Critical Overview

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Since The Memorandum made its debut in the United States in 1968, it has received near universal praise. Critics commented on the play’s depth and cleverness, noting that while Havel was depicting life in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, his themes were relevant to life in the west as well. An unnamed critic in Time writes, ‘‘no audience need live in a Communist country to feel the tickle of Havel’s barbs—it is enough to have experienced alienation in the midst of a scientific, computerized society. His main target is the mechanization of human beings.’’

Other American critics were surprised by the humanity of the play, often found in the details. Writing in the New Yorker Edith Oliver argues that ‘‘There are more than a few hints that the play, for all its high jinks [sic] in execution, is meant to be a tract about the power of the system to crush all the humanity and courage from a decent man, but I must say that its incidental scenes and small human touches are more enlightening as a picture of life in Czechoslovakia than its abstract whole.’’ Along similar lines, Clive Barnes of the New York Times believes that ‘‘Gross’s unavailing struggle against the tendrils of bureaucracy are very amusing but also—and this is where Mr. Havel is particularly successful—strangely touching. You really feel for the weak and vacillating Gross and for the little office girl who by helping him loses her own job.’’

Robert Hatch of The Nation is also among those who believe that Havel successfully balances depth with humor in The Memorandum. He writes, ‘‘Mr. Havel entertains himself, and his audience, with some speculation as to what usually lies behind the more passionate ideological disputes. Chiefly, he finds, it is a matter of whose initials will validate a chit—a dominance too loosely guarded by those who enjoy it and hungered for with exaggerated appetite by those who do not.’’

The Memorandum was produced regularly over the years, including a London, England production in 1977. However, when the play was revived in London at the Orange Tree Theater in 1995, some critics believed the plays was showing its age. Absurdism was no longer in vogue, though the play’s universality was still seen by as relevant by some. Many critics qualified their praise.

For example, while Jeremy Kingston of The Times wrote that ‘‘Havel writes amusing scenes in which this ghastly tongue [Ptydepe] is being taught . . . but the play’s real meat is the endless circling by Gross around the building, becoming ever deeper entangled in the deceit and betrayal.’’ Later in his review, Kingston argued that ‘‘Shortly before the half-way mark the play is becalmed in repetition, and some of the Absurdist baggage has not worn well.’’

Similarly, Michael Billington of The Guardian believes that ‘‘What is impressive is how many targets Havel manages to hit in the course of the play.’’ But Billington also writes that ‘‘Havel’s concern with symmetry makes it hard for him to end the work when he should. But his writing also has a blithe playfulness.’’

Other London critics were more enthusiastic. Sarah Hemming of Financial Times echoes reviews of the 1968 New York production when she wrote ‘‘It is a funny and very clever play, and its revival . . . reveals it to be just as pointed as at its premiere. The portrayal of an unwieldy bureaucracy, whose only purpose seems to be self-perpetuation, will strike many people as familiar.’’ She only chides Havel’s play by saying it ‘‘can be verbose and overintellectual.’’ Lucy Hughes-Hallet of Plays & Players makes a point similar to Hemming’s. She writes, ‘‘The plot is circular, or rather caucus race-shaped, in that everyone ends up exactly where they started in the hierarchy of the firm, but the Ptydepe affair shakes things up enough to reveal both the funny and the sinister side of excessive bureaucracy.’’

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism