Handke’s Dramatizes Language Theory Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peter Handke’s first full-length play, Kaspar, took Germany by storm, giving a new, postmodern voice to the Western world of theater.

Summary of Event

Until 1966, Peter Handke was a little-known author associated with the so-called Ganz Group Ganz Group , an assembly of young artists and intellectuals set to pull down the idols of modernism. The year 1966, though, was important in several ways to Handke. In addition to raising his voice in favor of a new aesthetic, he had published his first novel, Die Hornissen Hornissen, Die (Handke) (1966; the hornets), and had his short play Publikumsbeschimpfung Offending the Audience (Handke) (1966; Offending the Audience, 1969) presented in Frankfurt. Die Hornissen received generally favorable reviews, and Offending the Audience was the hit of the “Experimenta I” drama festival at the Theater am Turm. For his new works, Handke was awarded the coveted Gerhart Hauptmann prize. Kaspar (Handke) Language theory Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Postmodernism [kw]Handke’s Kaspar Dramatizes Language Theory (May 11, 1968)[Handkes Kaspar] [kw]Kaspar Dramatizes Language Theory, Handke’s (May 11, 1968) [kw]Language Theory, Handke’s Kaspar Dramatizes (May 11, 1968) Kaspar (Handke) Language theory Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Postmodernism [g]Europe;May 11, 1968: Handke’s Kaspar Dramatizes Language Theory[09780] [g]West Germany;May 11, 1968: Handke’s Kaspar Dramatizes Language Theory[09780] [g]Germany;May 11, 1968: Handke’s Kaspar Dramatizes Language Theory[09780] [c]Theater;May 11, 1968: Handke’s Kaspar Dramatizes Language Theory[09780] [c]Literature;May 11, 1968: Handke’s Kaspar Dramatizes Language Theory[09780] Handke, Peter Peymann, Klaus Wildgruber, Ulrich

Offending the Audience had deeply startled its viewers by turning the tables on them; the actors stood in a row on a bare stage directly addressing the audience, forcing them to create the play by interacting with the performers. The mode established in Offending the Audience was followed by Handke in other short experimental pieces, notably Selbstbezichtigung (1966; Self-Accusation, 1969).

After having experienced such a startlingly new approach in Handke’s short plays, the Frankfurt audience came to his first full-length play, Kaspar, with considerable curiosity and anticipation. They were not disappointed; Kaspar, with the title character played by Ulrich Wildgruber, took the Frankfurt audience of May 11, 1968, by storm. Despite some reactions of outrage, viewers continued to fill the Theater am Turm for each performance, which was directed by Klaus Peymann. Other theaters quickly followed with productions, and Handke’s work became the year’s most frequently produced play across Europe.

For all its popularity, Kaspar is not an easy play for audiences. It is mysterious and foreboding, completely without a traditional story line. A young man suddenly breaks through the rear curtain onto a stage filled with seemingly pointless properties. The young man is from the country. He is perplexed, indeed astonished, at his condition. He can hardly walk. He possesses nothing, knows nothing except a single sentence: “I want to be somebody like somebody else once was.” Even this sentence is difficult for Kaspar to say; it comes out muffled and garbled.

Throughout the course of the next two hours, Kaspar grapples with the implications of his single sentence. At first he says it by rote, stumbling about. Under the influence of mysterious “prompters,” though, he begins to elaborate, to use the sentence as a test against other sentences, in short to create a language.

As Kaspar develops language, the prompters give him advice. They point out that he has a great advantage, for he already possesses a sentence, which is better than a word, since a sentence can be spoken with style. Out of style, meaning can be expressed. A single sentence can make Kaspar an individual, for the sentence can be placed between Kaspar and everything else. It can encapsulate him.

Kaspar attempts to resist the prompters’ advice, to master his single sentence by deliberately twisting the structure. His garbling results in new sentences, and Kaspar has now set a language between himself and the prompters. He has used language to create a solitary world of his own. The prompters, though, seize on this new development to teach Kaspar names for things and their functions, as well as old wives’ tales about the behavior of things. In this way, Kaspar acquires wisdom and culture along with a mastery of language.

As becomes obvious to Kaspar, acquiring a language means acquiring order, but it is a mixed blessing. Language brings order, but it also brings its own imperatives. The speaker controls language only in the act of commencing to speak. Once initiated, a sentence follows its own logic. To demonstrate this phenomenon, Handke shows Kaspar arranging all the properties on the stage so that sets and suites are formed. When Kaspar attempts to list rules for the order he had built, however, the stage fills with other Kaspars who rearrange his designs and mock his logic. Similarly, life and reality are unrelated to language, which has an inherent order while existence remains chaotic. Now Kaspar is brought to a new, fundamental truth: Reality is not influenced by speech, but the speaker is. Life goes on freely, without oppression or order, while the speaker becomes a creature of his or her own speaking, a puppet to the order of language. Kaspar realizes that even in uttering his first sentence he was trapped forever. This is what Handke frequently refers to as the “nausea of language.”

Peter Handke.

(Peter Stojanovic)

Handke based his play loosely on the German fascination with the “Kaspar legend.” In Nuremberg in 1828, Kaspar Hauser Hauser, Kaspar , an autistic sixteen-year-old, appeared under mysterious circumstances. Apparently the young man had been kept in a closet, separated from human contact. He had difficulty moving, and at the time of his discovery he knew only a single sentence: “I would like to become a rider like my father once was.” Appearing as he did at the peak of the Romantic movement, Kaspar Hauser became a cause célèbre. Karl Gutzkow, Georg Trakl, and Ernst Jandl are among the many writers who have treated the Kaspar legend; Handke chose a Jandl poem about Hauser as the epigraph to his play.


