Peter Handke calls his first three plays—Offending the Audience, Self-Accusation, and Prophecy—Sprechstücke (literally, speaking pieces). Both “speech” and “piece” are important, for Handke does away with such mundane dramatic considerations as plot and character, replacing them with activities and speakers. Thus, all three plays are made up of speech—pronounced word and rhetorical gesture—which is not involved in imitating an action. The plays examine the power and banality of public and private speech.
Offending the Audience
Offending the Audience, the first of these plays to be produced, appeared in 1966 at Frankfurt’s Theater am Turm, a theater known for its dedication to the avant-garde. The play was accepted there only after it had been rejected by some sixty other more conservative theaters, and the avant-garde setting may have lessened the play’s impact, for it depends on the assumptions and conventions of mainstream theater—a theater in which William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, and more recently Brecht have been the mainstays of the repertory. The play also depends on the predictable reactions of the patrons of such a theater—middlebrow, middle-class, and conservatively dressed.
The audience enters a theater that appears set up for business as usual, complete with assiduous ushers and elegant programs. The usual routine occurs: Doors close and lights dim. When the curtain opens, four speakers are revealed (usually, but not necessarily, two men and two women) on a bare stage. The four ignore the audience and insult one another. Their speeches overlap and blend until at last a formal pattern is established, which culminates in the four saying one word in unison. (Handke has left what they actually say here unscripted.) The four now face the audience and, after a pause, begin to address it directly. Handke has simply broken his text into paragraphs, presumably each one spoken by a different speaker. He has not assigned gestures or speeches, and the script can in no manner be construed as a dialogue among the speakers. Thus, the director has a free hand with the assignment of speeches and movements.
The direct address to the audience concerns four basic themes: the audience’s expectations of the theater, the nature of the audience itself, the nature of theatrical illusion and its absence in the current piece, and, by extension, the roles the spectators play in society. These topics are not presented in a logical way but, rather, in a repetitive intertwining of single, declarative sentences. A short sample from Michael Roloff’s translation conveys the flavor:The possibilities of theatre are not exploited here. The realm of possibilities is not exhausted. The theatre is not unbound. The theatre is bound. Fate is meant ironically here. We are not theatrical.
After some twenty minutes of this, the audience is told, “Before you leave you will be offended.” They are then told why they are going to be offended. The piece ends with a decrescendo of silly and vulgar insults. At the end of the play, the curtain closes, only to open again as the four speakers take bows to recorded applause.
So described, one has difficulty seeing why this was a popular play. Handke demonstrates the power of convention by removing it from the context in which it usually exists. He goes further by discussing those same conventions while violating them. The play affirms the power of theater by pointing out that the conventions are mistaken for the reality. When theater imitates, it does so through a structure of conventional movement and language. Handke forces the audience to see how often it confuses the convention with the reality it purports to imitate.
Similar themes animate the two other Sprechstücke. Self-Accusation has two speakers—one male, one female—who in no sense carry on a dialogue. Rather, speaking alternately and together, they portray an Everyman who spells out the process of growing up civilized. Every sentence in the dialogue has “I” as its subject. Again a short quote will convey more than a description.I learned. I learned the words. I learned the verbs. I learned the difference between singular and plural. . . . I learned the adjectives. I learned the difference between mine and yours. I acquired vocabulary.
In this play, the processes of verbal, moral, and physical growth are intertwined by Handke’s curiously declarative style. This style seems to imply that verbal growth is the controlling factor in shaping human life: Language civilizes at great cost and it creates our world.
This notion that language creates the individual’s world also motivates Handke’s first full-length play, Kaspar. This play has a historical antecedent. In Nuremberg in 1828, a boy, Kaspar Hauser, was discovered, who—as a result of abuse and sensory deprivation—could, at age sixteen, say only one sentence: “I want to become a horseman such as my father once was.” Handke, however, does not write historical drama. He says in the play’s introduction that his play “does not show how IT REALLY IS OR REALLY WAS with Kaspar Hauser. It shows how someone can be made to speak through speaking. The play could also be called speech torture.”
The play, like the Sprechstücke, presents a speaker on what is obviously still a stage, although a much more cultured stage than in the earlier plays. This speaker, Kaspar, is costumed and heavily made up as a Chaplinesque clown. This clown interacts with the voices of four Einsager, a neologism that literally means “in-sayers” but implies indoctrinator. (Michael Roloff translates it as prompter.) Later, Kaspar is joined by six other Kaspars all identically made-up and costumed.
Handke lists sixteen stages through which Kaspar must pass, beginning with the question “Can Kaspar, the owner of one sentence, begin and begin to do something with his sentence?” and ending with “What is now Kaspar, Kaspar?” Handke has stressed his concern with identity and individuality by changing Kaspar’s only sentence to “I want to be a person like someone else was once.”
Basically three main movements constitute the play. Kaspar and the audience learn that his one sentence is inadequate. The Einsager teach Kaspar new sentences until he has mastered language. It is at this point that the identical Kaspars appear. Finally Kaspar discovers that by accepting the Einsager’s language he has lost his uniqueness and identity. As Kaspar says, “I was trapped from my first sentence.”
Voices heard on the loudspeaker suggest all the voices of coercion one hears in growing up—parents’ warnings, teachers’ threats, government propaganda. By calling the speakers “in-sayers,” Handke demonstrates how quickly humans internalize such voices. The audience is never fully certain where these prompters exist. Are they outside or...
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