Say What You Think

Review of Kaspar, Yale Cabaret

As a one-man show of a single character pitted against the problem of identity, Peter Handke’s early play Kaspar, translated from the German by Matthew Ward and directed at Yale Cabaret by Ayham Ghraowi, seems at times like a more than usually active Beckett monologue. There’s a similar disconnect from immediate context—no particular where or when but only an abyss lurking around and behind and beneath each statement. The drama is a lengthy grappling with verbalizing, as though repeating a phrase often enough will confer meaning. And as if words are an object to throw against the body’s cage until either the body breaks or the self breaks through.

 Kaspar (Josh Goulding) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Kaspar (Josh Goulding) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

On a stage that acts as a cell, Kaspar, played with amazing physical abandon by Josh Goulding, is trying his utmost to articulate a view of himself that would be authentic to his experience. But his main struggle is to make his own experience intelligible. He is tortured or taught—it comes to the same thing—by voices that speak dispassionately and provide instructions and cautions and even bits of wisdom. Kaspar can treat these speakers as oracular or as simply part of the environment, like air or light, or an object to be used or ignored, like a broom.

The culprit of consciousness, for Handke, is language itself as it normalizes the flow of time and being as an interplay between sentences and otherwise inchoate moments. Handke’s text, which makes a virtue of repetition, circles around a single sentence that Kaspar Hauser, the German misfit who inspired the play, was able to speak when he was first discovered, a teen who, he alleged, had lived for most of his life with no human interaction.

The background to Kaspar is germane to the play but not really necessary to viewing it because, in any case, we are forced to interpret how it is that Kaspar can seem to mean what he says and not understand it, simultaneously. Handke can trust to the theatrics of his creation’s mannered grasp of speech to sustain our fascination. Seemingly articulate though not coherent, Kaspar struggles to master his body, objects—such as a chair, a table heaped with printed pages, a broom—and, most naggingly, the relation between the presence in his head and the words he has learned to shape into intelligible if often cryptic sentences.

The repeated sentence, “I want to be a person the way someone else was once,” is Handke and Ward’s variation on the actual Hauser’s single sentence of introduction, "I want to be a calvaryman as my father was." The statement floats through the play like a mantra but also as a claim upon language itself. The speaker announces his condition as a claim based on feeling—“I want”—in which the object “a person” stands for a desired identity—“to be”: “I want to be a person,” but this simple and very complex statement is further modified by a perception of a past state—“the way . . . was once”—that suggests as well the non-identity we all have with earlier selves. The way we might say: “I want to be the person I once was,” though that’s not quite it. For Kaspar, there’s a “someone else” who was a person the way he would like to be, which carries with it a sense of succession, as though saying, “I want to be a man (or a person: both “Mann,” in German) the way, for instance, an ancestor or relation was.” In other words, there’s a number of differing but related intentions embedded in the statement, together with a kind of untranslatable disjunction born of the vagueness of its denotations: “a person,” “the way,” “someone,” “once.” And this array of uncertain objects is brought together by a desire for identity stated by someone for whom the statement is his only identifiable intellectual trait. It’s all he knows, whether or not it actually corresponds to anything he wants or believes. And that, as they say, is the rub.

Brought to us by a quire of dramaturgs—eight are listed in the playbill and includes everyone connected to the production but for its director—Kaspar is a play that drowns in text. Kaspar is almost always talking, whether or not he’s saying something, and the voices speak almost as much; then there are the pages full of writing sharing his cell, and the words cycling on a trio of teleprompters, often distracting the viewer from Goulding as he reads aloud what we can read as well. If we look on, the words of the text enter our consciousness both by vision and hearing, just as they do for Kaspar who hears himself read them. At some points, we may find ourselves trying to articulate to ourselves what it is we think we are hearing.

There are moments when Kaspar seems to be speaking only to himself and other moments when he is proclaiming to us all, and other times when he seems to want desperately to address us and be acknowledged. It’s a fascinating and tiring performance, as Goulding falls about the stage, knocks things over, topples, hurtles, strips, and occasionally performs quirky rhythmic movements as if to an inner tune. His expression is often puzzled or deeply concentrated, and a segment of inarticulate grunts and growls is as comical as a child’s effort to mimic other creatures, or even other humans, can be.

Indeed, Kaspar is, in some ways, a cosmic child, a kind of poetic Id at play in the fields of indeterminate psyche, where he has all of language before him. Though he is not in a joyous state, Kaspar does not seem to be despairing either. Rather, he seems caught up in the solving of an endless puzzle. Mostly frustrated, he seems to exist on the hope that something may become clear—if only he can get past the words in his way, or if only he can find the array of words that will illuminate, in an unprecedented way, what he has in mind.

 

Kaspar
By Peter Handke
Translated by Matthew Ward
Directed by Ayham Ghraowi

Composer: Jiyeon Kim; Dramaturg: Ashley Chang; Dramaturg: Abbey Burgess; Dramaturg: Erin Fleming; Dramaturg: Josh Goulding; Dramaturg: Jiyeon Kim; Dramaturg: Chad Dexter Kinsman; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Dramaturg: Matthew Ward; Lighting Designer: Erin Fleming; Stage Manager: Abbey Burgess; Producer: Chad Dexter Kinsman

Cast: Josh Goulding

Yale Cabaret
December 1-3, 2016