Josef Gross, the managing director of an anonymous administrative department in a large bureaucratic organization. Stymied by the paralyzing amount of paperwork required by the bureaucracy to effect even the smallest actions, he authorizes the purchase of a new mail register without going through the proper channels. Manipulated by the conniving deputy director for taking this initiative, he gradually becomes enmeshed in a bureaucratic nightmare, in which he will be perceived as guilty of illegal conduct no matter what course of action he chooses. A major source of frustration during this process is his struggle to stem the introduction of a new bureaucratic language called “Ptydepe.” Ostensibly intended to make office communications more accurate and precise, this nonsensical artificial language represents the supreme symbol of a faceless, insensitive bureaucratic order with instructions that have the effect of dehumanizing individuals and reducing them to mindless automatons. Outsmarted by his deputy, Gross is coerced first into changing jobs with the deputy and then into resigning because of his hostile attitude toward Ptydepe. After a short stint as the “staff watcher,” whose duties consist of monitoring the actions and words of the staff from a secret vantage point, Gross is restored to his original post by the collapse of the pro-Ptydepe movement. Having been returned to his position, however, Gross finds that his authority is essentially a matter of form and not of substance. As the play closes, he finds himself unable to help the sole member of his organization who had shown kindness to him, a secretary named Maria.
Jan Ballas, Gross’s manipulative deputy director. Having introduced Ptydepe into the organization surreptitiously, Ballas succeeds in blackmailing Gross to resign from his position, yet he too discovers that power is a fleeting illusion. When Ptydepe proves to be an utter failure, Ballas hands over the reins of power to Gross but continues to use the twin levers of coercion and zeal to remain firmly entrenched in the bureaucracy.
Maria, a secretary at the translation center. Her faithful devotion to the regulations introduced by others finally gives way to simpler and deeper emotions of kindness and sympathy for her harassed superior Gross. After she helps Gross by illegally translating an official memorandum denouncing Ptydepe, she is forced to leave the office staff. Gross feels too cowed by the weight of the bureaucracy to resist her dismissal.
George, the original staff watcher whose position Gross temporarily occupies. He denounces Maria after he overhears her making the unauthorized translation.
Mark Lear, a teacher of Ptydepe. Obsessed with the language and its strange rules, Lear tries to instruct his hapless pupils in the nuances of Ptydepe. A stern instructor, he dismisses anyone who makes a mistake. As a consequence, he eventually ends up teaching to an empty classroom.
Otto Small, the head of the translation center. He will not translate any document written in Ptydepe without authorization from Dr. Savant, the Ptydepe expert. He and Dr. Savant spend much of their time discussing food and women.
Alex Savant, the staff Ptydepe expert. He will not authorize any translation without proper registration documents from Helena, the chair of the translation center.
Helena, the chair of the translation center. She will not issue any registration documents unless a staff member has a memorandum already translated from Ptydepe; thus, the vicious circle of bureaucratic paralysis closes.
Jan Ballas is the deputy director of the organization, under managing director Josef Gross. With silent constant companion Ferdinand Pillar (later replaced by Mr. Column), Ballas undermines the authority of his superior. Ballas is cold and calculating, always trying to increase his power. It is Ballas who orders the introduction of Ptydepe, and...
(The entire section is 1,603 words.)