With Kaspar, Handke validated a new aesthetic that seemed to have sprung full-blown out of the decadence of an exhausted modernism that was clinging to the ideals of structure, ritual, myth, psychology, and moral socialism. To the “classic” modernist, structure was an intellectual truth. Handke had battered at this truth with his two novels, Die Hornissen and Die Hauserier Hauserier, Die (Handke) (1967; the peddler), but the first was too dense, and the second was at once too coy and too bold. Die Hauserier is a murder mystery without a plot. There are all the ingredients—a body, several possible murder weapons, a suspect—but nothing develops from these devices. They, like all reality, simply exist. Handke’s point was that structure in itself, even such a traditional structure as the murder mystery, has no special value or function.

Offending the Audience came a step closer to making Handke’s point, for it was presented in the most socialized art form, the theater. Theater is where people are gathered to share an art in public. It is the art, therefore, most dependent on structure, on shared conventions. In Offending the Audience, Handke eliminated all conventions. The audience did not view the play; they were the play. The piece was short and was performed as part of an experimental festival, however, and was thus limited in its impact.

Kaspar had to be considered a major drama; it was presented at a major theater as part of its regular season. Indeed, it was presented simultaneously at two theaters. It could not be blinked away. Postmodernism had arrived.

Not that Handke was unknown or unconsidered by 1968. He had already received the Hauptmann prize and had insulted the dignitaries gathered for the award with an outrageous speech about a notorious murder trial of the day. He had carefully cultivated a “bad boy” image and had sought out every controversy, deliberately outraging portions of his audience or reading public with each new work and then carefully fanning that outrage into open controversy. His frank manipulation of public controversy came to be known as “Handke-publicity,” and his antics were compared to those of the Beatles, especially John Lennon, to whom Handke dedicated his first play.

Handke, however, was seeking more than notoriety. He had something truly different to say, and he truly needed to be heard, because Handke’s subject was speech itself.

Born into the chaos that was Austria between the wars, speaking German but a citizen of several different Germanys and Austrias, sent off to school to study law, a hated subject and profession, Handke became sensitized to the hopelessness of bringing order to reality. Ludwig Wittgenstein Wittgenstein, Ludwig , the Viennese philosopher, had already set the stage for Handke’s generation. Building on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Wittgenstein had taught that every problem was a matter of language. The semioticians who followed this premise laid out a world divided into signs (language) and referents (reality), and by the late 1960’s, philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault were arguing that reality was imponderable in any case, because signs ultimately referred only to other signs without ever breaking out of the closed system to reach reality. The future study of humanity would be human language.

Handke met this challenge by creating a literature that matched the new philosophers’ arguments. Language, not psychology or moral philosophy, is the subject, object, and total vehicle of Handke’s plays. Kaspar, early in the play, asserts his belief in his own individuality and reality. Later, he realizes he has deceived himself, that he is only an eventuality of how he uses—or is used by—language. Finally, he admits that he is only a happenstance of speech, only accidentally himself.

Young writers in Germany, such as Bazon Brock and Otto Piene, were quick to follow in Handke’s footsteps. Handke thus represents a leading edge of a wave of innovative writers that includes Kurt Vonnegut, Steve Katz, and Ronald Sukenick in the novel and Caryl Churchill in the drama. Audiences have found Handke’s plays simultaneously perplexing and compelling. When Joseph Papp produced Handke’s second major play, Der Ritt über den Bodensee Ride Across Lake Constance, The (Handke) (1971; The Ride Across Lake Constance, 1972), at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the audience was outraged. Spectators booed and hissed, but they somehow sensed the significance of the event. Handke’s plays have been performed frequently in the United States. In 1981, an English-language video production of The Ride Across Lake Constance was created jointly by the University of Georgia and the Goethe Institute and distributed worldwide. In literature, especially, Handke’s work has most pointedly defined the postmodern movement. Kaspar (Handke) Language theory Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Postmodernism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coury, David N., and Frank Pilipp, eds. The Works of Peter Handke: International Perspectives. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 2005. Part of the Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture, and Thought series. An interpretive collection that includes analysis of Handke’s theatrical work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Handke, Peter. “Kaspar” and Other Plays. Translated by Michael Roloff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Also includes Offending the Audience and Self-Accusation. A second volume from the same publisher, “The Ride Across Lake Constance” and Other Plays (1977) includes most of the remainder of Handke’s dramatic works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joseph, Artur. “Nauseated by Language: From an Interview with Peter Handke.” Drama Review 15, no. 1 (Fall, 1970): 56-61. A good example of the primary material to be taken from an interview. Those interested in Handke’s drama especially should also consult Jack Zipes’s “Contrary Positions: An Interview with Peter Handke” in Performance (September/October, 1976).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klinkowitz, Jerome, and James Knowlton. Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983. A concise and clear study of Handke’s early and middle career. Places him in the context of the postmodern intellectual climate. Handke’s dramas are given a separate chapter, and Kaspar is analyzed thoroughly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Man, the Plaything of Language.” The New York Times Book Review, August 7, 1970. An informative consideration of the impact of Handke’s work. Clear, readable, and concise view of the author’s achievements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlueter, June. The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981. An excellent general study of Handke’s work and influence. Most of Handke’s dramatic works are considered.

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