Written by Cheryl Tan

Kaspar explores the importance and limitation of language as a means to access the world — language as an associative tool of the self with the world around us, as well as a tool of oppression and dissociation. Directed by Edith Podesta and performed by the current BA Theatre students at NAFA, Kaspar written by Peter Handke is a  beautiful linguistic nightmare that drags the audience into a world of linguistic disarray and cognitive discord.

The play is inspired by a historical figure Kaspar Hauser, who arrived in Nuremberg in 1828 at the age of sixteen, unknown and unheard of by anyone. It was then discovered that this boy had been raised in a closet and lived his life with little human interaction. The one sentence he spoke was, “I would like to become a rider as my father once was.”

Mirroring that, Podesta’s Kaspar opens with two characters playing personas of Kaspar (Haiky Zulkifli and Belle), and whose only means of verbal communication is the utterance of the sentence, “I want to be someone as somebody else once was.”. In the first moments of the play, the inability to express emotions such as fear, panic, and anxiety is clear as Kaspar struggles in vain to break his/her original sentence up, using only some of the words in the sentence to communicate. As a fairly literate and articulate audience, is tortuous for us to watch this, but forces us to wonder how much language offers liberty and/or limitation.

While one might be compelled to immediately attribute the play’s thematic concerns to linguistic determinism and relativity, as did the film Arrival (with rather incorrect premises), I would strongly argue against limiting understanding the play based on a (let’s face it) terribly overrated linguistic theory and instead direct us to understanding it through Semiology.

Perhaps Kaspar is best seen as a tribute and exploration of Ferdinand de Saussure’s influential work in the study of Semiology. Focusing on the patterns and functions of language, Semiology explores relationships between the signifier and signified. The signifier is the acoustic form of the word (for example, the vocalisation of a word), and the signified is the mental concept — that is, perceiving the utterance ‘cat’ to directly mean the object ‘cat’. In an ideal world (or in the world that we currently live in) the sign directly means the signifier, and therefore the word ‘cat’ itself is the sign as a sum of both. However, Semiology posits that this relationship is purely arbitrary.

This is exactly what happens in Kaspar’s world.

As with any child, the acquisition of language comes with understanding that an uttered word refers directly to a specific object. For Kaspar, whose communication had only consisted of several words strung together in a single sentence, the process of learning different signifiers and their respective signified objects is an uphill battle portrayed through frantic movements and cries.

Kaspar is joined shortly after the play begins by a group of ‘Prompters’ (Shahina Farouk, Tricia Huang, Joreene Lim, Hayley Meng, and Zakee Chan). These ‘Prompters’, yelling instructions, begin to educate Kaspar about the world through teaching him/her how to identify objects in the room such as a table, a chair, and the self. These simple common nouns, though easy for us to comprehend, throws Kaspar into a state of disarray. Such is the struggle of someone who is made to speak through speaking, and upon whom is imposed a forced understanding of the world through language. Kaspar’s utterances transform into morpheme-based cries of fear, each morpheme being attributed its own value and urgency to be comprehended and navigated. This was the start of the breaking down of Kaspar’s world as he/she knows it, and in extension, a manifestation of the breakdown of logic that comes with forming comprehensible syntactical sequences.

Language is a system. It encapsulates relations between signs and one of its first and main functions is communication. As these ‘Prompters’ instil this system of comprehension and articulation in Kaspar, his/her vocabulary grows. At one stage, Kaspar’s utterances comprises words besides the ones in the sentence “I want to be someone like somebody else once was”. However, these utterances gradually become less comprehensible, and increasingly manic and frenzied as Kaspar struggles to understand the world through newly-formed, institutionalised relationships between what is uttered and what is being referred to.

Towards the end of the play, Kaspar eventually manages to string together comprehensible sentences into full monologues, tenderly delivered by Belle and Haiky Zulkifli. As Kaspar speaks the language that was forced, tortured even, into his/her being, one cannot help but wonder if the children in our own world, in their acquisition of meaning and language, somewhere some kind of innocence was lost. Were we in a position of power like the ‘Prompters’ were, would we have done the same? Language is understanding, language is order. But language is also limitation, and chaos also births creativity.

As a species whose interactions between the self and others is so rooted in logocentricism and, should signifier and signified not align, whose world’s foundations would be shaken, it is worth remembering that no one is an island. What we know as a table is a table only because we have collectively agreed upon it. God forbid the day we rise and realise the same discordance dealt with in Kaspar — but who knows? Language is a system after all, and sometimes systems fail. Everything is relative.

Photography credit: Antonius Cong

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