Peter Handke Handke, Peter - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Peter Handke 1942-

Austrian playwright, novelist, memoirist, scriptwriter, short story writer, essayist, and poet.

Regarded as the most important postmodern writer since Samuel Beckett, Handke has earned European literary acclaim as one of the preeminent German-language writers of his generation. Influenced by the writings of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Handke's own writings challenge the role and influence that language plays in creating one's identity, questioning the importance of language and the barriers that language creates.

Biographical Information

Handke was born on December 6, 1942, in the Austrian village of Griffen. His mother, Maria, married Bruno Handke, a German army sergeant stationed in Austria, out of convenience, as Handke's biological father was married to someone else. Handke won a scholarship to a Jesuit seminary located in Tanzenberg and then transferred to a gymnasium (European secondary school) in Klagenfurt. He studied law from 1961 to 1965 at the University of Graz, where he became involved with the Grazer Gruppe (Grazer Group). In 1966, while attending a literary convention at Princeton University of the Gruppe 47, the most influential association of German writers at the time, Handke criticized the lecturers and discussions for their “empty descriptiveness.” He left law school in 1966, failing to take the final exams to earn his law degree, and went to live in Germany where he married Libgart Schwarz. Also that year he created the Sprechstücke (speech plays), a series of five experimental plays based on the concept and power of language.

Major Works

The Sprechstücke, a collection of plays Handke wrote early in his career, are known for their play on the power of language and for breaking down the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966; Offending the Audience) begins with rules for the actors. The actors are told to listen to the litanies of the Catholic church, watch a Beatles’ films, listen to “Tell Me” by the Rolling Stones, and observe people pretending to be monkeys and spitting llamas in a zoo. Audience members hear noises from behind the curtains, see scenery being set up, and are greeted by ushers who bar them from “watching:” the play because they are dressed “inappropriately.” When the stage curtains are lifted, the audience meets four actors who explain to them that they, the audience, are the true actors of Publikumsbeschimpfung. This is followed by the four actors, or speakers, repeating themselves, contradicting themselves, and both praising and insulting members of the audience. Weissagung (1966; Prophecy) begins with a quotation from Osip Mandelstam and proceeds with a long series of prophetic figures of speech. Selbstbezichtigung (1966; Self-Accusation) is written for a male and female speaker. The actors describe their first movements, sounds, and sights as infants, and later, as they learn language, their first forays into socialization. As the actors continue on their language evolution, the audience becomes aware of how critical language is to society and to social rules. In Hilferufe (1967; Calling for Help) an unidentified speaker uses sentence fragments to convey or associate to the audience a sense of danger. The play explores the notion of the word “help”. The last play of the Sprechstücke is Kaspar (1968). Kaspar is based on a real-life account of Kaspar Haser, who at the age of 16 was discovered in Nümberg, Germany, without the ability to speak, read, or even walk. The play focuses on the direct relationship between “words” and “things.” After the Sprechstücke, Handke wrote Das Mündel will Vormund sein (1969; My Foot My Tutor), a play about the relationship between two characters, and the dominant/submissive roles the characters have with each other. Quodlibet (1970) consists of several characters from various walks of life. The characters do not communicate through complete sentences, but rather by sentence fragments. There is no plot line to the play, but rather by the sentence fragments uttered the audience pulls together a storyline for the characters. In the 1980s, Handke wrote Über die Dörfer (1981; Through the Villages), a play similar to the work of Greek playwright Aeschylus. In the play, the protagonist Gregor must decide if he should mortgage the house he owns, displacing his brother Hans who lives in the house, to finance his sister Sophie's interest in opening up a shop. In 1989 Handke wrote Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum sonoren Land (Voyage to the Sonorous Land; or, The Art of Asking) Over four hours long, the play consists of eight characters, seven who are travelling to a magical land, and the eighth character a native of this land. Russian author Anton Chekhov and Austrian author Ferdinand Raimund are two central characters in the play.

Critical Reception

Critics' interest in Handke's work has strengthened over time. While he is consistently praised for his evocative explorations of language, perception, and the limits of expression, some of his more experimental works, though appreciated for their ambition, have been judged overly cerebral and abstract to the point of inaccessibility. His first drama, Offending the Audience, not only thrilled the audiences that were the object of Handke's abuse, but also the reviewers. Praised for its attack on conventional notions of the theatre, the play has exerted a significant influence on contemporary drama. Kaspar, the last of Handke's Sprechstücke, has been cited as one of the most important works of post-World War II German literature. Even when the play's thesis—that socialization through the teaching of language robs a person of his individuality—was rejected, the drama was commended for its intellectual rigor and overall dramatic intensity. The success of Kaspar established Handke's international reputation and helped silence critics who questioned his qualifications after he spoke out against Gruppe 47.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

