The Increased Difficulty of Concentration

by Vaclav Havel
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The Play

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

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The Increased Difficulty of Concentration opens on an empty stage set of Dr. Huml’s flat. Mrs. Huml enters carrying a tray with breakfast for two. She wears a dressing gown. Huml, in pajamas, asks for honey; she ignores him and accuses him of failing again. He replies that conditions were not right and asks again for honey. She says, “In the cupboard.” When he complains from offstage that he cannot find it, she jumps up and runs offstage, presumably to locate the honey.

Almost immediately Huml backs in, fully dressed, from his study, tiptoes to the same rear door Mrs. Huml just walked through, and stealthily leads Renata to the front door, kissing her as he sneaks her out. He goes back to the study door and ushers in Anna Balcar and Karel Kriebl, wearing lab coats, carefully carrying Puzuk, a machine, between them. They explain that information on Huml has been fed into Puzuk, which is about to ask Huml his first question.

Kriebl fusses with the machine, working on its keyboard, turning its crank, peering into its eyepiece. Balcar calls for the first question. Puzuk rumbles. Machal enters and takes measurements of the room, then writes a measurement on a piece of paper, which Kriebl feeds to Puzuk. Machal exits. Then the same business with crank and buttons and rumbles and a call for silence—Puzuk’s red button goes on. It is overheated and must be cooled in Huml’s refrigerator. Then its siren goes off. Now it is cold, and Balcar and Kriebl run out the back door to Puzuk.

Huml starts toward them, but Renata, wearing Mrs. Huml’s apron, enters from the same back door, carrying a tray with lunch, a stew. They argue because Huml has not told his wife that their marriage must end. She locks herself in the study. Then Blanka comes through the study door to continue taking dictation from Huml. He is dictating a pedantic work on values, specifically, man’s needs and notions of happiness. Blanka goes to the kitchen; Huml follows her. Mr. and Mrs. Huml’s offstage voices indicate that she has found the honey.

Back at the breakfast table, they discuss Huml’s telling Renata that their affair must end. Mrs. Huml leaves for work, giving instructions about the lunch stew that the audience has already seen. Balcar and Kriebl return with Puzuk and go through the same business. This time Beck interrupts pointlessly; the red button goes on because Puzuk is cold; they take Puzuk to the oven to warm it.

Huml apologizes for some affront to Blanka. She goes to get her coat to leave; then he greets her as she arrives at the front door. He dictates until she goes to put on the kettle. Immediately Renata comes in wearing Mrs. Huml’s apron; they go upstairs to the bedroom. Balcar, Kriebl, and Huml come in and discuss their anthropological studies. Offstage, Puzuk’s siren wails (it is too hot). Huml returns half-dressed. At last Puzuk’s first question: In an effeminate voice, Puzuk asks, “May I have a little rest?” This ends act 1.

Act 2 begins with Mr. and Mrs. Huml discussing his mistress. They exit. Then follows the scene for which Huml apologized earlier. He makes a grab at Blanka while dictating. Her exit melds into Renata’s quarreling with Huml about asking his wife for a divorce. Then comes the previously omitted scene of Huml’s first introduction to Balcar, Kriebl, Machal, and Beck. They go to get Puzuk. Huml whispers to Renata, who answers from offstage. Then the Humls have a domestic quarrel about telling Renata that he is through with her. As Renata leaves, Blanka again asks Huml not to make advances to her; they continue an earlier dictation scene until he attacks and then runs after her, to return with Renata, both dressing from their act 1 bedroom scene. He asks Renata to tell Mrs. Huml. She repeats her earlier exit, but this time Blanka sees them kissing. Huml offers Renata the same excuses, turned around, that he gave Mrs. Huml. Balcar and Kriebl ask Puzuk for a question. Puzuk asks to rest again, explaining that it is tired. Balcar explains to Huml that Puzuk eliminates all repeated and therefore predictable responses to its questions and uses the remaining “random” responses as keys to individual personality. Puzuk lights up red, then green, then asks Huml a series of questions, such as “What is your favorite tunnel?” and “Do you piss in public, or just now and then?”

All the characters, including Puzuk, appear onstage repeating their demands and questions to Huml. The action and sound become chaotic and surreal, until Puzuk’s siren-wail quiets them.

Disputing Balcar’s ideas about her work, Huml explains that the “fundamental key to man does not lie in his brain, but in his heart.” She is undone, sobs, is embraced and comforted by Huml; they kiss passionately, then exchange love-talk. The audience is reminded of the earlier dinner scene when Mrs. Huml chided Huml for not telling Renata. They sit down to dinner; she looks at him expectantly, and says, “Well?” On this note, the play ends.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

The Increased Difficulty of Concentration uses the physical appearance of farce (constant, slapdash action, mostly entrances and exits of couples hiding their actions from others) to provide a metaphor for disorientation. The feeling that one is not sure what is happening is compounded by the drama’s skewed chronology. Huml exits with one person in a situation and time frame that will be contradicted by his next appearance onstage with another person in what is obviously a quite different scene. Then the scenes turn backward on themselves and much later repeat a detail or action or comment that clearly belongs to a previous scene, illustrating the title.

Huml’s dialogues with his wife and with his mistress are so amusingly parallel that it becomes clear that, though his attitude toward each may vary, his method of dealing with them is identical: He puts off all that they ask of him to pursue his own, uneventful concerns. His treatment of Balcar and his secretary Blanka is similarly parallel: They have needs and even obsessions (Blanka trying to decide upon marriage to a suitor, Balcar trying to pursue her “scientific” study of human individuality) in which Huml is uninterested and toward which he is unsympathetic. He sees them ultimately as objects for his own gratification. The overall pattern is dehumanized and sterile.

The comic tone is maintained not only through these patterns of quirky time shifts and repeated parallel lines and actions but also through such conventional comic devices as slapstick stumbling, comic curtain lines, and stock comic characters. There is much fun in seeing the actors make startlingly swift costume changes, obviously having to run backstage from one door to another in order to appear confusingly in different garb from another scene. This device, however, also serves to emphasize the time-warped experience and thoughts of the characters. The central theatrical image of the comedy is much like a treadmill on which bits of similar and even the same scenes roll by and return to their starting point without seeming to achieve forward motion toward any resolution or sure conclusion.


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Sources for Further Study

Burian, Jarka M. “Post-War Drama in Czechoslovakia: The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.” Educational Theatre Journal 25 (October, 1973): 311-312.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta. “Mechanized Minds.” Times Literary Supplement, March 10, 1972, p. 267.

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

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta. “Václav Havel: A Writer of Today’s Season.” World Literature Today 55 (Summer, 1981): 388-393.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta, and Phyllis Carey, eds. Critical Essays on Václav Havel. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.

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

Schumschida, Walter. “Václav Havel: Between the Theatre of the Absurd and Engaged Theatre.” In Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe: Evolution and Experiment in the Postwar Period, edited by Henrik Birnbaum and Thomas Eckman. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1980.


Critical Essays