' I say, 'the performance has begun.'

Now I turn around and see the man.

The man is tall and thin.

Apart from this man, there is no one in the Volksgarten park, I think.

Immediately I think that I have nothing to lose.

But to say the sentence: 'I have nothing to lose!' out loud, to say it loudly, seems to me absurd, and I don't say the sentence out loud, although I have a great desire to say the sentence out loud.

He had lost his watch, said the man.

'Ever since I lost my watch, I'm forced to address people from time to time.'

He laughed.

'If I hadn't lost my watch, I would not have addressed you,' he said, 'addressed no one.'

He found the observation itself extremely interesting, said the man, that he, after I had told him that it was eight o'clock, now knew, that it was eight o'clock and that today he had, for eleven hours uninterruptedly--'without interruption,' he said--been walking with a single thought, 'not up and down,' he said, but 'always straight ahead, yet as I now see,' he said, 'always in a circle. Crazy isn't it?'

I saw that the man was wearing women's shoes, and the man saw that I had seen that he was wearing women's shoes.

'Yes,' he said, 'you may now wonder about that.'

'I had,' I said quickly, to distract the man and myself from his women's shoes, 'wanted to go to the theatre, but right in front of the theatre I turned around and didn't go into the theatre.'

'I have been in this theatre very often,' said the man, he had introduced himself, but I had forgotten his name, I never remember names, 'one day for the last time, as every man one day goes to a theatre for the last time, don't laugh!' said the man, 'one day everything is for the last time, don't laugh!'

'Oh,' he said, 'what's on today? No no,' he said quickly, 'don't tell me what's on today...'

He went to the Volksgarten park every day, said the man 'since the beginning of the season I always go to the Volksgarten park at this time, so that from here, from this corner, from the Café Meierei wall, you see, I can observe the theatre-goers. Curious people,' he said.

'Admittedly, one would have to know what's on today,' he said, 'but don't you tell me what's on today. For me it's extremely interesting, for once, not to know what's on. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy?' he asked and immediately said: 'No no, don't say, what it is. Don't say it!'

The man is fifty, or he's fifty-five, I think.

He suggests walking in the direction of the Parliament building.

'Let's go as far as the Parliament building,' he says, 'and back again. It's always remarkably quiet, once the performance has begun. I love this theatre...'

He walked very quickly, and it was almost unbearable for me to watch him as he did so, the thought that the man was wearing women's shoes made me feel sick.

'Here I take the same number of steps every day, that is,' he said, 'in these shoes I walk from Café Meierei to the Parliament building, to the railings, taking exactly three hundred and twenty-eight steps. In the buckle shoes, I take three hundred and ten. And to the Swiss Wing--he meant the Swiss Wing of the Hofburg Palace--I take exactly four hundred and fourteen steps in these shoes, three hundred and twenty nine in the buckle shoes! Women's shoes, you may think, and you may find that repulsive, I know,' says the man.

'But then I only go into the street when it's dark. That every evening I go into the Volksgarten park at this time, always half an hour before the beginning of the performance is, as you may imagine, the result of a shock. It is already twenty-two years since this shock. And it is very closely linked to the women's shoes. Incident,' he says, 'an incident. It is quite the atmosphere of those days: the curtain has just gone up in the theatre, the actors are beginning to play, the absence of people outside...Let us walk now,' says the man, as we reach Café Meierei again, 'to the Swiss Wing.'

A madman? I thought as we walked to the Swiss Wing, side by side, the man said: 'The world is entirely, through and through, a juridical one, as you may not know. The world is nothing but a monstrous jurisprudence. The world is a prison!'

He said: 'It is exactly forty-eight days since I last encountered a person at this time in the Volksgarten park. I asked this man, too, what the time was. The man, too, told me that it was eight o'clock. Curiously I always ask at eight o'clock, what the time is. This man, too, walked with me as far as the Parliament building and as far as the Swiss Wing. Furthermore,' said the man, 'I have, this is the truth, not lost my watch, I don't lose my watch. Here, look, here's my watch,' he said and held his wrist in front of my face, so that I could see his watch.

'A trick!' he said, 'but to continue: this man, whom I encountered forty-eight days ago, was a man of your age. Like you, taciturn, like you, at first undecided, then determined to walk with me. A student of the natural sciences,' said the man. 'I also said to him, that a shock, an incident that occurred a long time ago, is the reason for me being here in the Volksgarten park every evening. Wearing women's shoes. Same reaction,' said the man, and: 'Furthermore I have never seen a policeman there. For several days the police have been avoiding the Volksgarten park and concentrating on the City Park, and I know why...'

