The Ride Across Lake Constance

by Peter Handke
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The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1866

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.

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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 ended when she is kicked across the room. It is, in fact, Jannings who kicks George, but the effect of the kick has been displaced. Porten then asks George if he is the salesman; George goes along with the identification and sells her a riding crop instead of the “tear-gas pistol” she has requested. She tries out the crop, making suggestive motions toward Jannings and George. Finally George asks von Stroheim if he and Porten belong together. His response, as he grabs her around the waist, is “Can’t one tell just by looking at us?” George replies, “I guess so, now,” implying that the appearance now signifies the relationship. Porten then asks if George and Jannings belong to each other. They look at each other as if discovering their relationship for the first time, then reply that they do, affirming this several times.

Von Stroheim and Porten inspect the room, which has several marked peculiarities, such as a magazine chained to the table and a drawer which will not open. Bergner goes to the mirror and begins to comb her hair and put on makeup. Her movements become more and more insecure; she panics, dropping things, walking around the room with awkward gestures, and calling for help in a direction where no one is present. Porten helps her by guiding her around the room and showing her how to pick things up. Porten shows her how to speak as well, giving her model sentences until she is calm and can express herself easily. The two women become lighthearted and dance around the room, discovering the apparent simplicity of interpretation. Porten asks if certain postures and gestures have some other meaning: “Two people sit there, don’t look at each other, and are silent. Are they angry with one another?” Bergner replies that these movements can be free of outward significance: “No they simply sit there, don’t look at each other, and are silent!”

The two women are relieved at this discovery. Their joy spreads to the other characters when Bergner asks why the drawer is stuck, and von Stroheim replies “Let it be stuck!” George, Jannings, and von Stroheim dance, and sing about the drawer in unison. The men are now delighted with the objects in the room; they fondle and play with them. The women laugh, and the men imitate one another and show off for them. Finally, after this sequence of playfulness, all the characters seat themselves. They are calm but satisfied with their newly found linguistic independence.

This satisfaction, however, is short-lived. Slowly they begin to lapse back into their former difficulties. Porten tells von Stroheim that she has goose pimples, and he almost asks her if she is cold. He checks himself in time and asks her if she has goose pimples. Jannings shows them a pin, and they begin to refer to other uses of the word “pin” and other pins with which they had come into contact or heard about before, rather than only the pin in question. Bergner drops the pin and they all listen, but George ruins the effect by speaking too soon. Von Stroheim plays magician, conjuring rather ordinary objects from his pockets. They marvel at the reality of these objects, especially at a red piece of cloth which they inspect carefully.

In the next sequence von Stroheim, George, and Jannings play teaching games about the nature of language. Jannings concludes with a long speech on how language formulates reality. He points out that Bergner, as a woman, has learned to think of herself in terms of desirability. As if to illustrate this, Bergner asks a series of questions about herself. Jannings continues his speech, pointing out that the familiar song about the three-cornered hat has rendered him incapable of imagining a three-cornered hat. He ends his speech with a story about his having a bad day. When George fails to respond, Jannings prompts him, and George asks a series of questions about the way in which Jannings has defined his story. The two men end by betting on games involving George’s putting cigars in boxes and spanking Porten. George loses both games.

Von Stroheim and Bergner play, self-consciously, the elements of a love scene. This is ended when Porten claps her hands. Jannings tries to begin a number of stories but is interrupted by the others and finally by the arrival of another character. Alice Kessler carries a suitcase and looks as though she has mistakenly come upon this performance. Alice speaks quite normally, and without any apparent self-consciousness. The other characters are quite disconcerted but attempt to play along. Alice speaks to each character in turn, and they are thrilled to be able to communicate with her. Her arrival is soon followed by the arrival of Ellen Kessler, who is dressed exactly like Alice and also carries a suitcase. Ellen imitates the movements and greeting of Alice exactly; the original five characters laugh as they repeat their replies to the two girls. Then Alice and Ellen begin to double their movements, running around the characters and manipulating them in unison. They then slow down, speed up, and begin to contradict one another’s movements, disrupting one another’s efforts to untie shoelaces, brush hair, and bring bottles and glasses to set before the characters.

Finally the two run off in opposite directions, return, and change directions, exiting into the wings. After a pause, Jannings and George get up and throw the suitcases, then the hats and gloves of the girls after them; the sound of the suitcases hitting the floor is delayed by several seconds, so that it sounds as though the hats and gloves are crashing down.

