The Ride Across Lake Constance violates many of the familiar conventions of the theater. This is immediately apparent in the play’s treatment of its characters. In the printed text the characters are arbitrarily assigned the names of various celebrated German film actors. In performance, however, the stage directions explain that the actors should be called by their own names. “The actors are and play themselves at the same time,” Peter Handke notes. Thus from the beginning the audience is invited to consider what it means to play a role, to act a part, rather than simply accepting the actor’s function as a given.
The play opens with a woman in blackface, wearing a white scarf, moving around the objects onstage with a vacuum cleaner. Emil Jannings sits on a fauteuil (an upholstered armchair) with his eyes closed. When the sound of the vacuum cleaner stops, music from a record player becomes audible. The woman pulls off the drop cloths which have covered most of the furniture, including one under Jannings. She exits. The record player turns itself off. Jannings opens his eyes and speaks as if he were resuming a conversation, although it is never made clear what conversation this actually is. Heinrich George, hidden from view behind the screen, questions him; George then repeats his question as he steps out from behind the screen.
The two actors sustain a dialogue in which they pointedly test their means of communication with each other through language and gesture. They use their hands, facial expressions, and posture, as well as objects such as cigar boxes, cigars, and rings, to sustain this conversation. However, their attempts merely emphasize their inability to use ordinary signals smoothly. Jannings points to a cigar box on the floor as if asking George to pick it up. George misinterprets the gesture as pointing to a feature of the box and goes to look at it; Jannings then goes along with this new interpretation of his gesture, quickly finding something for George to notice on the box. Somewhat later, Jannings relates an experience which he had on a winter evening in the past; George questions not only the reality of the story, whether it was truth or fiction, but also how Jannings chose what sentences and expressions to use. The two end this dialogue with a series of clichés, making them more and more ridiculous. They wind up laughing at the expression “born winner,” a variation they have generated from the expression “born loser.”
The actors are joined by other actors designated as Elisabeth Bergner, Erich von Stroheim, and Henny Porten. The entrances of these three demonstrate the same kind of disorientation and disconnection of gesture and meaning. Each descends from the stairway, Bergner from one side, the other two from the other. In the sequence which follows, each of their ordinary gestures—offering a hand to kiss, bowing, standing in front of one another—is disrupted by a totally unexpected response by another character.
Porten has some trouble going down the stairs and descends repeatedly, each time misjudging the number of steps. Aided by von Stroheim, she finally arrives at the bottom. Bergner also descends into the room, stepping over the bodies of George and Jannings, who have thrown themselves in front of her. Bergner quickly sits and drinks a cup of tea, while George and Jannings get up and dust themselves off. She speaks as if asleep, then opens her eyes and asks a rapid series of formulaic questions, then tries to sit in several different fauteuils, rejecting them because each is too warm. Bergner asks Jannings if he is more powerful than George. He considers the question and begins to demand various items from George. George complies, egging him on to ask for more and more outlandish items. Jannings finally demands “the sun,” and both, exhausted, stop the game.
Von Stroheim and Porten now join in the act. Von Stroheim manipulates Porten through his gestures, a manipulation that is ultimately...
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