Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Largo Desolato takes its title and theme from musical notation that implies a slow, grand, but solitary phrase. The play chronicles, in nearly autobiographical terms, the progress of a popular political hero under subtle pressure from a police state to change his mind. As it progresses, the play examines themes of individual identity, political responsibility, romantic love, and existential anguish.

Leopold Nettles attempts to maintain his role as a determined political dissident despite the changes wrought in him by his recent imprisonment. Suspense about potential further imprisonment for “intellectual hooliganism” preoccupies Leopold to such an extent that even his self-doubts must be formulated by others, especially by Bertram. Moreover, imprisonment has also added to Leopold’s role the weight of martyrdom. Having become a symbol to others, Leopold fears that he will disappoint them; the ability to confer martyrdom, after all, lies only in the hands of the authorities.

Leopold’s political responsibility is thus absolutely contingent upon the maintenance of his personal integrity. To renounce his selfhood, his name as dissident author, would also be to renounce the political commitment to justice that his life has come to symbolize. The collective perception of Leopold has established his self-definition, and he must retain his relationship to political society or accept the stigma of a spoiled identity.

Romantic love has disappeared as a vital force in Leopold’s life; he is willing to use his status as a martyr to gain sympathy in a seduction, but he seems unable to sustain affection under the constant threat of imprisonment. As the scene with Lucy reveals, Leopold also has doubts about whether women are attracted to his personal identity or to the heroic image created by his past accomplishments.

The thematic linchpin of the play is the quality of existential anguish—an estrangement from authentic selfhood—that pervades the atmosphere of the play. The system of social roles seems as mechanical, as incapable of expressing the fullness of life, as does the dialogue of philosophical jargon and political cliches. Isolated first in a cell, then in his besieged apartment, estranged from wife, lovers, and friends, Leopold is denied even the consolation of believing in his own anguish: To him, his situation is just another philosophical category, not a unique situation that expresses his individual being.