Václav Havel’s plays appear in hindsight as crystallizations of the ambiguous time of relative liberalization in a monolithic totalitarian society. This may perhaps also be the reason for their success in the West: Czechoslovakia then, and the West both then and now, seem to share the mood of relativism, uncertainty, and ambiguity characteristic of any transitional period. Although it is a matter of speculation whether Western society is actually evolving toward full-scale socialism, Czechoslovakia at the time of Havel’s greatest successes (between 1963 and 1968) was without any doubt moving toward a less pervasive socialism, at least as it is defined there. The monolith was cracked; the totalitarian machinery was breaking down, though still operating by fits and starts. This created a peculiar atmosphere, exploited by Havel to great effect: What was formerly unquestionably true and clear was suddenly being questioned. The leaders themselves encouraged such questioning by admitting past mistakes that included staged trials and real executions. The followers, on the other hand, could no longer be sure that the present party line would not change shortly and were thus inhibited from acting aggressively on the party’s behalf. There were indeed further changes and new revelations of misdeeds. Thus, the political situation acted as a destabilizing force, motivating people to question not only it but also everything else. This was an intense time of debate, of discoveries—and of defeats as well.
The Garden Party
Some of the questions Havel asked in The Garden Party could be formulated thus: Is it possible to adjust to the constantly changing policy emanating from above? If so, after all the maneuvering, is the human being still the same as before he started on the tortuous path of adjustment?
The Pludek family, middle-class, solid, and old-fashioned, fears that Hugo, their son, will not be able to make a successful career for himself in the confusing contemporary world with its contradictory signals. The Pludeks, survivors of a bygone era, manage to get by relying on routine, fortified by clichés that they keep repeating, as if trying to anchor themselves in a reality that keeps dissolving around them. In Havel’s dialogue, the meaning is hilariously stripped from these clichés and proverbs by deft substitutions, so that while they still resemble proverbial sayings (for such is the form and context in which they are found), their content has been decanted from them, leaving behind an exotic sediment at once both grotesque and absurd. The result is not only absurd but also humorous and vitally meaningful on a higher level: It is immaterial whether the Pludeks’ proverbs make sense because even perfect proverbs are irrelevant in the unstable world in which they live.
Hugo surprises his parents when, during and after a garden party, he penetrates an institution, learns its peculiar bureaucratic language, and turns this newly acquired knowledge against the institution and its representatives. His success is unexpected and phenomenal, but so is the price that he has to pay: He becomes a convert to the absurd and thoroughly relativist jargon of the institution, a jargon designed to hide the meaning of one’s ideas, for one’s commitment cannot be questioned if it is not clear what exactly one stands for. Thus, Hugo becomes an expert Inaugurator and Liquidator at the same time. When liquidation is in, he liquidates, but quickly, on noticing the slightest shift of policy, he begins to inaugurate, and so on. Thus, although Hugo is successful, he is no longer the same Hugo—indeed, his parents at first do not even recognize him. The parents themselves, however, are not immune to the contagion of the debased language, and, after a long harangue by Hugo, they accept him.
It is not necessary to point to the political allusions, because the play of necessity operates on a level of abstraction that universalizes the plight of Hugo and his parents. This quality shows Havel a worthy follower of the great masters of the Theater of the Absurd, Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, whom Havel helped to stage at the Balustrade.
The Memorandum is, if anything, a further and quite logical extension of Havel’s concern for the debasement of language. Here he expresses this concern through the brilliant satiric device of an artificial language, Ptydepe, which the bureaucracy decides to employ for all communications.
The introduction of the new language strikes terror, not unlike an unexpected change of political line. The question Havel asks is: What happens to an otherwise loyal bureaucrat who knows nothing about the impending introduction of Ptydepe? Can he adjust? Finally, as in the previous play: What is the price of such an adjustment? Thus, some of the concerns with which Havel dealt in The Garden Party reappear but in high relief because of the striking effect of the artificial language with its unearthly and perverse sounds, designed to be impossible to learn, and even if learned, impossible to use. Here science makes its entrance, for Ptydepe is a scientifically designed, perfectly rational language. This beautifully implies the “scientifically” designed society of socialism, in which—so the...
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