I shall say little about Mr. Gilman’s instructive, well-written, and unaffected book, because I want to write about Peter Handke, whose plays and other works have made him perhaps the most interesting young writer in German today. This is in itself a tribute to Mr. Gilman, for it was his chapter on Handke that compelled me to read that author for the first time.

The making of modern drama had to be achieved in the teeth of powerful opposing forces; the theater has been for centuries a bourgeois stronghold, and one would expect it to change more slowly than other literary forms. Yet Gilman has to begin his account with Büchner in the 1830s, a good while before any comparable figure appeared in other arts. It is true that the struggle to “renew drama, to combat its tendency to inertia and self-repetition,” had constantly to be recommenced, for example by all the authors—Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, and Handke—whom Gilman writes about in this book. Still, there is a paradox here, and the only way to resolve it is to consider that avant-gardes thrive, and only thrive, on opposition, and the opposition comes closest to being permanent in the theater, where, for whatever reasons, the force of convention powerfully tends to reassert itself.

Gilman’s authors are in time and by nationality a scattered lot, and he isn’t of course claiming that they represent a concerted movement or development. What they have in common is that each renewed the assault on conventions that had come to look like nature. This common quality is admirably documented by Gilman, and there are valuable accounts of individual plays. The essays are brief, sometimes too brief, and some important works are given rather short shrift; but at his best Gilman makes a virtue of brevity, as in his essay on Ibsen; I would have liked more discussion of the last three plays, but as an account of Ibsen’s transformation of the pièce bien faite into an instrument of moral revelation, a transformation not fully achieved before The Master Builder, this essay is useful and fresh.

Gilman finds himself in enthusiastic sympathy with Strindberg, and says many warm and perceptive things about him, his risk-taking and his bold anticipations of much later experiment; but this does not mean that he cannot value just as highly the reticence of Chekhov. It is central to his argument that Tolstoy was wrong about Chekhov, for he failed to understand that drama is not “a provider of imaginary solutions to real dilemmas” but of “analogues to our lives.” Gilman has less admiration for Brecht but still sees him as a kind of saint of the new theater of thought and enlarged consciousness.

The stage is always trying to throw off its staginess, even if in the process it disintegrates the idea of personality, as Hofmannsthal thought Brecht did; in undermining its own illusion it deprives many other illusions of their future. Peter Handke therefore comes in quite properly at the end of Gilman’s book (there might also have been a word on Pinter). He treats him as a dramatist, though at thirty-three Handke is also the author of several novellas, a volume of stories, a collection of poems, and other books. The better part of all this work is already available in translation, a state of affairs as satisfactory as it is unusual. I think that anybody who gives Handke a fair reading will have to agree that there was nothing in the least absurd about putting him in a book with such formidable predecessors, though I’m not sure I can wholly accept what Gilman says about him.

Handke is by origin a small-town upper-working-class Austrian Catholic. He studied law and at once turned to writing. His first novel, The Hornets, appeared in 1966, when he was very young, and the plays which made his name, Offending the Audience (or Public Insult) and Self-Accusation, belong to the same year. In 1967 appeared another novel, The Peddler, and a short play, Calling for Help (or Distress Calls), of which a translation appeared in The Drama Review (Fall, 1970).

Kaspar, his most important play so far, followed in 1968; it is translated, together with the first two plays, in Kaspar and Other Plays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Noonday, 1972). Quodlibet and My Foot, My Tutor, a mime-play (TDR, Fall, 1970), came out in 1969, as did the novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The Ride Across Lake Constance (in Contemporary German Theater, edited by Michael Roloff, Avon, 1972) belongs to 1971. Since then there have been two more narratives, Short Letter, Long Farewell and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (both 1972), and a play called They Are Dying Out, which I have not read, that followed in 1973. The poems were published in 1969.


Handke’s photograph turns up here and there; clean-shaven and bending over a pinball machine, or hairy in jeans, or wearing shades and trying to look like Paul McCartney. He is said to be, or to have been, “into rock,” and he certainly is into old movies. John Ford seems to be a special hero, honest and generous in a wise old American way. None of this means, of course, that he is not an intellectual. He is, I’m glad to say, sympathetic to the idea that he can help people to understand what he is up to by talking about it. I had better try, in a very provisional way, to say what I think he is up to.

