In a 1995 review of a critical study of the work of Peter Handke, Linda C. Demeritt describes the Austrian playwright as ‘difficult, but important’. Broadly speaking, this sums up the reception of Handke in the English-speaking world. Since his emergence in the 1970s, critics, scholars, actors, directors, readers, reviewers and theatre-goers have been both unsettled and fascinated by the man and his work.
From his stage-managed appearance at a Gruppe 47 meeting at Princeton University in 1966, he stood out from his contemporaries as someone who shunned the well-trodden paths to literary fame. As Peter Zimmermann writes in his exploration of Handke’s reception in the German-speaking world, Handke did not court his critics or his audience as so many other writers did. Instead, he created and marketed the Peter Handke brand.
In a chapter on the power of myth in the edited volume Cultural Impact in the German Context (2010), Rebecca Braun, Lecturer in German Studies at the University of Lancaster, argues that Handke ‘understood the importance of having his brand circulated within the literary field.’ He showed extraordinary ‘media awareness’, she contends, and he was ‘instrumental in revealing how an entire model of authorship draws on mythologizing processes.’
The works of this curious man, whose renown was initially based more on his media manipulation than his literary output, were quickly translated into English after publication in German. These early works, some of which are still his most famous, included Offending the Audience (1966), Kaspar (1967) and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970). Demeritt remarks how Anglo-American critics soon began to see him as a pivotal figure in ‘challenging the European modernist tradition of the 1960s and in redefining contemporary German literature.’
There was a widespread desire to make his work more accessible to English-speaking audiences and several of his stories appeared in The New Yorker in the 1970s and 1980s, including The Left-Handed Woman and Slow Homecoming. The first comprehensive study in English of his works, written by June Schlueter, now Professor Emerita of English at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, was published in 1981.
Indeed, as appreciation of the Austrian author and playwright began to decline in the German-speaking world, the Anglo-American reception of his works picked up speed. Malcolm Bradbury described Handke as ‘this most precise of modern writers of fiction’ and John Updike praised him as ‘the best young writer […] in his language’.
Today, the most common adjective used to describe Handke in Anglo-American discourse is ‘controversial’, mostly due to his political embroilments in the 1990s. Yet he is also remembered fondly for his role as co-writer for Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Just last March, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted the two men in conversation with Ian Buruma. The official YouTube video of the event has over 10,000 views.
This event was in some way representative of the contemporary reception of Handke in the English-speaking world. For Handke and his works are often approached in parallel with, or in contrast to, other writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek and Wenders. Perhaps the opportunity to compare and contrast offers a less intimidating way of approaching this ‘difficult, but important’ figure.
Yet his plays are also regularly staged in both the USA and the UK, mostly in the theatrical hothouses of New York and London. His plays Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966), translated into English as Offending the Audience in 1971, Kaspar (1967) and Die Stunde, da wir nichts voneinander wußten (1992, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other) are the most frequently performed. Often taken on by theatre schools or small production companies and staged in unusual venues – such as a railway arch near Southwark – his plays seem to invite an experimental approach.
In 2008, the National Theatre in London staged The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, a 100-minute wordless play featuring more than 450 characters in a ‘kaleidoscopic human pageant’ (in the words of a Guardian reviewer). Reviews were mixed, but there was no lack of interest in this peculiar play by this unorthodox writer. We can be sure that the story of the reception of Peter Handke in the English-speaking world is far from over.
By Judith Vonberg
Other ELit blogs on Peter Handke
Peter Handke and His Reception in the German-speaking world
Peter Handke. A Reception of a Literary Controversy world
Peter Handke and His Reception in the French-speaking world