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...
(The entire section is 891 words.)