Konrad, the protagonist of Thomas Bernhard’s 1970 novel Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works), is struggling to write the definitive treatise on human hearing. Equal parts scientist, poetic dreamer, and lunatic obsessive-compulsive, he has spent years hidden away in the drafty gloom of an abandoned lime works in upper Austria, maintaining only minimal contact with the outside world, and with only his wheelchair-bound wife, permanently crippled by misprescribed medication, for company.
That he eventually goes mad and murders her, which happens before the novel begins, surprises no one. Not only do the couple’s hideous situation and their even more hideous relationship signal its inevitability, so does the country life around them, from which their two part-time servants regularly bring grim news of local deaths and suicides. Konrad, whose idea of a good time is reading aloud to his wife from Kropotkin’s anarchist political theories for two hours at a stretch, knows perfectly well that he’s insane, that his treatise is nothing but a crazy dream inside his head, and that even if he succeeded in writing it down, it would be misunderstood and disregarded. The world is a dreadful joke, devised only to torment us. And yet here we are in it.
Konrad and his wife are perhaps not the happy pair with whom you would want to spend a four-hour evening in the theater. But in Kalkwerk, his stage adaptation of Bernhard’s eerie tome, the Polish director Krystian Lupa demonstrates both the theatrical possibilities of Bernhard’s novel and the incredibly rich textures that lie within the great Austrian writer’s seemingly monochrome vision. Lupa hasn’t done this with total success: Performed here for a brief engagement in the Lincoln Center Festival by Krakow’s Narodowy Stary Teatr, Lupa’s home company, Kalkwerk displays the problems that always arise when adapting a novel for the stage, in addition to those that come with the basic dilemma of sustaining audiences’ interest in such a merciless view of existence—”the problem,” as Eric Bentley put it when reviewing the New York premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956, “of [existential] nausea as a playwright’s basic attitude towards life.”
Beckett’s audiences learned quickly how to cope with the unyielding darkness of his vision: He conveyed it so tersely, and in increasingly shorter forms. The comic sense that lit it from the inside, in memorably sharp flashes, turned out to be easily assimilable to the standard vaudevillian rhythms of wisecracking stage comedy, while raising it to metaphysical heights. Bernhard (1931–1989) presents a tougher test. Though generally regarded in Europe as one of the major literary figures of the past half-century, he has never acquired a large readership here. His plays, perhaps even better known on the continent than his novels, have had virtually no major productions in the U.S., and only a few in England. Among other obstacles, he lacked Beckett’s ability to supply his own translations into English, a language for which his diction, in narrative prose or spoken dialogue, poses considerable challenges.
Bernhard’s plays, for all their verbal difficulty, are shaped to meet the demands of the stage. His novels, in contrast, are built of what at first look like unstoppable torrents of prose, their long, elaborate sentences climbing, clause by piled-on clause, till they suddenly rush downhill to collapse in self-contradiction, out-of-control roller coasters of syntax. To sit alone, book in hand, riding the waves of this extraordinary prose style can be a wildly exhilarating experience. Where Beckett supplies sharp jabs of laughter, Bernhard goes in for giant explosions of absurdity, frequently as hilarious as his violent expostulations of negativity are shocking. And the negativity itself can be hilarious, too: Bernhard is acutely aware that his total hatred for existence makes him ridiculous. Even more shocking can be the jaw-dropping moments of tenderness or pathos that suddenly emerge from the extreme bleakness, as they do in The Lime Works.
For Lupa to adapt one of these novels (one of the longest and least tractable, to boot) was the sort of task, at once heroic and absurdly futile, that a Bernhard protagonist might undertake. Lupa could not keep Kalkwerk from being a grueling experience; it was born as such. The astounding part was how much variety, humor, and emotional resonance Lupa managed to find inside a situation that remains on one flat line of misery throughout. The production’s unrelieved intensity, sustained to a masterly degree by the superb cast, was a living demonstration that, in spiritual as well as tonal terms, black contains all colors. You could feel yourself having a perfectly rotten time enduring the production, as I did, and yet come away marveling at its precise, exacting, exquisiteness of detail. In retrospect, the grinding grimness fades away, leaving behind memories of extraordinary beauty. Even Jacek Ostaszewski’s sound score, parts of which are pitched ear-piercingly loud to convey Konrad’s neurotically heightened sense of hearing, comes off as a subtle and brilliant achievement. Life is completely hopeless, everything’s awful, and art can make even that fact enchanting. What a wonderful world we live in.
For instance: Even loving as I do the sweet plangency of Scott Joplin’s piano rags, and dazzled as I am by the puckish brilliance of Irving Berlin, I’d gladly have skipped Mark Saltzman’s The Tin Pan Alley Rag to take another grueling turn at Kalkwerk. Saltzman’s factitious play-with-songs imagines the aging composer of “Maple Leaf Rag” barging into the publishing offices of the cocky young tunesmith responsible for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to flog his unproduced opera, Treemonisha. If you’re unfamiliar with the two composers’ lives and works, the inherent falsity of Saltzman’s stodgy, static saga does no more harm than the average soggy script for a 1940s MGM songwriter biopic. The more you know of the realities involved, however, the more irritated you’re likely to get. The actors aren’t to blame: In supporting roles, Michael McCormick, James Judy, and Idara Victor considerably outclass their thin material, but Stafford Arima’s production injects no excitement into what is basically a faded library lecture with examples. And library lectures should be factual.