An Odd Ending

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One element of Vaclav Havel’s satirical absurdist play The Memorandum has been the subject of much critical discussion: the ending. Its tone does not seem to fit the rest of the play. At the end, Josef Gross—the managing director whose effort to get a memorandum translated from Ptydepe is constantly stymied—will not help Maria, the translation center secretary, get her job back. She is fired because she translated the document for him, though it was against the rules, and was caught by the staff watcher (office spy), George. Instead Gross sends her on her way with a long speech in which he basically tells her that he cannot risk his job by saving her’s. He also tells her that she could easily get a job in the theater, one that she previously arranged for him. After a few compliments, Gross tells her that he must go to lunch. Collecting her things, Maria says ‘‘Nobody ever talked to me so nicely before.’’

Over the years, critics and scholars have had varying interpretations of this ending. Many saw it as a manifestation of Gross’s inadequacies. In 1968, the unnamed critic in Time believed the events of the play had ‘‘so depersonalized’’ Gross that he could not risk helping her. The same year, Clive Barnes of the New York Times calls Gross ‘‘weak and vacillating,’’ blaming him entirely for Maria’s job loss. Scholar Robert Skloot also put the fault on Gross. In 1993, he wrote in the Kenyan Review that ‘‘That Maria remains ‘happy’ because ‘nobody ever talked to me so nicely before’ does not excuse Gross’s avoidance of moral action nor his failure to reciprocate Maria’s genuine expression of love toward him.’’

Others saw the ending as reflecting more on Maria and her qualities. In 1994, The Times’ Jeremy Kingston believes that truth has not been served by the ending. He speculates that she might be happy because she is going to be part of the theater, like Havel was at the time, though there is no real indication that this job is even open to her. Scholar Jude R. Meche, writing in Modern Drama in 1997, believes that Maria emerges as the stronger character. ‘‘Maria’s willingness to risk termination in translating the memorandum does nothing to condemn Gross; her willingness only testifies to her courage and sympathy for a fellow human being in need. Gross condemns himself . . . [and] excus[es] himself from this debt with a wave of self-important rhetoric.’’

While all of these arguments have at least some validity, I believe the ending of The Memorandum is the most revealing moment of the play. It is the culmination of attitudes, subtly expressed through details and innuendoes that are often secondary to the main action. This essay looks in depth at the motivations, attitudes, and building of the characters of Gross and Maria, then at how the ending validates these characterizations.

As the New York Times’ Barnes suggests, Gross shows himself to be a weak man, from the very beginning of The Memorandum . Admittedly, he is in a tough situation. Gross is the managing director of the unnamed organization, and his power does not seem that great. He is constantly undermined by his deputy director, Jan Ballas. It is Ballas who orders the introduction of the artificial language Ptydepe, demands that all the staff take classes in it, and moves the accounts department to the basement so a Ptydepe translation center can be set up in its place. Gross does not find this out from Ballas, but from Hana, his secretary. Gross even has to ask her, prompted...

(This entire section contains 2043 words.)

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by the receipt of a memorandum written in an unknown language. Everyone else in the organization has been informed about the introduction of Ptydepe. Gross always seems one step behind and rather dense.

Thus, even when Gross is managing director (the situation changes throughout the play, and he allows himself to be demoted to deputy director, loses his job, and then is rehired by Ballas as the office spy known as the staff watcher, promoted to deputy director again before reclaiming his original position), Ballas is firmly in control because he knows how to play on Gross’s weaknesses. Ballas uses information he has on Gross to keep him in line and prod him into signing incriminating documents. Gross never tries to turn the tables on Ballas, but bows to his demands and cowers at every opportunity. Most revealing is a statement made by Gross in scene 1. He tells Ballas, and his ever-present silent companion and coconspirator Mr. Pillar, that ‘‘I don’t mind taking risks, but I’m not a gambler.’’

Gross’s only possible weapon against Ballas is the memorandum in Ptydepe. But the tangled, contradictory bureaucracy works against him as he tries to get it translated. Those who are in charge at the translation center—Dr. Alex Savant, a supposed expert in Ptydepe; Otto Stroll, the department head; and Helena, its chairman—follow the arcane rules that make it nearly impossible for Gross to get his memorandum put into vernacular. They also treat Gross with disrespect. Though he is the managing director, then deputy director, they walk in and out of the room and worry about food-related issues during scenes three and six, not finishing their explanations about why they cannot help him. These three from the translation center definitely respect Ballas, however. When Gross becomes completely frustrated with them and verbally berates them in scene six, they will not sit down when he orders them to because Ballas and Pillar are in the room behind him. Only when Ballas tells them to sit down, do they do so.

The only person in the whole organization who seems to have any real respect for Gross is Maria. She gets little herself. Maria, the translation center secretary, is treated like a slave and an object by her three immediate superiors. As Lucy Hughs-Hallet of Plays [and] Players points out, Maria is ‘‘the only character in this whole play about work who is ever actually seen to do any work (and even then her job consists mainly of doing her superiors’ shopping).’’ From her first introduction in scene three, she is constantly doing their bidding—running to the store for onions, cantaloupes, milk, limes, chocolate and coffee; ironing Helena’s slip; and so on—as well as typing reports and doing other typical secretarial work. Stoll and Savant also objectify her. When she leaves on an errand, Savant says to Stroll ‘‘Sexy little thing, isn’t she?’’ Maria does not seem bitter or angry by this treatment. She does her job more than adequately.

