Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3455
Most of [Handke's] plays and novels consist of a series of affirmative propositions, each contained within one sentence that is usually a simple main clause or a main clause plus one subordinate clause. The link between these sentences is not the usual one of narrative, descriptive, or psychological flow. Rather,...
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Most of [Handke's] plays and novels consist of a series of affirmative propositions, each contained within one sentence that is usually a simple main clause or a main clause plus one subordinate clause. The link between these sentences is not the usual one of narrative, descriptive, or psychological flow. Rather, each sentence is complete in itself and qualifies the sentence before it, or, possibly, is one of several sentences qualifying the first sentence in the chapter or section or paragraph…. It is as if a state of affairs or a particular situation were being defined and constantly redefined until the final total definition permits of no mite of ambiguity. Considering this urge toward precise definition, it is not surprising that Handke's words, like those in an insurance policy, have an exact meaning, one single interpretation. Each word has a precisely apportioned weight and contributes to the total meaning of the sentence…. This does not result, however, in what is normally considered a spare style. Indeed, Handke has frequently been accused of self-indulgence. But it is the indulgence of repetition, not of emotional gush. (pp. 3-4)
[What] is his way of presenting reality? It is easier to say what it is not. It rejects fiction, symbols, metaphors, even comparisons; it rejects description, illusion, subjectivity, empathy: one is left with clinical impersonality, which owes something to Alain Robbe-Grillet's implacable attempts at objectivity and more to Wittgenstein's equally implacable logic; one is left with words, which Handke entrusts with absolute meaning; and, paradoxically and unavoidably, one is left with Handke…. (p. 13)
The text of [Offending the Audience] is prefaced by a short list of seventeen "Rules for the Actors."… These rules are a series of "look and listen and learn" instructions, directing the actors' attention to various more or less mundane sights and sounds…. Just as John Cage insists that all sound is music, and Ann Halprin that all movement is dance, so Handke seems to be saying to his actors that the very mundanity of these visual and aural experiences should not invalidate them. They are worth seeing and worth hearing for their own sake and Handke even emphasizes certain parts of each experience as particularly noteworthy…. By forcing his actors' attention on these underestimated sights and sounds, Handke presumably wishes them to make use of their increased sensibility in the acting of his play and, in turn, to make the audience more aware of the richness of the ordinary world around them. (p. 22)
The progression of the play can be said to be spiral. Most of the main themes are stated simply within the first few paragraphs, and these are then reiterated and elaborated in turn perhaps three or four times during the play. (p. 26)
These reiterated points build to a passage about two-thirds of the way through the play (the classic position for a dramatic climax) that consists of frontal assault on the sort of play the audience has supposedly been used to watching hitherto. The passage is marked out from the rest of the play by its reference to past events while the rest of the play is concerned only with the present, by its more coherent and sequent argument, and by its variegated sentence structure in contrast to the protracted anaphora of most of the play…. In this attack is clearly discernible the voice of the upstart at Princeton and subsequent campaigns on all fronts against fictions, metaphors, and illusion. Indeed this passage is an epitome of the action of the whole play. Having physically demonstrated the exclusion of all the usual fictive theatrical devices, the actors complete the purification process with an explicit verbal attack on the old forms.
The rest of the play is a sort of coda. First comes a final restatement that this play has none of the conventional trappings of role-playing, simulated action, symbolic levels of meaning…. There follows the most notorious section of the play, the section that gives the play its title. And yet it doesn't consist solely of abuse aimed at the audience. The insults are alternated with extravagant praise for the "performance" the audience has just given. These accolades, which at first far outweigh the abuse and only gradually give way to it, are the sort of clichés used by drama critics to praise naturalistic performances. (pp. 27-8)
Comparisons were made with the famous self-named "antiplay" of the previous generation, Ionesco's Bald Prima Donna. But it is important to be clear that in these cases (as also with Ubu Roi, the daddy of modern antiplays) the "anti" is only relative to what has gone before: none of these antiplays represented an act of total destruction, because each of them could only exist and could only make sense within the structure of the existing theater against which it was rebelling. Offending the Audience is a playgoer's play, and far from being anti, it depends on the theater as an institution.
The play is also dependent on a number of well-tried theatrical devices. (pp. 28-9)
What is exciting and entertaining is both the thoroughness with which this one basic idea of nontheatricality is executed and, complementary to that, the inventiveness with which such thin gruel is made sustaining for thirty pages of text or sixty minutes of performance. It is a very theatrical nontheatricality. It is even frequently witty….
