The Garden Party

by Vaclav Havel

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Themes and Meanings

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The principal theme of The Garden Party is its criticism of the bureaucratic system of communist government. The institutions are arranged not for any type of normal government service but for the administration of the bureaus themselves. The Office of Inauguration does not introduce new ideas or policies so much as it creates busywork for its employees, much in the same way that Hugo provides a career for himself by suggesting its destruction. The Office of Liquidation does not, in fact, become liquidated; instead, it becomes part of a larger, more complex, more centralized ministry, which will doubtless be even more unwieldy and inefficient than its predecessors. The entire action takes place in such an atmosphere of paranoia and influence peddling as to suggest virtually no hope for the system of order. In a political absurdist play, it is above all else the political structure that is empty, arbitrary, dispiriting.

The second theme of the play distinguishes Václav Havel’s work from that of other Eastern bloc satirists. The Garden Party provides a brilliant example of the failure of language to communicate human meanings. In this early play, Havel uses cliché and repetition, to provide his commentary. The clichés relate to government and ideal values, and they are expressed without conviction in an atmosphere of careerism. These clichés reveal their power in repetition, as characters hear and absorb the sayings that the prevailing ideology and its language system produce. Hugo enters the garden party as a talented but naïve young man; his exposure to the language and logic of bureaucracy hardens him into the unrecognizable “official” of the final act. Rather than men producing language, in The Garden Party language produces men.

The final theme of note is the self-conscious theatricality of the play. Hugo begins the play at the chessboard, and it is this game that provides the prevailing metaphor for his subsequent actions. The bureaucratic system is an arbitrarily structured creation, like a chess game, which Hugo learns to play against itself—as he played both sides of the chessboard. When the game is over, the player, Hugo, ceases to exist as such. Havel also provides a number of other self-conscious gestures to reinforce the themes, such as Amanda’s discomfiture in her role, the third act intrusion of Mrs. Pludek, and the party-nose disguises of the second act. Havel regularly disrupts the illusion, turning the play back onto itself in a gesture of erasure that completes the critical indictment of a self-conscious, bureaucratic society.

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