Havel, Václav (Vol. 25)
Václav Havel 1936–
Czechoslovakian dramatist, essayist, and poet.
Havel is associated with the respected Theater on the Balustrade, Prague's leading avant-garde theater of the 1960s. His work is "blackly" comic and often disturbing. It is also controversial among leaders of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, yet Havel is acclaimed by critics in his own country and abroad. Some describe him as the most important Czech dramatist since Karel Čapek.
Working from a broad interest in the absurd nature of human existence, Havel writes plays that have a universal appeal despite their Czechoslovakian settings. In general, his dramas depict the mechanization of the individual by society and the role of language in this dehumanization process. These works have an intriguing circular quality: their focus shifts rapidly and repeatedly from the psychological to the metaphysical, to the social, to the patently absurd. His most famous plays, Zahradni Slavnost (The Garden Party) and Vyrozumeny (The Memorandum), are absurdist works, full of humorous social commentary, political parody, and bleak philosophical observations.
In 1979 Havel, who often and effectively satirizes bureaucracies, was arrested and sentenced to four and a half years in prison for allegedly subversive activities. His plays were also banned from the Czech stage. Havel, nonetheless, has strong supporters in and out of his country. He is a close friend and confidant of dramatist Tom Stoppard. Samuel Beckett's recent brief play, Catastrophe for Václav Havel is an anti totalitarian statement written to protest Havel's imprisonment.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104.)
A great theatre reveals not only itself and its story; it also reveals the viewer's story, and with it his urgent need to confront his own experience with the theme presented on stage. Such a play does not end with the performance; the curtain is only the beginning.
In his plays, Vaclav Havel has shown this true dramatic ability as have few in contemporary Czech literature. His key concern is the mechanization of man…. At the beginning of The Garden Party or The Memorandum, the audience is not dazzled by dramatic skills which elaborate on the subject; instead, there is mechanization itself, experienced as well as mediated by a manner which is technical and theoretical rather than dramatic.Havel's potential as a playwright was once doubted by people who, however much they praised his literary talent, his analytical ability, his cutting aphorisms, thought he was too rationalistic and precise to fulfill current ideas of dramatic narrative and psychology…. Havel the analyst produced Havel the playwright at the moment he found the courage to be only what he really was; he derived a theatrical method from his own view of reality as soon as he discovered in it the fundamental characteristics of dialogue, which is the most valuable trait of his plays and the source of their universal appeal. They create a specific dialogue between stage and audience, with ample room for complementary meanings and associations....
(The entire section is 686 words.)
Paul I. Trensky
The work of Havel epitomizes the state of Czech literature in the middle 1960's, which is characterized by two main features: first, an orientation toward the West in general philosophical questions and literary techniques, and, secondly, an outspokenly critical attitude toward Stalinism and its contemporary vestiges. Havel's work would be unthinkable without the influence of the so-called theater of the absurd, but at the same time it is deeply involved in an examination of the social ills of Czechoslovakia….
As is the case with most absurd dramas, there is no plot, intrigue, or conflict in the traditional sense of the word in The Garden Party. The principal character of the work is Hugo Pludek, and, in the stratum of the action, the play deals with his overnight success. (p. 42)
His swift career is, however, realized at the expense of his personality. The most outstanding feature of Hugo is his ability to adapt to his surroundings, through which alone he is able to succeed in the world of bureaucracy. As he is constantly forced to assimilate to the new milieu, he gradually destroys his own self to such a degree that he ceases to be aware of his original identity. At the end of the drama Hugo does not even recognize his parents, nor do they recognize him. He has become a different, faceless being.
On the psychological level one could regard the play as being based on the traditional theme...
(The entire section is 2500 words.)
Havel's cheerfully beaming appearance is deceptive. His plays are very funny, certainly, but there is a core of deep pessimism, even despair in them. They are a mixture of political satire, absurdist images of the human condition, philosophical parables, and zany, black humor. Kafka and Hašek, the twin tutelary spirits of Prague, are equally present in them. (p. 139)
Kafka built up a picture of human anguish in the face of the mysteries of existence that was both dreamlike and concrete, fantastic and real. Kafka's subject matter is the most universal, his imagery the most local; it owes everything to Prague, its atmosphere and history.
