Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

Kaspar is a play about the tyranny of language and implicitly about the tyranny of society: It deals with the way in which society builds a human being. This is fairly easy with a child, since there the process is almost unnoticeable. In Kaspar’s case, in contrast, the protagonist not only has to be conditioned but first must be unconditioned. Kaspar’s one sentence indicates a previous existence, however mysterious, that was not molded by the environment into which he stumbles through the slit in the curtain, an obvious symbol of birth. He tries to establish a foothold (Kaspar initially walks only with difficulty), but has very limited resources at his command (his sentence may stand for inherited traits). These limited resources also constitute his greatest freedom: He can define the world and his position in it on his own terms, unfettered by social and linguistic conventions.

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This freedom is immediately seen as a handicap by the Prompters (society), who pity him for his limited linguistic ability, which prevents him from communicating with them. In order to become a respected and respectable member of society, he must be weaned of his sentence and taught to order his world with an ever-increasing arsenal of words and sentences. His formerly unified and simple view of the world is complicated and fragmented: He is no longer Kaspar but only one of many Kaspars. He has traded individuality and freedom for security and respectability. As soon as he reaches this stage he becomes an ardent Prompter himself, extolling the virtues of orderly speech and socially responsible behavior. In the end, his new cognitive-linguistic skills enable him to look critically at himself. Stunned, he realizes the “impossibility of expressing anything in language” and rejects what he has learned. Like Othello, driven to irrational speech and action by the constant taunting of Iago, he mutters “goats and monkeys” at the end of the play.

The text of Kaspar is preceded by a listing of Kaspar’s sixteen developmental phases and a poem by Ernst Jandl that establishes a connection between the protagonist of Handke’s play and the historic Kaspar Hauser, an autistic young man who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828. Hauser, who could only speak one sentence (“I want to become a horseman like my father once was”), had lived in complete solitude for as long as sixteen years. In an extensive introduction which includes elaborate staging instructions, Handke makes it clear that he is not presenting a play about how “IT REALLY IS OR REALLY WAS with Kaspar Hauser”; rather, the play shows “what IS POSSIBLE with someone.” Handke also mentions that the play could have been titled “speech torture.” He does not want the audience to think of the protagonist as a clown (as suggested by the German Kaspar, the main character in the German version of the Punch and Judy show) but that he should resemble Frankenstein’s monster, another tragic example of arrogant social engineering.

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