Here I deviate a little from Mr. Gilman, who, rightly observing that Handke is in some way a philosophical dramatist, finds him to be very like Wittgenstein. It is true that Wittgenstein called philosophy “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” and that Handke shows himself to be very suspicious of language as the means by which we are induced to accept “reality”; indeed he sometimes hates it and speaks of its “idiocy.” But these similarities, even if not misleading, are not sufficient to justify the conclusion that “nothing could be closer in spirit” to Wittgenstein than Handke, and I am not surprised to learn that the dramatist has himself rejected the comparison.

Wittgenstein was concerned to avoid errors arising from a failure to understand the workings of language. This is not the same as to wish to “learn to be nauseated by language,” as Handke says he does, and as he says we should if we are to achieve consciousness. But Handke’s theory is not fully articulated, and there is excuse for confusion. He believes language to be an agent of social oppression and mystification, so there is a political aspect to his theory; but Handke seems to me less interested in this for its own sake than as the symptom of a more radical distress. Language makes us sick, perhaps makes us wicked (his theory is really quite Rousseauistic), and if we can find a single dominant motive in Handke’s work it is that as a writer he is always having to love what he abhors. The consequence is that he is a poet above all else, and almost always in a state of fright or horror.

I doubt, for this and other reasons, whether it can be right to argue, as Gilman does, that the language of his plays is meant to be a sort of homeopathic cure for the ills language has inflicted upon us, an agent of resurrection or health. In an interview with Artur Joseph, partially translated in the issue of TDR already mentioned, Handke does make a few cautious gestures of this kind, saying that a moral theater could only belong to a new social order and that meanwhile one can show “through revelation in language” that we do not have to accept the present one as given. But this is clearly not his prime interest, although he holds that in breaking up the conventions of the theater, including those of its language, he is doing something to destroy the hierarchical society that meets his disapproval.

But it seems to be in the nature of language that it imposes upon us its arbitrary universes, oppresses us, and permits us only such freedom as is consistent with its conditions. Handke rages against it, calling it a stupid pretense, saying “it expresses nothing but its own stupidity.” The nausea which he says he feels, and which he compares to the nausea of Sartre’s Roquentin about things, arises less from the brutalization of people by (the abuse of) language than from disgust at having to deal with the corrupt and systematic independence of language itself.

Hence for Handke language is what prevents us from being in the world as it is, a set of debilitating fictions. He is faithful to the puritanism of the avant-garde in general when he says that “the progress of literature consists of the gradual removal of unnecessary fictions,” and his earliest effort was to destroy the fictions that are habitual in the theater. He sought to strip it of all its familiar trappings, going beyond the point where Beckett leaves off, trying to make audiences understand the “produced” quality of what they were seeing, to abuse the theater and the audience too, in so far as it contributed to the theatrical fiction. In his early plays, there is no action, no character, no fourth wall; there are people in a room, and all that is happening is language. Of course the theater can be seen as a model of other forms of social lying, all dependent on language. Attack language, Handke seems to be saying, and you attack the root of evil.


Using language to attack language sets problems Handke is always aware of. His anti-theater is very theatrical, his anti-language has great linguistic and rhetorical resource. The words of his Sprechstücke (“speak-ins”) are not, he explains, “pictures”; they point not to a world beyond them “but to the world in the words themselves.” This words can do only by insisting on themselves as interesting, as opaque rather than transparent, exactly as the atheatrical quality of his plays requires constant reminders that we are in a theater and nowhere else. The expectations of the audience are constantly maintained by assertions that no conceivable curiosity or expectation of theirs may hope to be satisfied.

It may be the case that you expected what you are hearing now.

But even in that case you expected something different.

This is from Offending the Audience. The speakers, who divide the text arbitrarily between them, say: “We don’t tell you a story. We don’t perform any actions. We don’t simulate any actions. We don’t represent anything. We don’t put anything on for you. We only speak…. This is no drama. No action that has occurred elsewhere is re-enacted here…we are not playing time. Time is for real here…. We are not doing as if.” They claim that their scrupulous observance of the unities makes the play strictly “classical”—a good historical joke. They end with a long abusive tirade against the status and expectations of the audience.

By constantly and aggressively challenging expectations Handke makes his anti-play playable, the anti-language speakable, intelligible to a language-corrupted audience. Self-Accusation, a less épatant piece, explains the process of corruption: one is born, one acquires with language desire and anxiety, one commits crimes indiscriminately social and linguistic. Offending the Audience is said to be based on rock style and rhythms; My Foot, My Tutor is all mime. But these are evasions; language, as game or disease, dominates the entire enterprise.

