In February, the National Theatre will present the UK professional premiere of Peter Handke’s 1992 play, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.
It is the first major London production of one of Handke’s works for nearly 20 years; the last at the National was the verse-drama The Long Way Round given a Cottosloe run in 1989. Before that, we have to go back to 1976, when the National (again) produced the anti-capitalist piece They Are Dying Out.
Another Handke play had actually been seen in the West End three years earlier when Hampstead Theatre’s Ride Across Lake Constance transferred for a brief period. It’s not surprising that Handke has received so little exposure in the UK with such gaps between performances. His works are difficult, challenging and far from commercial. They’re also among the most fascinating and theatrical pieces written since World War II and, with Beckett now a firmly established playwright considered worthy of frequent production, maybe Handke is on the point of being more widely discovered.
Hour is unusual amongst Handke’s oeuvre in that it has no speech just 450 “characters” who spin, trip and skim their way past each other in a choreographed stream of near-misses. The lack of dialogue is particularly noticeable as language has been one of Handke’s chief preoocupations since early plays like Kaspar, inspired by the real-life case of a 16 year old boy who grew up without speech (better known perhaps from Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser). Handke used that play to explore how language is foisted upon us by a society in which conformism is the norm and received speech an almost tyrannical exploitation of the individual.
In Hour‘s “companion piece” , Journey to the Sonorous Land or The Art of Asking, as with most of his plays, there is endless speechifying with enormous monologues of scarcely discernible meaning. Handke’s drama in some ways represents a progression of the theatre forms begun by Samuel Beckett but, unlike the Irish writer, his works are not grounded in psychology. Beckett’s works may appear opaque on the surface but, after multiple readings, it’s easy to trace the through-lines of thought. Even Not I, in which a disembodied mouth pours forth a stream of apparently incoherent speech, has a very clear psychologically-based storyline which is not difficult to uncover. No matter how many times you read Handke, while there’s certainly consistency, there appears to be no rationally explicable logic to his writing.
What is there instead? Like Beckett, there are highly imaginative and potent stage images that may not render themselves up to straightforward interpretation but which thrill and stimulate the less-literal imagination. Handke seems to write his plays to be read and there are stage directions that cannot be rendered physically implications, nuances and suggestions that seem to live more comfortably in the world of fiction than drama. Take this example from Hour: “Pause. The bright empty square in its light of memory. A breath of a butterfly (or moth).” Often actors and directors are given hints of what they are supposed to be communicating but no help as to how they are to achieve it in the theatre. Hour, along with a number of other works, contains the description of someone “stirring up wind while he walks”. You have to go to the 1986 novel Repetition for an explanation of what this curious phrase means.
If both Beckett and Handke write “literary” plays that are a joy to read, they are also highly dramatic and both have an instinctive feel for what works on stage. Handke’s fiction is arguably even better than his dramatic works. He has written more than 20 novels and, again, narrative isn’t the primary function. They summon up dream-like worlds and take us on voyages of chimerical invention that can be infuriating and intoxicating. Repetition, probably his most accessible work of fiction, is a stirring and very beautiful book that does have some semblance of plot in which a narrator, Filip Kobal, takes a highly personal journey into Slovenia (close to Handke’s home territory of Carinthia in Southern Austria) in search of his long-lost brother.
From early works, like The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and The Left-handed Woman (which Handke himself turned into a film), certain themes and iconic images have turned up again and again. My Year in the No-Man’s Bay, perhaps his magnum opus, is a rambling magnificent panorama about a writer’s struggle through the exigencies of artistic creation. Along the way, there have been novels with single-word titles like Across and Absence and more extravagant ones like On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House. I have yet to read his most recently published novel in English, Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, as with each new Handke work both a daunting and exciting prospect.
Never a stranger to controversy, Handke has been vilified in Europe in recent years for his apparent support of the Milosevich regime, which began with his 1997 book, A Journey to the Rivers. I have to confess I’ve never quite got to the bottom of what he thinks about the break-up of the former Yugoslavia but, having read this book several times, I can say that it’s not “controversial” in the way some commentators have made out, rather it’s a travel book with little political comment. Opponents of the writer have grasped on to certain stands he’s taken most recently witnessing the Serbian dictator’s funeral and used them to attack him. It has led to a concerted campaign of hate and even the cancellation of a production of The Art of Asking at the Comdie Francaise in Paris early in 2007.
What literature is available in English about Handke, and there’s not a lot, tends to be based on intellectual anaylsis, which may please the academic but is not altogether helpful for the regular, intelligent, enquiring theatregoer. Hopefully, seeing his work in the theatre will illuminate the elusive content. Despite the The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other‘s readability, it can be tricky imagining from the text quite what it will look like on stage and it’s difficult to know what to expect from the National’s production. A director approaching the play has a fairly free hand in selecting what to include and how to bring it into physical reality. If director James Macdonald and his designer Hildegard Bechtler get it right, and succeed in penetrating the rhythms and fleeting allusions, you will experience a flow of theatrical inspiration that should stick long in the memory.
Read our review of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other here