The Force of Habit
First Slovenian production
21 November 2008
They play forces together two radically different spheres of art, the circus on the one hand, and the performance of classical music on the other. A ringmaster attempts to perfect Schubert’s quintet with the four other members of his troupe. Yet this is not just a comedy that plays off the circus against serious musicianship, character deficiencies against impossible ideal of a perfect art, or Caribaldi against his troupe. There is another associated struggle that holds the stage, the internal struggle of characters to emerge from purely habitual and private gestures of their language. To illustrate the force of linguistic habit, Bernhard has borrowed the musical idea of “theme and variations” from the fourth movement of the Trout Quintet and has applied it to the language of the play. The characters’ words and themes recur automatically, not only in their own, but also in each other’s mouths, sometimes with minor variations, but often for the mere reassurance of naming things over and over again. Like their instruments, the characters must not let go of their theme for too long. They must always have s store of words to fall back on when their attempts at breaking new ground fail.
Bernhard takes the theme of habit into areas usually associated with the extraordinary and spectacular. But behind artistry, whether circus or classical music, there must be rehearsal. The performers become when they rehearse. Here, even their voices seem to take on the same tone as their instruments. They can escape neither their circus not their musical roles. Caribaldi is no exception. For him the perfecting of the Trout Quintet means escape from arbitrariness of the world. Yet, even though he knows it is possible, given the defective characters of his troupe, he continues the gesture of rehearsal. He has been rehearsing the quintet so long, it too has become a habit of mind. The escape from habit through art is merely turned into an-other layer of habit.
The comedy, however, relies just as heavily on rehearsal, on timing and virtuosity, so that it is itself open to the fun it pokes at Caribaldi’s hopeless mixture of circus and the Trout Quintet. That mixture, curiously, is also the author’s. Like the ringmaster, Bernhard has to balance the two arts, only in his case he also has to extract a third art from them, the comedy. He too struggles to perfect. He too has to make a ruthless habit of precision. So he himself is open to the laughter he creates at the expense of characters. That is another variation on the theme of the force of habit. Not even Thomas Bernhard or his play can escape it.
Neville and Stephen Plaice