Kaspar consummates Handke’s theatrical treatment of this topic. According to the author it is “anarchic, and negates everything it comes across. I don’t care whether this yields a positive utopia….” As his name suggests, Kaspar is a clown, a virtually speechless person with a difficult relation to objects. The play is based on a celebrated nineteenth-century event, the emergence of a man named Kaspar Hauser who had spent sixteen years in a closet and who knew only one sentence: “I want to be a cavalry officer as my father once was.” Handke’s Kaspar also knows one sentence but it is general and abstract: “I want to be a person like someone else was once.” Kaspar emerges from the closet “incapable of correct perception,” as Handke explains. He is unable to distinguish between two and three dimensions, and supposes that everything white is snow.

In Handke’s play, prompters exhort Kaspar to use the one sentence he has as a model for generating others, and so find his way about the world. First he plays about with the sentence itself, without understanding its possibilities as a model. Then he acquires more phonemes, and by degrees comes to speak regular sentences. He can now control objects and establish order. For example, he can tie his shoelaces. But in liberating him from his world of prelinguistic terror, the prompters enslave him to society. Their instructions turn for Kaspar into slogans of acceptance: All suffering is natural, good order is the foundation of all things, you should feel responsible for the furniture. Now Kaspar’s clothes are more orderly, and the stage looks, for the first time, like a room. He speaks poetry, reflecting the order he has found.

Now I know what I want:
I want
to be
and every object
that I find sinister
I designate as mine
so that it stops
being sinister to me.

But the order is phony. He learns metaphor and lying; he becomes rational and oppressed. “Already with my first sentence I was trapped…. I have been made to speak. I have been converted to reality.” Handke says the play could also be called Speech Torture.

Although Wittgenstein said that “to understand a sentence is to understand a language” he went on to say that “to understand a language means to be a master of a technique.” Handke’s point is that in acquiring a delusive mastery one is mastered. At a time when linguistics and psychoanalysis are moving together again we should perhaps look to them rather than to Wittgenstein for clues to the nature of this extraordinary play; and perhaps we should also look to poetry. Mr. Gilman tells us that Verlaine, Hofmannsthal, and Trakl had all used the original Kaspar Hauser as a figure of the poet, the man who “does not know what he is to do in the world” and is obsessed with the power, the limitations, and the opacity of language. Kaspar, like Handke’s poems, is a word game.

Handke’s poems, unfortunately too long to quote usefully, are much concerned with horror or fright (reactions produced more by language than by things) and also with such topics as singular and plural, the sociolinguistic circumstances in which one says “I” and “mine” and those in which one does not (“my cell” but not “my prison,” for instance). They are series of sentences bound together by linguistic and rhetorical devices of the kind that are currently interesting practitioners of “text-linguistics” or “discourse-analysis.” Above all they are encounters between the poet, a self-confessed traitor to silence, and his enemy the language.

The poems, and Kaspar, have a tension I can’t find in The Ride Across Lake Constance, a play in which, as Gilman puts it, “people in ‘real’ life act as though they were cast in plays.” The play is a series of gestures and routines existing as themselves, without reference to anything, occasionally establishing some ritual of social or sexual superiority. The actors, who have no names but their own, provide each other with identities, form relationships on the basis of the roles they force upon one another. Perhaps it would seem more interesting on stage; Handke is such a theatrical wizard that one ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Of the novels The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is most immediately impressive. It is of course obsessed with language and the anxieties it induces; but despite this attention to its own medium of communication it is a highly wrought story about a character called Joseph Bloch. Even the title is part of the story, which expands the moment in which the goalkeeper waits for the shot he is supposed, but can barely hope, to save. It opens with a powerful but delusive and transient reminiscence of Kafka:

When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. At least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack, where the workers happened to be at that moment, and Bloch left the building site.

Bloch’s dissociation, his difficulty with objects, is a consequence of language. Urban things assert themselves; there is a tedium of detail, of unimportant false inferences and frustrations, useless detours. Bloch is mugged in the Prater, but it means nothing. He takes a girl to her room and in the morning gratuitously kills her. “If the pressure of everything around him when his eyes were open was bad, the pressure of the words for everything out there when his eyes were closed was even worse.” There is a murder hunt, but it makes very little impact; we are concerned rather with the way in which anxiety, represented as a disease of language, seeps into the text, a nausea induced by words and even sounds. “Bloch dropped in the cards. The empty mailbox resounded as they fell into it. But the mailbox was so tiny that nothing could resound in there. Anyway, Bloch had walked away immediately.”

