Critical Context

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There are a number of important contexts for Largo Desolato, the most obvious of which is autobiographical. Like Leopold, Václav Havel has been arrested a number of times, and has been a consistent—if occasionally reluctant—leader of dissident Czech political groups. Leopold, however, is less like Havel than was the Vanek character of earlier plays; a philosopher rather than a writer, he represents both the idea of dissidence and its long-term effects on those who practice it. Civil disobedience has become, for the Czechs, such a rudimentary aspect of their national culture that gestures of defiance have become less an expression of individual identity than they are conventional expressions of solidarity in political opposition. For Leopold, this prolonged conventional pressure is so great that he needs some relief from its demands: Either the government will assign to him the similarly conventional role of jailed martyr, or he will have to forge some kind of a new identity from the remains of his historical role. Havel must similarly balance the roles of artist and political activist, or somehow blend the two without compromising his excellence.

In terms of Havel’s other work, Largo Desolato continues a number of experimental themes. Havel’s first full-length play, Zahradni slavnost (pr., pb. 1963; The Garden Party, 1969), featured a hero who, like the characters of Largo Desolato, seemed only to repeat others’ phrases, inventing little of his own. Since then, Havel has mastered the combination and permutation of language and situation, allowing him to create, in Largo Desolato, a formal experiment of symphonic proportions.

Similarly, in the pre-invasion play Ztizena moznost soustre deni (pb. 1968; The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1969), Havel used a disjointed time structure and a series of visitors to create the same cognitive difficulties that precipitate Leopold’s “fugue” scene in Largo Desolato. The circle of confused values causes the hero in that early play to be trapped by his sexual desire; later, in Spiklenci (pr. 1974; the conspirators), Havel demonstrated how a similar circle of confusion subverts the positive goals of revolution. In Audience (pr. 1976; English translation, 1976), the memory lapses of the drunken brewer create the same effect, while in Protest (pr. 1978; English translation, 1980) the circle and confusion are purely ideological. Largo Desolato concentrates less on the causes or results of this confusion than earlier plays; instead, confusion becomes a fact—an existential problem that even prolonged political commitment cannot finally resolve.

Havel deals with both the local concerns of his Czech compatriots and the universal themes of love, courage, and personal identity that those issues raise. Largo Desolato falls clearly in line with Havel’s body of work, extending many of his most important themes; it also addresses issues that are central to contemporary literary and philosophical thought, such as the relation of cognition and commitment, and of individuality and desire to cultural values. Havel’s own confinement dramatizes the immediacy of the play’s meaning, yet Largo Desolato is a major work on its own merits—one that will continue to find new meanings in each generation.

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Critical Evaluation