*Publikumsbeschimpfung [Offending the Audience] 1966

*Selbstbezichtigung [Self-Accusation] 1966

*Weissagung [Prophesy] 1966

*Hilferufe [Calling for Help] 1967

*Kaspar 1968

Das Mündel will Vormund sein [My Foot My Tutor] 1969

Quodlibet 1970

Der Ritt über den Bodensee [The Ride across Lake Constance] 1970

Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus [They Are Dying Out] 1973

Über die Dörfer [Through the Villages] 1981

Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum sonoren Land [ Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or, The Art of Asking] 1990

Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander der wuβten: Ein Schauspiel [The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other] 1992

Die Theaterstücke 1992

Zuruestungen für die Unsterblichkeit: Ein Koenigsdrama 1997

Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder Das Stuck zum Film vom Krieg [The Canoe Trip or the Play of the Film of the War] 1999

Die Hornissen [The Hornets] (novel) 1966

Begrüssung des Aufsichtrats: Prosatexte (short stories) 1967

Der Hausierer [The...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Criticism: General Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Firda, Richard Arthur. “Theatrical Experiments.” In Peter Handke, pp. 13-40. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

[In the following essay, Firda examines the techniques Handke uses to explore language in his plays.]

EARLY THEATER, 1966-1967

Though Peter Handke had published an experimental novel, Die Hornissen, in 1966, it was the premiere of his first play, Publikumsbeschimpfung, in that same year that established his name as an innovator in modern German theater.1Publikumsbeschimpfung, first performed on 8 June 1966 at the leftist-oriented Theater am Turm in Frankfurt under the direction of Claus Peymann, is the first work in a collection of Sprechstücke (Language plays). The German word Sprechstücke recalls the focus in a language play on words, sentences, and language as primary reasons for writing and viewing a play.2 The underlying experience for the viewer-reader becomes clear only as he or she confronts the play on the stage or reads it as a printed text. Jerome Klinkowitz and Jerome Knowlton note that “linguistic deconstruction” in this play (as in other Sprechstücke) creates a sense of radical familiarity, and that in Handke's subsequent language plays, “a fully formed yet nonillusionistic world is being made on stage” (107). There is little here to which the audience can relate from concrete experience. Other Sprechstücke written by Handke from 1964 to 1967 are Die Weissagung (1966; Prophecy), Selbstbezichtigung (1966; Self-Accusation), and Hilferufe (1967; Calling for Help).3

In Publikumsbeschimpfung, as in the other language plays, Handke is preoccupied with nothing less than a total renewal of German and European contemporary theatrical conventions. His language plays depart from traditional theatrical components of theme, plot, character, and structure. They do not relate to those models of antitheater found in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1955) or even the parody of surrealism in Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. Nor do Handke's language pieces use Bertolt Brecht's concept of Verfremdung (alienation) as a basis for the audience's assessment of reality and political change. Never entirely political in a programmatic way, as Brecht is in St. Joan of the Stockyards (1929-30) or even Mother Courage (1941), Handke regards his language pieces as “prologues” to drama.4 In Publikumsbeschimpfung, for example, his actors make a point of telling the spectators that the play is only a prologue (Vorrede) to what they did in the past and are doing in the present. The audience itself is the topic of the play (Publikumsbeschimpfung, 42).

The language plays are short works and reveal Handke's debt to the Austrian post-World War II language and literary renewal associated with Vienna and Graz.5 He was a follower in his early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the linguist-philosopher, and as one of the earliest figures of the Austrian literary scene centered at Graz University in the 1960s, Handke subscribed to the idea that the writer should “manipulate” linguistic structures and in that process reveal the social mores and behavior that govern language consciousness. The Sprechstücke question whether theater, any theater, can replicate the reality of the outside world. Handke's answer in the language plays, as well as in his later plays is a resounding “no,” since the believes that in drama language is basically an artificial linguistic construct. Further, language and truth in theater must be constructed anew for each play and each performance, so a playwright's claim to reality is a false one. The average theatergoer, Handke asserts, fails to grasp the “lies” of the theater. Hence Handke's startling position that if the theater teaches us anything, its lessons relate to the mendacity of language and the underlying social institutions that govern it. Incorporated into these institutions is society's untrue assumption that drama and theater can be guides to a higher morality. It is interesting that Handke would reject such idealistic tragic dramatists as Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Jean Racine, and Pierre Corneille. For Handke, theater only creates language awareness of the present, with the subsequent social awareness. The viewer has no choice but to question traditional modes of language and social thinking as reflected in the art of the past (Hays, 351).