Arriving at a frontier town, Bloch finds that there is a search for a missing boy who has a speech impediment; it turns out that all the children of the town are similarly afflicted. He himself begins to suffer from a “loathsome word-game sickness,” nauseated by the treachery and absurdity of the words he speaks, by grammar, by the conventions of written language, by apparitions among things of such rhetorical devices as synecdoche (very important in Handke, for that things should stand for or imply other concealed things is a source of horror) and anaphora (including many repeated motifs, such as coins, apples, sponges, or meat falling, with no apparent relevance to the narrative).

There is a trick ending, well prepared; and yet we can no more take it at its narrative face value than we can suppose the repetitions of words and motifs have the kind of sense one would expect in a more normal novel. They are indices or symptoms of the language-disease. The book has frontiers with Kafka and with the nouveau roman, but its peculiar pathology makes it decisively different from either.

Short Letter is another matter, though again its principal character, the narrator, is in a dissociated state. He is traveling in the US, which he reports with an almost bizarre attention to detail; all the references are accurate from Greyhound buses to Braniff planes, and the routes are specified: “The bus took the Bruckner Expressway through the Bronx, turned off to the right, and crossed the Harlem River to Manhattan…” and so on down Fifth Avenue and to Forty-first Street; then a cab to the Algonquin. He has a compulsion not to leave things out, to imply or conceal nothing; a hyperamnesia ordinarily fatal to narrative, though not to this one.

There is a plot: his wife is trying to kill him. He joins an old lover and travels to St. Louis and Tucson with her and her child. This child has the capacity to take things as they are, not as representing something; she has language licked. But she cannot bear things to be partly open, car trunks, for example; things that seem to contain or suggest other things drive her into hysteria. Even a crooked pole, disturbing the regularity of a line of poles, distresses her; it is not comfortably redundant, it contains information, it may be a sign of what is not simply evident. She is growing up into a world diseased by its modes of communication, riddled with synecdoche. Juke-boxes and movies send out their messages; an itinerant Austrian dramaturge attacks people who “have words for everything.” We leave the hero and his wife temporarily reunited and deep in conversation with the wise and real John Ford, who tells them:

“It’s your thoughts you want people to get a glimpse of, not your idiosyncrasies. One day you tell the truth, and you’re startled. You’re so happy you can’t bear it; you try to tell the truth again, and then of course you lie. I still lie,” said John Ford. “Two seconds ago I knew what I wanted, but now I’ve lost it. I’m happy only when I know exactly what I want. Then I’m so happy I feel as if there were no teeth in my mouth.”

They then tell Ford their story, swearing that it is true.

The blurb speaks of an “unobtrusive structure of metaphor and symbol,” but the markers of this structure are ironically placed. The puritanical Handke is reduced to telling the truth but foxing it with opacities. So, too, in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. It is an account of the life and suicide of Handke’s mother and it cannot help being sad; but the material must submit to the process of writing words, to a man “alienated from himself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine.” In speaking of his mother he is remembering and formulating his own “moments of extreme speechlessness.”

There is a narrative; it tells how the mother was worn down by social pressures from a person to a type, and from a type to a nonentity.

As it wore off, her illness became an affectation; now she only played at being sick. She pretended that her head was in a muddle as a defense against her thoughts, which had become clear again; for, once her head was perfectly clear, she could only regard herself as an individual case and the consolation of belonging to a group was no longer available to her. She exaggerated her forgetfulness and absent-mindedness in order to be encouraged, when she finally did remember or show that she had understood everything perfectly, with a “You see! You’re much better now!”—as though all the horror had consisted in losing her memory and being unable to join in the conversation.

But the narrative cannot be let alone; it is punctuated by interruptions that comment on the problems of narrating, say on the danger of merely telling what happened, or the danger of submerging a human being in sentences, or the danger of selling out to one’s own horror when extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speechlessness. The “idiocy” of his mother’s life becomes his own idiocy, and the story becomes an account of his own horror, characterized as horror vacui: the source of the very language he uses, in all its fallibility and corruption, is now frozen.

New readers of Handke might do well to start with Sorrow, for here his deviations are less puzzling and better marked than in the early plays. Certainly he is not to be thought of only as a playwright; his place is wherever language needs to be examined or purged. He has the fertility and the resource to maintain himself alive in this extraordinary combat. Perhaps Handke is a little preoccupied with his own originality, and with the specificity of his own terrors. He nevertheless offers, with prodigality, evidence that the obsessions of modernism still afford the possibility of greatness.

This Issue

May 1, 1975