- Michael Scott Moore
The Audience Is the Thing
Offending the Audience. By Peter Handke. Directed by Jereme Anglin. Starring Amy Jennings, David Lear, Dawn Nott, and Brian Bonham. Presented by Theater Rhubarb at the Bannam Place Theater, 50A Bannam (an alley near Grant and Green), June 5-27. Call 751-0439.
Peter Handke's famous anti-play Offending the Audience needs an element of surprise. When it premiered in 1966 no one was quite prepared to have the structure of a play so totally reversed, to have the house lights come on and the actors address and criticize the guests as if they were the show. The ensuing uproar handed Handke his career. Now the actors' black clothes and the stilted explanations of exactly where and how the audience is sitting, of the play's total lack of plot and character, of the nature of real time, of illusion vs. reality, and so on, are cliches of rarefied Euro-art: Offending the Audience has dated. But the ideas themselves haven't, and it's still amusingly uncomfortable to watch, so if you're in the mood to be insulted Theater Rhubarb will take your money and oblige you.
The play takes Brecht's assault on the fourth wall to its logical end. The actors try to make the audience self-conscious. They claim not to be characters or symbols, not to stand for anything but themselves, then accuse the guests of conducting a "masquerade" of theatergoing, and criticize them in their capacity as a show. This must be very satisfying. The actors get to flatter the guests -- "You are radiant. ... You have been discovered" -- in a way actors are usually flattered, and then rip them to shreds. They make the guests aware of their ears, their saliva, their heartbeat, their breathing, their genitals, the position of their legs, and then shriek: "Don't breathe! Don't salivate! Don't shift in your seats! Don't listen to us!" It might be a polite form of S/M. My favorite part is an extended pause after a long discussion of real time (as opposed to stage time) -- a painful examination of the way your time is being spent, sitting there in the seat. The ensuing pause feels like a calculated waste of everyone's.
Where the show breaks down, though, is in the fact that it's scripted. None of this bile is real; in fact sometimes the actors falter, or seem to be line-reading, and you realize they'd be saying the same things whether you sat there or not. This, along with some of the stiff walking-around-the-stage, lets you off the hook. It turns Offending the Audience into exactly what it claims not to be, a spectacle. Handke was aware of this paradox, but he couldn't escape it. The element of surprise in 1966 was all that made his play momentous and vital. Because now, when the actors say, "You came prepared to watch," passively, as you might watch Chekhov or Shaw, it simply can't be true. We came to be offended.
-- Michael Scott Moore A 30 Year-After
Near-Posthumous Note on Peter Handke's Public Insult
by Michael Roloff
In the late 60s, flying high, I talked my colleagues at Farrar, Straus & Giroux into taking on a pack of work by the Austrian sensation Peter Handke. The package included a set of his early Sprechstuecke [1 as Handke called these musically arranged word series to distinguish them from texts that need acting out] and his second novel Der Hausierer2 [The Panhandler]the full-length play Kaspar added itself during the translation work, providing the title Kaspar & Other Plays [those others being Self-Accusation and Offending the Audience, which I now call Public Insult.]3
We will insult you because insulting you is another way of speaking to you. By insulting you, we can be straight with you. We can switch you on.
Whereas Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick9 puts the reader in the linguistically induced aboriginal state of what is technically known as the paranoid-schizophrenic position the ill-named depressive position follows on its heels, by which time Goalie Bloch is in the nicely murderous mood of those ants on the hot plate! Handke's early works all are meant to control anxiety, and exorcise his "I was born to terror," during which exorcism, however, Handke's verbal abilities usually entirely occupy the Wernecke part of our brain, and do not just cast the usual spell but take total charge of our psyche. The author's all-knowingness in telling an audience what it undergoes as it experiences Public Insult induces that extreme state of shamed self-consciousness [born of the psychological catastrophe into which humans are born] in that audience so that an analyst who participated at a performance of the piece at the Goethe House15 in New York in 1970 very accurately described the experience as one of the great feats of group consciousness raising which of course it might be even more if a performance of Public Insult were followed by the audience then describing their experience to each other [as in a way they do in Ride Across Lake Constance (1972)], and not disperse in the usual fashion.
However, before the audience can leave that so unsettling 60 minute crossfire of being told what it is experiencing, it is subjected to those famous insults; it gets what it came for. "We will insult you because insulting you is another way of speaking to you. By insulting 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," is the opening to the dozen calibrated sections of varying kinds of insults that follow.
