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Peter Handke’s The Ride Across Lake Constance: The Illusion of Self-Sufficiency June Schlueter The theatre of Peter Handke is exceptionally self-conscious, not simply in terms of the self-referentiality which is so common among modem playwrights, but in its overall assertion of itself as a self-sufficient entity. In its persistent characterization of itself as something apart from the elements of reality, dependent upon no references outside of itself, the theatre of Peter Handke is the culmination of the modem dramatist’s concern with his own art. The remark which Beckett made of Joyce’s work may be appropriately applied to that of Handke: “it is not about something; it is that something itself.”1 The challenge of finding a form of “pure” fiction has been articulated in the theoretical writings of Gustave Flaubert, Vir­ ginia Woolf, and Oscar Wilde,2 among many others. And it has been implemented no more successfully perhaps than in Beckett’s The Lost Ones. As Raymond Federman points out, that short novel attempts to be “the perfect voiceless fiction, which sets out to free itself of all connections with creator, narrator, voice, teller. . . .” It “establishes its own rales of order and chaos” and presents a form which, relieved of its mimetic function, is “free to create new meanings.”3 One would think that in drama the fact of physical presence would make the challenge of creating a self-sufficient world even more difficult, but Handke has succeeded in creating just such an illusion in The Ride Across Lake Constance. In an essay entitled “The Film and the Theatre: The Misery of Comparison,” Handke points to the nearly automatic need we have to compare: . . . I see, outside in the street, two streetsweepers cleaning the sidewalk with huge brooms. Both have orange and white striped 113 114 Comparative Drama uniforms like bicycle racers, both have white, crumpled stock­ ings like tramps or like characters in a Beckett play, both have faces like Southerners, both wear caps like those in photographs of prisoners of war from the First World War, both walk stiffedkneed like bums, all three— now a third joins them, and a fourth —wear black mittens like the snow removal crew in the winter, all five are alike with their gigantic brooms and shovels, which make them appear quite small, like figures in a painting by Breughel. But—one of the streetsweepers swept faster than the other, and the other streetsweeper wore his cap lower on his face than the one, and the other other streetsweeper had a much more German face than the other streetsweeper, and the other other other streetsweeper seemed to perform his work more unwill­ ingly than the other other streetsweeper, and finally—meanwhile the men have moved from my view—the last streetsweeper came to mind because he had, it seemed, shoved the broom forward more powerfully than the others.4 For centuries the drama has been like life; indeed, its main task has been to represent life. But Handke feels there should be no apparent mimetic relationship between the two; drama should be pure fiction, which does not depend for its understand­ ing on any comparison to the real world. It should be “intensely] artificial,” “endlessly unusual, unfamiliar,” with the result that: An unheard-of simultaneity of sight, breath, and discrimination is created. The space forms a theatrical unity, in which one be­ comes increasingly self-conscious and tense, almost to the point that the socially protective adhesive tape with which everyone wraps himself is ripped, is no longer visible, not only without, but also within, in the consciousness of the viewer.5 In Handke’s theatre, nothing is intended to be representa­ tional. Props, language, action, and actors correspond only tangentially to the usual patterns and characteristics of reality, with each attempting to signify nothing but itself. The event on stage exists on stage and claims only to be a theatrical event. Following a production in Paris of the Bread and Puppet Theatre from New York, Handke spoke of his conviction that direct presentation of actions and words should replace the traditional dramaturgy which uses only those actions and words which serve the story. Handke...


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pp. 113-126
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