The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Before the speeches of Offending the Audience begin, Peter Handke’s script contains a section titled “Rules for the actors.” The four speakers are urged to seek out forms of popular art and other experiences which, presumably, would help to free them from the methods of delivery or acting inculcated by their previous training. The actors are told to strive for a sameness of sound, without individual inflection, as if in a crowd or ritual situation; they are also told to make up the partially inarticulate lines and deliver those lines very fast in overlapping and even simultaneous fashion.

Before the curtain opens and the lights onstage and in the auditorium are turned up, the audience is to have the typical pre-performance experiences: formally attired ushers, proper programs, and noises from behind the closed curtain that sound like a crew setting up. When the curtain parts, the equal lighting of both stage and auditorium, a stage without props or scenery, actors who rehearse invectives which cannot be completely heard, all signal to the audience that the play will not be traditional, and perhaps not entertaining. The audience is welcomed, the piece is announced as a “prologue,” and the actors proceed with a series of lines, the grammatical subject of which is “you.”

The first task of the speakers is to disillusion the audience as to what it will see and hear. Attention is caught by a paradox: On one hand the audience will not see what it usually sees; on the other hand it will see nothing that is really unusual. The play or prologue will not create another world, with props, fictional characters, and compelling plot. The stage does not represent a room, with an invisible wall between the actors and the audience, as in realistic theater where members of the audience are in the position of onlookers and eavesdroppers. Gestures and speeches are not meant to suggest anything other than what they would in normal, direct communication. In this sense, the audience will not experience anything unusual.

In the course of disillusioning the audience, the speakers make it aware of...

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Offending the Audience Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As a “speak-in,” Offending the Audience deliberately undercuts or omits the traditional devices of drama. Scenery, props, lights, story, fictional characters, and action are not factors. The normal devices of poetic-dramatic language are undercut or omitted too. Peter Handke wants no metaphors, analogies, or images to suggest another level of reality.

Offending the Audience is not another existential or absurdist play about meaninglessness or the absence of all value. Language communicates meaning in this play. The speeches set up and develop ideas with some logic, although the frequent contradictions and repetitions tend to mask the logic. First, the piece seeks to expose and deny the traditional expectations of theater. Second, the speakers seek to turn the audience’s attention on itself, in particular to the way the audience really “creates” the full dramatic experience by seeking or adding significance to the dialogue, scenic elements, and actions onstage. The speakers emphasize the audience’s role both in this piece and in traditional drama by engaging in a mocking “review” of the audience’s performance on this night. This review inevitably leads to the most dramatic part of the prologue, the offensive name-calling. Third, in the outpouring of names, an epic catalog of positive and negative categories of humanity, the audience is made aware that the world of theater and the world of reality are similar in that they...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Offending the Audience Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barry, Thomas. “Postmodern Longings for the Static Moment: On Recent Peter Handke Criticism.” German Quarterly, Winter, 1987, 88-98.

Berman, Jaye. “Offending the Audience: A Dramatic Example of Postmodern Parabasis.” Antithesis 1, no. 1 (1987): 93-100.

DeMeritt, Linda C. New Subjectivity and Prose Forms of Alienation: Peter Handke and Botho Strauss. New York: P. Lang, 1987.

Firda, Richard A. Peter Handke. Boston: Twayne, 1993.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and James Knowlton. Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation: The Goalie’s Journey Home. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

Ran-Mosely, Faye. The Tragicomic Passion: Clowns, Fools, and Madmen in Drama, Film, and Literature. New York: Lang, 1994.

Schlueter, June. The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.