Into this world comes Gross. Maria is never seen outside of the translation center; Gross always comes to her. From the beginning, Gross tries to take advantage of her. There is a box of cigars in her work area that belongs to Stroll. She will not give him one because they are counted and she would get in trouble. This angers him slightly. At the end of the same scene, Gross tries to get Maria to translate the memorandum for him. Again, she says she must follow the rules and cannot. Gross tries to flatter her into doing what he wants. He says her name is ‘‘pretty’’ then presses her to translate it again. She declines again. Maria is a nice, polite person, but her continued employment is obviously of value to her.

By scene six, Gross’s supposed affections for Maria have been noticed. Savant and Stroll tease him for calling her ‘‘sweetheart,’’ as the staff watcher George has told them. Gross continues to be humiliated by these supposed inferiors, as Maria is kept running around by them. But Maria witnesses the moment at the end of the scene when Ballas fires Gross. Her fundamental goodness kicks in and she finds a job for Gross outside the organization in her brother’s theater group. But Gross is rehired by Ballas as staff watcher in the face of a mutiny against him by Pillar. In scene nine, Gross continues to compliment her, calling her ‘‘kind’’ and complimenting her new hat. By the end of the scene, Gross has been promoted back to deputy director, and invites her to visit him in his office some time.

It is at this moment that Maria finally reveals her hand. Gross is about to leave, and Maria holds on to him for a few last moments. Maria says that ‘‘I believe that if one doesn’t give way, truth must always come out in the end.’’ He admits his faults ‘‘always hesitant, always full of doubts’’ among others, and promises to do better as a person. He will do ‘‘real deeds’’ and speak ‘‘fewer clever words.’’ Gross’s supposed honesty compels Maria to offer to break the rules for him: she will translate it. The memorandum supports the position he has had all along about Ptydepe, supporting him by saying that ‘‘you have been conscientious and responsible in the directing of your organization’’ and giving him their ‘‘full confidence.’’ Before Maria admits her feelings for him, Gross says to her ‘‘I promise you that this time I shall not give way to anything or anybody, even at the risk of my position.’’ After Gross leaves, however, George tells her that he heard her break the rules.

By the end of the play, nothing has really changed for Gross. All his ‘‘moral’’ words and empty rhetoric return him to the status quo at the beginning of the play. He is still merely the managing director at the mercy of Ballas. In scene ten, the moment when Gross should triumph, he cannot even get Ballas fired. Ballas turns the tables on him yet again. Another artificial language, Chorukor, is also being introduced. In scene 12, the last scene of the play, Maria asks Gross to intercede on her behalf because Ballas has fired her for translating the memo. Maria has asked nothing from anyone over the course of The Memorandum. She has done her job and even helped Gross. Her actions led to Gross regaining the managing directorship.

Gross refuses to reverse the decision, citing his conflict with Ballas among the reasons why he cannot save her job. This is in direct contrast to what he has declared moments before. From the beginning, Gross has proved weak and ineffectual, and it results in Maria losing her livelihood. Gross tries to sweeten the moment by reminding her that she is still young and that she could work for her brother in his theater group. He tells her that she should still ‘‘trust in people’’ and ‘‘keep smiling!’’ The final insult is when Gross excuses himself from the room by saying he has to eat lunch. Throughout the play, everyone has been treating him with disrespect by putting food, drink, and smokes, before him, and he does the same thing to Maria. She is the only person he has any real power over.

Maria’s line (‘‘Nobody ever talked to me so nicely before.’’) and her happy exit are both ironic and honest. She really has not been treated so well before. Gross actually paid attention to her, took a few moments to talk to her when no one else did, even if it was with a secondary agenda on his part. Gross’s lack of intervention also means that Maria is free of this bureaucratic hell. The Times’ Kingston and Gross seem to believe that she can now work with her brother’s theater group—though if she had wanted to do that, it seems she would already be working there. Gross’s weakness is his greatest strength for Maria at the end. He let his savior martyr herself for him, and Maria has been liberated. She has options in life no one in that organization seems to have. But, knowing the fickle nature of those employed in The Memorandum, Maria could still return to her job. It does not seem clear how any of them could live without her because no one else does any work. At least Maria is free for the moment, a moment longer than the rest of them.

Source: Annette Petruso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.

The Memorandum: A Play

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‘‘SIX ONE-ACT PLAYS BY SIX WORLD LEADERS’’ was what a recent New Yorker cartoon envisaged as a canopy advertisement above the door to an off-Broadway theater. The wit is in the arithmetic. The number six suspends the joke precisely between the actual state of affairs and the realm of the improbable. Had the sign said, ‘‘TWO ONE-ACT PLAYS BY TWO WORLD LEADERS,’’ we would not laugh, because the estimate would be too realistic. Had it said ‘‘TEN ONE-ACT PLAYS BY TEN WORLD LEADERS,’’ we would not laugh, because the estimate would be too fantastic. But six, why not?