By depriving his own piece of most of the trappings of conventional theater and yet producing a viable theatrical event, Handke both acts out his wish to destroy the despised mechanisms of plot and character, illusion and make-believe, and also demonstrates the feasibility of dispensing with them, confining himself instead to the true reality of here and now, the reality in which the audience exists. For the audience is the hope for the future; by making the audience constantly aware of themselves in the theater, he hopes to make them repudiate the old brand of theatrical unreality and accept only their own reality. Having changed them, having opened their eyes to a new awareness, he considers them ready for a new kind of theater. Offending the Audience is after all "a prologue"—that is, a prologue to, among other things, Handke's subsequent plays. (p. 36)
Like the other Sprechstücke, [Prophecy] is halfway toward being a "pure play": it has no characters, no plot, no illusionism; it exists in the same stratum of time and on the same plane of reality as does the audience.
It is probably fair to say that Prophecy is one of those pieces that would never have seen the light of day without the success of later work by the same author, for Prophecy was actually written before Offending the Audience but performed after it. Indeed, it is problematical whether it was first conceived for performance at all. Unlike Offending the Audience, it can gain no genuine extra dimension in the theater. (p. 38)
Handke's reaction to [the problem of describing things without recourse to comparisons] is to devalue the simile construction industry by taking it to its logical conclusion, in an effort to restore the powers of simple perception to himself and to his audience. By comparing each phenomenon with itself rather than with something alien to it, he throws the emphasis back onto the individuality, the reality of the phenomenon itself. (p. 40)
Handke's problem in Prophecy is to restore to this type of self-evident truth the freshness of its original impact…. Unfortunately the verdict of most critics was that, in Prophecy, he failed to do so. (pp. 40-1)
[The] concern [exhibited in Self-Accusation] with the functioning of authority and the ways in which one person dominates another marks the emergence of a new theme in his plays. (p. 44)
We are … introduced at once to the central and only character of the piece, "I," as "I" tells how "I" was born and then proceeds to recount (though not quite in chronological order) the various natural stages of growth to full possession, awareness, and enjoyment of the most important of the faculties of mind and body. It is a sort of abstract autobiography…. (p. 45)
The climax of the piece comes with the longest paragraph almost at the end. The first sentences have a mock-biblical ring to them, entirely appropriate to the huge miscellany of "confessions" that follow. Each of the "crimes against society" that are solemnly confessed is a feature of individual personality or conscience rather than an actual crime. But the main device is to make the list so long and the majority of the "crimes" so petty and ludicrous that the confession loses its validity and becomes instead a proud assertion of individuality, and the final crescendo of irresponsible behavior in emergency conditions becomes an almost existential act of defiance in a chaotic world. (pp. 48-9)
Handke has abstracted the [old theme of the individual versus society] and at the same time universalized it by making the central "character" a blank first-person singular with an impossibly comprehensive case history so that every member of the audience can identify philosophically though not emotionally and fit his or her own features into the blank. "I" is a sort of modern Everyman, except that Everyman for all his archetypicality becomes very real to the audience through his being physically impersonated and their identifying emotionally with him, whereas "I" remains an abstract concept, given voice but no substance. It is he skill and thoroughness with which Handke has carried this idea through that gives the rather unprepossessing texture of Self-Accusation its excitement and interest. (p. 50)
Handke's fourth and last Sprechstück, Cries for Help, either works completely or not at all. And its success depends so much on qualities in performance that it is not possible here to do more than discuss its intentions. For Cries for Help is like a revue sketch, both in its length (four and a half pages, or about ten minutes) and in its use of a single situation on which to hang a climactic punch line. (p. 52)
In his earlier pieces, he had already shown a tendency toward words and phrases that had sunk to the level of platitude or banality through overuse in everyday speech. This could be seen as a product of his wish to avoid personal lyricism. Now, however, he has gone a step further, confining himself exclusively to extracts from the language of newspapers, slot machines, medicine bottles, road signs, and so on….
Handke's selection for his verbal pop-collage is often entertaining and witty, particularly in the juxtaposition of certain phrases. It is interesting too that the "ready-made" poems that appear in The Inner World of the Outer World of the Inner World date from soon after the first performance of Cries for Help. (p. 54)
[The] debris of slogans and platitudes, which is all that society bequeaths the individual by way of means of expression, is sadly inadequate for the expression of something genuine like a call for help. This is a well-worn theme, particularly beloved of the absurdists and of off-off-Broadway playwrights such as Jean-Claude van Itallie, whose plays are full of human cries of anguish drowned in the hubbub and indifference of the modern city.
