The Garden Party

by Vaclav Havel

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

The social context of The Garden Party was the gradually developing thaw in Czech society leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968. There is nothing particularly bitter about Havel’s critique; the flaws of socialist government are presented as an established, conventional joke, so familiar as to produce the delights of recognition as well as the pleasures of comic surprises for his liberal audiences. Political satire has a long tradition in Czech theater, and The Garden Party provided a society hopeful of change with a strong example of the need for sensible reform.

In the course of Havel’s career, The Garden Party marks the beginning of his first phase of mature work, the political absurdist plays of the 1960’s. In two earlier plays Havel had collaborated with others to produce works that promoted audience activity. The Garden Party marks his move to a more conservative, but more complex, mature, and malleable dramatic form. The devices of repetition and bureaucratic absurdity became hallmarks of Havel’s dramatic style, and have appeared in works written more than two decades later, such as his Pokouení (pr., pb. 1986; Temptation, 1988). In this play Havel creates a more serious impression; in The Garden Party, a certain comic enthusiasm pervades the text and spills over into sympathetic roles. Havel has matured, developing a more sober but more profound style of writing.

In its literary context, The Garden Party is perhaps the first masterpiece of postwar Czech drama, and it provides an early example of the political absurdism that also characterized the work of writers such as Sawomir Mroek in Poland and Aleksandr Zinoviev in the Soviet Union, as well as Czechs such as Pavel Kohout and Ludvik Vaculík. Havel’s play has a firm place in this body of work, yet it retains its distinctness through his use of characteristic devices and his close attention to the formal complexities of language. Havel requires that the accepted meanings, sounds, and visual forms of language be appreciated, so that the failure of language can be attributed not to a failure of idealism but to a failure of common sense in its social uses. In Havel’s plays, such as The Garden Party, there always seems to be a human ground on which genuine communication could be constructed, if only people would make a commitment to mean what they say, and to care enough to listen to one another. They rarely do so in The Garden Party, but the disjunctures are less a cause for real concern than a source of delight.

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