The Play

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The curtain rises on three similar offices placed side by side on the stage. They differ in the arrangement of furniture and so on, but, as Václav Havel says, the atmosphere in each is exactly the same. Gross, the director of one of the offices, enters and begins to sort his mail. He throws some away, then halts in surprise when he opens one letter. He begins to read aloud from the letter, which seems to be written in some nonsense language. Balá and Kub enter the office and Balá explains to his boss that this letter is written in Ptydepe, a new experimental bureaucratic language which Balá himself has ushered into use at Gross’s office without the latter’s knowledge. Gross, understandably, is taken aback at this effrontery, yet what surprises him most is that a language which so few bureaucrats can understand should be introduced into the bureaucracy as an efficiency measure. Gross is left with a document that may be very important, yet which he cannot read. Hana, his secretary, informs him that a translation office has been installed in order to deal with such problems.

After a short scene 2, in which the audience witnesses a Ptydepe class in progress, the action shifts to the translation office. Getting the translation proves to be no easy matter. Trying to explain his problem to Maát, the head of the translation office, Gross is constantly interrupted by people coming in and going out. It seems that Maát, and most of the other officials as well, have only one thing on their mind: lunch. Besides the fact that Gross simply cannot get Maát to pay attention to him, it seems that he has stepped into another, totally incomprehensible world: A man of tradition and humanist culture, he is constantly addressed in the familiar by Helena, a total stranger, which is socially unacceptable in polite Czech speech.

Getting the text translated will be an impossible task. Maát cannot allow the text to be translated for Gross until he has official permission from another bureau. Permission, on the other hand, cannot be granted until this latter bureau knows what is in the Ptydepe text, and they cannot read Ptydepe. Gross, it seems, is the only person who can hand over the text for translation, but he cannot do so without permission from this second bureau—and so it goes: a vicious circle.

Gross finally decides to go about the matter in an unofficial way. Playing up a bit to Marie, the translation secretary, he proposes that she translate the text for him on the sly. Jirka, the office spy (concealed in the wall), is privy to this exchange, unfortunately for Gross and Marie.

Gross, understandably, wants to do away with Ptydepe. Balá, however, backed by the ominously ever-silent Kub, overrides Gross’s determination in scene 4 with a bit of three-penny blackmail. Gross now “realizes” how indispensable Balá is to him, especially as far as Ptydepe is concerned, and proposes that they run the office on an equal footing. This short scene is not yet complete when Balá subtly declares himself the new chief of the office, and Gross agrees to become his deputy.

In scene 5, the new deputy takes part in Ptydepe class and fails miserably to understand the basics of this incomprehensible tongue. Unable to learn Ptydepe, Gross resumes the sisyphean labor of trying to get his text translated. He returns to the translation office and finds the same confusion and party atmosphere as in scene 3. Again unable to get anyone’s attention, inundated by the devolution of conversation into blabbering Ptydepe,...

(This entire section contains 1064 words.)

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Gross finally screams out “Quiet!” Everyone freezes. Gross, relieved that at last someone is listening to him, does not realize that Balá has just entered from behind with Kub. This is the reason for the sudden stillness. Gross continues his tirade against the vicious circle of Ptydepe, inveighing against the new language in no uncertain terms—still unaware of Balá’s presence. At the end of the scene, Gross dutifully confesses his “crime” of little faith and bureaucratic sabotage and is fired by Balá. Jirka, the office spy, is named Balá’s new deputy.

The increased duties of office head, however, are beginning to weigh upon Balá. Having to deal with Ptydepe himself now, he is beginning to see the difficulties that Gross originally faced. In the seventh scene, when Gross arrives to finalize the details of his expulsion, Balá reconsiders and offers Gross the now-vacant post of office spy.

Now the fortunes of Gross begin to rise as those of Ptydepe continue to fall. The number of Ptydepe students has dwindled to one, as the audience learns in scene 8. In scene 9, there occurs a curious, intimate exchange between Gross and Marie. The secretary of the translation department, ever sympathetic to the director fallen from grace, tells him that she has found a position for him at the theater where she has a brother. Gross is moved, yet declines with thanks, as Balá has made him his deputy once again. He does not particularly relish this, as the matter of blackmail, which Balá holds over his head, still clouds his future. Marie, with naïve faith, is sure that all will come out right in the end. Gross gently scolds her naïveté, as his own humanistic leanings and intellectual, dreamy nature have only won him trouble in this practical world. At the end of the scene, Marie translates Gross’s letter from Ptydepe. Ironically enough, it is a note from higher-ups expressing satisfaction with Gross and praising him for his fight against “anti-humanistic” Ptydepe.

Gross demands his position back. Balá hands it over with melancholy, yet characteristic sangfroid, and Gross is once again director. However, nothing has really changed in this bureaucratic morass. In scene 11, by another bureaucratic edict, Ptydepe is replaced with a new artificial language called Chorukor, which, although based on completely different linguistic principles, promises to be just as incomprehensible and inefficient as the fake tongue it replaces.

