Czechoslovakia Under Communist Rule
Following the death of Soviet communist dictator Josef Stalin in 1953, many European communist countries like Hungary and Poland breathed a sigh of relief and set about undoing the damage that the Soviet leader had caused during his reign of terror. Unfortunately, in Czechoslovakia, following the death of President Antonín Zápotocký, Antonín Novotný, a devoted Stalinist, became president in 1957. For the next decade, the Czech economy steadily declined, and political protests—often in the form of subversive plays—increased, in spite of censorship efforts.
Alexander Dubcek and Prague Spring
In January 1968, Novotný resigned from office and was replaced by Alexander Dubcek, a liberal communist leader who offered Czech citizens hope for a better life. Dubcek introduced widespread reforms in the communist system, opened lines of communication and trade with the West, encouraged complaints and suggestions from Czech citizens, and ended censorship in the arts. The resulting liberalization of Czechoslovakia was referred to by many as "Prague Spring,'' symbolizing the birth of a new way of life.
However, Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader in the Kremlin who had chosen Dubcek to rule Czechoslovakia—still technically a satellite Soviet country—was nervous about these reforms. Brezhnev feared that other satellite countries under Soviet rule would also try to liberate themselves and might rebel against the Soviet Union. In May 1968, Ludvík Vaculík, a Czech writer, published The 2,000 Words, a manifesto that denounced the Communist Party for its past behavior and current corruption. Brezhnev ordered Dubcek to condemn the manifesto, but Dubcek refused and assumed that Brezhnev would drop the issue.
Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia
On August 21, 1968, Prague Spring ended when troops from the Soviet Union and its allies invaded Czechoslovakia in warplanes and tanks, killing and wounding hundreds of citizens, who tried to fight back with everything from guns to sticks. Dubcek was arrested and dragged to Moscow in handcuffs. When he was returned to Czechoslovakia after a few days, his liberal spirit was defeated, and he no longer tried to institute any reforms. Dubcek was soon replaced by Gustav Husák, and Czechoslovakian citizens lost their freedom once again.
Censorship and the Artistic Resistance
Following the Soviet invasion, censorship was instituted once more. Some artists, like playwright, Václav Havel—whose plays had savagely criticized the communist system during the 1960s—were forbidden to publish or perform their works. In his 1997 book, The Czech Republic, Steven Otfinofski wrote: ‘‘Overnight, Czechoslovakia's most prominent playwright was a non-person.’’ In Cahoot's Macbeth, Stoppard symbolizes this by having the writer, Cahoot, suddenly start acting like a dog. The inspector asks Macbeth (played by real-life actor Pavel Landovsky, another banned artist): "What is the matter with him?'' Macbeth replies: "He's been made a non-person.’’ Throughout the 1970s, Václev Havel—a playwright—and other dissidents were routinely arrested for their subversive efforts. In 1977, Havel, Landovsky, Pavel Kohout and other artists formed Charter 77, a human rights organization that opposed communism. Havel—who would eventually become the first president of the Czech Republic in the 1980s—was sentenced in 1979 to several years of hard labor as the result of his subversive efforts.
Language Stoppard's obvious technique in both plays is his manipulation of language, something for which he is known. In this play, however, he creates an entirely new language, Dogg. Although at first it seems like the language is random, as Stoppard shows through his characters' interactions, he has chosen many of his words very carefully. For example, in some cases, harmless English words translate into insults or inappropriate slang in Dogg. In Dogg's Hamlet , Easy tries...
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to say ‘‘Afternoon, squire'' to Dogg, the supervisor on the job. However, as Stoppard notes in the translation brackets: ‘‘[This means in Dogg, *Get stuffed, you b— .]’’ Dogg is offended, and "grabs EASY by the lapels in a threatening manner.’’ Easy is confused at this behavior and only gets more confused when, later in the play, Dogg looks over the wall that Baker and Abel have built from letter blocks. The letters spell out ‘‘MATHS OLD EGG,’’ which Easy thinks is harmless enough. However, Dogg's violent reaction—which he repeats—indicates that these harmless English words are actually insulting in Dogg:
EASY looks at the wall. EASY looks at Dogg. EASY smiles. DOGG slaps EASY lightly on the cheek. EASY opens his mouth to protest. DOGG cuffs him heavily on the other cheek and knocks EASY through the wall which disintegrates.
Humor As demonstrated above, Stoppard places his characters in situations where their lack of understanding of each other's language leads to humorous effects. He repeats this pattern throughout Dogg's Hamlet. Humor is expressed in other ways in the first play, namely in the abbreviated version of Hamlet, the play within the play. Although these plays use lines that are taken verbatim from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the normally tragic play itself is abbreviated, and it is acted by people who do not speak the language, so the normally tragic performance becomes humorous. For example, when Baker and Abel—who play guards in the play—are practicing their lines, Stoppard notes in the stage directions that ‘‘They are not acting these lines at all, merely uttering them, tonelessly.'' In addition, since the Hamlet scene is speeded up, it leads to some comic effects. Abel says, '‘’Tis there. (Pointing stage left),’’ while Baker says, '‘’Tis there. (Pointing stage right, their arms crossing awkwardly).’’ This technique achieves its maximum effect during the encore, when the already condensed version of Hamlet is condensed even more, and the entire play takes place in only a few minutes. At this speed, the play becomes even funnier, because it no longer has any context and becomes merely a disembodied set of tragic quotes and events: "GERTRUDE: I am poisoned! (Dies) / LAERTES: Hamlet, thou art slain! (Dies) / HAMLET: Then venom to thy work! ... Kills CLAUDIUS.’’
