Peter Handke's The Ride Across Lake Constance is directed by Michael Rudman with an almost miraculous understanding of the play's text and structure; its performance by Jenny Agutter, Faith Brook, Nigel Hawthorne, Nicky Henson, Alan Howard, Gayle Hunnicutt and Nicola Paget is the finest example of ensemble acting to be seen in London; and the production has been so great a success at the Hampstead Theatre Club that it is to be transferred next Wednesday, for a limited run, to the Mayfair.
When I saw it the first time The Ride Across Lake Constance seemed to be, theatrically speaking, a very simple play; and this impression was strengthened at a second visit, when I was more than ever struck by the sheer dazzling brilliance of the performance and the production. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that many people whose acuity of mind and theatrical judgement and experience are not to be questioned consider it to be almost incomprehensible. What is the reason for this enormous difference of opinion?
The villagers he met next morning, whom he questioned, told him that he had already crossed the lake's thin ice during the night. Realising the danger from which he had unwittingly escaped, the horseman fell dead from fright.
I think it has something to do with the fact that I take the author's programme note more seriously than others do. This note recalls the old legend of a horseman who lost his way in the darkness when trying to find Lake Constance.
Translating the legend into appropriate theatrical terms, Handke follows this scenario with extreme fidelity. The actors play characters who are given their own names. Three people, Faith Brook, Nicola Pagett and Alan Howard, schematically corresponding to the horseman, arrive at a house which, in its splendour, in its turn corresponds to the welcome comfort of the village. This house is inhabited by Nicky Henson and Nigel Hawthorne: and also, (this is very important) by a curious maid with a black face but white hands, who is played by Jenny Agutter. The main body of the play - its games, riddles, bets, bizarre actions and verbal inconsequences - are the counterpart of the horseman's anxious interrogations. This is at any rate how it seems to me.
Now in any ordinary play we should be able, by listening carefully to the dialogue, to be able to find out what it is that has frightened Miss Brook, Miss Pagett and Mr Howard. In The Ride Across Lake Constance this is not so. The words spoken by the characters are witty and exciting, but they are not related to any plot or story. Their sole function is to act as a cover for devastating anxiety. They are an effort to damp down panic. What corresponds to the revelation that Lake Constance has been crossed is the appearance of Miss Agutter with a healthily bawling baby. Like Henry James in The Turn of the Screw Mr Handke suggests, but does not state, the nature of the horror survived. It would appear to be sexual, but in what precise way the audience is left to guess for itself. At this point, two minutes from the end of the play, Handke departs significantly from his anecdote. This is his climax, and it would be unfair of me to reveal it.
The main theatrical effect is suppressed terror. The rapid cross-fire of jokes between Mr Hawthorne and Mr Henson: the suave, disquieted calm of Mr Howard: the black-gowned dignity of Miss Brook: the perverse ingenue of Miss Pagett: the concerted entry of Miss Agutter (in a second part) and Gayle Hunicutt as two careless reminders that not everything in the universe is fear: the purposeful black servant of Miss Agutter: the treacherous stairs, the dusty glass, the red-tongued, yelling baby, the sudden accesses of panic, the drawer that sticks, the furniture that is jumped over convey a feeling of nightmare that is absorbing and exciting.
But of course it is possible to go further, and this is where the difficulties arise. Just as there is behind an El Greco crucifixion a complicated theological system, so it is argued that behind the word of Handke is Wittgenstein's formidable doctrine of Logical Positivism. Both men are interested in in the power (or powerlessness) of language. Following Bertrand Russell's gloss on the baffling series of propositions 6.5 in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ("There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical"), it would appear that in language no symbols exist capable of expressing ethics or mysticism, or presumably the mystical and ethical experience of vulnerability and pain in The Ride Across Lake Constance. Handke agrees with Wittgenstein in that he does not communicate the essence of his play by language; he does it by structure.
To those who understand the Tractatus, and the commentaries of Russell, Ayer, Ryle, and Anscombe, or a philosophy like that of Bradley (surely one of our greatest writers?) which is opposed to Wittgenstein's, The Ride Across Lake Constance clearly is a fascinating intellectual stimulus. It would be deeply interesting to know what a professional philosopher would think of it. But I do not believe that an acquaintance with Logical Positivism is necessary to a theatrical enjoyment of it. An accepting mind is sufficient to provide one with a most delightful evening.
The Sunday Times, 18.11.1973.
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