Not long ago, there was just one world leader whose resume included a few plays actually written by him and performed on stage (though their production anywhere near Broadway seems a rather remote possibility). Now there are two: the pope has been joined by the president of Czechoslovakia. Who’s next? Hasn’t a recent article published in a Solidarity newspaper proposed Leszek Kolakowski for the presidency of Poland? Kolakowski, let’s not forget, is the author not just of works of philosophy, but also of a comedy he wrote in his spare time. The trend seems to be on the rise. You don’t have to be royalty to collect royalties; being the president of a small nation will suffice.

Our amusement at the sight of a playwright becoming his country’s president speaks volumes about the declining standards in the West’s political life. What’s so strange about the election of an outstanding writer from Bohemia? Is it any more consistent with the natural order of things if a much less outstanding golf player from Indiana gets elected to do the same? Weren’t Lincoln and Churchill gifted writers? Wouldn’t we all be slightly better off if our leaders knew how to select a proper word, put together a precise sentence, plant a stirring idea in a well-constructed paragraph?

Admittedly, even though there might be some truth in the tired Shelley line (you know, the one about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world), things get a little complicated when a poet, or a playwright, becomes acknowledged as a legislator, a minister, or a president. First of all, the sort of parliament or government he serves is not entirely inconsequential. The sad case of the talented poet Ernesto Cardenal, who lent support to Daniel Ortega’s regime by accepting the position of its minister of culture, is just one example of the incompatibility between literature’s natural thirst for freedom and despotism’s natural desire to suppress freedom. That is a conflict in which something has to give, and all too often it has been the writer’s conscience that has given.

Moreover, history provides us with a hairraising number of examples of humanity’s worst enemies, from Nero to Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, and Mao, who considered themselves, at least before their ascent to power but sometimes also a long time after it, artists or writers. A failed artist or a graphomaniac seems to be particularly good material for the making of a ruthless oppressor; he need only apply his crude aesthetic principle of mechanical symmetry to the unruly and formless human mass.

And even if the political system is a democratic one, and the ‘‘acknowledged legislator’’ or leader happens to be an artist or a writer wise enough to be profoundly aware of human diversity, his success in the world of politics is far from assured. As a writer, his chief strength—the force that made him a legislator, ‘‘however unacknowledged,’’ in the first place—was his steadfast rejection of compromise. As a politician, however, he soon finds out that politics in a democratic society is nothing but the art of compromise.

If it so happened one day that destiny wanted the first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia to be a writer, what kind of writer should he ideally be? Let us imagine a group of Czechoslovak citizens gathered secretly in a private apartment in the middle of 1989, taking refuge from their depressing reality by discussing this preposterous question, a question as thoroughly outlandish to them as the seashore that Shakespeare gave Bohemia in A Winter’s Tale. Any answer would certainly have included the reverse of the qualities we have just mentioned.

First, the literary president should be a writer with an extraordinarily strong moral backbone, someone whose life, like his work, has been dedicated to searching for the untraversable borderline between good and evil; someone, therefore, who would be able to bring the spirit of ethics into his country’s national and international politics. Second, the literary president should be a good writer, endowed with the sense of measure and balance that in the sphere of aesthetics is called good taste or artistic skill, and in the sphere of politics translates into a pluralistic tolerance for the natural diversity of people and their opinions. A playwright—someone who shows the world through dialogue—would be a particularly well-qualified candidate: the spectacle of con flicting human perspectives forms the lifeblood of his art.

And third, the literary president should be a writer blessed with a tremendous sense of humor, preferably of the self-mocking, ironic, absurdist sort. For it is only with such a sense of humor that a writer-turned-president would be able to think seriously of making his nation ascend from the depths of the totalitarian absurd toward a more or less rational social organization, while at the same time never taking himself and the miracle of his own ascension too seriously. In short, the ideal president of Czecholslovakia that our depressed friends would have likely dreamed up is this: a genuinely good playwright with a genuinely strong set of moral convictions balanced by a genuine sense of pluralistic tolerance and a genuine sense of humor.

In the middle of 1989, there happened to be one living and breathing candidate who matched this impossibly exacting description. His name was Vaclav Havel.

The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.’’ This is how Havel himself, quoting the dictum of his friend and mentor, the late philosopher Jan Patocka, re- flects on all the twists of fate that made him first Czechoslovakia’s most vilified dissident and then its most venerated president. The issue of the ‘‘role’’ (a fitting term in the mouth of a playwright) is crucial in Havel’s philosophical system. What he means by that is the responsibility that man, ‘‘thrown into the world,’’ accepts by relating his life to the Absolute Horizon of transcendence (which is de- fined by Havel, who is reluctant to resort to the vocabulary of theology, as the ‘‘Memory of Being’’).

