Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Peter Handke’s prefatory note to Offending the Audience provides a helpful entrance to its themes and meanings. He calls the piece a Sprechstucke, translated as “speak-in.” As such, the piece is to be regarded as a self-contained presentation of words which refer to nothing outside of themselves. The play is a dismissal of and, in some sense, a rebuke to the conventions of theater, particularly as they shape or limit the expectations of the audience. The audience is deliberately “offended” in the name-calling section, but it is clear that the particular audience of any given night need not take offense.

In a sense, Handke’s piece seems to indicate that the audience is not to blame, and that all the speakers want to do is shake the audience out of its complacency. In turning attention to the audience, the speakers stress the extent to which the audience “creates” the full experience of any drama by allowing its expectations to operate. Offending the Audience simultaneously makes the audience aware of its usually unconscious role in structuring the details into a whole and denies that this play will allow them to do that. Instead, the drama wants spectators to understand themselves and possibly restructure their roles in drama. They will hopefully understand that plays are made of language, of words that do not necessarily transcend themselves. The piece does this by stressing the informational or communicative functions of language over its imaginative functions.

Offending the Audience does not, however, reject theater. It is, in fact, quite theatrical in its performance of complaints, analysis, and attacks. It takes place in a theater before an audience which paid to be admitted. So the viewer is confronted with the irony of a protest against institutionalized theater that supports the institution. The name-calling even suggests that the conventions of theater are so strong that the audience can “create” theater where there is none.