The German director Claus Peymann relates that in the spring of 1966 he was asked to read the script of a work that turned out to be Handke's Publikumsbeschimpfung.6 Peymann admits that both he and his actors at the Frankfurt Theater am Turm were at first skeptical that the play was the right vehicle for his company. They questioned Handke's commitment to leftist revisionist art. The manager of the Suhrkamp Theater Book Company, Karl-Heinz Braun, had been enthusiastic, however, in his support for Handke's play, despite its previous rejection by other German regional and national theaters. The producers and artistic directors of those theaters were not amused by the prospect of mounting a play that promised to offend its audience. Only when the supporters of Experimenta I, the experimental theater project in Frankfurt, came through with a guarantee of funding did Handke's first play get both a hearing and a staging. Peymann concludes sardonically that his company's production turned out to be the theatrical event of the year.

The opening night's German audience was first treated to a clever argument against conventional theater. Four performers attack the audience about the nature of theatergoing. Theater tradition and theater as a private fantasy symbolizing existence are two of the several themes found in the lines directed against the viewers. The actors do not exempt themselves from this criticism.

This “assault” is accomplished by literally reversing the traditional roles of actors and audience. In a one-sided confrontation, the audience is lectured on its naïveté and credulity—that is, its presuppositions about the esthetics and reality of drama are challenged at every step, placed under “review” and “correction.” Handke's primary goal is to bring the audience around to his theory that an involved audience has a fundamental role in the coding and decoding of meaning in the theater. If the meaning of Handke's play is found in its language and audience consciousness, then his words at the end of the play are an important component of the lesson for the audience about the meaning or nonmeaning of words themselves. At this point the four figures announce that the audience will be offended and that offensive language is a means of communication. Communication of this kind is direct and vital. Barriers are broken (Publikumsbeschimpfung, 44).

The audience is addressed as “thoroughbred actors,” “cardiac conditions,” “potential dead,” and “sadsacks.” The theatrical wall being torn down is, of course, the wall of trite words that prevents direct emotional contact and perceptive understanding between actors and audience in conventional theater. The tirade of offending words with which Handke concludes his play, however, is not an arbitrary compilation of insults directed by the playwright against a particular audience. These words are intended as examples of banal and stereotypical language. Their use in the play betrays their banality. Their meanings emerge in an acoustical pattern, and this pattern of sounds, for which Handke has definite instructions, seems to be of more interest than the invective and insult of the words. If the language of this tirade can be misunderstood at first by the audience as street language, it is also unmasked by Handke as the meaningless language of conventional theater, for it is in a play that we first hear them. The listener is tempted to use his or her own experience in decoding their apparent references to recent political German history and allusions to Nazi rhetoric, leftist diatribes, and right-wing propaganda. In a 1970 interview Handke warned that the words in Publikumsbeschimpfung are in the nature of artifice and dramaturgy, that his point was to use words to “encircle the audience, so that they would want to free themselves. … What is said does not really matter. I reduced the play to words because my words are not descriptions, only quotations.”7

The insults are least effective in giving the appearance of reality, one engendered from the facts of history, religion, and politics. That the words stand out so strongly for the viewer, however, is the result of Handke's deliberately austere dramatic technique of reducing his play to the essentials. Publikumsbeschimpfung has no plot, characterization, or scenes. There are only words whose sounds do not refer to anything seen on the stage. The audience is forced to rely upon those words and their underlying falseness in the tirade. Handke is here close to Brecht in the goal of renewing audience consciousness, yet there is an essential difference between the two dramatists—namely, that while Brecht's theater calls finally for political change, Handke's makes the audience aware that theater is a catalyst for insight into language awareness brought about by deliberate artifice created by the dramatist himself.


Die Weissagung (Prophecy), another language piece, was actualy written in 1964, a year earlier than Publikumsbeschimpfung.8 Four months after the 1966 premiere of his first play, however, Weissagung and Selbstbezichtigung were given a joint performance by the Städtische Bühne in Oberhausen, Germany, presumably because his first play had demonstrated the popularity of their author. His success came about despite the reservations of many German theatrical critics about Handke's future in the theater. They resented the sensationalism surrounding his name and recalled the arrogance with which he spoke out against Group 47 at that group's meeting on the Princeton campus in 1966. Handke was accused of staging his press conferences and of having written an unreadable novel (Der Hausierer). Handke, these critics proclaimed, would never be accepted by the fussy, well-educated German theatergoing public. Time itself has shown that early critics of Handke seriously underestimated both his originality and his talent.