This kind of outlook, in Havel’s case, owes as much to the inspiration drawn from the works of existentialists and phenomenologists as to the inspiration provided by life. Letters to Olga, Havel’s most detailed and extensive exposition of his philosophy of existence, was written, symbolically enough, in a prison cell—a place to which his ‘‘role’’ consistently led him. It was a place that he converted, ironically, into a stage on which to play, even more eloquently, the same role he had played outside the prison walls. Letters to Olga focused on the final outcome of a life, on its complete philosophy. The life that produced this outcome has now, in turn, become the focus of Disturbing the Peace, a highly engaging autobiographical sketch in the form of a book-length interview. This much-needed book explains how the events of the unbelievable fall of 1989 can be seen as an almost inevitable phase in Havel’s lifelong ‘‘role,’’ which was both ‘‘assigned to him’’ by destiny and ‘‘invented’’ by himself.

The facts of Havel’s life were more or less known in the West even before 1989, mostly thanks to the publicity generated by his trials and his prison sentences. Havel’s life was marked by absurd paradoxes early. Born in 1936 into the wealthy family of a civil engineer, he was suddenly a social pariah—the child of a class enemy—in 1948, when Czechoslovakia turned Communist. He was denied access to a higher education, worked for a while as a laboratory technician, and went through a two-year military service. Throughout that ordeal, he wrote (his first article was published in 1955), and made his presence known in public appearances, such as his speech at an official symposium of young writers in 1956, shockingly critical of the official hierarchy of literary values.

From 1959 on, his life was inextricably linked to theater. He joined Prague’s unorthodox Theater on the Balustrade, initially as a stage hand, and ended up as its literary adviser. Garden Party, his first play, premiered in 1963. In 1965 he joined the editorial staff of the monthly Tvar, a tribune of rebellious young writers.

Those were heady times of growing ferment and hope, but change was yet to come. Tvar was soon closed down by its own editors, unable to continue publishing under the watchful eye of the Party. Between 1956 and 1968, Havel used consecutive congresses of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Association as forums for his increasingly critical speeches, but his ideas were staunchly resisted by the well-entrenched camp of Communist writers. In March 1968 he helped establish the Circle of Independent Writers, thus creating a cultural alternative of major importance. Meanwhile his next plays had their Czech and Western premieres, and his name became internationally known.

Havel became even better known after the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion, when he emerged one of the most eloquent champions of human rights in Husak’s police state. His participation in actions of protest and his own analyses of the social apathy induced by Brezhnev’s Czechoslovak puppets (such as his famous ‘‘Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak,’’ which was written in 1975) brought down on him increasingly vicious personal attacks in the official media as well as unrelenting police harassment. On January 1, 1977, Havel joined Patocka and Jiri Hajek as a spokesman for the Charter 77 movement. The rest is a story of interrogations, investigations, detentions, provocations, searches, house arrests, buggings, prosecutor’s charges, trials, jail sentences, labor camps, prison hospitals, and, amid all this turmoil, more writing.

As we all know, this particular story has a happy ending, the impeccable symmetry of which— the nation’s most persecuted writer turns overnight into the nation’s president—looks downright suspicious. Were Havel’s life a novel, it might be the most naive piece of literary kitsch in the twentieth century. A clear-headed observer of the world’s ways knows that there is no such neat example of virtue miraculously rewarded in real life. Is Havel’s life a fairy tale, a dream? The honest and the brave, after all, are supposed to get beaten to death by unknown assailants, to disappear without trace, to be found in the trunk of an abandoned car with bullets in their heads. Havel’s triumph is so unequivocally well deserved that it looks utterly outlandish.

And no wonder: this particular writer, again, is a walking paradox. This is true not merely of the course of his life, but also of his inner nature. Havel’s role seems to have been delineated from the very beginning of his public and literary activity by his mind’s preoccupation with two seemingly incompatible inclinations. His works and his actions reflect, on the one hand, a strong sense of moral order and of the need for justice, and on the other, a good-natured tolerance mixed with an absurd, zany sense of humor. An episode mentioned in Disturbing the Peace nicely illustrates the constant coexistence of these two inclinations. At one point early in Husak’s rule, Havel took part in a general assembly of the governing boards of the unions of writers and artists, which feared—not without foundation, it soon turned out—that their forcible dissolution was imminent. Havel was included in a three-member committee charged with drafting a strong statement to protest, and to try to deflect, the blow:

Unfortunately, I was also expected to participate in the opening of a show of paintings by a friend of mine in the Spalena Gallery, on Spalena Street, not far away. I wasn’t going to give a serious speech—there were art historians for that—just take part in a little program of verses and songs. This was the dadaist wish of my friend, who loved the way I sang patriotic songs out of tune and gave impassioned recitations from our national literary classics at parties. And so, pretending that I had to go to the bathroom, I fled from the task of writing the historic manifesto and I ran to the gallery opening, where I sang and recited to a shocked audience, then rushed back to the film club to write the final paragraph.

Havel proceeds to note ‘‘something symbolic in this accidental juxtaposition.’’ It illustrates, he suggests, certain fusions of a more general scope: the way the Czechs’ sense—and more generally, the Central Europeans’ sense—of misery about their existence is wed to a ‘‘sense of irony and selfdeprecation.’’ ‘‘Don’t these two things somehow belong essentially together?’’ asks Havel. ‘‘Don’t they condition each other?’’ The Central European writer’s taste for the absurd, for dark humor, produces in him the saving art of maintaining constant distance’’ from the world while never completely disengaging from it. Paradoxically, it is exactly the art of distance that allows you to see your subject from up close. As Havel puts it, ‘‘The outlines of genuine meaning can only be perceive bottom of absurdity.’’

