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Largo Desolato is a play by Vaclav Havel, which was written after Havel's release from prison. Like Havel, the protagonist Professor Leopold Nettles is a dissident. Leopold displays extreme paranoia at the beginning of the play and throughout. This paranoia stems from his political writings, which have received a mass following among other political dissidents and intellectuals, but has drawn the ire of the government.

In fact, Leopold is under surveillance throughout much of the narrative, and he believes that the police will arrest him at any minute. Largo Desolato is semi-autobiographical, so this is perhaps Vaclav Havel's articulation of his pre-prison and post-prison paranoia.

The most obvious element of the play is the use of repetition—both the words spoken by recurring characters and the scenes themselves—which gives the audience a sense of time warp, in which a particular moment is stuck on loop. This technique is used to show the psychological state of Leopold. He figuratively and literally feels stuck in his chosen career, his marriage, and his responsibilities as a political essayist.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1111

Largo Desolato begins in darkness, with orchestral music appropriate to the title (slow and solitary), which continues to play between scenes. The curtain reveals Leopold alone in his apartment, silently staring at the entry door. After a pause he goes to the door, looks out the peephole, and listens. The curtain falls and rises; the scene repeats. The action eventually continues with the entrance of Edward, who asks Leopold questions about his mental and physical condition. Leopold’s many complaints relate to his tension over an unnamed expected arrival. His wife Suzana enters with groceries; Leopold puts them away and reports to her about his morning. He suggests a supper with Edward and Lucy, but she has plans to go out. Leopold is telling Edward why he is afraid to leave the apartment unguarded when two men arrive. Leopold thinks that they are policemen, but after a tense moment they explain that they are mill workers, and they are seeking to supply Leopold with paper in exchange for his helping them with their labor problems. The two workers, both named Sidney, sit with Leopold for an uncomfortable interview while Edward and Suzana have an inaudible discussion behind the glass door in the kitchen. Lucy arrives and must restrain her laughter over the uncomfortable exchange of broken political cliches with the workers. When Edward and Suzana emerge, greeting Lucy, the workers take their leave, followed shortly by Edward and Suzana, who are going to see a film. Lucy and Leopold, alone together, discuss their affair. Leopold explains his philosophical reluctance to commit himself to her version of love, but she concludes that he has an emotional block. The curtain falls as she tries to “unblock” him, covering his passive face with kisses.

Scene 4 occurs later that evening, as Bertram expresses to Leopold his concern about his friend’s reputation with the other dissidents. Leopold, shivering in his bathrobe before the balcony door that Bertram has opened, nevertheless tries to allay Bertram’s fear that his recent imprisonment and the pressure of police scrutiny may have broken his spirit or otherwise altered his ability to perform the role of a leader in the political opposition. Lucy, who has been calling from offstage, enters from the bedroom, clad only in a bedspread. She ends Bertram’s interview, closing the balcony door and seeing him off. She then returns to the topic of their conversation in scene 3.

Leopold, reflecting on his self-consciousness in terms borrowed from Bertram, tries to explain his emotional situation and sexual reticence to Lucy, but she becomes distraught, telling Leopold that his excuses are just a cover for his desire to reject her now that he has successfully seduced her. Their argument is interrupted by the doorbell. Leopold tries to hide Lucy but she refuses; she wants to face the police with Leopold. The two policemen enter, making insinuating remarks before asking Lucy to go; when she refuses, she is dragged off to jail for the night. After testing Leopold with some routine questions, the police propose that he sign a paper renouncing his authorship of writings criticizing the state, thereby clearing his political record. Leopold reviews the grimy paper for a moment, then sits back, leaving the matter unsettled as the curtain falls.

In scene 5, set the next day, Leopold, alone on the stage, paces the apartment like a prisoner in a cell, stopping to take medicine and wash his face, then repeating the entire pattern two more times. Suzana enters with another bag of groceries, surprising him. He tells Suzana about the events of scene four; she is angry that he did not refuse the police offer immediately. When she goes to her room, Leopold resumes his pacing routine, and his washing in the bathroom prevents him at first from hearing the doorbell. Eventually he admits Edward, who has seen Lucy; he tries to reassure Leopold in lines that echo their conversation in scene 3. The doorbell rings again, and the two Sidneys are admitted by Edward. They have brought suitcases full of writing supplies and labor records. They all sit for another uncomfortable conversation of platitudes and unfinished sentences; the scene is punctuated by Suzana’s entrance, after which she and Edward go to the kitchen to reprise their silent conversation from scene three. Leopold pours a number of drinks for one of the Sidneys while the other smokes; Leopold also takes more medicine and makes trips to the bathroom and kitchen. The workers suggest that Leopold write some sort of vague declaration for them. When he asks them specifically what they want, their confused responses develop into a fugue of unfinished thoughts. The fugue expands abruptly when Bertram enters from the bathroom, repeating an earlier question, then Edward, Suzana, and Lucy enter from other doors, repeating one another’s questions from earlier in the play. Leopold, confused by this expressionist chorus of questioning demands, cries out and runs into the bathroom. The scene ends as the characters disperse through their respective doors, leaving as inexplicably as they arrived.

