The Extinction of the Pantomimic Literary Imagination: Peter Handke

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

Peter Handke

The only other notable postwar literary dramas that resemble pantomimes are Das Mündel will Vormund sein (1969) and Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten (1992), by the Austrian novelist and dramatist Peter Handke (b. 1942). Das Mündel will Vormund sein (The Ward Wants to Be the Guardian) belongs to Handke’s youthful period of radically questioning the institutionalized conventions of theater, including the roles that speech and language play in accommodating these repressive conventions, with his most famous work of that time, Kaspar (1967), consisting of a single character on stage, Kaspar, struggling to speak a single sentence with competence, conviction, authority, power, insight, uncertainty, freedom, or other conditions masked by the words. Das Mündel will Vormund sein is a two-person pantomime set in a rural space, a farmhouse before a large beet field. The text prescribes in great detail the physical actions of two men, the ward and the warden, farmers who wear masks and engage in a competition to determine to what extent the warden can control the actions of the ward. A cat is also part of the beginning and ending scenes, and “does what it does.” In the opening scene, the ward eats an apple unself-consciously until the warden appears, holding a pumpkin, and attempts to control the ward through a steady stare, an act of aggressive surveillance that makes the ward increasingly self-conscious and somehow imperfectly “compliant.” The scene becomes dark and “we” can only hear a strange breathing that “is ‘like’ the strongly amplified breathing of an old man, but not quite; on the other hand, it is ‘like’ the strongly amplified breathing of a wild animal that has been cornered, but not quite, either; it is ‘voracious,’ ‘frightened,’ ‘ominous,’ but not quite; at times it seems to signify someone’s “death throes” to us, but somehow it doesn’t either because it appears to change constantly” (Handke 1973: 14; 1970: 65). The breathing vanishes, replaced by music, the chord strumming of “Colors for Susan” (1967), by Country Joe and the Fish. When the stage is bright again, the scene shows the interior of the farmhouse, which the text describes in elaborate detail. While the ward and warden listen “pleasantly” to the music, the warden continually performs small physical actions that apparently test or define the ward’s capacity to respond to them:

The warden folds the newspaper page in half and goes on reading. 

The ward pulls a pencil out of his pants pocket, a carpenter’s pencil like the warden’s, only smaller; he uses it to mark the book while reading. 

The warden goes on folding the paper. 

The ward no longer marks in his book but crosses something out. 

The warden goes on folding as best he can. 

The ward is obviously starting to draw in the little book. 

The warden folds. 

The ward exceeds the margins of the book while drawing and begins to draw on palm of his hand. 

The warden: see above. 

The ward draws on the back of his hand. 

The warden is gradually forced to start crumpling the paper, but we don’t actually notice the transition from folding to crumpling. 

The ward draws on his lower arm; what he draws doesn’t necessarily have to resemble the warden’s tattoos. 

The warden is obviously no longer reading or folding but is vigorously crumpling. 

Both figures are vigorously occupied, one with drawing, the other with crumpling. 

The warden completes the crumpling process and the paper is now a tight ball. 

The ward is still drawing. 

The warden is quiet, the ball of paper in his fist; he looks at his opposite who is drawing (1973: 20-21; 1970: 68).

The scene continues with the warden making different movements at the table, then walking around, then climbing onto the table, elevating himself higher than the ward, who always remains “lower.” But then, the warden lies down and the ward cannot make himself lower than the warden. A profusion of other actions occur. At one point, the warden cuts his toenails and then his fingernails, while the ward picks up the clippings. Later, the warden fills a teakettle with water from a hose and the ward grinds coffee until the teakettle blows. After another dark scene, the ward tosses thistles on the back of the warden, while the warden writes obliviously until he turns around and the ward throws the remaining thistles onto his chest. A while later, the warden physically and “non-violently” adjusts the position of the sitting ward and, after a prolonged stillness, begins tossing bottles at the ward, who displays complete incompetence at catching them, except for the last one: “We are startled.” The warden eventually decides to leave the kitchen, and the ward intends to follow, but the warden insists on closing the door behind him and overcomes the ward’s effort to open the door. The ward nevertheless crawls outside through another door “as if for a dog.” Outside again, rain is imminent. The ward unveils a beet slicing machine and demonstrates the slicing of beets. The ward, however, has difficulty operating the machine. The warden watches him fail repeatedly as the stage grows dark and the ominous breathing returns. In the final scene, the ward enters the place before the house carrying a small tub and rubber hose. “He is no longer wearing his coveralls.” He sets the tub down, places one end of the hose into it, and “we hearing running water into the tub.” The ward returns with a sack, from which he draws a handful of sand. He lets the sand fall through his fingers into the tub and repeats this action until the stage goes dark (Handke 1973: 7-38; 1970: 62-83). 

