Peter Handke (HAHNT-kuh) was born on December 6, 1942, in Griffen, Austria, a village in the province of Carinthia near the Yugoslavian border. As a child he lived in the country, except for four years spent in Berlin between 1944 and 1948. He studied law at the University of Graz from 1961 to 1965, which may have influenced his writing style; his attention to detail, precision, and complex sentence structure are all characteristic of legal language.
Handke’s first published work appeared in the magazine Manuskripte in the mid-1960’s; his first novel, Die Hornissen (the hornets), appeared in 1966. This novel was favorably received by critics, but Handke did not achieve true recognition until later that year, when he launched a dramatic public attack on German writing and criticism that, he believed, unduly favored traditional descriptive prose and rejected new, experimental techniques. The setting for this attack was a writers’ conference in Princeton, New Jersey; the audience (and targets) were the members of Gruppe 47 (Group 47), an influential organization of German writers. Ironically, the writers Handke criticized responded enthusiastically to his remarks, and the incident led to his recognition in the prestigious magazine Der Spiegel. The Princeton meeting was a major turning point in Handke’s career, bringing international attention to both his work and his controversial and innovative ideas about writing.
Handke’s rejection of tradition and interest in artistic experimentation received their first major expression the same year in Publikumsbeschimpfung (pr., pb. 1966; Offending the Audience, 1969), a short play whose title is indicative of its content. Instead of a typical play with scenes, characters, costumes, and sets, Offending the Audience consists of four actors in ordinary clothes on a bare stage. Instead of speaking lines of dialogue to one another, the actors directly address the audience, telling them that they are not going to see a play at all, then going on to discuss various ideas about the theater, audiences, illusion, and reality. The title has a double meaning: First, the expectations of the audience are mocked by the bizarre nature of the play; in addition, the audience is subjected to a barrage of insults from the actors...
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