In a short note to Weissagung, Handke says that of all his language pieces this one is the most formalistic, that the viewer is directed toward language in a way that shows “every sentence is meaningless in the sense that this sentence is independent of any other. Weissagung has no meaning, neither a deep one nor any other. … I strove only for a density of sound” (Weissagung, 204). Despite Handke's denial of any meaning in Weissagung, a viewer will persist in searching for meaning in the work, if only from curiosity about the nature of Handke's theater.

Weissagung consists of sentences that, in their totality, are actually listings or predictions about the future read by several speakers. These prophecies, the listener soon finds out, are predictions bound to be true: nothingness will become nothing, as rain will turn into rain. Handke's tone in the play is apocalyptic, owing to the abundance of biblical imagery: the inevitability of disease, the fires of Hell, people dying, bombs crashing, and the Last Judgment. Weissagung, however, offers another source of interest. As a language piece it emerges as a “presentation of metaphors” that purport to describe reality, yet these metaphors mean nothing, as Handke has noted, since the reality to which they refer lacks any definite reference to the truth. Examples of this technique, so common in the text, are the references to the conduct of “average citizens” and the sound of cut trees. Shoes fit the feet for which they were made. The solemn recital of the lines themselves, recited by the speakers out of context, is intended to contrast with audience expectations.

It has been suggested by Schlueter that the listings of prophecies are metaphors of obvious and trite comparisons, whose originality and meaning have long vanished through overuse and familiarity (1981, 28-29). The author has complained about the necessity of making odious comparisons or parallels, for example, between moviegoing and theatergoing, a language choice that he regards as impossible or meaningless, as it is for using banal metaphors in literature.9 Schlueter has noted that the “prophecy” of Handke's play is actually his fear that the world of reality, found in the underlying meanings of words, will drown in language nausea, the consequence of surrendering oneself to meaningless words and sentences while doing the world's business (1981, 30). This might occur in a future world of words, pointless metaphors and observations portraying a primary intention of Handke's play. Weissagung, as another language play, is related to his goal of examining the bases of linguistic structure found in his other early plays, but it restricts itself to a unique examination of the ways in which people alienate themselves from language through hollow metaphors and word comparisons.


While Handke's first play focuses on the renewal of theater and audience expectations in that theater, and Weissagung on the abuse of language through trivial metaphors, Selbstbezichtigung is concerned with the castigation of the self through interiorized domination (Nägele, 331). In this work, often considered a prelude to Kaspar (1967), Handke's first full-length play, two speakers alternately recite a list of crimes, sins, and transgressions committed by an “I” against society. This “I” is not a specific individual but a generalized, grammatical identification related to man as a whole. The transgressions “committed” and “confessed” fit the general code of social expectations. A development in time is followed and, as Hern has noted, “the piece falls into three sections of two to three pages each, followed by a final section of some thirteen pages. The first section, consisting of the first thirteen paragraphs, begins with the statement: ‘I came into the world.’ … ‘I’ as ‘I’ tells how ‘I’ was born and then proceeds to recount … the various stages of growth to full possession, awareness and enjoyment of the most important of the faculties of mind and body” (45).

Selbstbezichtigung emphasizes that forms of speech and, by extension, the social forms they engender are of paramount importance. Each of the work's four sections follows the “I” through a progression from birth to growth, rules, and language indoctrination between the individual and society—the last item showing Handke in a confessional scenario as he goes through the gestures of “asking forgiveness” from the audience for putting them through the regimen of listening to the play itself.

In an early German staging of Selbstbezichtigung, a male and a female presented the accustations and self-criticism in the style of medieval religious ritual. At a Frankfurt performance two actors were nude onstage, with only simple masks on their faces. The nudity was not intended to be sensationalistic but to emphasize the open admission of “sins” before the audience, who were confronted with an unadorned stage and an open curtain (Peymann, 50). This play, like Handke's other language pieces, offers no stage barriers between actors and audience.

Hern has written perceptively on the ending of the play: he notes that the work moves from an attitude of penitence to one of proud individuality—“I went to the theater. I heard this piece. I spoke this piece. I wrote this piece” (Selbstbezichtigung, 72). This final tone, Hern says, reflects the speaker's realization that “the original sin referred to so often in the piece itself is hardly the Christian doctrine; it is the original sin borne by every individual in his preordained inability to live within the dictates of society” (49).

If this interpretation has merit, as I think it does, then the real achievement of the play lies, as Hern says further, in Handke's having rendered the familiar theme of the individual versus society on a level of abstraction and universality that is new and original (50). In contrast to the traditional devices of characterization and fable that Brecht relies on to make his point about the need for social change, the featureless context of Handke's “I,” according to Hern, is an abstract residue of a rebellion carried out, with ironical overtones. The “I” uses words and phrases with the awareness that written and spoken language lead paradoxically to penitence and concomitant confession before the “authority” of social rule and convention.

