Peter Handke Handke, Peter (Vol. 15) - Essay

Nicholas Hern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

David Blum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Erika Munk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

June Schlueter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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