But Handke also states that a word, in this case the word for help, can lose its meaning because its meaning has already been sufficiently communicated by the "readymade" phrases preceding it, which normally have no ability to communicate such a meaning. Even the most familiar phrases, then, can be made to change their meaning according to circumstance. In earlier pieces Handke seemed concerned to strip language (as well as theater) to its bare essentials. Now even those bare essentials are questioned: words have no absolute meaning; their meaning can be made to vary…. Cries for Help can be seen as an interesting experiment, which marks the transition from Handke's Sprechstücke to his first major play. (pp. 54-5)
Even the title of Handke's first full-length play 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 sixteen, but with the mind of a child…. But, hardly surprisingly, Kaspar is not a dramatized historical biography….
It is, of course, the metaphorical implications of Hauser's predicament, rather than the historical details, which have attracted Handke as they have attracted many writers before him…. (p. 58)
This myth is presented on stage by means of an abstraction of the central situation from the concrete historical circumstances. Kaspar thus becomes a timeless, backgroundless Everyman figure, much as the "I" in Self-Accusation was an abstraction of everyone. Indeed the themes and development of the two plays are markedly similar, with one significant difference: in the earlier piece the gradual growth by "I" to full mental and physical power and the cumulative restrictions placed on him are recounted in the past tense; in Kaspar, because of the central hypothesis that Kaspar is a newborn adult, the audience can be shown his subsequent development as it takes place, which makes for infinitely more theatrical impact.
If Kaspar bears only an abstract relationship to his historical namesake, he might be expected to be more concretely related to his theatrical namesake, the Kaspar of the Punch and Judy show. Indeed there is much of the puppet about Kaspar. (p. 59)
[One] aspect of the puppet, its manipulability, is … sinisterly relevant. The play shows Kaspar brought to a state in which he is unable to initiate speech or action of his own free will. If at the beginning of the play he looks like a puppet, by the end of the play he has become one, though he no longer looks like one. (pp. 59-60)
Philosophically the basis of Kaspar is that, as language is necessary for the expression of thought (and may even be a prerequisite for thought itself), he who is in a position to control people's language also controls their thought. The Einsager are in just such a position vis-à-vis Kaspar. Kaspar comes into the world possessing one sentence…. But because it fails to impose order on the world around him, and because it is his sentence and not theirs, the Einsager systematically destroy it and replace it with a language whose expressive power is limited to the reiteration of social conformism. This means that even if Kaspar were to think nonconformist or just individual thoughts, he would have no language to express them.
This is like a parody of Wittgenstein's thesis in Tractatus logico-philosophicus…. This is not to say that Handke is deriding Wittgenstein. On the contrary, much of Handke's writing is a literary counterpart to Wittgenstein's logical positivism in its rejection of the metaphysical and its acceptance only of that reality that can be verified by the physical senses. (pp. 70-1)
Kaspar, then, has several levels of meaning. It could be taken simply as a theatricalization of Everyman's life cycle…. Seen as social comment, the play is an abstract demonstration of the way an individual's individuality is stripped from him by society, specifically by limiting the expressive power of the language it teaches him…. Politically, this criticism can be applied to any person or group in power, but it is phrased in such a way that middle-of-the-road or right-wing governments seem most impeached. Philosophically, Kaspar is a dramatization of the connection between language and thought and an examination of the limits that can be set on both. Handke's achievement is to have invented a dramatic form that succeeds for a large part of the time in conveying all these levels of meaning at once. (p. 72)
When faced with a [mimed] play like [My Foot My Tutor], it is difficult for a modern audience to resist the temptation to treat the action as metaphor, as material to be "interpreted." They can see what it is, but what does it mean? This approach fails to take account of the fact that all the scenes, when explained in words, must lose in multiplicity of association, even if they gain in specificity, because action is so much more richly ambiguous than words…. What we are left with is a sort of archetypal dominant figure and an archetypal subservient figure who perform a number of actions, some of which set up associative reverberations, and who use a number of objects, most of which can be taken as symbols of something else. (pp. 79-80)
[Every] attempt to impose one consistent system of metaphor on the relationship of the two men goes against the effort Handke is making to abstract from this relationship its essential qualities—qualities that far exceed the specific functions suggested by specific labels; hence the abandonment of words. Just as Kaspar presented an abstraction of the actual problem that once faced the historical Kaspar Hauser, so in My Foot My Tutor Handke has abstracted the common factors in all relationships between a dominant and a subservient human being. (p. 81)
[The impression created by the final scene of My Foot My Tutor] is above all of futility and hopelessness—the futility of the ward's action reflecting the hopelessness of his position and the pointlessness of all endeavor to get out of it. (p. 86)
First impressions of Quodlibet—that it is a thin and labored one-dimensional practical joke, that, technically and thematically, it represents a step backward to Offending the Audience, and that its only justification is as a failed draft of an idea that eventually matures in The Ride over Lake Constance—are not dispelled on closer acquaintance….