Hašek's Good Soldier Schweik is also both local and universal. Here too we have the Czech's reaction against the incomprehensible, the blatantly idiotic rule of an alien and stupid militarist caste: Schweik reacts against the stupidity of his oppressors by taking their stupid orders at their face value and stupidly carrying them out to the last detail. He too, like Kafka's anguished and tormented heroes, finds himself in an absurd world, but he strives to end its absurdity by carrying it, ad absurdum, to the point where it must collapse because, at the back of his mind, he has a faint hope that the crash of the absurd order will leave room for a more rational one. (p. 140)
[In] a wildly absurd world [Havel's] characters conform to the apparent logic of...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
[The Garden Party] displays a mixture of hard-hitting political satire, Schweikian humour and Kafkaesque depths which are highly characteristic of Havel's work. (p. 278)
[The Memorandum] delves into the tortuous world of bureaucracy. It shows an organization of uncertain purpose but vast complexity which suddenly finds itself confronted with the fact that someone has introduced a new official language in which all business must henceforth be transacted. (pp. 278-79)
The theory of the new languages discussed in the play is brilliantly worked out (Prague after all is the home of modern structural linguistics and Havel uses the terminology of redundancy and information theory to great effect) and their value as a metaphor of the situation in a country where life and death have in the past depended on the exact interpretation given by the individual to sacred Marxist texts, is clearly immense. The construction of the action is completely symmetrical, each scene on Gross's downward path exactly corresponding to one on his renewed rise to power. Havel is a master of the ironical, inverted repetition, of almost identical phrases in different contexts. And behind the mockery of bureaucratic procedure, behind the Wittgensteinian language game, there is a third level of significance: for Gross is a kind of Everyman enmeshed in an endless and futile struggle for status, power and recognition. (pp. 279-80)...
(The entire section is 250 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
[The] controlling idea [of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] could be best summed up by such fashionable sociological terms as "alienation", "frustration", "lack of communication", "loss of identity". The trouble is that the author evidently mistrusts such "scientific" interpretations of human behaviour, or at least does not believe that they can be of any help in themselves. He reminds one of a man treating lack of feeling in purely rationalist terms; however analytical his play may seem to be, this approach, too, is exposed as part of the general decay.
Thus the essay on human values which the main character, a social scientist, is dictating throughout the play may impress as quite reasonable and acceptable in its premises: seen against the utter confusion of its author's personal life and his obvious inability to establish any genuine relationship with his wife or his mistress or anyone else for that matter, it becomes a sham. The point is emphasized by the pathetic little machine which a quasi-sociological team brings to the hero's home in order to compute his identity; it fails as miserably as he does.
In such a centre-less, spiritually mechanized life concentration is difficult if not impossible, and all experience equally worthless. This is made plain by Havel's ingenious rearrangement of the chronological sequence, very much like the cutting up and splicing of a recording tape; the play hardly...
(The entire section is 273 words.)
Jarka M. Burian
[The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] is a more humanly oriented work [than The Memorandum]. The satire is less sharp for its only object is the absurdity of scientific attempts to analyze man in the name of humanistic goals. Here the central dramatic device is Puzuk, a sensitive, childish machine designed to interview people. Whimsically, the machine seems more delicate and temperamental than the humans that use it. The general theme is frustrated humanness in the context of domesticity become routine. The central character is a writer, given to philosophical speculations about human values and needs, who finally stresses the need to have needs.
[The] play's action approaches that of a conventional comedy much more closely than [either The Memorandum or The Garden Party]. What reveals Havel's signature, however, is its structure. Havel presents the action in cubistic fashion, to convey the fragmented consciousness of man. As scene follows scene, we realize that Havel is juggling with time to parallel scenes with the wife and with the mistress. Although we seem to be progressing normally, we are actually witnessing deliberately repeated scenes with different characters, and jumping back and forth in time…. At the end of the play we have once again arrived at the very beginning, with the repetition of the opening lines. (pp. 311-12)
Jarka M. Burian,...
(The entire section is 245 words.)
