The Garden Party

by Vaclav Havel

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1321

The Garden Party begins in the Pludeks’ flat; the family members are present while Hugo plays chess with himself. The parents send Peter downstairs so that an expected visitor, Kalabis, will not see that he “looks like a bourgeois intellectual.” They then ask Hugo if he has considered his future, the father spouting nonsensical clichés. The conversation is circular and bears no relation to real time. Finally Hugo is told of Kalabis’s planned visit, at the same moment that he checkmates himself. Pludek is inspired to discourse on the Japanese and the middle class in history. The doorbell finally rings, after several false alarms; Peter, who has reentered, is hurriedly sent to the pantry. Instead of Kalabis, however, a young messenger named Amanda enters. She reads a telegram explaining that Kalabis will not come; he is going to the Liquidation Office garden party. Mrs. Pludek decides to send Hugo to the garden party. Amanda lingers, and she is told by Mrs. Pludek not to worry: She had small parts in plays, too, when she was younger. After Amanda exits, her possibilities for Hugo are discussed. Hugo wants to play another game of chess, but when his mother explains that life, too, is a chessboard, he resolves to go to the party. Hugo exits to a mixture of quotations and cliché bits of song from his parents. Peter enters simultaneously, then also exits without a word; the parents are still caught up in their inane vision of future happiness as the scene ends.

Act 2 begins at the entrance to the Liquidation Office garden party. A male clerk and a female secretary review guests at a table; Hugo enters and asks them about Kalabis. They explain to him the organizational structure of the garden party, which is quite complicated in an exaggerated, bureaucratic way. Hugo points to some mistakes in their planning, then says “Check!” The clerks evade his criticism but are interrupted by Maxy Falk. He gives an extended greeting that includes lines which parody Terence’s famous pronouncement on playwriting, which reads, in its new form, “Nothing foreign is human to me.” After Falk’s exit, a brief personal conversation is once again diverted by the officials into petty bureaucratic double-talk. Hugo offers another critique (as a chess move), and Falk returns, explaining his status as an “inaugurator.” The two officials encourage Falk to describe his work and publications, which are on an inflated interpretation of garden parties. After his speech regresses into a series of slogans, Falk leaves. The officials speak briefly about nature before returning to the problems of the party. Hugo offers a third criticism, which is rejected, as Falk returns wearing a papier-mâché nose. This time Falk’s discourse wanders even more, as Hugo and the others begin to repeat his catchphrases. Hugo slowly absorbs the jargon, and after Falk erupts in a fit of temper that scares away the bickering officials, he speaks.

Hugo’s statement begins with a series of rhetorical questions, then evolves into a new, seemingly original combination of the words and phrases he has just heard. Falk, dumbstruck, exchanges identification cards with Hugo, then begins a long conversation in which Falk gradually assumes that Hugo is a liquidator who is planning to abolish the Inauguration Service. Hugo quotes Falk’s patronizing lines from the first part of the act and leaves, shouting “Check!” Falk, in despair, is approached by the contrite officials, who explain how they made up their differences in a very personal way. Falk cares nothing for them, announcing that the Inauguration Service is to be liquidated and stalking off. The secretary notices...

(This entire section contains 1321 words.)

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that the clerk has lost interest in her and begins to weep. He begins planning the liquidation as Falk runs onstage and sticks out his tongue at them to end the scene.

Act 3 takes place in the head office of the Liquidation Service, where a secretary stamps and sorts files taken by the director from his desk. They work while conversing; he propositions her, but the topic shifts back to the process of liquidation—as the clothes of the director are gradually taken, stamped, and sorted into the enormous file baskets until he is left in his underwear. The secretary sobs as she remembers famous speeches of inauguration, then exits as the director collapses with weariness. Hugo enters, waking the director, and begins a conversation about the history and meaning of inauguration with the director. Their conversation suggests a filial relationship, and Mrs. Pludek suddenly enters, interrupting the scene, only to be sent off. Hugo and the director then try to decide how to inaugurate the liquidation, working through several variations of the problem’s logical contradictions. Their language begins to merge, then lapses into unison until Hugo begins to speak so quickly that the director merely adds phrases to his extended bureaucratic discourse. Hugo emerges as the master, sending the terrorized director out for coffee. The clerk enters; he and Hugo repeat a condensed version of the preceding scene, ending with Hugo storming out on a self-righteous mission to protest the whole procedure.