The game is simply that, by judicious choice of words and orchestration of their voices and movements, the actors shall try to delude the audience into thinking that a series of innocent conversations on stage are in fact exclusively concerned with sex, politics, and violence, by feeding the audience only partial information and thereby enticing them to complete the context by making (false) assumptions. (p. 88)
But to what purpose? Apparently to demonstrate an elementary precept of the psychology of perception: that what is said is not necessarily what is heard, and, further, that what is heard is not the same as what is understood. From which the not very startling deduction can be made that language is a fragile and often treacherous means of communication.
Since the implications of this idea were thoroughly investigated in Kaspar, Quodlibet can make no claim to originality of theme. And the trouble with the admittedly novel presentation is that it is so elaborate it runs the risk of misfiring altogether. (p. 89)
Only toward the end, as the individual figures become increasingly self-absorbed, does the play seem to shake off its monotony and become aware of the latent surrealism in its bizarre collection of dramatis personae…. For all it is probably intended, like the end of Kaspar, to convey the disintegration caused by the treacheries of language, the irrationality of this ending has a haunting quality that transcends the rigors of the play's main theme…. (p. 90)
Handke's second full-length play [The Ride Over Lake Constance] is a critic's dream in that, while clearly reusing 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 almost totally devoid of those landmarks, such as logic, consistency, sequentiality, by which a critic would normally find his way. Indeed, nightmare, or dream, is an apt description of the play, by far the most surreal of Handke's creations and reminiscent no longer of the abstract austerity of Beckett but rather of the cruel luxuriance of recent Luis Bunuel (The Exterminating Angel, Belle de Jour) or of the baroque inventions of the neglected Polish dramatist, Witold Gombrowicz. (p. 92)
Botho Strauss sees in one of Henny's dreamlike speeches "about water and madness, and the Ships of Fools on the great rivers" a reference to Michel Foucault's treatise on Madness and Civilization (1961). Much more important than this single point of contact is the relevance Foucault's thesis has for the play as a whole. (p. 95)
Handke has moved from a Wittgensteinian distrust of language to a Foucaultian distrust of what our society calls reason. His play is by no means surrealist in externals only: it parallels the surrealists' cardinal desire—the liberation of men's minds from the constraints of reason.
Thus Handke continues to demonstrate that the consistently anti-theatrical stance that he has maintained throughout his dramatic writing can nonetheless lend concrete theatrical expression to abstract philosophical ideas, thereby generating a new and valid form of theater. (p. 96)
Nicholas Hern in his Peter Handke (© 1971 by Oswald Wolff (Publishers) Ltd.), Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972, 110 p.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228
One of the irritating facts of the current literary scene is that Peter Handke is absolutely the cat's meow in intellectually arty circles now…. [Handke's fiction] consists especially of The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), a terrific title, and [The Left-Handed Woman]. Both are written in a spare, clean, even emptied style; one fights the urge to speak portentously of the spaces and silences between the words, and of the gulfs that yawn between one character's speech and another's failure to answer. And of the inexplicable depths of human nature brought still wet and gasping to the surface…. (p. 232)
[As] always he writes in a fake style—knowing when it chooses to be, elliptical only for effect …, and making a mountain out of a molehill even as the work denies that either exists…. Handke leads critics to invoke, as Borges would say, the names of other writers—especially Kafka and Beckett—without noticing that they are noting a weakness, not a strength. If one were to read Handke without ever having encountered his predecessors, one would probably dismiss his style as pretentiously out of whack with its material; but who has not read the predecessors? (pp. 232-33)
J. D. O'Hara, "Reflections on Recent Prose," in New England Review (copyright © 1978 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. I, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 221-35.∗
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 195
The Left-Handed Woman tells the story, with delicacy and eloquence, of a woman's escape….
