Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033
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 overrules Gross’s objections by blackmail. Such moves get Ballas the managing directorship. However, once he is in the position of power, Pillar begins to betray him and Ballas grows paranoid. Ballas also gets stuck in the bureaucratic mire surrounding the translation of documents in Ptydepe. After Gross forces his way back into his original job, Ballas again survives because of his calculated earlier move. Gross would have him leave entirely, but Ballas’s blackmail gets him the deputy directorship back.
Mr. Column replaces Pillar as Ballas’s constant companion and silent supporter in scene 10 after Pillar’s outburst.
George is the staff watcher for the office. He sits in the space between the offices and watches everyone’s actions. George can interact with staff members via a chink in the wall. When Gross is fired by Ballas, George is temporarily hired as deputy director. Gross temporarily becomes the staff watcher for a while as well. When Gross becomes managing director again, George returns to the staff watcher position. It is he who catches Maria translating the memorandum for Gross, leading to her termination as an employee.
Josef Gross is the central character in The Memorandum. He is the managing director for the organization, though his power seems limited and is often challenged. Gross receives a memorandum written in a new artificial language, Ptydepe, and becomes frustrated when he cannot get the document translated due to organizational bureaucracy and staff indifference. Gross’s power is also undermined by his deputy director, Ballas. Ballas ordered the introduction of the language without Gross’s knowledge. Gross agrees to step down to the deputy position, and then is fired because of Ballas. Gross later retakes the managing directorship after he convinces Maria to translate the memorandum for him. The memorandum praises Gross’s human touch in the office. At the end of the play, Gross will not reconsider Ballas’s firing of Maria, letting her lose her job though she helped him regain his. Gross’s power is firmly entrenched.
Hana is the secretary to the managing director. She does little actual work. Hana spends most of her time brushing her hair and running to the shops to get food items. She does provide Gross, and later Ballas, with information on occasion, but does not do much else.
Helena works in the translation center as a chairman of something unspecified. Like Stroll and Savant, Helena is an indifferent part of the bureaucracy. She follows the rules and goes along with what will allow her to keep her job. Helena is often concerned with sending Maria to get food items, as well attending birthday parties and flirting with her co-workers. She refuses to help Gross translate his memorandum.
Mark Lear is the Ptydepe teacher in the Ptydepe classroom. He goes on and on about the background of the language in an attempt to teach it to his clerkstudents. While he offers to translate Gross’s memorandum for him as a classroom exercise if Gross shows himself to be a sincere student. Lear believes that Gross fails to, and refuses to translate the document.
Maria is the secretary in the translation center. She is often sent on errands to get food items by Helena. While Maria wants to hold on to her job, she is more sympathetic and human than most other characters. When Gross loses his job, she arranges for him to work at a theater company. Though Gross does not take the job, this gesture is a prime example of her generosity. Empathetic of Gross’s situation, Maria finally translates the memorandum for him, though it is against the rules and George, the staff watcher, overhears. After he regains his post as managing director, Gross declines to overturn Ballas’s firing of Maria for translating the document. Heartened by Gross’s ‘‘nice’’ words of encouragement, Maria happily leaves the organization.
Ferdinand Pillar is the silent constant companion of Ballas. They seem to be co-conspirators, with Pillar being Ballas’s loyal employee. After Ballas gets the managing directorship, Pillar leaves with various employees of the translation center in what seems like scheme to undermine Ballas. This seeming betrayal unnerves Ballas. After Gross regains the managing director position, and Ballas is about to reveal Pillar’s treachery concerning Ptydepe’s fall from grace, the silent man speaks for the first time in support of natural human speech. Pillar then leaves and does not return. Mr. Column replaces him as Ballas’s silent partner.
Alex Savant is the graduate Ptydepist, part of the translation office. Like Stroll and Helena, Savant is an indifferent part of the bureaucracy. He follows the rules and goes along with what is best for his continued employment. He likes to eat lunch, go to office parties, and talk about women. Savant refuses to translate Gross’s memorandum without the proper authorization. Savant often speaks in Ptydepe, but at one point admits that no one knows the language really well.
Otto Stroll is the head of the organization’s translation center. Like Savant and Helena, he is an indifferent bureaucrat, who follows the rules and goes along with what is best for his survival in the office. Stroll does nothing to help Gross’s efforts to get the memorandum translated, save relating the regulations involved. He also will not share his cigars with Gross. Stroll is more concerned with eating lunch, going to office birthday parties, and talking about women.
Peter Thumb is the eager clerk/student in Lear’s language classroom. Thumb constantly asks questions, and at one point, gets thrown out of the class for interfering with the education of the other students. By that time, he is the last one left. Thumb is not particularly bright, but very enthusiastic.
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