            Handke expects the actors to perform the many actions naturalistically, with the idea of showing how a person controls another person through physical actions alone, and how the other person responds to this control entirely with physical actions that reveal a condition of dependence, incompetent compliance, resistance, provocation, submission, defeat, or (at the end) conquest. The piece is a theatrical allegory of male competitiveness, a sobering demonstration of how assertions of power operate outside of language, in simple, minute physical actions that have no motive other than to cause another person to act “accordingly,” to acknowledge a dependent relation, to accept control by another, even if acceptance means resistance or imperfect obedience. Handke explores how bodies construct power relations, struggles for power without resorting to physical violence, without reliance on the “civilizing” oppressions embedded in language. The final scene suggests that the ward has become independent, free of his guardian. Some commentators read the ending as a triumph of the ward over his oppressor, an allegory of revolutionary overthrow. But the ward never indicates that the warden oppresses or abuses him; rather, the ward responds variously to the warden’s physical assertions of power—the ward assumes he must respond in a “submissive” manner without the warden having even to give a commanding gesture. After all, the ward picks up the fingernail and toenail clippings without the warden signifying that he should do so. The text does not indicate the conditions under which the ward has obtained his independence, nor does the play, in spite of its title, show that the ward and warden have reversed roles. The ward is independent insofar as his guardian is absent and he is able to perform the inscrutable actions of filling a tub with water and pouring sand through his hand into the water: a state of independence, of being “free” of responding to someone more powerful, of having no dependent relation to a guardian, is something the text implies “we” cannot understand, because it happens in darkness. The performance of the play’s actions may at moments seem tedious, but manifestations of power probably do depend on tedious bodily actions or actions that have no greater purpose than to provoke the response of another body. This point seems connected to the “we” invoked by the text, the “we” who are named as spectators of the performance. Bonnie Marranca considers this “we” as “a kind of literary authoritarianism,” a “coercion” of the reader/spectator to respond to the action the same way as the person employing the “we.” The play is thus a “confrontation with the audience in which the dialectic is played out, not on the stage, but in the relationship between stage and audience” (Marranca 1977: 275). In other words, pantomime itself is the revelation of a power dynamic insofar as it provokes the audience to respond to it “accordingly” and pantomimically: “We are startled.” Claus Peymann (b. 1937), whose own distinguished career began with directing premieres of Handke’s early plays, directed the premiere of Das Mündel will Vormund sein at Frankfurt in January 1969. The production attracted much attention, as any work by Handke did and still does, but although the piece has occasionally been revived on the stage, it has not enjoyed as much popularity in the theater as other Handke plays. A production in New York in 1971, under the title, My Foot, My Tutor, provoked some intellectual discussion without provoking much acclaim. The piece did nothing to motivate other writers for the stage to compose pantomime scenarios, and Das Mündel will Vormund sein effectively represented a unique experiment in speechless theater of which Handke had somehow earned exclusive ownership: it was as if, having written a pantomime, Handke had exhausted the possibility of anyone else writing another one.  

Nevertheless, Handke himself wrote another one twenty-three years later, Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten (1992). As a performance, however, “the hour we knew nothing of each other” lasts at least a hundred minutes. Although no one speaks a word during the entire performance, Handke calls his piece a play, not a pantomime. He instructs “a dozen actors and lovers” to perform hundreds of roles during the performance, but in practice, theaters have required more than two dozen actors to handle all the roles. Handke claims that the idea for the play came from sitting all day in an outdoor café in Muggia, Italy and watching people pass by. The action of the play unfolds in a brightly lit town square, for which Handke provides no further contextual details other than mentioning in his dedication “to S” the square before the Centre Commerciale du Mail in Vélizy, France, which is actually now a mall. Handke here applies a strategy that is the exact opposite of his strategy in Das Mündel will Vormund sein. In the earlier play, he prescribed a great profusion of minutely detailed actions performed by single, interacting characters. In Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten, he presents single actions performed by a great profusion of characters. The piece begins with a single person of unspecified sex rushing across the stage followed by another rushing in the opposite direction. A third and fourth person cross the stage. Subsequently hundreds of characters appear on the stage, some defined only by the actions they perform, some by their actions and the clothes they wear. Only a few characters appear more than once, so that the performance resembles a grand procession of “types” of people who appear momentarily, hardly more than thirty seconds, and then disappear. Handke strives to provide a constant processional variety of characters and actions:

A woman in a headscarf and rubber boots crosses the square, she drags a watering can and carries a wilted, rotting flower bouquet that she in a high wave throws behind the scene.