In truth, the episode says more about Havel himself than about Central European culture. The distinguishing feature of his life and his art seems to be the nearly perfect balance between the seriousness of his moral imperatives and the boundlessness of his self-irony. That irony is not just his mind’s innate inclination. It also stems from his recognition that his own vision of the truth—no matter how scrupulously precise he tries to make it, no matter how much he is himself sure of its accuracy—is still only one of many individual human truths.

It is by now quite obvious how much this balance of moral strength without fanaticism and pluralistic tolerance without relativism has affected Havel’s progress along his political path. It is perhaps less clear how this same balance is reflected in his art. There just as in Havel’s politics, the equilibrium of opposites keeps the forces in check, so that the extreme manifestations of each can cancel the other out.

An artist of Havel’s sort is truly himself when he submits to his moral impulses, when his work originates from his fundamental objection to the world’s injustice. But if that were all it took, the art might easily lapse into dogmatic and self-righteous didacticism, the work would be noble yet tedious moral instruction. Another condition, clearly, must be met. In the arts, the moralist needs to have a sense of humor.

This is not as easy as it sounds. A sense of humor is shorthand for many abilities, from the power to understand others’ positions and motivations to the willingness to take oneself with a grain of salt. Only this kind of humor can save the artist from the chronic stiffness of his moral backbone, a disease that is quite common among artists in oppressed societies. It is a disease with which you can live, but not, for instance, dance: you can hold yourself impressively erect, but be too rigid for unrestrained expression. Of course, if the backbone suffers from permanent softening (an even more common affliction), if all that remains is the relativism and the absurdist sense of humor, the effects are even more frightening: when left to himself and to his choreographies, the artist may display much flexibility, but also yield easily to the slightest pressure. That is why Havel the playwright cannot really be squeezed into either of the two familiar drawers, ‘‘Theater of the Absurd’’ or ‘‘Protest Theater.’’ He is too embedded in a stable bedrock of moral principles to fit into the first, and he is too irreverent and self-ironic to fit into the second. More precisely, his plays fall into two different categories, one stemming from the tradition of political theater, the other suggesting some superfi- cial affinities with the Theater of the Absurd. The first category is represented by more or less realistic works such as the series of three one-act ‘‘Vanek plays,’’ inaugurated in 1975 by the famed Audience. Largo Desolato, one of Havel’s relatively recent creations, also belongs here. In plays of this sort, realism takes a deep whiff of grotesque exaggeration, but there is no doubt, particularly in the Vanek trilogy, that the action takes place in Husak’s Czechoslovakia and that the characters’ behavior is motivated by circumstances of that time and that place. (Unfortunately, the English version of Largo Desolato, otherwise excellently done by Tom Stoppard, obliterates this Czechoslovakian speci- ficity by Anglicizing the names.)

The other category, which includes The Memorandum and Temptation, is represented by plays, usually of greater length and based on more developed plots, that are parabolic rather than realistic. Sometimes they border on anti-utopian fantasy. Instead of a realistic setting, the typical drama revolves around a fictitious institution such as the Orwellian office in The Memorandum, complete with watchmen hidden in the hollow walls to keep an eye on employees through special cracks, and the scientific institute at war with society’s ‘‘irrational tendencies’’ in Temptation. What goes beyond realism, actually, is not so much the setting as the plot’s starting device: the introduction of Ptydepe, the artificial language for interoffice communication, in The Memorandum and the bureaucratic forms of idolatry of rational science’’ that produce the Faustian rebellion of the protagonist in Temptation.

The difference between Havel’s two types of plays, however, is one of degree. Both deal with essentially the same issues; the parabolic differs from the realistic perhaps only in that the grotesque and the absurd are turned up a notch. But the grotesque and the absurd are intrinsically present even in the most ‘‘realistic’’ of Havel’s plays. In the strictly realistic Audience, a play that utilizes Havel’s own firsthand experience of work at the Trutnov brewery, a socialist workplace that re-educates its employees by making them submit regular reports on themselves to the secret police cannot help but seem like a profoundly aberrant institution. And it is no less so than the imaginary office in The Memorandum that forces its employees to learn a special language, one that would help them produce more precise memos if its utter precision not make it impossible to use. The only difference is that Audience could really have happened in Husak’s Czechoslovakia, while something not so blatantly idiotic as The Messenger, but something similar in spirit, could perhaps have happened there.

Another striking similarity between Havel’s ‘‘realistic’’ and ‘‘parabolic’’ plays lies in their protagonists, fact, it would only be a slight oversimplification to say that whatever sort of play Havel writes, a single protagonist by the name of Ferdinand Vanek always pops up at the center of its plot. The now legendary figure of Vanek appeared first in Audience (to my mind, still the most perfectly executed accomplishment of Havel’s wit), to reappear in his next two one-act plays, Unveiling and Protest. At the same time, the underground success of Audience gave rise to a one-of-a-kind literary phenomenon: a constellation of plays employing the same protagonist but written by different authors. (‘‘The Vanek plays’’ in that broader sense include pieces written by Pavel Kohout, Payel Landorsky, and Jiri Dienstbier, and they are all reprinted in UBC Press’s handy collection.) But Leopold Nettles of Largo Desolato is also, to a large extent, another incarnation of Vanek, and Vaneklike characters spur the dramatic action in Havel’s ‘‘parabolic’’ plays as well.

