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Provocation in Theatre

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Piet Defraeye
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Nur wenige für das Theater geschriebene Texte eröffnen einem Regisseur so viele, aber auch so wenige Möglichkeiten der Umsetzung, der Interpretation. (E. Schäffer) Peter Handke's theatrical successes have been numerous, and, from time to time, he continues to fascinate theatre makers and spectators alike with innovative and often controversial scripts. Some years ago, his play on the Yugoslavian conflict, Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder Das Stück zum Film von Krieg (1999), caused yet another uproarious debate about the writer's moral responsibility in time of conflict. More recently, he unsettled the theatre world with La Cuisine (2002); cowritten with Mladen Materic, it is an almost wordless exploration of power in quotidian scenes, reminiscent of his earlier play Das Mündel will Vormund sein (1969). Yet in spite of his numerous original and surprising playscripts and his 1968 landmark play Kaspar, Handke, like no other playwright, continues to be associated with his debut play, an event that, in its perceived radicalism, thoroughly rocked the world of theatre, not only in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, but far beyond. It is safe to say that Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966) is one of the most important plays of twentieth-century theatrical history, perhaps not because of its content but mostly because of its impact. As one critic decrees in a review of the 1973 Tübingen performance by Berlin's Forum Theater: "wer mitreden will über eine wichtige Entwicklung und Tendenz im deutschen Nachkriegstheater, sollte die Publikumsbeschimpfung gesehen haben!" ("Statt"). Publikumsbeschimpfung has been extensively critiqued and theorized (Behse; Breicha; Neugroschel; Schlueter; Vanderath). However, for a play that carries the agency of audience in its title, it is surprising that hardly any reception research has been carried out. This article does not so much offer a critique of the text, but instead chronicles the theatrical journey the play has made in Western European theatres and surveys various artistic responses to Handke's script and their audience affect over the last forty years. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, this survey article chronicles the fragments of a play that have shored against the ruins of its spectre. H. R. Jauss reminds us that audience reception research is a painstakingly complex archeological dig, which aims at reconstituting the diachronic and synchronic circumstances of any given reception of any given work of art. For this reason, this article starts by unveiling its sources, the pegs that were used in staking out the ground for a dig that has collected material for over fifteen years. After looking into the historical circumstances of the premiere production and Handke's dramaturgical strategies in his script, the article investigates the production, mise en scène, and reception of the original production at Frankfurt's Theater am Turm (TAT). Subsequently, various theatrical responses to the play in terms of its text rendition, its mise en scène, its casting, and its setting will be discussed. The article concludes with a brief review of extratheatrical and contemporary responses to Handke's play. The research sources for this essay, as with any theatre reception study, are mostly in the form of archival depository. Although these sources were manifold, one of the main incentives to write the survey is a recent disappointing and alarming discovery. Research for a larger project on theories of stage provocation revealed that a sizable proportion of TAT's archives had been lost after the company's financial difficulties in the early 1990s and the move from the theatre's downtown site to its present location at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt in February 1995. The theatre administration itself is deeply embarrassed about this, and extensive inquiries with various people and institutions involved with TAT have yielded no result, as revealed in e-mail correspondence with William Forsythe and Johanna Milz (TAT), Claus Peymann (Berliner Ensemble), and the Institut für Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt (September-December 2002). The disappearance of the archival material is a sorry example of the brutal priorities that financially...