The theater of the absurd, in my view, has two genetic components which determine its life as long as it persists in the way we know it from Beckett and Ionesco. One is its innovative dynamism which opposes it to the theater of the naturalist tradition. The other component is its indebtedness to the philosophy of existentialism which itself is based upon the collective experience of World Wars I and II. Hence, there is a component inherent to the dynamism of the drama itself, and a component imported from outside literature into the world of art.
As to the first, there is evidence in Ionesco's theoretical writings that the drive for innovation is one of the major forces in the genesis of the theater of the absurd. Our century has eradicated taboos and traditional concepts in the arts more thoroughly than have previous millennia…. [Drama] has done away with motivated action, the element without which playing theater earlier would have appeared senseless. The motivation (be it psychological, ethical or sociological) has been destroyed either entirely or in part, so that the remaining fragments of a "meaningful" action have lost their logic. Ionesco and Beckett criticism have used the terms "non-action" or "anti-action," that is to say that the audience is no more involved in the déroulement of changing human interrelations, but that it is now increasingly fascinated by the way the familiar item called action is being torn...
(The entire section is 2671 words.)
In approaching Havel's brilliant and startling plays it might be useful to become aware of how the main theme of his work, which had been formulated as 'the relationship between man and the system' in 1968, expanded and deepened to what the author himself calls the 'existential dimension of the world.' Perhaps the development Havel has undergone in his relatively brief career as a dramatist can be followed best by starting with a simple proposition: that social systems make their—more or less pronounced—demands to organize individual man into a system, in order to achieve certain—more or less laudable—aims which in turn are to serve the interests of man. Already we see a suggestion of a vicious circle in the argument: man is an organism, the system functions as a mechanism; one must subdue the other or be subdued. Around these tensions Václav Havel builds his unique, grimly comic theatre. (p. 45)
Havel's theatre explores language as the primary agent in man's absurd situation. The real hero of his plays is the mechanistic phrase, uttered from habit, repeated with parrot-like readiness, which decides people's actions, composes events, and creates its own absurd reality…. [His theatre is made up of] an exploration of the tremendous power of the word or phrase which becomes the unquestioned property of all, prevents anyone from thinking, and is the prime enemy of common sense and reason. (p. 46)
(The entire section is 4443 words.)
[Under their present regime, the Czechs are] faced daily with an official language…. With the "official" language there goes an "official" consciousness which is outside the daily life of an average person. The process of constant pigeonholing of everything as either good or bad, the unshakable value judgments which go with these words (examples like "enemy of the people," "subversive bourgeois revisionists" or "lackeys of Imperialism" will suffice) have created a chasm between everyday language and the official language; and this has resulted in a sort of linguistic schizophrenia of every person who has some sort of official post. In this connection one is bound to remember Orwell's concept of "Newspeak," which was intended to subjugate the mind by linguistic means.
Havel has brought this phenomenon to the stage for the first time and in an inimitable way. The three plays [The Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Mountain Hotel] … are examples of this. The first play is about a young man, Hugo Pludek, who acquires a new consciousness through learning the official language…. This learning process makes for entertaining theatre: the audience watches Hugo's rise to power as he begins to declaim snappy proverbs which are rhythmically perfect but make no logical sense, as his self-assurance grows when he spoons out arguments in circular logic, as he achieves agility in balancing false syllogisms and prefabricated...
(The entire section is 1383 words.)
HIS FEMALE ASSISTANT (A)
LUKE, IN CHARGE OF THE LIGHTING, OFFSTAGE (L)
Rehearsal. Final touches to the last scene. Bare stage. A and L have just set the lighting. D has just arrived.
D in an armchair downstage audience left. Fur coat. Fur toque to match. Age and physique unimportant.
A standing beside him. White coverall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.
P midstage standing on a black block 18″ high. Black wide-brimmed hat. Black dressing gown to ankles. Barefoot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets. Age and physique unimportant.
D and A contemplate P.
A (finally): Like the look of him?
D: So-so. (Pause.) Why the plinth?
A: To let the stalls see the feet.
D: Why the hat?
A: To help hide the face.
D: Why the gown?
A: To have him all black.
D: What has he on underneath? (A moves toward P.) Say it.
(The entire section is 1092 words.)