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.
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.
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.
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.