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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 494 words.)