The insults themselves are not simply discharged as by a hundred wildly farting monkeys but are artfully arted: "This piece is a prologue. It is not the prologue to another piece, but the prologue to what you did, what you are doing, and what you will do... Soon you will move, you will make preparations. You will prepare yourself to applaud... While we insult you, you won't just hear us, you will listen to us. The distance between us will no longer be infinite... We will contradict ourselves with our insults. We will mean no one in particular. We will only create an acoustic pattern... You were the heroes of this piece... You were a sight to have seen..;" the first real invective then being: "ass-kissers"; and the single insult upon the next sequence is: "you small timers"; the next sequence ending in three insults: "you jerks, you hoodlums, you scum of the melting pot"; so that by the end of the next block it's six: "you party poopers, you freeloaders, you fuddy-duddies, you bubbleheads, you powder puffs, you switch-hitters, you dirty Jews." [Last of which certainly had folks squirming at the Goethe House in New York!] "You lonely crowd, you culture vultures, you nervous nellies, you bronco busters, you moneybags, you potheads, you washouts, you wet smacks, you fire eaters, you generation of freaks, you hopped up sons and daughters of the revolution, you napalm specialists... You Vietnam bandits, you savages, you rednecks, you hatchet men, you subhumans, you fiends, you beasts in human shape... you butchers, you buggers, you bullshitters, you bullies, you rabbits, you fuck-offs, you farts... you windbags you..."; with the insults then reaching a voluminous and also quantitative crescendo of approximately 50 insults with the central section on page 31 before the nicely tempered denouement tapers off with: "You who embrace life. You who detest life. You who lack all feeling about life. You ladies and gents you, you celebrities of public and cultural life you, you who are present you, you brothers and sisters you, you comrades you, you worthy listeners you, you fellow humans you. You were welcome here. We thank you. Good night."
Having acquired these plays the question was whom to select for a translator. No one immediately of those with whose work I was acquainted or whom, as editor I had used, came to mind. A painfully arythmic and discordant, literal-minded version by a Texas professor drove home to me the wrong direction one could take in translating Public Insult into a useful [for whom?] academic trot. Particularly when translating the insults I realized I needed to find equivalents not just for each individual invective but for the musical principle according to which these sections had been composed if the "acoustic pattern" was not to turn into a gnashing punk metal junkyard [which, of course, it ought to as well at certain historical moments] were I not to cause grave offense to ear and sense of rhythm.10
That Handke leaves not a single imaginable moment of the theatrical experience, everything from going to leaving the theater, without some form of verbal cover indicates the kind of pedantic and anxiety-ridden obsessive perfectionism which he then turned against himself in the companion piece Self-Accusation, where he takes conscience's self-berating so far over the top as to end up in self-absolution. Yet, covering every possibility, also of viable insults, but not committing himself to a single one, also indicates our author's possible wish to have his cake and a plate full of Viennese pastries while he laughs his head off.Self-Accusation also contains my own favorite mishap reading, of the implications of the word "Monat": The line that reads "I lay with R. on the floor while she had her period" really ought to be "I lay on the floor during the months with the letter R." Puerto Ricans only go swimming in the Caribbean during the warm months May June July and August. And Austrians who sleep on the floor during their cold and damp winter months, a variety of colds will seep into their bodies.
Self-evident how dated some time-specific insults are now: "Napalm specialists" [?] "U-2 pilots" [?] "hopped up sons and daughters of the revolution" might just make you wonder about the proclivities of those freedom fighters of 1776!"Killer pigs"are they the ones who have run wild in the rice fields of Sri Lanka once the government suppressed its rioting over-educated students and confiscated all the guns [?], "whereas political riffs, like Eisenhower's "you corporate military establishment," unfortunately have become the forever Ravens of corporate and county and union work- & well-fare; and the political connotation of "nervous nellies," a Pat Buchanan-type insult for peacenicks, has reverted to its aboriginal Victorian status and, for all I know, with all our stupidly unimaginative wishful neo-Victorian make-believe over and above the miasma that is always just one slip away, especially in Seattle, is all the rage again. For in 1965 Handke, being SO prescient, had worked in invectives that were anachronistic even as he composed the text; and put in "fluff" "powder puffs," which, within the context of in-your-face, presented the most interesting "feathering" problems, and produce the eeriest elevator free-fall effects when you dropped them in amongst the verbal hardballs: the innocuousness of "you befuddled aristocrats... you smarty pants... you claquers... you clique of Babbitts" that from one moment to the next went from 100 to five m.p.h., while losing none of the focus of the author's ambiguously didactic, sensitizing, controlling, unsettling objective.
