Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

It is difficult to summarize effectively the events of The Ride Across Lake Constance, since Peter Handke intentionally shuns plot and causality as structures for the play. The title of the play does, however, suggest a story and a related moral. Michael Roloff’s version of the story, which introduces the English translation, is as follows:It’s a winter night. A man rides across Lake Constance without sparing his horse. When he arrives on the other side, his friends congratulate him profusely, saying: “What a surprise! How did you ever make it! The ice is no more than an inch thick!” The rider hesitates briefly, then drops off his horse. He is instantly dead.

The characters in the play expose themselves to dangers much like those of the man who has made the impossible ride across the lake. Handke’s metaphoric Lake Constance is the interpretation of language and gesture; the perils of riding across Lake Constance become the unforeseen dangers of ordinary communication. In both the story and the play, a true knowledge of the fragility of the “lake,” or the connection between language and meaning, leads to fear, self-consciousness, and subsequent disorientation. Like the man who rides across Lake Constance, the characters are suddenly aware of their danger and subsequently experience various crises of inarticulateness. The events of the play enact these crises for the audience and lead the audience to question their own presuppositions...

(The entire section is 443 words.)