Nägele has suggested that the work deviates from the pattern of the Catholic confessional. While it is true that Handke's early training at a Catholic school was a pivotal influence on the confessional aspects of the work, and that in the play offenses against the rules of society and language are recited to an unseen authority with the power to punish the transgressor, the petitioner is never named specifically (Nägele, 331). Handke thus reminds the viewer and the reader that the play is not intended to be the confession of a single individual, and that the German title for the play, Selbstbezichtigung, has no definite article before it. The title refers to a general confession of sins, for which anyone might be culpable, especially the audience itself. More important, perhaps, is that in Selbstbezichtigung the viewer is forced to become an observer of himself in the sense that what he observes during the confession of the “I” is a mirrored image. The viewer is expected finally to realize that his identity is defined through the image of the other (society).


Hilferufe (Calling for Help), the last of the language pieces, was premiered in 1967 in Stockholm under the direction of Günther Böch with a troupe of actors from the Oberhausen Städtische Bühne. The play lasts about 10 minutes (compared with 35 minutes for the other Sprechstücke) and is thus dependent on a good stage performance, for it has even less overt substance than the other language pieces.10 Despite its brevity, Handke has written detailed instructions for the performers and given some insight into its meaning (Hilferufe, 91-92). Hilferufe wishes to show the way, by words and sentences and guesses, to the sought-after word help. Speakers in the piece first play out the game of a need for the word help to their listeners onstage, in a setting devoid of any real need of help. They ask whether the sought-after word help might be found in newspaper language, in lines from government regulations, or in everyday German. Other inquiries cite language from school lectures, grammar books, breakfast items, and street noises. The speakers ask their questions out of context and without their usual meaning, yet with the hope that the listeners will respond with a “yes” rather than a loud “no.” In the interchange between speakers and listeners, sound is important: “As always, Handke instructs his actors to use words as they would use them in a soccer chant, for acoustic effect rather than for meaning. Aid is not summoned; rather, the speakers create an ovation to the word ‘help’ and in so doing teach the audience a most compelling lesson in language” (Klinkowitz and Knowlton, 117).

Handke, however, has pointed out that once the speakers have guessed the word help, they no longer need the word itself. As soon as the speakers get the word, that word has lost its meaning. Linguistically the play is directed toward abstracting the word help from its usual meaning and showing that this process of abstraction terminates when help becomes a “pure” word in and of itself, devoid of any concrete reference. This process of abstraction, Handke shows us, is reflected in the listeners' refusal to guess and in the audience's perception that the game onstage is an artifice, since everything offered is only another guess in an apparent game.

Since both audience and speakers prefer a game of useless words, Hilferufe offers, through linguistic deconstruction, a pile of words that either contain no meaning whatever or can be stripped of that meaning. The banal chains of words preceding the correct guess of “help”—“one-way street,” “insect repellent,” “twenty-five cent towels”—all relate to media and “public” language. As Nägele points out, the word help and the German title of the play, Hilferufe, relate not only to the word game that is the ostensible activity onstage between speakers and listeners; the plea for help reflects back to the writer Handke in his continual search for words and phrases (332). For Handke, Hilferufe is a model search for new literary methods and strategies. Writing plays for the stage and novels for the reading public is a linguistic process akin to that found in Hilferufe. “Finding” the right word, for Handke, shows ideally the end of a successful search by the author himself.


Kaspar was Handke's first full-length play.11 It was premiered in Frankfurt and at the Städtische Bühne in Oberhausen at the same time, 11 May 1968, when the West German government was trying to implement its “emergency law” (Peymann, 51). It was a period of political protest by leftist students in both France and Germany. According to Peymann, actors from the Frankfurt troupe rehearsing Kaspar were political activists. As a result of the social turmoil, German audience and critical reaction to Kaspar was, to some extent, influenced by exterior events and by the author himself. Like the earlier Sprechstücke, however, Kaspar eschews overt political commentary and shows technical and thematic continuity with Handke's ongoing examination of linguistic and language process.12

Kaspar reconstructs the steps by which an “alien figure,” Kaspar, is brought into a world structured by language. Movements and gestures are pertinent technical devices in the play, foreshadowing their subsequent use by Handke in later works. The drama critic Günther Rühle noted the mutual activity of language and movement in the play: “Movement appears before language, but it is language that makes movement comprehensible.”13 The text of Kaspar is 65 paragraphs divided into two sets of parallel texts with Handke's commentary on stage directions. Actors' lines are often spoken in tandem with each other. Handke punctuates divisions in the play by changes in lighting or blackouts, the latter being the equivalent of scene changes in conventional dramatic structure. The stage setting and props for Kaspar are intentionally “theatrical”: their interrelationship does not correspond to their usual arrangement in reality. This is a clue to Handke's audience that Kaspar is only a theatrical event and not a “slice” of exterior reality (Kaspar, 104-5).