What these characters share is a position in society. All of them can be roughly defined as dissidents in a totalitarian state, or at least (as in the cases of Josef Gross in The Memorandum and Dr. Foustka in Temptation) jammed cogwheels in the otherwise smoothly functioning machine of a pow erful institution. This position entails a number of consequences. The most crucial is that the Vaneklike character represents, obviously, a political and moral minority. He is one of the last Mohicans of common sense, truthfulness, and human decency in a society that has laboriously adopted, in lieu of those simple principles, a Darwinian methodology of survival. Blind obedience to authority, thoughtless concentration on necessities of everyday life, and deep-seated distrust of any protester or reformer are the chief precepts of this methodology. Thus Vanek is by no means a valiant knight in shining armor or a modern Robin Hood whom the wretched of the earth look up to. Despite all the words of cautious support and solidarity that some of his acquaintances occasionally dare whisper into his ear, Vanek is hated and despised. Hated, because he is ‘‘disturbing the peace’’ of pacified minds; despised, because he is—cannot help being—a loser. The forces that he opposes are too powerful; he will certainly be crushed in the foreseeable future.

Hence the central paradox of Havel’s literary universe: it is not Vanek who, from the heights of his moral purity as a fighter for human rights, accuses the corrupt society of indifference; it is his society that accuses Vanek of the same—yes, of indifference. In the eyes of a citizen whose main concerns are promotion at his workplace, getting his daughter into a university, and building himself a dacha in the country, Vanek looks like a dangerous instigator and rabblerouser. What the Brewmaster in Audience says to his face would be echoed with equal sincerity by other characters in other plays, had their tongues been similarly loosened by the heavy intake of beer: ‘‘Principles! Principles! Damn right you gonna fight for your damn principles—but what about me? I only get my ass busted for having principles!’’ Vanek’s original sin, all of them seem to think, is his indifference to other people, an attitude that he demonstrates merely by living among them and irritating them with his inflated conscience. He can afford to stick his neck out; we can’t.

In specific plays, this reverberating ‘‘He can, we can’t’’ is wrapped in different words, depending on the accuser’s social status, intellectual acumen, and degree of cowardice. The Brewmaster’s argument runs along the lines of social division: you can, but I can’t, because I’m a simple worker whom nobody will care to defend and whose protest will go unheard anyway. In Unveiling, a married couple of friends who invited Vanek for the ‘‘unveiling’’ of their newly decorated apartment resort to an argument that reflects their philosophy of life: you can, but we can’t, because we need to live our lives to the full, while the pleasures of life apparently do not matter much to you. In Protest, a well-to-do screenwriter wriggles out of a moral obligation to sign a petition in defense of an imprisoned artist by invoking sophisticated arguments related to political tactics (he ends up endorsing ‘‘the more benefi- cial effect which the protest would have without my signature’’), which essentially come down to the following: you can, but I can’t, because your career has gone to the dogs anyway, while mine is still something I have to take care of.

These are all voices of human normalcy. Havel the pluralist has no choice but to register them, and even partly to agree with them. But Havel the moralist counters with a more powerful argument of his own: that in a totalitarian society it is precisely the ‘‘abnormal’’ troublemakers who have preserved the last vestiges of normalcy. Theirs is the ordinary human striving for freedom and dignity, the kind that ultimately matters more than the misleading normalcy of a full stomach. And Havel the selfironist acknowledges, and brings into dramatic relief, the intrinsic irony of the dissidents’ position: they may well be the only normal human beings around, but since they constitute a ridiculously powerless minority, their cause, noble though it is, will always be doomed to defeat.

In Havel’s plays, Vanek serves as the central point around which these three lines of argument interlock, forming a triangular trap with no way out. He has no choice but to admit that people have basic rights to food on their tables and to a TV show after dinner. He realizes that his actions make people uneasy or put them at a risk. At the same time, he has no choice; he must stick to his own basic right to follow the voice of his conscience. That is not because of moral haughtiness, but for the simple reason that he is unable to force himself to do things or utter words that he considers wrong or false. In a sense, he lives among his compatriots like a foreigner in Paris: he is aware that all the French eat escargots, and he is even able to grasp abstractly their reasons for doing so, but he is physically incapable of forcing the slimy invertebrates down his throat. Finally Vanek has no choice but to realize his own comical awkwardness. In a society like his, he will always be the odd man out, a laughable exception to the prevailing rule.

The combination of these three necessities makes Vanek a highly complex dramatic character. This is clear even in the Vanek trilogy, in which Havel’s protagonist is, in terms of sheer stage presence, the least exposed among all the characters. He might seem like little more than a taciturn straight man opposite his rambling and dramatically more developed counterparts. Yet his psychological profile would fill volumes. He is, oddly yet convincingly, heroic and anti-heroic, a centerpiece of tragedy as well as farce. He is never so blindly self-righteous as to forget that, after all, he shares with people their trivial needs, that therefore he is one of them. If his moral backbone is a little more erect than most people’s, it is also a backbone that aches.

