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Too Much Too Young: Peter Handke as Playwright

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By David Barnett

The term ‘enfant terrible’ may well be overused nowadays but it describes Peter Handke’s work as a playwright with remarkable accuracy. Handke published his first novel, Die Hornisse (The Hornets) in 1966, but it was his appearance at the annual meeting of the Gruppe 47 in the same year that made him an international figure at the age of 23. He accused the literary gathering in Princeton of ‘descriptive impotence’ in both their prose and their drama, and retorted with his play Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) which was premiered at Frankfurt’s experimental theatre, the Theater am Turm. The play is an attack on the conventions of theatre and features blocks of unattributed text that are to be delivered by four speakers in roughly equal measure.
 
Ever the innovator, Handke followed up the scandal produced by his first play with three shorter works which he called ‘Sprechstücke’ (‘Speech Plays’). The emphasis on language over character was clear in Weissagung (Prophecy) where the lines are divided up between the enigmatic speakers a, b, c and d. Each line makes a tautological prophecy, such as ‘the skin will be skin-deep’, and the curtain line, delivered by all four performers, is the disconcerting: ‘every day will be like every other’. Selbstbezichtigung (Self- Accusation) and Hilferufe (Cries for Help) are similarly focused on the materiality of language rather than on the psychology of the speakers.
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Handke continued his examination of language in the longer and more complex Kaspar. The title alludes to Caspar Hauser, the youth found in Nuremberg in the early nineteenth century who had apparently been prevented from speaking during a mysterious captivity. For Handke, his protagonist is a model of language acquisition. At first, Kaspar only has one sentence and tries to control an unruly stage, bare but occupied mainly by items of furniture. Three invisible ‘prompters’ then educate Kaspar, parodying Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language. Kaspar is a prisoner of the prompters’ ideologically loaded language by the end of the play’s first part. In the second he is joined by several other Kaspars who unleash a rebellion, although the play’s finale offers ambivalence: Kaspar seems to have liberated himself by free forming language but his last words, ‘goats and monkeys’, are in fact taken from Othello.
 
Kaspar was premiered in 1968 and Handke continued to experiment in two further short plays, Der Mündel will Vormund sein (My Foot my Tutor) and Quodlibet in 1969; the former is a subtle dumbshow depicting a two-man power struggle set in the country. The full-length Der Ritt über den Bodensee (The Ride across Lake Constance) was written in 1970, when Handke was still two years shy of thirty, and plays with the relationship between a group of actors and the words they speak. The play is obscure, episodic, and uses incomprehensibility as a provocation to the audience. Handke then concluded his first phase of playwriting in 1973 with Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus (They Are Dying Out), which marked something of a departure in his dramaturgy in that both plot and characters made an appearance together for the first time. That said, the story of a wealthy industrialist who becomes world-weary and finally kills himself is sidelined by extended monologues that probe subjectivity and selfhood.
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And that, at the age of 31, is where the enfant effectively stopped being terrible. Handke turned his back on the theatre for almost a decade before returning with the mystical Über die Dörfer (The Long Way Round) in 1981. The bombastic treatise on art and nature was not well received. Handke took another sabbatical and wrote Das Spiel vom Fragen (The Game of Asking) in 1989 which was a success, but his Die Stunde da wir nichts von einander wußten (The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other) three years later signalled a return to form with its silent, impressionistic collage of the many people one might see on a piazza. Their variety, from everyday pedestrians to mythical and biblical characters, presents a visual overload as more than four hundred figures cross the stage over the course of the performance. A further decline, which echoed the one around 1981, was evident in the 1999 play Die Fahrt im Einbaum (The Journey in the Logboat). The subject matter, the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, was treated with partisan gusto which reduced the broad themes of the play. Handke’s most recent play, however, Spuren der Verirrten (Traces of the Lost) of 2006 is a sequel of sorts to Die Stunde and has redeemed the playwright once again.
 
These later plays may well seem innovative to the British reader, but for the German-speaking theatre they present little more than an aftershock of the explosive energy Handke brought to the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There is a sense that the enfant has been unable to sustain his iconoclastic momentum and has since settled into a more genteel experimentalism.



David Barnett
is senior lecturer and head of Drama at the University of Sussex. He has published books on Heiner Müller and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, along with articles on German and English-language theatre.
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