These are the details [Handke] gives the reader: a woman, needing separation; her child, an ebullient companion and occasional philosopher; her husband, Bruno, the departed businessman whose unchallenging love leaves so much room for desire, and other minor characters who fill her life, or try to, after she and Bruno separate. To these characters, portrayed with awesome simplicity, Handke adds almost nothing, except an occasional insight—through the woman, named Marianne but called only the woman….
[Handke's characters last in our memory]. When they appear together, in a final scene, he moves from one to another with astonishing speed, in a ballet of words and images forcing all feelings to the surface. With the end of the book comes a sense of knowing the woman and her dreams….
Using his enormous gifts as a writer, poet and artist, Handke delivers her into what she will become—a woman alone—with quiet dignity.
David Blum, "Brief Reviews: 'The Left-Handed Woman'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, Nos. 9&10, August 26 and September 2, 1978, p. 46.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 233
[While They Are Dying Out] has been publicized and reviewed as Handke's most overtly political work, the words "most" and "overtly" must be taken in context or they are extremely misleading—though They Are Dying Out seems to be about Big Business….
This [play] is funny and lyrical, with a larger-than-life protagonist, lots of social satire, surreal irruptions, sensuality, violence. There's enough conniving almost to equal a plot, enough dissolution of self almost to equal a psychology. It is, indeed, easily pleasurable as you watch—but tricky, even opaque, when you think about it later.
The people dying out are embodied by Quitt, a character apparently fashioned from a mixture of homage and debunking. Quitt is a grand talker and a sharklike corporate leader….
The main action is not in the story but in the way roles and gestures go off-key just enough to indicate chasms and earthquakes. (p. 109)
Quitt is also endlessly self-concerned, and would be endlessly boring if Handke hadn't written his lines. As a profiteering, producer of cheap goods who's a narcissist to boot, his poeticism ill becomes him. But as a man unable to pull anything real from a tangle of dead words, false roles, and blocked actions, he becomes moving and plausible. (p. 111)
Erika Munk, "Faust, Inc." in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), Vol. XXIV, No. 50, December 10, 1979, pp. 109, 111.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1393
The theater of Peter Handke is [self-conscious] …, not simply in terms of self-referentiality, but in its overall assertion of theater as a self-sufficient entity. In its persistent characterization of itself as something apart from the elements of reality, dependent upon no external references, the theater of Peter Handke is the culmination of the modern dramatist's concern with his own art. (p. 105)
One would think that in drama the fact of physical presence would make the challenge of creating a self-sufficient world even more difficult [than in prose fiction], but Handke has succeeded in creating just such an illusion in The Ride Across Lake Constance. (pp. 105-06)
For centuries the drama has been like life; indeed, its main task has been to represent life. But Handke feels there should be no apparent mimetic relationship between the two; drama should be pure fiction, which does not depend for its understanding on any comparison to the real world. (p. 106)
In Handke's theater, nothing is intended to be respresentational. Props, language, action, and actors correspond only tangentially to the usual patterns and characteristics of reality, with each attempting to signify nothing but itself. The event on stage exists on stage and claims only to be a theatrical event. (pp. 106-07)
Yet to say that Handke's drama … has no relationship whatsoever to reality would be to affirm an impossibility. For Handke's drama, even in its disavowal of that relationship, ultimately says a good deal about reality. As Stanley Kauffmann says of Handke's plays, "the whole is all." Despite the individual insignificance of every aspect of the theatrical event in mimetic terms, the "whole" of a Handke play is metaphor, which may finally be the way in which the art of the future finds justification.