'Now it would indeed be interesting,' he said, 'to know whether at the moment at which we are walking towards the Swiss Wing, a comedy or a tragedy is being performed in the theatre...This is the first time that I don't know what is being performed. But you must not tell me... No, don't say what it is! It should not be hard,' he said, 'by studying you, by concentrating entirely on you, by concerning myself exclusively only with you, to discover whether at this moment a comedy or a tragedy is being performed in the theatre. 'Yes,' he said, 'in time the study of your person will inform me about everything that is happening in the theatre, and about everything that is happening outside the theatre, about everything in the world, which at every moment is entirely linked to you. Finally at some point, the moment really could arrive at which, by studying you as intensively as possible, I know everything about you...'

When we had reached the wall of the Swiss Wing, he said: 'Here, on this spot, the young man, whom I encountered forty-eight days ago, took his leave of me. You want to know, in what manner? Careful! Ah!' he said, 'So you are not taking your leave? You are not saying "Good night"? Yes,' he said, 'then let's go back again from the Swiss Wing to where we started. Now where did we start? Ah yes, at Café Meierei. The curious thing about people is that they constantly mix themselves up with other people. So, 'he said, 'you wanted to go to this evening's performance. Although you, as you say, hate the theatre. Hate the theatre? I love it...'

Now it struck me that the man had a woman's hat on his head. All that time I hadn't noticed it.

The coat he was wearing was also a woman's coat, a woman's winter coat.

He really is wearing nothing but women's clothes, I thought.

'In summer,' he said, 'I don't go to the Volksgarten park, there are no performances then, of course, but always when there are performances in the theatre, I go to the Volksgarten park, then, when there are performances in the theatre, no one else apart from me goes to the Volksgarten park, because then the Volksgarten park is far too cold. Young men come singly to the Volksgarten park, whom I, as you know, immediately address and ask to walk with me, once as far as the Parliament building, once as far as the Swiss Wing...and from the Swiss Wing and from Café Meierei always back again... But until now not one person, and that is striking,' he said, 'has walked twice with me as far as the Parliament building and twice as far as the Swiss Wing and therefore four times back to Café Meierei. Now we have walked twice to the Parliament building and twice to the Swiss Wing and back again,' he said, 'that's enough. If you like,' he said, 'accompany me a part of the way home. Never ever has even one man accompanied me a part of the way home from here.'

He was staying in the Twentieth District.

He was putting up in the apartment of his parents, who ('suicide, young man, suicide!') had died six weeks earlier.

'We have to cross the Danube Canal,' he said.

I was interested in the man, and I wanted to accompany him for as long as possible.

'At the Danube Canal you have to turn back,' he said. 'You must not accompany me any further than the Danube Canal. Don't ask why until we've reached the Danube Canal!'

Beyond the Rossauer Barracks, a hundred yards before the bridge, which leads over to the Twentieth District, the man suddenly said, having come to a halt, looking down into the water of the canal: 'Yes, at this spot.'

He turned to me and repeated: 'At this spot.'

And he said: 'I pushed her in quick as a flash. The clothes I'm wearing are her clothes.'

Then he made a sign that meant: disappear!

He wanted to be alone.

'Go!' he ordered.

I didn't go immediately.

I let him finish speaking: 'Twenty-two years and eight months ago,' he said.

'And if you think that it's a pleasure in prison, then you are mistaken! The whole world is a jurisprudence. The whole world is a prison. And this evening, let me tell you, in the theatre over there, whether you believe it or not, a comedy is being performed. Indeed, a comedy.'

translated from the German by Martin Chalmers

This short story, taken from Prose, is used by permission of The University of Chicago Press.



Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) grew up in Salzburg and Vienna, where he studied music. In 1957, he began a second career as a playwright, poet and novelist. He went on to win many of the most prestigious literary awards of Europe (including the Austrian State Prize, the Bremen and Brüchner Prizes and Le Prix Séguier) and was one of the most widely admired writers of his generation.

Martin Chalmers grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. His translations include works by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Hubert Fichte, Ernst Weiss, Herta Mueller, Alexander Kluge, Emine Sevgi Oezdamar and Erich Hackl. He lives in Berlin.