Handke, Peter 1942–
Handke is an Austrian-born novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist writing in German. He is considered a major innovator in contemporary theater for his experiments with language. One of Handke's major themes is the inadequacy of language as a means of communication. This is perhaps best illustrated in his "Sprechstücke," or "speak-ins," Handke's own theatrical creation. Lacking the structure of traditional drama, these plays are basically language exercises in which the actors are speakers rather than characters. Instead of dialogue the speakers engage in cliché-ridden, fragmented monologues, thus conveying to the audience the way language impedes true expression. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Handke presents us with a clown [in Kaspar]—the visual impact of Kaspar, with his unco-ordinated gestures and bizarre costume, is clown-like, his name suggests that he is a puppet, and he is, of course, manipulated by language, just as a marionette is manipulated by strings; but he is also Kaspar—a person—and his mask is so like a face that the audience only gradually becomes aware that it is, in fact, a mask; the set represents nothing but itself—a stage, and there is no dialogue, let alone conversation, merely the voices that condition and torment Kaspar and his responses to them. (p. 51)
In Handke's play we see Kaspar, the non-person, undergoing his "Sprechfolterung" (speech torture), and being transformed by language into a model citizen who will accept the system, keep the rules and play the part demanded of him. Handke demonstrates a diabolical process whereby everything "useful" that Kaspar is taught is paralleled by some propaganda for the system the voices belong to, the system that invented the language, no doubt…. Violence is as natural a part of life as grammar and syntax….
You beat the dust off your pants; you beat the thought out of your head …
The table is standing. The table is not standing, it was placed there. The corpse is lying. The corpse is not lying, it was placed there….
This clearly gives the play a very pronounced social and political emphasis. However, the process to which Kaspar is subjected is also a search for his own identity: his entrance onto the stage, struggling to find the slit in the curtain that will let him through, and unaware even that there is a slit, that there is a "through," is an image of the birth process. The one sentence he is "born" with—… "I want to be a person like somebody else was once"—reveals a need to be someone, to be other than he is, a need to have a self and be aware of it. Kaspar does not seem to understand the words he is saying, which is perhaps Handke's way of suggesting that the need expressed is not a conscious or rational one.
Language teaches him the difference between "you" and "I," and when the voices finally tell him he has been "aufgeknackt" ("You've been cracked open"…), he is immediately confronted with another Kaspar, identical to himself. The proliferation of Kaspars represents, in visual or theatrical terms, his awareness of his self or selves, and also his awareness of others as separate from, and yet ultimately the same as himself. In this way, Handke is raising the question as to whether they are the same as Kaspar because they, too, are created by language—the same language. (pp. 53-4)
At the end, he realizes that he was trapped by language with his very first sentence …, i.e., before the prompters started to programme him. This shifts the emphasis from the social system the voices represent to language itself. However, he also realizes that language is not all powerful: just as the word "snow" is not the snow, so the word "I" is not his self, and language has not brought him knowledge…. The ultimate meaning of the play seems to be that you cannot find or know yourself without language, and yet language reveals only a social self, that it has itself created. Kaspar knows he is...
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Gregor Keuschnig, the protagonist of [A Moment of True Feeling], awakens one morning from uneasy dreams to discover that he has not been transformed into a gigantic insect. His "large and intricate" Paris apartment shows no signs of convulsion, the leaves of the trees outside his window flutter tranquilly, his wife and daughter are peacefully asleep; still, the dream—in which he murdered an old woman—has cataclysmically cracked open his life. "[He] felt as though he were bursting out of his skin and a lump of flesh lay wet and heavy on the carpet." As Keuschnig goes through the day—drudging away at his Austrian Embassy job, coupling with his mistress, feverishly wandering the streets—he lives on the edge of transformation and then, at a small dinner party, the molecules begin to dance. "[Keuschnig] felt himself to be something BLOODCURDLINGLY strange … a monstrous, unfinished bag of skin, a freak of nature. a MONSTROSITY…."
Kafka, of course. However, Keuschnig's metamorphosis never really takes place: those molecules were only jitterbugging in his imagination. Early in the novel it becomes apparent that the existential mandarins hover near, and that A Moment of True Feeling is yet another ramble down Nothingness Boulevard…. With all its Pop-violent effects … A Moment is comic-strip Sartre, with the ooze of Nausea blurring the edge of every panel.
