It is easy to imagine Peter Handke as the antithesis of the playwright Henrik Ibsen: he is an epic poet, innovative, and a trained storyteller through his translations of the works of antiquity for the stage.
While Ibsen's dramas amount to a perfect cohesion of form, the dramatist Handke’s touch is one of openness, of the open nature of the play as theatre itself. Yet both artists have much in common, and perhaps this most centrally: their sense of discovery. The ability to be a sensor for the fabric of society. Their remoteness from their own homelands and yet ceaseless work on a possible concept of home and literature that is commensurate to this concept. They are besotted with illusions.
Music is both a vital element and a means of knowledge at the same time. And perhaps the ability of both artists also stems primarily from giving voice to structure: the origin lies in their amazement at an observation within the volatile context of life, and they suddenly make this living environment stage-worthy – making it an element of language never before heard in theatre. How a human being perishes and how a form of spiritual enlightenment is bestowed upon him, or when a people’s partisan struggle leads not to liberation, but instead to tragedy – both artists devised continually renewing narratives for such observations on the stage well into old age; in doing so, their literary work in stagecraft was always one step ahead, seemed visionary and proved their scenic imaginativeness.
"By awarding the 2014 Ibsen award to Peter Handke, this poetic wonder is honoured."
This has led to work in formats that were hitherto barely considered possible, be it his “speech-plays” (“Sprechstücke”), his designs for a new “world theatre”, his completely silent pieces or his great monologue dramas. Peter Handke's theatrical world includes the beat and spirit of pop, as well as the lyrical tone of the dramatic poem that aims at the transformation of the listener. And yet dramatist Peter Handke is not an author born of the theatre – he was not an actor, playwright or director, but, as a storyteller, he is an author who simultaneously possesses a flair for destiny and the abstract form through which a power that threatens (or uplifts) mankind is brought to life. And so he was able to develop his own form of theatre – a fresh kind of presentation, artificially and directly confident at the same time.
If Ibsen was perhaps the most exemplary dramatist of the bourgeois period, which has not yet come to an end, then Peter Handke is certainly its most important epic theatrical poet. In all his plays he succeeds in making the reality of the theatre visible, and indeed as a reality that has no desire to produce illusions and does not emulate the world, but is rather a world in itself. And in this world, the dramatist Handke can create an entirely unique blend of magical theatre and thesis plays, family drama and tragedy, as Nestroy or Calderon once did. In his fifty years of writing, he has redefined dramatic literature more often, more surprisingly, and more radically than any other living poet. Yet his work is distinguished by an obvious continuity: the self-evident truths of the theatre, but also our linguistic conventions and power structures have never been a matter of course to him, rather they have been a subject of analysis.
In the process, he has created perhaps the most important epic literature of the theatre after Brecht: His speech-plays to the rhythm of the beat have led to new, allegorical forms of theatre, such as Kaspar, or moving tableaux vivants, such as The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, in which Peter Handke had hundreds of characters appear. A classically well-built piece about today’s capitalists, such as They Are Dying Out, accompanies modern world theatre plays, such as Voyage by Dugout or The Art of Asking. For decades, Peter Handke has explored a Slovenian-Carinthian family composition, and thus an autobiographical one, as only literature can succeed in restoring that peace the characters were robbed of in the story; this is dealt with in plays ranging from Walk about the Villages to Preparations for Immortality to his masterpiece, Still Storm.
"This year, the Ibsen Award honours a rich body of stage work that is unequalled in formal beauty and brilliant reflection."
Peter Handke has proved himself to be a cosmopolitan who perpetuates world literature in his own writing and offers space and protection for the diversity of human history and stories. His writing creates openness, encourages self-determination and has fostered an ever-increasing faith in that which is fragmentary and nonchalantly foreshadowed. Like Shakespeare's Prospero, Peter Handke created an island for himself with his plays where he could liberate what he had amassed between Alaska and Slovenia, from the suburbs to his encounters with his own ancestors. In doing so, over the course of half a century, Peter Handke has created truly the most unusual form of classicism after the end of the Second World War, and continues to do so.