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Incomplete Yammering on some Provocative Plays, Including Peter Handke's Offending the Audience

Plays generally just don't do it for me. They've got to have that Death of a Salesman kind of ooomphish profundity and power to quicken my blood. That's a play moves me deeply.

Drinks Before Dinner, by E.L. Doctorow, was another play that held my attention the way most plays don't. Imagine attending a dinner party in honor of a local politician, surrounded by friends (at least you thought everyone seated around you was your friend!) and one of the dinner guests shows up with a gun! Shows up, to the shock of his wife, with his own pathetic power tripping political agenda of possible violence and bloodshed ... It's particularly harrowing and relevant reading Drinks Before Dinner in light of recent tragic events in Tucson, involving Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  Too painfully relevant, perhaps, too real, but undeniably powerful, Drinks Before Dinner.

So, few plays move me, right? It's part of my problem as well navigating the historical drama by Friedrich von Schiller, Wallenstein, too, since it reads and feels to me more like some ancient archaic exercise in wearing sackcloth and ashes long-suffering, than being entertaining or remotely fun.

Well, a few weeks back, while I'm on a plays kick, I had the good fortune, out hunting with two of my kids at our favorite local haunts, finding a book called Kaspar and Other Plays by Peter Handke.

Handke was a radical for his time among playwrights.  Handke wrote himself what had to be considered at the time (1966 in Germany; translated into English in 1969) the anti-plays of all anti-plays ever staged, Offending the Audience and Self-Accusation. I read the former but still need to read the latter. But man, how shocking it must have been being among those early audiences there to see a play -- probably expecting a conventional play with props and plots and drama -- and instead, out walk four performers who speak in turns, sometimes overlapping, directly (and accusingly) at the audience the entire play long. At either a quickly becoming angry or astonished audience, I suspect.

Offending the Audience reads more like a work of angry philosophy set in short story form -- or the form of a purposely obnoxious rant! -- than a more conventional script. Listen to the four performers (and we don't know who of the four is speaking; Handke merely instructs his speakers to speak at will and get into some kind of communal flow together); so listen to them speak to their audience about their audience:

"If you remain together, you will be a theatre party. You will go into a restaurant. You will think of tomorrow. You will gradually find your way back into reality. You will be able to call reality harsh again. You will be sobered up. You will lead your own lives again. You will no longer be a unit. You will go from one place to different places

"But before you leave you will be offended.

"We will offend you because offending you is also one way of speaking to you. By offending you, we can be straight with you. We can switch you on. We can eliminate the free play. We can tear down a wall. We can observe you.

"While we are offending you, you won't just hear us, you will listen to us. The distance between us will no longer be infinite. Due to the fact that we're offending you, your motionlessness and your rigidity will finally become overt. But we won't offend
you, we will merely use offensive words which you yourselves use. We will contradict ourselves with our offenses. We will mean no one in particular. We will only create an acoustic pattern. You won't have to feel offended. You were warned in advance, so you can feel quite unoffended while we're offending you. Since you are probably thoroughly offended already, we will waste no more time before thoroughly offending you, you chuckleheads ..."

Peter Handke, perhaps the Lenny Bruce or Charlie Kaufman of playwrights: enraging the audience as art form.


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