So, in adapting the insults of the text 30 years ago and in freshening them in 1999 [but not like that proverbial Mexican wool goat that needs to be biannually so as to keep giving milk] to be kept in mind is the rough and ready but not totally elastic principle of the primacy of rhythm and aural congruity [excepting perhaps during those harsh periods that call for the decrescendo scream of descent into the most painful of atonal hells], and of course the principle of the architectonic of quantity, of not too little not too much, and the need, at all times, to substitute for those 60s and other discards currently fashionable especially stinging taboo examples.18 So that, in feathering the text, historically and in situ, for every imaginable local pidgin, for the millennium change [feathering as in propeller not as in your 19th century goose-down pillow] a director might keep a few of those charming or whatever, and melancholy, thoroughly dated, examples of explicitly late 1960s invective while substituting for most others, and so acquire a more contemporary edge with the likes of: "You hopelessly hypocritical and helpless politically correct pony tails; you forever ostrich heads; you Neo-Victorians; you Reaganite moon-calves; you AIDS sufferers; you hate-mongers; you Bimbos and Bimbettes; you rage addicts, you Ramboette's, you postmodernist Merovingian dark-agers; you channelers of miseries past, present and future; you who have never been nowhere and are going there; you loser's losers; you gnats with attention spans, you ungratifiable instants..."with the ambiguous but pervasive "nerd" being, so I imagine, as inexcludable as "dickhead," "buttheads" of all kind, "Republican Neanderthals" [the latter a true insult to this merged branch of human development], everything in short that is politically wildly magnificently abusively incorrect: "you buttufuckos, cockbiters, muff divers, pornography consuming hypocrites" [which all indicate the extraordinary social progress that that sponge, the human brain, of the many sub-species of Homo Americanicus has made in the past 30 years] and so should raise the occasional hackle in an over-exposed world that seeks refuge in style Jerry Leiber's already 70s song "Style is back in style," all you can get to cover the miasma of the forever Love Canal, where the sequentia of style need be kept in mind, too: 'tis when a style, say that of Saturday Night Fever, that ratty-tailed hair, those gold chains in sweaty hairy V-necked shirts, those bell-bottomed and no end of other excrudences of fashion have reached a certain abysm of the abysms of ultimate seediness [as great-grandpa & ma's clothes reached around 1912] it is that nadir of a Hegelian moment, that the time is ripe for dialectic redemption into a Golden Oldie word [many 40s words and phrases such as Okey-Dokey which like vintage American cars have weathered well in Mexico] and the time is near to fish in the basement or attic for the cheapest of the cheap, for Mr. Safire's famous "nattering nabobs," that tripped so surprisingly from that most unlikely of Vice Presidents' mouth, and which is bound to be next year's gilded phrase, evoking faint and fond "aha" expressions in the dim synapses; plus that simple and crude assortment to be derived from the world of Hip-Hop; the entire realm of Hollywood trash is up for grabs; as are untold other fertile realms, many beyond my wild imaginings; plus MOST IMPORTANTLY RIGHT NOW that store full of insults deriving from the lips of all those high-minded supporters of selective human right killings, all those now protectors of currently cuddled and sentimentalized Keiko killer whales. With these I made particular acquaintance the past few months while delving into the author's involvement in "deepest darkest Serbia," that entirely Bureau of Tobacco and Fire Arms way of loving the wacky Wacos of this world to death, where Ugly Americans, Russian 19th Century Roulette Players, Cheerfully Bombing Brits, Buggering Bulgarian Arms Traders, that entire host of Narco Trafficantes, Chinga su Madres, Grouchos Marx's murderous "here get your Hutsie Tootsies" are all the rage again, with the following and last list being out of Peter Handke's The Trip in the Dugout Canoe: Or the Foreplay to the Film About the War15 who, as I found out to no great surprise, considering his attenuated autism, also enjoys and avails himself autism's associated syndrome of Gilles de Tourette,19 those ill-surpressed burps of the universal psychosis: "Fuck thy neighbor, kill thy neighbor, cut your neighbor's throat, chinga su madre... You appear in the name of goodness, and you have not one touch of goodness in this land. Helpers? Not once have you helped. There is an indifference that is more helpful than your humanitarian busy-bodied-ness where the right hand pats us like Mother Teresa and the left swings the sword of penal retribution. Little devils of goodness. Humanity hyenas. There are no humans who are less accessible to real suffering than you inaccessible and official governmental humanitarians, who appear as the protectors of human rights."