As always, Peter Handke is concerned with the perimeters and possibilities of language. In his great play Kaspar … language is used tyrannically to control a puppet-victim who enters the world armed only with the sentence, "I want to be a person like somebody else was once." All through A Moment—as in his novels The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and Short Letter, Long Farewell, and the memoir...
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Handke's body of work is chiefly concerned with language and behavior, a major interest with central European writers. (p. 272)
Kaspar, perhaps Handke's most praised play, is a major dramatic work of the contemporary theatre. Drawing on the absurdist influences of Beckett and Ionesco it is, nevertheless, Handke's personal critique of society which regulates reality by means of its language structure. In it Handke attempts to show his audience the difference between a world shaped by consciousness and one burdened by platitudes.
Any serious playwright writing in the German language is forced necessarily to undergo a comparison between himself and Bertolt Brecht, if not technically, at the very least in terms of engagement. Handke's plays resemble Brecht's dramaturgically in their "estrangement" of the audience, their use of a nonliterary language, popular forms of entertainment, and social [gestures]. Significantly, however, the dramaturgy of Handke and Brecht is comparable more in its means than its ends.
Handke has consistently refused to use the drama for his own political statements, or to demonstrate solutions to political problems. (pp. 272-73)
[My Foot My Tutor] has … to do with what Handke refers to as "pre-political sensations"—those feelings which eventually lead to political acts. My Foot My Tutor is concerned with behavior and attitude; it focuses on surface realities and the ordinary poses of the individual.
In My Foot My Tutor surfaces and appearances are of utmost importance. Handke's theatrical exploration of nonlinguistic modes of communication and presentation provides a sensory experience rarely accessible in today's theatre. That the theatrical text of this play is semiotic rather than verbal [it is a play without words], compels one to concentrate on movements, sounds, and gestures. My Foot My Tutor, like all modernist works, demands of its audiences an alternative, radical way of approaching the theatre event.
My Foot My Tutor is a highly stylized silence play … comprised of ten scenes which are variations on a central theme: power…. The multiple choices of meaning—political, social, aesthetic—subtly exposed in the play are varied and variable; it is an exercise in metaphors.
Handke's wordless, plotless play which articulates every action in great detail, exists in the realm of pure naturalism, inviting the audience to investigate with great awareness all of its non-semantic elements: movement, sound, music and light. (p. 274)
My Foot My Tutor illustrates Handke's fascination with the act of creation. That the playwright's enthusiasm has sired a kind of literary authoritarianism is evident in his anticipation, and at times coercion, of the reader's "justifiable" reaction….
The text specifies directions for the presentation of the play and directives to the audience/reader concerning the most comprehensible approach to it. Like Handke's earlier "speak-in," Offending the Audience, it is written virtually as a dialogue with the audience…....
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[Handke] uses all the old-modern tricks. In one of his plays not a single word is spoken. In another, the characters are to be given the names of the actors who play them. These devices are intended to disorient the spectators, to deny them the familiar naturalistic illusions, the comforts of character and narrative. By now these distancing effects are as stale as any of the conventions of the well-made play and have built up their own expectations in the audience. The confections of their originators—Jarry, Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett—seem … stagey … and enjoyable…. [You] soon pick up the resonances of Ubu or Godot in They Are Dying Out or The Ride Across Lake Constance. But just because Handke...
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Taking the strained relationship between philosophy and fiction seriously, [Handke] has with single-minded stubbornness developed his own artistic form at the core of which lies the effort to reconstruct the truth of fiction. Description of reality becomes the creation of meaning. For Handke, the truth of fiction does not lie in a realm of imagination where symbols and metaphors are artistically combined to achieve the reality of literature. He does not intend to reveal the previously unknown. Instead, Handke is preoccupied with the world of conventionalized knowledge. His critical intention is to expose everyday reality as one that is known by heart, so to speak, a lost reality that has become a predictable...
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In A Moment of True Feeling, Peter Handke deals with [the Kantian] problem of the perception of the world, crystallized in the problem of identity of Gregor Keuschnig…. In his private life, Keuschnig identifies himself on the basis of his perception of his image in public life. Others know him from their perception of that image. But one morning Keuschnig awakes to discover that that image by which he identifies himself and by which the world identifies him is out of sync with his own true existence. The world has collapsed on him and he can no longer know without doubt who he is. He has dreamed he is a murderer. But is he? So begins an odyssey into everyday occurrences, into the realms of perception and...
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