In Cahoot's Macbeth, the humor is expressed in different ways, most notably in the dialogue of the inspector, who unintentionally says humorous things when he misunderstands the other characters. When the inspector asks Cahoot if he would like to make a statement, Cahoot quotes a line from Shakespeare' s Macbeth:"Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all / As the weird sisters promised.’’ The inspector, responding to the ‘‘weird sisters’’ part, says, ‘‘Kindly leave my wife's family out of this.’’ In another instance, the inspector blows up at the actors, telling them they had better act for him. Right after this,"(He goes back to his seat and says genially to audience) / So sorry to interrupt.’’
Juxtaposition Stoppard's two plays are filled with juxtapositions, starting with the structure. The first play is an instructional play, which teaches Easy and the audience how to understand the second play, a political play. Likewise, Stoppard's plays follow the style of prose dialogue found in most modern dramas, but this is juxtaposed next to the highly elevated Shakespearean language in Hamlet and Macbeth, which are both in verse. In addition, as noted above, Dogg language is juxtaposed next to English. Their differences and the miscommunica-tions that these differences inspire lead to much of the humor in the first play.
Late 1960s-Late 1970s: Many eastern European countries are under communist rule by the Soviet Union, including Czechoslovakia.
Today: China is the only major communist power in the world.
Late 1960s-Late 1970s: Prague Spring—a brief period of artistic and social revitalization in Czechoslovakia after decades of communist repression—is quickly suppressed by a Soviet invasion. Following the invasion, the works of many Czech writers and artists are censored. Today: The former country of Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. In both republics, people enjoy increased artistic freedom.
Late 1960s-Late 1970s: The United States engages in a war in Vietnam to try to stop the spread of Communism in Asia.
Today: The United States engages in a war in Afghanistan to try to stop the spread of terrorism in the world.
Sources Berkowitz, Gerald M., Review of Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, March 1980, pp. 117-18.
Doll, Mary A., ‘‘Stoppard's Theatre of Unknowing,’’ in British and Irish Drama since 1960, edited by James Acheson, Macmillan Press, 1993, pp. 117-29.
Gill, Brendan, ‘‘Stoppard's Shakespeherian Rag,’’ in New Yorker, Vol. LV, No. 35, October 15, 1979, pp. 147–48.
Londré, Felicia Hardison, ‘‘Stoppard, Tom,’’ in Contemporary Dramatists, 5th ed., edited by K. A. Berney, St. James Press, 1993, pp. 636-40.
Nightingale, Benedict, ‘‘Git Away,’’ in New Statesman, Vol. 98, No. 2522, July 20, 1979, pp. 104-05.
Otfinowski, Steven, The Czech Republic, Facts on File, Inc., 1997, p. 37.
Rusinko, Susan, ‘‘Chapter 10: Minor Stage Plays,’’ in Tom Stoppard, Twayne's English Authors Series, Twayne, 1986.
----, ‘‘Chapter 11: Political Plays,’’ in Tom Stoppard, Twayne's English Authors Series, Twayne, 1986.
Stoppard, Tom, Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, in The Real Inspector Hound and Other Plays, Grove Press, 1998.
Further Reading Fleming, John, Stoppard's Theatre: Finding Order amid Chaos, University of Texas Press, 2001. Fleming offers the first book-length analysis of Stoppard' s plays in almost a decade, taking an extensive look at Stoppard's three newest plays—Arcadia, Indian Ink, and The Invention of Love. In addition, the book gives a thorough overview of Stoppard's career and studies some of Stoppard's previously unpublished works.
Havel, Václev, and Karel Hvizdala, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, Vintage Books, 1991. Havel, a former playwright, helped lead the struggle against Communism in Czechoslovakia and became president of the Czech republic. This book collects a series of interviews that Hvizdala conducted with Havel and offers an in-depth perspective of his experiences.
Kipfer, Barbara Ann, The Order of Things: How Everything in the World Is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures & Pecking Orders, Random House Reference, 1998. Although technically a reference book, this eclectic and comprehensive information guide offers an engaging look into how everything in the world follows a specific order or structure. Kipfer is a language guru known for her thesauruses.
McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English, Penguin USA, 1993. This highly accessible book, the companion to the PBS series of the same name, offers an in-depth, illustrated view of how English evolved into the language it is today. It is a great overview for those interested in the rich linguistic history of English.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations: The English Text of the Third Edition, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Prentice Hall, 1999. Wittgenstein's philosophical writings influenced a number of writers and academics, including Stoppard, who based Dogg's Hamlet on one of Wittgenstein's investigations. In addition to language, Wittgenstein investigates the concepts behind objects, categories, symbols, sensations, and other aspects of the human experience.