Largo Desolato, the title of which is taken from a string quartet by Alban Berg, is the most autobiographical of Václav Havel’s dramatic works. Havel, a playwright, philosopher, and political activist who later served as president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), was imprisoned in 1979 by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia (which took control of the country in 1968) for his opposition to totalitarianism and his leadership of the dissident group Charter 77. Havel was released in 1983, without having served his entire sentence, but remained under police surveillance and the constant threat of reincarceration. He composed Largo Desolato in 1984. It is an absurdist drama that draws on repetition of action and dialogue to produce an unsettling and sometimes humorous effect.
The character Leopold Nettles, a philosopher who has published a controversial essay, Ontology of the Human Self, appears to have undergone an imprisonment and release similar to Havel’s, and he lives in fear of future punishment. Although much is left open to interpretation, one can conclude from the title of the essay that Leopold’s crime is that he has insisted on individuality in a world that demands its sacrifice. The destruction of individual identity is apparent from the names of several characters: First Sidney, Second Sidney, First Chap, Second Chap, First Man, and Second Man. The workers and the government agents are interchangeable cogs in the mechanism of bureaucracy and totalitarianism. In fact, what the state requests of Nettles is self-annihilation, a denial of authorship that entails the creation of a fictitious Nettles-the-author-and-public-enemy and that would rob Leopold of his sense of identity.
The theme of the individual in conflict with the system, which occurs throughout Havel’s plays, has its antecedents in the works of two earlier Prague writers, Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Haek. In Kafka’s novels, the protagonists find themselves both alienated from and manipulated by impenetrable bureaucracies; any effort to retain a sense of self and survive within the system results in failure and destruction of self. In Haek’s classic Czech novel The Good Soldier vejk (1921-1923), the title character repeatedly undermines the system by carrying its false logic to extremes. In Largo Desolato, Havel’s protagonist exists within a similarly oppressive system that could destroy his identity, but Leopold recognizes the flaw in the logic of oppression: In imprisoning him, the system would only increase his reputation and sphere of influence. Once Leopold has decided against recanting his work, he has achieved a personal victory, but that victory is undermined by the system’s retraction of its offer, which renders his decision meaningless and leaves him in the same position as when the play began.
The ambiguous conclusion and the circular structure of the play are characteristic of absurdist drama, particularly the work of Samuel Beckett, and Beckett and Havel are frequently compared. Both rely on repetition of action and dialogue, yet to different effects. While Beckett places his characters in incomprehensible settings, outside recognizable time and place, Havel situates his drama in realism. Leopold’s apartment is a typical apartment; his daily routines are quite ordinary. This normality, however, is mere illusion, and that is Havel’s point: The home is no safe haven from the oppression of the totalitarian state, and the appearance of order, characterized through mundane activities such as preparing meals, tidying rooms, and grooming, only camouflages the ubiquity of government control over individual lives.
Even more than the action, the dialogue reinforces this theme. Characters speak in stock phrases and clichés whether they are discussing daily routine, emotional intimacy, or politics. Havel heightens the effect...
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through a technique called “time slips,” in which different characters repeat the lines or actions of other characters. For example, the two Chaps begin their apparent interrogation by asking exactly the same questions of Leopold as does his friend Bertram; Leopold’s conversation with Lucy, which marks the decline in their relationship, is repeated almost verbatim with Marguerite, suggesting the beginning of an affair. At the end of scene 5, the words of the two Sidneys, Edward, Bertram, Suzana, and Lucy form a chorus as each remarks, “Some hero.” Speech and action thus become nonsensical; relationships appear superficial; barriers between the external world and the internal world disintegrate. In Beckett’s plays, characters create their own realities through language. In Havel’s work, language threatens to imprison the characters in a reality that has slipped from their control. The clichés, circular reasoning, and bureaucratic language employed by all the characters represent the extent to which the control of the state has infiltrated their daily lives.
Largo Desolato lends itself to several interpretive approaches. It can be viewed as autobiographical, as a political work critical of Communism, or as an absurdist play. Its appeal to Western scholars derives from its thematic universality and its reflection of late twentieth century concerns with the interrelationships among language, self, and truth. Of his own work, Havel has stated, “Drama’s success in transcending the limits of its age and country depends entirely on how far it succeeds in finding a way to its own place and time.” Regarded by many as his most successful play, Largo Desolato depicts life in Communist Czechoslovakia in a manner that allows those who enjoy democracy to recognize themselves and the problems of their own societies.