Possibly the greatest influence (whether direct or indirect) on the philosophy of Handke is his fellow-Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein. (pp. 107-08)
Like Wittgenstein, Handke is fascinated with the possibilities and the powers of language. The dialogue of The Ride Across Lake Constance (1971)—which Handke considers the culmination of his dramatic career to date—leaves the reader totally disoriented, unable to recognize a logical pattern in the language or any correlation between the language and events which are taking place or objects which are being named. Yet The Ride Across Lake Constance emerges as a powerful comment on the nature of reality. Through bold and unconventional use of language, Handke accomplishes an annihilation of the predetermined structure of the theater and of reality itself, and suggests as well the possibility of a dramatic character which is not dependent upon a logical sequence of events for its identity and a real-life individual with an identity apart from that imposed upon him. (p. 108)
Language in the play is made up of nonsequiturs, examinations of the logical possibilities of a premise, alogical progressions, and confusions with respect to the designations of language, all designed to disturb our comfortable sense of the relationship of language and action to reality. (p. 110)
In Handke's theater, every act and every word finds significance in itself; it does not represent. In traditional drama and in life, no action or word is free from the previous one and no action or word exists for its own sake, for in traditional drama, as in life, action and language are arranged in patterns which have set interpretations. To Handke, language and action have become clichés, binding rather than liberating the thought which translates them. In his drama, language and action still constitute the play and they still fall into patterns, but the patterns are not the recognizable or expected ones. They are fresh combinations which have been freed to create new meanings. The Ride Across Lake Constance rejects clichés, presenting instead that "intensely artificial and endlessly unusual" event of which Handke speaks, and creating a self-conscious theater which exists not mimetically but as its own spontaneous reality. (p. 113)
Handke is obviously as aware of any of his predecessors of the inherent duality of the dramatic character. Because of his special theatrical intent, however, Handke's exploitation of this awareness takes the form not of emphasizing the duality but of eliminating it. The dramatis personae of The Ride Across Lake Constance are the epitome of the metafictional character, for they are actors, and nothing more….
[In] performance, all of the actors are called by their own names. The result is that there is none of the usual consciousness on the part of an audience of an actor's assuming the part of a character for the sake of performance. (p. 114)
At the core of Handke's examination is the question of the integrity of the concept of character in both drama and life. Traditionally … character in drama is formed primarily through action, including, of course, verbal action. So long as that action remains original, there is the possibility of original character. Once it becomes locked into patterns, however, the possibility ceases, and what is produced is the kind of interchangeable personality Ionesco dramatizes in The Bald Soprano and Handke suggests through the entrance of the identical Kessler twins at the end of The Ride Across Lake Constance. Handke's drama, through the destruction of pattern, attempts to renew the possibility of character both in drama and in life.
An earlier play by Handke, Kaspar (1968), confirms the playwright's concern with the creation of character. In that play he approaches the problem through an autistic man who at the play's outset knows only one sentence: "I want to be a person like somebody else was once." That sentence is Kaspar's only contact with reality and claim to identitiy. Whatever his observation, whatever his action, he gives meaning to it by reciting the one sentence which is uniquely his. It is not long, however, before the Einsager [prompters] begin the education of Kaspar. These disembodied voices teach Kaspar speech: he learns to clarify objects with sentences, compare perceptions with sentences, and name things…. Most importantly, Kaspar learns that with language he can control reality…. It is the very a priori order of language, though, that Handke is rebelling against. When Kaspar knows only one sentence, a sentence which bears no relation to external reality but which represents his own unique reality, he is an individual. When he learns model sentences, however, and can apply them to reality, making his conception of reality fit those sentences, then he becomes simply another mass-produced nonindividual. (pp. 114-15)
Handke is obviously aware of the stagnation of the creation of character not only in drama but in life. His plays dramatize the fact that identity is no longer an individual's essence, but the product of prescribed responses. (p. 116)
The characters in Handke's play operate in a kind of dream world, an anesthetized state of unawareness that automatically accepts the habits of life. No image is more common in The Ride Across Lake Constance than sleep…. The play is populated with semicomatose individuals no longer capable of seeing or hearing themselves. Their patterns of action and speech, though unfamiliar to us, are much the same as our own patterns, which have been deadened by habit and no longer stimulate thought. In Handke's theater, this somnambulistic state is exposed and assaulted until language, character, and the theater begin "to take on, like the color returning to the cheeks of a nearly hanged man, the signs of a strange and unexpected resurrection." (pp. 117-18)
[We] may just as readily be jolted into a constructive awareness as into death when we recognize the fragility of the relationship between language and reality, and it is this kind of awareness that Handke is trying to achieve. He is trying to revitalize language, revitalize the signs of reality, so that they reflect a meaningful relationship between external reality and an inner, individual reality….
Handke dramatizes the need of modern man to redefine and recreate the relationship between reality and illusion in both a philosophical and an artistic sense. Philosophically, the illusion of a solipsistic world which Handke's theater achieves is an explainable and predictable outgrowth of that need; artistically, it is the evolutionary extension of the self-referential theater of his predecessors. (p. 118)
June Schlueter, "Metafictional Theater: Handke's 'The Ride across Lake Constance'" (originally published in slightly different form in Comparative Drama, Vol. 11, Summer 1977), in her Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama (copyright © 1977, 1979 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 105-19.