Handke derived the inspiration for the central character from a historical incident: the discovery in 1828 of a child, Kaspar Hauser, in the city of Nuremberg. Hauser's origins, along with his incarceration, had deprived him of human contact and prevented him from learning to speak. His extraordinary background became the focus of several European commentaries, many of them speculative and romantic in temper.14 For some of these writers, Hauser was a “model” figure and a victim of social injustice; they lamented his fate in a world of burgeoning industrialization. German novelists and poets, such as Jakob Wasserman, Georg Trakl, and Hans Arp, contributed in their writing to the myth of Kaspar Hauser. Feature films on related figures were made by the German director Werner Herzog (Every Man for Himself and God against All [1975]) and the French director François Truffaut (The Wild Child [1969]).

Handke's play pares away the “story” behind the prehistory and subsequent discovery of a “noble savage.” Handke's character, whom he calls only Kaspar, is an abstracted and theatricalized figure brought to “birth” onstage in phases from behind drawn stage curtains (Kaspar, 107). Handke notes that Kaspar is not a clownlike figure but is analogous to a movie monster (Kaspar, 104). His instructions thus emphasize the artificiality of Kaspar's character; they render Kaspar an object of Handke's analysis and show how a “man” is bound to language and the learning process of that language. In an interview with Arthur Joseph, Handke has indicated other reasons for writing the play: “Kaspar fascinated me from the start. … For me this was a model of conduct, building a person into a society's course of conduct by language, by giving him words to repeat. To enable him somehow to get along in life, to function, he is reconstructed by voices, by language models, and instruction regarding the objects on stage” (Joseph, 60).

As a model of language acquisition, Handke's play is intended to show what can be done to someone used by society in its role as a manipulative teacher of language. The starting point for this “instruction” is Kaspar's one line, “I want to be a person like somebody else once was” (Kaspar, 118). This abstract sentence, changed by Handke intentionally from Kaspar Hauser's original statement that he wished he could “be a horseman like my father was once,” is the center of Kaspar's language education by the Einsager (prompters), who appear onstage as voices early on, at the first sign that Kaspar's sentence will fail to mediate between himself and things around him (Hern, 63). The prompters thus give him the words for chair, table, and broom (Kaspar, 76-77). He is praised by the prompters for his sentence, yet they disavow the limitations of that sentence itself. As the prompters begin to speak, they help Kaspar begin making sentences and allude to the safety and comfort of words that relate “specifically” and directly to objects. It is apparent that the prompters become not only Kaspar's impersonalized teachers, they also symbolize their advocacy of the social order achieved by language control.

At a central point in the play Kaspar is rendered silent by the “dismantling” of his one sentence and the overwhelming profusion of new words. This silence is intended to indicate the first phase of Kaspar's indoctrination into language making, a necessary correlative and a prelude to the second step of starting to speak independently (Hern, 63). Kaspar is taught by the prompters to use the right sentences and words, the correct language models that help an orderly individual to make his way in life. In addition to delineating the linguistic and social relationships between language and order, the play also reveals the underlying affinity between order and space. Tables and chairs that were earlier thrown about on the stage are now rearranged by Kaspar into an acceptable way of perceiving objects. He thus becomes an individual learning to learn order. The prompters next teach Kaspar that words and sentence composition are a viable means of entry into the safe world of “perfect” human beings and the ultimate key to social responsibility. Social responsibility, through an orderly use and perception of language and objects, is also found, according to the prompters, in short, simple sentences with no questions.

The final parts of the play continue the “training” and “reeducation” of Kaspar into the submissive and schizophrenic world of word and object relationships. Here Handke expresses Kaspar's apotheosis as a social conformist with the appearance onstage of similar, masked Kaspar-like figures, a throng of nonsensical, mimetic characters who vacillate between sense and nonsense (Kaspar, 103). These figures portend the eventual collapse of Kaspar's previous personality, which, despite its primitive nature, was still of one piece. The new Kaspars ridicule words, make noise, and scorn objects. One of them, in a cunning rendering of Kaspar's original sentence that he would like to be “as someone once was,” reverses this line to state that he now desires to join the “crowd.” If Kaspar is thus exposed to the gift of language expressibility, he is also exposed to “a greater terror, a realization of the painful inability of language and reality to achieve the perfect union of Kaspar's earlier world” (Schlueter 1980, 29). Kaspar's final predicament, the catalyst that precipitates his fall into “madness,” is his realization, achieved through language education, that there is only a tentative and ambiguous...