The characters turn back to one another. Bergner seems to have fallen asleep. Each comment is spoken a little too late, so that there are awkward pauses between sentences. The characters have resumed their states of disorientation. Hopelessly, they try to recall the moments of the play that took place earlier, the red cloth that von Stroheim conjured, and George’s selling Porten the riding crop. Their recollections seem faint, and they become increasingly uneasy. Porten reaches for a cigar, and George asks if she is restless. She screams at his suggestion: “I only wanted to take a cigar!” She screams again. All the characters hunch up.

There is a high-pitched howling offstage. The woman with the scarf from the beginning of the play reenters with a huge doll which represents a child. The child begins to cry, but stops when George shuts a drawer in the chest. The woman quickly carries the child from one character to another; the child reaches for the women’s breasts and between the men’s legs. The child knocks things off the tables and begins to cry again. It stops when it reaches Bergner, and it is carried away. The characters attempt to move or to make sounds, but their feeble attempts die away. Bergner begins to wake up, and the other characters look at her. Von Stroheim gets up and goes to her. The other characters remain motionless. She opens her eyes, recognizes von Stroheim, and begins to smile.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

Handke presents human activity in The Ride Across Lake Constance as inherently theatrical even without being directly representational. He shifts interest from certain traditional elements of drama—plot and characterization—to the events taking place on the stage itself. The play challenges the expectations of the audience even through its setting. Although the stage is furnished in the manner of a typical nineteenth century drawing room, it soon becomes apparent that the audience is not going to see the kind of play that usually takes place within such a stage setting; the setting thus parodies its own conventional theatrical use. Finally, as noted above, Handke gives the actors their own names as designations, so that they do not represent fictional people. Although they are costumed in suggestive ways—Jannings, for example, has on heavy makeup, and a bright red sash around his waist—these visual details do not contribute to a traditional role. The audience thus must reinterpret its expectations of theatrical convention and genre. In much the same way, the actions and phrases of the play seem to be familiar, but then they subvert their own familiarity.

The play includes a variety of dialogues and interactions that exaggerate and distort seemingly ordinary acts of language and gesture. The attempt to interpret these words and gestures becomes a series of discussions, questions, and word games, all of which lead to moments of real crisis for the actors and characters. Their fear, generated by the precariousness of this very act of interpretation, arises at many points of the play; it is especially overwhelming at the end. The doll-child’s wailing suggests the frustration and terror that underlie human expression, and its destruction of the room suggests an inherent violence.

There is also, however, much lightheartedness in the play. The characters do experience moments of true revelation and elation. At one point they marvel at instances where language does reflect some reality. Von Stroheim tells them the story: “I was sitting by a lakeshore in the morning and the lake was sparkling. Suddenly I noticed: the lake is sparkling. It is really sparkling.” Similarly, Porten tells of the time “when someone told me that his pockets were empty. ‘My pockets are empty!’ I didn’t believe him and he turned his pockets inside out. They really were empty. Incredible!” The characters dance joyously over the discovery of how a drawer can simply be stuck, singing rounds in unison of “Oh, let the drawer be stuck, oh, oh, let the drawer be stuck!” Handke’s play is carefully composed not only of perceptive and amusing dialogue, but of ingenious physical action; Handke makes frequent use not only of humorous “sight gags” such as the suitcases of the Kessler girls and the noises they make as they are thrown offstage, but also of striking visual sequences such as the gradual disorientation of Bergner as she views herself in the mirror. The events of the play are constantly surprising, revealing, and insightful. The Ride Across Lake Constance presents a complex metaphor about language and interpretation in ways that are both visually and verbally engaging.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 72

Sources for Further Study

Firda, Richard A. Peter Handke. Boston: Twayne, 1993.

Gilbert, W. Stephen. “The Ride Across Lake Constance.” Plays and Players, January, 1974, 48-49.

Hauptmann, Ira. “Aspects of Handke: A Play.” Partisan Review 45, no. 3 (1978): 425-430.

Hays, Michael. “Peter Handke and the End of the ‘Modern.’” Modern Drama 23 (January, 1981): 346-366.

Hern, Nicholas. Peter Handke: Theatre and Anti-Theatre. London: Wolfe, 1971.

Schlueter, June. The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

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Critical Essays