Vanek, in sum, is not comfortable with his nagging conscience, and he is not terribly proud of it, either. He realizes how little separates him from the less heroic human mass. In Audience, Vanek, apparently blacklisted, barred from any white-collar job, and forced to take up physical labor in a provincial brewery, does not wish at all to be a martyr; and it is this reluctance that motivates the entire plot. He would gladly swallow the bait of the less exhausting clerical position that the Brewmaster dangles in front of him, even at the cost of the fellow worker whom he would replace. The only reason that he rejects the offer is that the torture of toiling in the brewery’s cold cellar is ultimately more bearable than the torture of the nonsensical informing on himself, which the Brewmaster requires as part of the deal.

In Largo Desolato, Havel’s tendency to endow his dissident hero with anti-heroic features reaches an even greater extreme. Leopold Nettles is a dissident malgre lui, one who is not only aware of his weaknesses, like Vanek, but also doubtful about whether he is up to the task at all. He did not really become a dissident; he was made one. Some of his philosophical writings were denounced by the regime as ideologically harmful, and his quiet life of an introspective bookworm was irrevocably changed. We see him at the point of total exhaustion, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ironically, his new status as a dissident has deprived him of his previous independence. Now everyone, his supporters and persecutors alike, expects something from him. His apartment is visited by an unending stream of friends who worry about his doing nothing, friends who worry about his not doing enough, friends who worry about his doing too much, friends who worry about his worrying. While expecting a secret police search and arrest any minute, he has to entertain his far-from-satis- fied lover and at the same time handle a visit from a pair of suspiciously enthusiastic working-class supporters who bear the unmistakable signs of agents provocateurs.

When the police finally turn up, their only demand is that Nettles renounce the authorship of his paper. When he refuses, the final blow falls: the police declare that his case has been adjourned ‘‘indefinitely for the time being,’’ since it has become clear that his denial of his own identity ‘‘would be superfluous.’’ Nettles cries, ‘‘Are you trying to say that I am no longer me?’’ The words aptly sum up what has happened to him. His self has been transformed into (to use the word Havel has applied elsewhere to his own life) a role. A role, in this case, definitely ‘‘assigned to him by destiny’’ rather than ‘‘invented by himself,’’ but a role that he has been unable to ‘‘play well.’’

To what extent does Nettles personify the playwright’s own doubts? Just as Havel the president is not a man of marble, Havel the dissident was not a man of iron. He has had his crises, his failures, his moments of despair. Largo Desolato was written in four days in July 1984, precisely at the low point of a bout of acute ‘‘postprison despair.’’ Yet in Disturbing the Peace Havel plays down the autobiographical import of his play: ‘‘It is not about me, or only about me as such. The play has ambitions to be a human parable, and in that sense it’s about man in general.’’

For Havel, though, writing about ‘‘man in general’’ means distilling some abstract concept of humanity out of concrete and individual experience. On the contrary, it means portraying man in his concrete surroundings, in the web of his innumerable entanglements, from the metaphysical to the trivial. (Temptation, with its Mephistopheles suffering from smelly feet, and its Faust immersed in the vulgarity of power games and sycophancy of his colleagues, is a particularly apt illustration of that range of vision.) Central among those entanglements is the individual’s relationship to society and its institutions. In Havel, who is a matchless literary expert on the ironies of totalitarianism, this relationship takes on, as a rule, the shape of the most ironic of oppressions: the constant oppression of the individual by the institutions that he helped create.

Seen from this point of view, Havel’s entire dramatic output may not seem to have progressed much beyond, say, Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros or The Bald Singer. The similarities extend even to charac teristic techniques in construing dialogue and dramatic situations. Not unlike Ionesco, Havel’s favorite device is mechanical repetition. His plays are organized masterfully, almost like musical pieces, around recurring, intercrossing, and clashing refrains, usually utterances from a small-talk phrase book; the more frequently repeated, the more meaningless they are. The Brewmaster’s ‘‘Them’s the paradoxes of life, right?’’ and similar verbal refrains find their counterparts in repetitive elements of stage action (for example, the way certain characters conspicuously hold hands in Temptation). The despotic oppression of language, custom, stereotype, institution, any automatism with which man replaces the irregularity, spontaneity, and uniqueness of his self is a theme that runs through the Theater of the Absurd. Havel did not invent it, he merely transplanted the theme and its corresponding dramatic techniques onto the ground of the specific experience of the inhabitant of a Central European police state.

What he did invent was his counterbalance to the oppressive weight of that experience. That counterbalance is the weak, confused, laughable, and oddly heroic Vanek, in all his incarnations. Havel the moralist, Havel the pluralist, and Havel the ironist joined forces to produce a deeply human and exquisitely equivocal character. Precisely because Vanek is safe from the excesses of relativistic immoralism, he is able to help us put things in perspective. Precisely because he is safe from the excesses of dogmatic didacticism and self-righteous seriousness, he remains someone who teaches us something, who has to be taken seriously.