It is only when arranged into groupings such as in Public Insult not as when Handke becomes engaged in public controversy in such a very Serbian way as he did in recent years wildly and vituperatively and enviously and so self- revelatorily projecting his own most self-hated qualities into others20 that, like the "Forest Madman" of Dugout Canoe, this most recent, insult-filled play, that such primal sounds, such insults, as all the other noises that the chattering, degenerate monkeys that we are produce, may become redemptively attractive: and the only truly sweet face [you see, W. C. Fields does make allowance for that one exception!] appears to be that of Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Further noted ought to be that idiot savant Handke has by no means absolved himself either of his early serial methods they constitute the continuing matrix whence his forever productivity linears forth nor of the Surprise Symphony method of insult to drumroll the sleepy fat Austrians with a burp or two: "Oh summer and winter, parks and plazas, rows of roofs and wooden benches, arbor walks and trains stations, fiery smoke and planes at night, stillness and roaring river whose answer I became time and again, river to whose gleaming and rustling time and again came the answer "I" ah, wide world! and everywhere in between the clattering, the battering, the snickering, the muttering, the dickering, the sputtering, the cackling, the heckling, the simpering, the scribbling, the groveling, the shystering, the badgering of business; the malodor of business, the malfeasance of business, the malevolence of business; the base hypocrisy of business, the eternal scandal of business, the damnedness of business."
1 Publikumsbeschimpfung und andere Sprechstuecke, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main, 1966.
2 Der Hausierer, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main, 1967
3 Kaspar and Other Plays, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1969; or go to Volume I of Handke's collected plays in English, Methuen & Co. London, 1997, which also contains Kaspar in its Peter Brook, E.G. Marshal, Herbert Berghof best-tested English language version.
Many years later 4 I would find out that these first plays [Prophecy, Cries for Help, 5; the serial imagistic play without words My Foot My Tutor 6, too and the poems from Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld 7] were a spill-over from Handke's sheer delight in completing his first novel Die Hornissen [The Hornets 8] in 1964, which at certain moments uses similar serial procedures to wonderful poetic playful effect.
The French title of Publikumsbeschimpfung is Outrage au Public, a bright but not all that nice worthy very butch gay curmudgeon here in Seattle who however had the fine idea of disturbing the local peace ordinances by trouping with P.I. from one theatrical venue to the other, suggested "Abusing the Public" which would probably bring out the moral fire brigade no matter the dire need the public stands in of being abused in every which way. "Verbal abuse" is the legally defined area for which there exist legal remedies! Unless congress is in session. "Cussing" might work among hillbillies; i.e., the director/conductor has a range of choices there as well.
4 Ich Lebe nur von den Zwischenraeumen, ein Gespraech mit Herbert Gamper, Ammann Verlag, 1986, Zurich.
5 Prophecy, Cries for Help are not included in Methuen Volume One, but can be found in the out of print They Are Dying Out and Other Plays, Farrar, Straus 1976.
6 My Foot My Tutor is included in Methuen Volume I.
7 Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld, out of print, Continuum Books 1974.
8 Die Hornissen, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 1966.
9 The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Farrar Straus 1971, and various paper back editions.
10 So then, one fine curious evening, I withdrew into my work room and fastened the handy and supple 7x4 inch Edition Suhrkamp Publikumsbeschimpfung und andere Sprechstuecke paperback on the spring-pressurized rubber nibs on the winch-rod atop my steely "copyholder" 12 and started to play with sections [from Self-Accusation] such as this: "I came into the world afflicted with original sin. My very nature inclined toward evil. My innate viciousness expressed itself at once in envy of my fellow suckling. One day in the world, I was no longer free of sin. Bawling I craved my mother's breast. All I knew was to suck.Not only was it not all that difficult, it was a sheer delight; right up my alley, playful yet serious.
Having the go-ahead from the powers that then were, I so then did, the 25 pound orange Tabby Max on one side of my slashingly speedy and elegant but rattlingly [compared to all that steel of an IBM Selectric] lightweight Olivetti Magnum, and the ruefully named grey half-Persian half-alley comparatively ever more delicate, shedder T.C. [for Tom Cat!] on the olive-drab mechanical beast's other end, with lists upon lists of invective insults four letter words on a score of unfortunately unsteady makeshift stand-by boards as well as suspended from a clothes-line, gradually cured-discolored not only by the air of midtown Manhattan but by the smoke of a that inextinguishable Camel, many a delightful hour, interrupted only by the cats beginning to paw sleepily at the laundry sheets above as they insisted that now it was play-time for them; "Chicken hearts" as hockey pucks being their favorite cat and mouse!
