The Good Woman, legless
Thirteen legless cripples from the cripple asylum
All legless in wheelchairs
Thomas Bernhard´s first play depicts a closed society. It is a “case history” of the legless “Good Woman” who imagines her own reality of sitting in a wheelchair, and in the third act, she hosts a macabre birthday party for her legless husband, Boris and 13 of his legless companions.
The play is a modern danse macabre and presents a radically reduced reality; the spatial constraints, physical mutilations and linguistic reductions are mirrored by the impoverishment of human relationships.
“Death,” said Thomas Bernhard, “is my theme, because my subject is life. incomprehensively, unambiguously.”
(Dramatis Personae and Introduction, A party for Boris, Edition Suhrkamp 440, 1970)
The legless ”Good Woman“ talks about the world, her fellow human beings, her good deeds and her sickness. She is monstrous, fragile, destructive and in need of love. Full of suspicion and jealousy, she terrorizes those around her, particularly Johanna, her servant who seemingly accepts all her moods and Boris, who she chose from the cripple asylum and married. While “The Good Woman” is carried away by her ecstatic speech, opposition occurs as a relationship develops between Boris and Johanna away from her monomaniacal recital. It is as if for a few moments a utopian space is opened and cannot be controlled by her speech. The hasty staccato language of “The Good Woman“ finally leads to a grotesque party for Boris. The birthday celebration includes a memorable company of legless cripples from the asylum and, at the moment of Boris’ disapperance, a utopian power becomes evident: ”For a few moments Boris has always given us the sensation that we are still having legs.”
A Party for Boris, Thomas Bernhard’s first attempt at a “commercial” theatrical production, was written in 1967 and opened in Hamburg three years later with significant public success. Critics were more reluctant in their praise, and for the most part, said Bernhard was a type of second-rate Beckett at best. As Peter Rühmkorf wrote, “A Party for Boris is only a brilliant adaptation of Fin de Partie although, however, it is missing one thing: dramatic quality”. For Bernhard the comparison was irritating, as Beckett (who died in 1989) was practically dead for a decade and only sent “short messages from the next life”. Perhaps this is why he did not hesitate to reveal a more direct source of inspiration: Les Bonnes by Jean Genet, whom he casually met in the streets of Vienna.
If one examines the typescript from one of the first versions of the play currently used in Bernhard’s legacy, the large number of corrections that were introduced by hand and machine would appear in a seemingly very simple text. Thus the play was entitled Die Jause (a word typically Austrian that is similar to “a snack”) and apparently another early title was, “The Invented Woman.” In whatever case, one of the two central themes was that of a master-servant relationship, more frequently—from Brecht to Fassbinder–in modern German theatre. In spite of this, in A Party for Boris, that, as in all the works of Bernhard, has a strong autobiographical component—there is also a fierce satire of the supposed goodness of charitable people. Die Gute, namely The Good Woman, practices neighborly love only to humiliate servants and amputees and cannot contain her ferocious laughter after the death of the puppet that she converted into her husband.
Bernhard once called this play “inhumane”: and said that to write it, he did not have to think of men but of loads of blindfolded meat as if portrayed by Francis Bacon. The play is important in his career because it marks his first encounter with Claus Peymann, the well-known director he never understood (“the only one that hit the mark”). His finale scene, with a banquet at which a sinister uninvited guest appears, is typically Bernhardian and has its clear precedent: Jedermann by Hofmannsthal, as indicated by classic Austrian Hans Höller. Nonetheless, in Bernhard there is no redemption and there will never be.
Almost inevitably for Spaniards, A Party for Boris will remind them of Viridiana, but it is at least doubtful that Bernhard became familiar with Buñel’s work.
(Introduction by Miguel Sáenz , Una fiesta para Boris, Hiru de Hondarribia/ Guipúzcoa 2001)