Hugo returns and asks the director who might be in charge of the liquidation, so that he can protest the contradiction of liquidators continuing to work when they are themselves the ones supposedly being liquidated. The director answers that “Hugo Pludek” is in charge, and Hugo, recognizing neither his name nor his function, goes out to look for himself. The secretary enters again, looking for the clerk. The director repeats his proposition, and the secretary storms out. The director then climbs into one of the enormous file baskets to take a nap. The secretary returns, finds the director, and climbs in too, closing the lid on the basket just as the act ends.

The scene returns to the Pludek home for act 4. The parents converse about Hugo, Japan, and a noise in the pantry. Pludek walks to the pantry and discovers Amanda and Peter, each dressed only in “a hastily arranged overcoat.” Amanda gives the parents a telegram, which was sent from Kalabis to report on Hugo’s important new work. As the parents rejoice, Amanda and Peter exit in opposite directions. Peter’s future is briefly considered, but Hugo returns home wearing a party nose. His parents greet him, but in the following dialogue both the son and his parents talk about “Hugo” in the third person; neither he nor they recognize him since his bureaucratic transformation. The dangers and contradictions of Hugo’s new position are considered by the three, until they are interrupted by Amanda and Peter. Amanda reads a telegram, inserting between lines her usual measure of non sequiturs, which reveals that Hugo is also in charge of liquidating the Inauguration Service. The parents rejoice, then ask Amanda and Peter about their future plans. The two lovers then leave, again in opposite directions, while the parents discuss the politics of Hugo’s situation—he himself cannot get a word in edgewise.

Finally a third telegram is delivered by Amanda and Peter, this one announcing that Hugo has been given the job of reconstructing the two bureaus into a new “Central Commission for Inauguration and Liquidation.” The parents rejoice. Peter and Amanda declare their love and leave holding hands; they decide that they will live together. The parents discuss their children, then stop; they have noticed Hugo and want to know who he is. Hugo replies in his longest, most complicated, most reflexive and nonsensical speech of the play, concluding a declaration of his own erasure with the final move of the game, his “Checkmate!” As Hugo exits, the parents approve of his words, finding in them the patriotic spirit of the Bohemian middle class. Mrs. Pludek predicts that the “hellhound” of Japan may overrun them, a dog howls from the cupboard, and Falk enters—striding down to the footlights to tell the audience to go home.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

The most inventive dramatic devices in the play are in the structure and style of the dialogue. The characters repeat one another and vary the combinations of the words to the point that the play becomes a comic fugue of weirdly inappropriate observations. Many speeches and conversations also include complete non sequiturs, often amusing in their own right, which then enter the system of repetition to reappear in new, more bizarre forms. Amanda’s telegrams, for example, alternate between terse messages and a series of longer lines that sound like one end of a phone conversation. Falk’s ruminations in act 2 are even more like free association. Hugo, in turn, submits these language themes to a kind of inexorable logic that sounds even more convincing as it grows more peculiar.

The language structure produces characters that are exaggerated and grotesque. The parents are a parody of the normal family, unable to express genuine concern or affection for their children while worrying abstractly about their career chances. The bureaucrats seem distant in official situations, but manage to achieve a certain kind of humanity through physical intimacy; it is love, too, that promises eventually to free Peter, the incipient bourgeois intellectual, from his family’s machinations—unless love is yet another cliché. Hugo, the hero as Mr. Zero, remains unattached to the end, even severing his familiar connections. He becomes the Soviet version of the anonymous company man.

The dramatic action is rigidly structured, with overriding patterns and symmetrical developments. Falk’s visits to the greeting table in act 2 and Amanda’s deliveries in act 4 segment those scenes into spirals of increasing complexity and dramatic effect. The play begins and ends at the family home, describing a circular structure that suggests the reflexive principle of the whole work. In the final line Falk presents the audience with a wholly arbitrary gesture, which in turn asks them to view their visit to the theater in terms of the behavioral patterns satirized by the play.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92

Sources for Further Study

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta, ed. The Vanek Plays: Four Authors, One Character. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987.

Havel, Václav. Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Kriseova, Eda. Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography. Collingdale, Pa.: Diane, 1998.

Trensky, Paul. Czech Drama Since World War II. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1978.

Vladislav, Jan, ed. Václav Havel: Or, Living in Truth. London: Faber, 1987.


Critical Essays