If he is an anti-heroic and comical version of Camus’s Rebel, he is nonetheless a Rebel with a cause—and a Rebel with no streak of single-minded obsessiveness. A Rebel essentially powerless, true; but Vanek’s obstinate defense of the core of his humanity expresses something more essential than the need for power: the need for values. In Central Europe in the mid-1970s, it was enough to realize the genuine presence of this need in the human world to begin to believe that ‘‘the power of the powerless,’’ prophesied rather than described by Havel in his epoch-making essay of 1978, may one day manifest itself in real life. Last year it did. People very much like Havel’s protagonist have woken up the rest of their society and won their seemingly lost cause. The symbolic credit for today’s Czechoslovakia is owed not to Svejk, the bumbling soldier and relativistic philosopher of compromise. It is owed to Vanek.

Source: Stanislaw Baranczak, ‘‘The Memorandum: A Play,’’ (review). The New Republic, Vol, 203, No. 4, July 23, 1990, p. 27.

Living in Lies: Vaclev Havel’s Drama

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If the language games of The Garden Party relativize the human out of the equation, the use of a synthetic language—Ptydepe—enables Havel in The Memorandum (1965), winner of the Obie Award (1967– 68) for best foreign play, to focus on the process by which humans abdicate their humanity to linguistic and/or political systems.

Josef Gross, the Managing Director of an anonymous bureaucracy, receives a memorandum in Ptydepe, an artificial language designed to make human communication scientifically precise by making words as dissimilar as possible. In his attempts to get the memo translated, Gross experiences the paradoxes of bureaucracy: he can obtain the documents he needs to authorize the translation only by having the memorandum already translated. While he struggles with the irrationality of the system, he falls victim to a subordinate’s power play, is demoted, but eventually convinces Maria, a secretary, to translate his memo; the message, ironically, confirms in Ptydepe the inadequacy of the new language, urging its liquidation. The play ends with Gross back in charge and with the prospect of a new synthetic language—Chorukor—which will operate on linguistic principles of similarity.

In The Memorandum Havel explores the scientific effort to transform language into a technological tool. Here, the drive for scientific precision contends with the apparently human need for unpredictability. The language instructor’s lesson on saying ‘‘boo’’ in Ptydepe illustrates how analysis increasingly deadens spontaneity: The decision as to which Ptydepe expression to use for ‘‘boo’’ depends on the rank of the person speaking and whether the ‘‘boo’’ is anticipated, a surprise, a joke, or a test, as in ‘‘Yxap tseror najx.’’ Another hilarious example of a simple expression made as complex as possible is the word ‘‘Hurrah!,’’ which in Ptydepe becomes ‘‘frnygko jefr dabux altep dy savarub goz texeres.’’

The precision exercised on analyzing the trivial contrasts with the imprecision in expressing what may be humanly significant. The ambiguous term ‘‘whatever,’’ deemed the most used human expression, is rendered by the shortest Ptydepe word, ‘‘gh.’’ Ironically, beneath all of the scientific pretensions, body language communicates and carries much of the action.

The preoccupation with using an artificial language in The Memorandum draws attention to the technological propensity to focus on means instead of ends. Enormous efforts to communicate precisely are undercut by the banality of what is expressed. Knowing the system, however, enables one to participate in the illusion of power and control. Like the specialized jargon of most professionals, Ptydepe represents an elitist code that paradoxically limits human communication both to a small group of cognoscenti and to those issues that can be analyzed and labeled.

Gross is caught between the need to fit into the system and his own humanistic platitudes. When Maria, fired because she translated the message without authorization, asks for his help, Gross excuses himself on the grounds that he cannot compromise his position as the ‘‘last remains of Man’s humanity’’ within the system. He moves Hamlet’s dilemma into Camus’ theory of the absurd, and as so often in a scientific age, the descriptive becomes the normative:

Like Sisyphus, we roll the boulder of our life up the hill of its illusory meaning, only for it to roll down again into the valley of its own absurdity. . . . Manipulated, absurdity . . . automatized, made into a fetish, Man loses the experience of his own totality; horri- fied, he stares as a stranger at himself, unable not to be what he is not, nor to be what he is.

Gross, the would-be existentialist who is always wishing he could start his life over, cannot translate his own language into responsible action. If Pudnik is entangled in language games devoid of human integrity, Gross demonstrates that when language becomes an end in itself, even the most accurate or the most eloquent expressions become impotent.

In the tradition of Kafka, Camus, and Beckett, probably his most significant mentors, Havel explores in The Garden Party and The Memorandum the paradox of human rationality pushed to its absurd logical extreme. As in Kafka, anonymous authority figures loom behind the absurd context; as in Beckett, the habits and rituals of daily existence frequently deaden people from the horror of their predicament; as in Camus, there is occasional recognition of the absurdity. But Havel’s characters, unlike those of Camus, do not rebel; rather they adapt and use the absurdity as an excuse for their own inhumanity.

Source: Phyllis Carey, ‘‘Living in Lies: Vaclev Havel’s Drama,’’ in Cross Currents, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 200–11.


Critical Overview