In the next moment comes from somewhere else an equally well-dressed type of Old Woman, with a sickle, a travel bag, and a handbasket overflowing with forest mushrooms. 

A third woman, undefinable, dressed almost the same, moves in a different direction, with nothing in her hands, the back and neck deeply bent, the face directed to the ground, steady, hardly moving from the spot, and behind her succeeds another wanderer, clogging the path, bit by bit, as if the path was too narrow for overtaking with a long-distance vision, without eyes for the thing before the wandering peaks (Handke 1992: 21-22)

Occasionally characters briefly interact with each other or appear as a group: an ensemble of refugees, a circus troupe, “two or three in winter clothes” meeting “two or three in summer clothes.” Pairs appear once in a while: a man dressed as a woman with a woman dressed as a man; “a man and a woman place their hands on each other’s genitals,” a man follows a woman. Otherwise unrelated individuals perform the hundreds of actions, such as a person whizzing by on roller skates, another reading a book, or a man pulling a wagon full of masks. The actions do not seem related to each other and could happen in a different order, but the second half of the play creates a more hallucinatory panorama than the first half as characters from different historical eras or cultural contexts appear: 

[…] a youth blows out the old one’s candle; the lighthouse keeper marches through; a patrol [passes] with dangling hand shells and talons; a wanderer goes audibly through a deep pile of leaves; the grandfather carries a winding snake from the floor; the Portuguese woman leaps up; the girl from Marseille steps onto the harbor dock; the Jewess of Herzliya throws gas masks into the alley, the Mongolian woman strides through with a falcon; the patroness of Toledo pulls a lion’s skin over herself (62).

Chaplin and Moses also appear momentarily. It is clear that the piece does not represent continuous real-time actions but a theatrical abstract of many actions that occur in a generic space over long periods of time. Handke indicates numerous pauses when the stage is empty before a new set of actions resumes. Although no one speaks a word or even intimates they are speaking, some characters make sighs or cries. Dogs bark, bells toll, storm thunder resounds, but Handke indicates no musical accompaniment. The piece ends with a First Spectator leaving his seat to join the throng on stage, but he becomes disoriented and flees; a Second Spectator tries to intervene, but two women hanging wash hinder him. A Third Spectator “threads himself into the scene and meanders, obviously of course, with the undisturbed procession. Coming and going, coming and going. Then the square becomes dark” (64). The piece therefore is not a project to see with documentary precision the actions of people as one might see them from a detached vantage point, such as a table in an outdoor café. Such a project would require a degree of naturalism and anthropological observation of actual persons that is nowhere evident in the play. Rather, the aim is to show how a generic public space hosts an immense variety of actions or types of actions whose “meanings” remain opaque or indecipherable to anyone but those who perform them. The theater spectator may consume the spectacle of multitudinous actions performed by hundreds of people, but the spectacle is only an accumulating phantasmagoria of unknowing. “We do not know each other” by presuming that the crowd, the public, or the community “we” observe is somehow “us,” even if the actions people perform are familiar. In reality, as revealed theatrically rather than anthropologically, the public is nothing more than a procession of individuals who know nothing of each other any more than they know of its “audience” and can only be known as momentary figures who have imprinted themselves in memory because of some inscrutable peculiarity in their performance of a fleeting action. As usual, Claus Peymann directed the premiere of Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten, in 1992, at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The production and the play received abundant acclaim, as did subsequent productions in Bochum (1993), directed by Jürgen Gosch (1943-2009), and in Berlin (1994), directed by Luc Bondy (1948-2015) (cf. Meurer 2007: 159-197). Since then the piece has enjoyed numerous productions internationally, occasionally outdoors, with directors varying widely in their organization of the action, so that some productions seem like civic pageants while others resemble stylized critiques of “modern” society. Despite the cost of acquiring so many actors and costumes to produce it, Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten remains one of Handke’s most popular works for the theater. Again, though, his venture into pantomime has failed to motivate any other dramatic author to work in the genre, and he himself has made no further attempt. The international postwar literary imagination evidently believes that only one literary writer in the whole world should or needs to write pantomimes, and having written one, it is almost impossible to write another without it becoming a singular, monumental project to overcome, however briefly (100 minutes), an overpowering doubt about the capacity of a “play” to sustain the attention of a theater audience without the performers speaking. 

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