11 Had I been employed elsewhere, say at the Grove Press of those days, it would have obviated tactically inspired omission, cowardice is a better name, to put myself out for Die Hornissen. As the cookie crumbled, it was nip and tuck getting that first collection actually out at F.S.& G. Had it not been for Robert Giroux's playing wind-catch of the so icy stilettoes and realizing Handke's talent [albeit finding it "very literary"!], he might not only be known as the man who turned down On the Road, and Handke's work would have been done elsewhere, as much of it is anyhow given F.S. & G.'s very selective interest in his work though F.S. & G. may be a first-rate firm in the United States, from the best European perspective it belongs into the second motley. But it takes someone born as yet another Kaspar a certain while to find out where all that is at in the lay of the land. As co-publisher of Urizen Books from 1975 to 1981, fate would have it that for a partner and co-signer on our projects I had a person whose petty resentments of Handke disenabled the possibility of getting the first two novels in print at that venue. The poetry collection Nonsense & Happiness 13 was all.
12 The "Stand-By" manufactured by Curtis-Young Corporation, Pennsauken, N.J. 08110. Made and patented in the U.S.A. Appr. weight at age 35, three (3) steely avoirdupois non-rusty very flat pounds. [Comes with an original recording of the "Drifters" Stand by Me]
13 Urizen Books, New York, 1976, out of print.
14 Walk About the Villages, Ariadne Press, 1995.
15 Die Fahrt im Einbaum, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 1999.
16 With Robert Giroux's o.k. under my belt the book was published, and for a collection of plays, that generally go unreviewed, to considerable acclaim, yet not a one from the great firm of F.S.& G. ever attended any of the performances of Handke plays that then ensued, either of my strange troupe's performances or of the "official" stuff at B.A.M., Lincoln Center, Yale Rep. etc. But with all that resistance from F.S. & G., e.g. just when I needed it 1, a friend, the once talented actor and playwright Michael Locascio, who had gone off to San Miguel de Allende, returned with as motley a troupe with whom I then trouped around N.Y. to all kinds of venues, but failed to duplicate the kind of success with Public Insult that Handke had enjoyed in the German speaking countries. That troupe, I being so forever slow it finally dawned on me that this crazy crew who thought that Public Insult was indeed their vehicle to "blow minds," their minds what they had had of it had been blown by who knows what combination of then fashionable American and local concoctions in Mexico[!], toxified brains, counted among its members a certain J.B. [Jane Brown?] from Ohio in whose already emaciating arms The Hammer, the great Cassidy had breathed his tequilada last in a cold rain on a Mexican railway track on those high windy plains.
17 Short Letter Long Farewell, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1972, translated by Ralph Mannheim; and numerous paperback editions.
18 It ought to be obvious to any Aussie, Kiwi, Fucklander [the Bombay quartier where whores are kept in bamboo cages being Falkland Road], Limey, Scot Bird, Irish layabroad, South African Boer, Ikbo Slaveholder, Ashanti Slave Trader, Kenian Marathoner, and Arab Whisky smuggler that they ought to liberally indulge the rich pidgens of their native aberration of the so malleable tongue and insult each other at close confined quarters in the most Serbian way into the callousness of which only the ultra-sensitivity of the author and translator is capable of, and so to Kingdom come.
19 See Leo Stone, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, The Aboriginal Four Letter Word...
20 For example Peter Handke projects with breathtaking gratuity, one of his own major qualities, derisiveness, which he himself derides so nicely as "tinny derision" in Walk About the Villages, into his most hated competitor for the laurel crown of sharp German parti pris brilliant political essays, the Suhrkamp author H. M. Enzensberger, who called for the arming of the KLA: "That guy always knows what's cooking, a grinning, derisive observer, derisiveness become flesh. The Islamic Sufi Djala-ud-Din Rumi says: 'They wear printed silk not as an ornament but so as to retain their beauty.' Enzensberger's things are the opposite. Ornamentation as derision of beauty." Though Handke may have a retrospective point in accusing E. of being that one step ahead of the Joneses, as Handke of course is too, anyone calling for the arming of the KLA in spring 1999 must have been a Methusalah; and the most self-conscious dresser in the world next to many another anorexic model would seem to be Handke himself who during his interventions in Serbia dressed like the wounded bag lady as which he felt.
IT WAS NOT UNTIL I READ HANDKE'S 250 PAGE CONVERSATIN WITH HERBERT GAMPER [AMMAN VERLAG] THAT I LEARNED THAT THE "SPRECHSTUECKE" HAD BEEN WRITTEN OUT OF AN EXCESS OF JOY ON COMPLETING HIS FIRST NOVEL, DIE HORNISSEN [THE HORNETS], WHICH INDEED HAS PREFIGURATIONS OF SIMILAR SERIAL PROCEDURES.