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Criticism: Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending The Audience)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hern, Nicholas. “Offending the Audience.” In Peter Handke: Theatre and Anti-Theatre, pp. 30-45. London: Oswald Wolff, 1971.

[In the following essay, Hern disusses the theatrics involved in Offending the Audience and how this play differs from standard theatrical productions time.]

The text of Offending the Audience is prefaced by a short list of seventeen ‘Rules for the Actors’ (this is the only time Handke uses the word ‘actor’ in connection with his Sprechstücke, otherwise they are speakers: the casting for this play is simply ‘Four speakers’). These rules are a series of ‘look and listen and learn’...

(The entire section is 4493 words.)

Nicholas Hern (essay date 1971)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hern, Nicholas. “Kaspar.” In Peter Handke: Theatre and Anti-Theatre, pp. 59-74. London: Oswald Wolff, 1971.

[In the following essay, Hern discuses Kaspar, comparing it to The Living Theatre's production of Frankenstein, as well as to The Bald Prima Donna by Eugene Ionesco.]

Even the title of Handke's first full-length play [Kaspar] signals a new development. Kaspar is after all a name, the name of the central figure, and no figure with a name has hitherto appeared in Handke's plays. More than this, Kaspar represents an actual historical personage, Kaspar Hauser, who mysteriously turned up from nowhere in Nuremberg in 1828, aged...

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June Schlueter (essay date 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Schlueter, June. “Kaspar.” In The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke, pp. 41-50. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Schlueter discusses Handke's study of language in the play Kaspar.]

Kaspar (1967), Handke's first full-length play, premiered simultaneously at the Theater am Turm in Frankfurt (under the direction of Claus Peymann) and the Oberhausen Städtische Bühne (under the direction of Günther Büch) and became the most frequently performed modern play in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland during the 1968-69 season.1 The same audiences who had smiled wryly at the abuse they endured from...

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Jeffrey Herrick (essay date spring 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Herrick, Jeffrey. “Peter Handke's Kaspar: A Study of Linguistic Theory in Modern Drama.” Philological Quarterly 63, no. 2 (spring 1984): 205-21.

[In the following essay, Herrick discusses language and its limitations in Handke's Kaspar and gives a comparison to The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco.]

Although considerable scholarly effort has recently been given to applying linguistic studies and theories to literary texts, especially in deconstruction, almost none has been given to examining literary works in which the creative use of linguistic theory plays a manifest role. Yet several modern European dramatists have clearly concerned...

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Jeanette R. Malkin (essay date September 1990)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Malkin, Jeanette R. “‘Think What You Are Saying’: Verbal Politics in the Early Plays of Handke and Kroetz.” Modern Drama 33, no. 3 (September 1990): 363-379.

[In the following essay, Malkin compares the play Kaspar to Franz Xaver Kroetz's dramas Stallerhof and Geisterbahn.]

Peter Handke and Franz Xaver Kroetz have, as both will readily admit, very little in common.1 If anything, they occupy opposite ends in the spectrum of contemporary German dramaturgy and, with each successive play, seem to move further apart. Handke's abstract subjectivity has in recent plays (such as Über die Dörfer, 1981) deepened into near...

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David Barnett (essay date October 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnett, David. “Dramaturgies of Sprachkritik: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Blut Am Hals Der Katze and Peter Handke's Kaspar.Modern Language Review 95, no. 4 (October 2000): 1053-63.

[In the following essay, Barnett discusses how Kaspar has become a modern classic through its exploration of language and unique staging techniques.]

Twentieth-century literature has been fascinated by language, more precisely, perhaps, by the disjunction of word and meaning. Few literary works, however, have attempted to approach these problems from the perspective of their linguistic foundations. The dramatic medium, with its possibilities of...

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Sarah Kaufman (review date 9 October 1998)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaufman, Sarah. “The Truth about Lake Constance.Washington Post (9 October 1998): N41.

[In the following review, Kaufman discusses theatrical stagings in the 1930s, as well as tie-ins to German movie stars whom director John Spitzer uses for his adaption of Handke's The Ride across Lake Constance, performed by the Fradulent Production.]

The tiny, 45-seat theater at D.C. Arts Center is currently home to some Very Big Ideas.

