Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

“The use of the stage as a moral institution gets on my nerves,” Peter Handke once confessed to an interviewer. Kaspar and Handke’s other Sprechstücke share the aims of contemporary avant-garde theater that attempts to break with the traditional theatrical conventions, particularly with illusionism, and to approach the “pure” play—drama that has no characters and no plot in the conventional sense. Written and performed after Handke’s other “speech dramas,” notably Publikumsbeschimpfung (pr., pb. 1966; Offending the Audience, 1969) and Selbstbezichtigung (pr., pb. 1966; Self-Accusation, 1969), Kaspar received instant critical acclaim and prompted critics to rank Handke with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, playwrights who are considered pioneers of the modern anti-illusionist theater and whose work deals with the difficulty of meaningful communication and with the tyranny of language.

This concern with language as a manipulative tool of society is even more vital for Handke than for Beckett and Ionesco. The post-World War II generation of Austrian writers is acutely conscious of the propagandistic manipulation which the German language underwent at the hands of the Nazi regime. An attempt to discredit language, to break it down and to create new meanings and structures, is a strong feature of contemporary Austrian literature, much of which rejects any connection with traditional German literature.