The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

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According to the playwright’s instructions, the first person to enter the theater where Kaspar is being staged should find the curtain open, with stage props (tables, a few chairs, a sofa, a rocking chair, a wardrobe) arranged randomly and out of context with one another. After the lights in the auditorium are dimmed, the spectators become aware of movement behind the backdrop which suggests that a person is trying to find the partition of the curtain for an entrance onto the stage. Finally, Kaspar, wearing a mask expressing astonishment and confusion, stumbles through the slit in the curtain. He walks with great difficulty and finally falls down. Sitting in the lotus position in the middle of the stage, he begins to repeat his one sentence over and over, varying pitch and intonation: “I want to be someone like somebody else was once.”

As Kaspar addresses this sentence, the only speech of which he is capable, to various objects on the stage, the voices of the three Prompters begin to drone from loudspeakers on all sides of the stage. They bombard him with commentary about his sentence and what that single sentence means to him. The fact that he knows that one sentence, they insist, means that he can learn other sentences. Gradually and reluctantly, under strong pressure from the constant indoctrination of the Prompters, Kaspar abandons his precious sentence; his sentence has been “exorcised,” and he stands mute for a few moments. Then, with increasing intensity, the prompters teach him new sentences and force him to adopt them by the sheer quantity of the speech material with which they assault him.

Kaspar, deprived of his own sentence, which might help him resist their brainwashing, learns “orderly sentences,” but the process is painful and his head begins to hurt. The “orderly sentences” are not merely grammatically correct; they also teach him to “order” his world and to adapt himself to the social order. Consequently, he begins to arrange the stage props in a manner the audience would call “orderly”: The random arrangement of tables, chair, and wardrobe is transformed into an inhabitable room. The process of language education turns into a process of forced socialization. Kaspar’s original wish to “be someone like somebody else was once” is now replaced by the defiant proclamation “I am the one I am,” a grandiose but empty statement that fails to characterize him as an individual personality. Significantly, this new self-definition occurs at the turning point of the play, with Kaspar complacently sitting in a rocking chair.

Kaspar’s apparent satisfaction with his linguistic progress is called into question when he abruptly asks, “Why are there so many black worms flying about?”—a sign that his confident “I am the one I am” is only bluster and an attempt to hide his doubts about his new existential position. These doubts are justified, because the Prompters triumphantly declare that Kaspar has now been “cracked open.” This declaration is accompanied by the appearance of five additional Kaspars, dressed and masked identically. They confront the protagonist with the fact that he is no longer a unique creature; he is a clone, indistinguishable from the other Kaspars. As the intermission approaches, Kaspar makes an eloquent and elegant speech acknowledging his new status as a good citizen: He recognizes that a new part of his life has begun. From now on he, who detested all forms of rational order, will be rational. He no longer wants to be someone else.

Peter Handke provides a text which ideally would be piped into the theater foyer, the restrooms, the bars, and even into the streets during the intermission. The text begins as a random collection of sentences that contain many references to violence, but gradually changes to a discussion of good table manners. The connection between violence and table manners is not clear to the audience until the beginning of the second part of the play, during which the Prompters recite a rhythmic chant on the virtue of brutalizing people in order to make them behave like good citizens. Kaspar’s mask and those of his clones now express contentment. Harassed by the Kaspar-clones’ raucous noises, Kaspar glowingly praises the code of behavior which society imposes on its members; lecturing the theater audience, he uses the same loudspeakers that the Prompters had used to indoctrinate him.

Suddenly, as if exhausted by this verbal outpouring, Kaspar stops; he cannot remember what he has just said. The voices of the Prompters have already stopped, for Kaspar has learned their lessons so well that he is able to take over their function. Having learned and mastered language, thought, and social conventions, however, he can also look at himself critically. The conclusion he comes to is that “every sentence is for the birds,” a radical revision of his recent optimism. In a long speech about the word “snow,” he brings to question the relationship between a phenomenon and the word used to describe it. He now understands that he was trapped when he used his first sentence and that by having been made to speak, he has been “sentenced to reality,” and the reality is that he is “usable.” The only way out of his dilemma is to abandon everything he has learned and to return to the condition he was in even before he learned his very first sentence. Accompanied by the growing cacophony of the surrogate Kaspars, he quickly reduces his speech from elegant sentences to fragments to incoherent phrases until the curtain in closing knocks over all the Kaspars, while the protagonist repeats Othello’s cryptic words “goats and monkeys” again and again.

Dramatic Devices

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Kaspar is a play about language. In order to focus the audience’s attention on this issue, Handke abandons plot—that is, the causal dramatic interaction of characters, and the creation of any illusion of reality as far as the language, the action, and the stage design are concerned. Like Handke’s other Sprechstücke (speech drama), Kaspar is not divided into acts and scenes but into numbered paragraphs. The physical appearance of the stage does not attempt to create any verisimilitude but serves as a symbolic reflection of the progress of the morality play in which Kaspar assumes the role of Everyman. The stage directions make it clear that Kaspar bears a resemblance to the Arlecchino of the commedia dell’arte: He is a naïve, childlike fool who is seduced into believing that growing sophistication of language will allow him to cope better with his existential and social problems.

This seduction is carried out not by traditional dramatic characters but by disembodied loudspeaker voices—the German word Einsager is usually translated as “Prompters,” but it has a strong connotation of “indoctrination” in addition to “prompting” in its theatrical frame of reference. The use of the loudspeaker voices reinforces the concept of an impersonal social force rather than of an individual villain. Like all children, Kaspar at first resists the attempts to educate him out of his simple, irrational, childlike existence, but the anonymous voices are too strong and persistent. Kaspar becomes proud of his accomplishments; the growing order of his sentences is reflected in the increasing symmetry of the stage props. Now, however, he is no longer unique; he becomes an interchangeable member of society, as evidenced by the appearance of five identical Kaspars.

Finally Kaspar realizes that all this linguistic education has only been for the benefit of society; it has not brought him any nearer to an understanding of his existential condition. What he needs to know is why there are so many black worms flying about, but no Prompter can help him. What gives Kaspar its unusual power is Handke’s ability to dramatize this dilemma, making the acquisition of language the very action of the play.


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Sources for Further Study

Firda, Richard A. Peter Handke. Boston: Twayne, 1993.

Handke, Peter. “Nauseated by Language: From an Interview with Arthur Joseph.” Drama Review 15 (Fall, 1970): 56-61.

Hern, Nicholas. Peter Handke. New York: Ungar, 1972.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and James Knowlton. Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation: The Goalie’s Journey Home. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

Nägele, Rainer. “Peter Handke: The Staging of Language.” Modern Drama 23 (January, 1981): 327-338.

Ran-Mosely, Faye. The Tragicomic Passion: Clowns, Fools, and Madmen in Drama, Film, and Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

Schlueter, June. The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.


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