Scene 6 begins with Leopold in the bathroom. The doorbell interrupts his shower, and he crosses in a towel to admit Marguerite, whom he has never met. She introduces herself as a philosophy student, a close follower of his work, who has come to him in the midst of a personal crisis. She accepts several glasses of rum from Leopold as he draws her out in philosophical terms; their conversation is very similar to his earlier talks with Lucy. Leopold confesses to her that he, too, is having a personal crisis; his comments lead her to conclude that she can solve both of their problems by making it her task to restore his life to him through love. Leopold begins to kiss her, but they are interrupted by the doorbell. The police enter. This time they do not arrest the girl, nor do they threaten to arrest Leopold; something has changed in the political situation that makes Leopold’s situation less critical, and the pressure to disclaim his writings will be temporarily postponed. Leopold, torn by the possibility that the authorities may have in fact broken his ability to work, to perform his chosen role as dissident, recognizes that they have also refused him his martyrdom. He collapses to the floor and bangs his fists, exhausted by his situation; he begs, over the protestations of Marguerite, to be left alone by everyone.

Scene 7 begins as did scenes 1, 2, and 3. This time, however, after going to the door to listen, Leopold turns to the audience and begins the curtain call. The others emerge from various doors, as in scene 5, and take their bows.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

The most striking dramatic device in Largo Desolato is Václav Havel’s use of repetition as both figure and theme. The play begins with the same sequence of action repeated three times, then developed. Throughout the drama, bits of gesture, thought, and feeling are developed, then recapitulated like motives in a musical composition. The subtle variations include the substitution of characters (such as Marguerite for Lucy), the reversal of dialogue between paired characters (such as the two Sidneys), and the slow building of tension to a release, as in the sequences of entrances. The climactic moment of this patterning occurs at the end of scene 6, when the characters enter—apart from any dramatic sequence—to stage a purely formal attack on the troubled consciousness of Leopold.

Leopold does not provide a stable center for the play, as he might in an expressionist drama. He is subject to hallucination, but he is also able to exploit the language of others for personal advantage in several situations. Further, the formal complexity of the play is so striking from the very beginning that the audience is aware of an authorial presence that overpowers Leopold’s; Havel’s manipulations are so strong that Leopold is denied both the power of an expressionist dreamer and the authority of pseudonymous equivalence with the writer.

These two major devices, repetition and heroic character, conflict as Leopold tries to construct a singular identity in a world where difference comes to seem almost nonexistent. In a play of repetition, time and memory coalesce. Definitive difference disappears and a cognitive crisis results. Lovers seem interchangeable or unreachable, both friends and opponents make the same kinds of demands, and patterns of behavior reverse and collide until it becomes impossible to make the very choice of a primary value that might stabilize the structure of existence.


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Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. A comprehensive study that locates the Czech theater of the absurd in a Czech rather than a Western European literary tradition. See chapter 2 for a discussion of Havel’s early plays, The Garden Party (1963) and The Memorandum (1965), which introduce themes also evident in Largo Desolato.

Havel, Václav. Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990. Translated and edited by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. See “Stories and Totalitarianism” for a discussion of the relationship between literature and politics.

Kriseova, Eda. Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography. Translated by Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A biography that explores Havel’s development as a writer in conjunction with his political activism. The brief chapter on Largo Desolato details the autobiographical elements of the play.

Skloot, Robert. “Václav Havel: The Once and Future Playwright.” The Kenyon Review 15, no. 2 (Spring, 1993): 223-231. An article critical of Havel’s later plays, including Largo Desolato, valuable in presenting a dissenting voice in a field of largely adulatory response.

Vladislav, Jan, ed. Václav Havel or Living in Truth: Twenty-two Essays Published on the Occasion of the Award of the Erasmus Prize to Václav Havel. London: Faber and Faber, 1987. A rich collection of essays by sixteen of Havel’s contemporaries that provides a variety of insights into influences on Havel as a dramatist and the significance of his work artistically, philosophically, and politically.


Critical Essays