The Ride across Lake Constance is FraudProd's fourth production by Austrian experimentalist Peter Handke, whom director John Spitzer calls the most important playwright of the late 20th...

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Nicholas Hern (essay date 1971)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hern, Nicholas. “The Ride Across Lake Constance.” In Peter Handke: Theatre and Anti-Theatre, pp. 90-94. London: Oswald Wolff, 1971.

[In the following essay, Hern discusses the question of sanity versus insanity in Handke's work The Ride Across Lake Constance, comparing it to previous Handke plays such as Kaspar and My Foot My Tutor.]

Handke's second full-length play [The Ride Across Lake Constance] is a critic's dream in that, while clearly re-using certain elements from the author's earlier plays, it equally clearly represents an advance on these plays; but it is also a critic's nightmare in that this advance is into territory...

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Criticism: Die UnvernüNftigen Sterben Aus (They Are Dying Out)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Koehler, Robert. “Wunderbar Staging of Dying Out.Los Angeles Times 104 (1 August 1985): 2 sec. 6.

[In the following review, Koehler gives a positive assessment to Rolf Brauneis's staging of Handke's Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus.]

Peter Handke's German theater doesn't transfer easily to our cultural landscape. The comedy tends to be more emphatic and dichotomous than we're used to, the drama often highly expressionistic and political. And the language defiantly resists translation.

Against those odds, Los Angeles has had two fine stagings in a row of two of Handke's major works: last year's Kaspar at the Night-house, and...

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Criticism: Das Spiel Vom Fragen Oder (Voyage To The Sonorous Land)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Metcalf, Eva-Maria. “Challenging the Arrogance of Power.” Modern Fiction Studies 36, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 369-79.

[In the following essay, Metcalf discusses Handke's usage of mythology and language to establish a quasi-fairy tale-like structure in Das Spiel vom Fragen.]


In 1967 Peter Handke built himself an ivory tower, and he has resided in it ever since. The theories about language and writing that he exposed in his essay “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms” have continued to serve as his guiding principles throughout his more than twenty years of authorship. During the last decade, Handke has drifted further and...

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Criticism: Die Stunde Da Wir Nichts Voneinander Der WuβTen: (The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Riding, Alan. “The Drama before Language Intervenes.” New York Times 144 (26 December 1994): 33.

[In the following review, Riding discusses the production of Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other and how a play without words, only sound and actions, achieves a greater level of drama.]

A play without words? Mime, of course. Well, no. In mime, gestures replace words and, in the end, little is left unsaid. Peter Handke's idea is different. He looks around and sees myriad brief encounters that never reach the stage of words. So he has written a play before words.

It is not hard to imagine. In the hurried solitude of...

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Criticism: Die Stunde Da Wir Nichts Voneinander Der WuβTen: (The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Nordmann, Alfred. “Blotting and the Line of Beauty: On Performances by Botho Strauss and Peter Handke.” Modern Drama 39, no. 4 (winter 1996): 680-97.

[In the following essay, Nordmann compares the works of Botho Strauss with Peter Handke, focusing on Handke's play The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.]

The performance of a text or the staging of a play is often and easily imagined as the representation, in another medium, of its content or meaning. On stage can be shown what the script merely says; the rehearsal process and the production itself thus appear as means towards the end of communicating to the audience what an author has set down on paper....

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Criticism: Die Fahrt Im Einbaum Oder Das Stuck Zum Film Vom Krieg (The Canoe Trip Or The Play Of Th

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Grimm, Reinhold. “Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder Das Stuck zum Film vom Krieg.World Literature Today 73, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 728-29.

[In the following review, Grimm dissects Handke's Die Fahrt im Einbaum Oder Das Stuck zum Film vom Krieg plot line and character development, giving the play a negative review.]

Peter Handke's faible for the Balkans, and for Serbia in particular, is well known. In his new book, Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder Das Stück zum Film vom Krieg's (The Voyage in the Dugout or The Piece about the Film on the War), this penchant comes to the fore again, in however veiled or masqueraded a manner.


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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Marcus, J. S. “Apocalypse Now.” New York Review of Books 47 (21 September 2000): 80-85.

Detailed account of Handke's pro-Serbian politics and the scope of some of Handke's post-21st century works.

Marranca, Bonnie. “Peter Handke's My Foot My Tutor: Aspects of Modernism.” Michigan Quarterly Review 16, no. 3 (summer 1977): 272-79.

A study on My Foot My Tutor, with a discussion on the play's use of a natural environment and non-usage of dialogue.

Nägele, Rainer. “Peter Handke: The Staging of Language.” Modern Drama 23, no. 4 (January 1981): 327-38....

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