The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.