At the conclusion of the play, Marie, fired from her post for her unauthorized translation of Gross’s missive (which Jirka, renamed office spy, witnessed), asks her friend for some help. Gross, however, afer a long, moving speech, in which he cites Hamlet, refuses her petition and goes to lunch with the rest of the bureaucrats.

Dramatic Devices

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Ptydepe (pronounced “petty dip”), the language invented by the bureaucracy, is the play’s chief dramatic device. It stands between people and their ability to fulfill themselves through labor, and creates a situation in which a person, the animal who talks, is no longer the master of language but rather its slave. Havel’s bureaucratic tongue owes much to the governmental “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (pb. 1949), yet it is all the more threatening in that it is not made up of familiar, if truncated, words, but is a totally alien jumble that allows one no familiar entry point into its disturbing linguistic maze.

Havel built his satire on communist bureaucracy around the incomprehensible artificial tongue in order to emphasize as concretely as possible the inhuman, inefficient, and absurd nature of the bureaucratic system itself. Communication is the basic requirement of all human enterprise, and when the possibilities of communication are minimized or destroyed, cooperation and progress necessarily come to a standstill. All “business” in such a situation loses touch with reality and becomes nothing more than an empty ritual, a fake. When an institution or government is unable to order its own affairs, it cannot pretend to order the affairs of others. Thus The Memorandum is not only a satire that makes light of communist bureaucracy; indeed, it is a satire on the communist system itself, a system which subordinates all to ideology, including logic.

This point is further emphasized with the introduction of Chorukor, the new artificial language of bureaucracy which is to replace the “outmoded” Ptydepe. One might think that with the failure of Ptydepe, the bureaucracy would have learned its lesson and resigned from all such foolishness. The introduction of Chorukor shows that, on the contrary, the bureaucratic system of communism is already so soaked through with incompetence, absurdity, and corruption that it is unable to find a way out of a situation that it recognizes as unproductive.

This emphasis on the vicious circle of red tape about which Gross complains, and which cannot be escaped in a society such as the one described by Havel, is the main reason behind the introduction of the new language in scene 11, as it really plays no role in the denouement of the play. Also suggested by Chorukor is the ease with which a communist society dispenses with the “truths” of yesterday, replacing them with the new “truths” of today. (This process is excellently demonstrated by the workings of the “Ministry of Truth” in Nineteen Eighty-Four.) It is also possible to find a subtle pun suggesting the excessive docility and lack of independence of Gross’s society (and, in the end, of Gross himself) in the name of the new language, as the word chór in Czech means “chorus.”

Further adding to the atmosphere of threat is the unseen stage presence of the “office spy.” The audience hears other characters converse with him time and again, yet he is seen onstage only rarely. He crawls out of the woodwork like an ominous cockroach from time to time, yet his (sometimes vocal) presence can be felt in all three identically arranged offices which make up the stage scenery. He is a comic figure, if threateningly so. His clownishness (he emerges from the wall backside first) is a jarring picture which thrusts the following question at the audience: If these people are so absurd and inefficient, so comical in their incapacities, what is it that is making the audience so afraid of them, so willing to put up with the boobish eye of Big Brother in the casement? This dramatic device, which can perhaps be seen as the cornerstone of absurdity in The Memorandum, suggests that the common people in such a society are downtrodden because they agree to be used as doormats by the laughable dolts who “govern” them. As in Polish poet Stanisaw Baraczak’s verse “Ci mczyni, tak potni” (“Those men, so powerful”), The Memorandum makes the point that, if only “we” would for a moment cease to be so afraid of “them” at the top, we would see that it is really they who are most afraid.

Historical Context

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In the mid-1960s, Czechoslovakia was part of the Warsaw Treaty Organization (also known as the Warsaw Pact). That is, the country was part of the Eastern Bloc, behind the Iron Curtain. Czechoslovakia was a communist country essentially controlled by the Soviet Union. The political regime that was in power in Czechoslovakia was somewhat repressive, though the situation would grow worse in 1968. To understand the situation in 1965, the country’s history during and after World War II.

Just prior to and during World War II, the country was split apart by Nazi Germany. Slovakian nationalism became strong, as it would again in the mid-1990s, and Czechoslovakia was torn apart. For their part, independent Czech patriots were put in concentration camps. During the war, Czechs suffered greatly. After World War II ended, Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Soviet Union. Though many in Czechoslovakia called for American intervention, none was given. The country always identi- fied more with the West than the East, but this history did not change the situation.

Initially, Czechoslovakia had a noncommunist president, though it was under the control of the Soviets. Communism soon pervaded the country, and by 1948, Czechoslovakia was firmly communist. New Soviet leader Josef Stalin imposed the Soviet system on Czechoslovakia. Former capitalists, like Havel’s family, were stripped of their holdings, as were churches. All who disagreed with him were ‘purged.’

By the mid-1960s, the Soviet economic model was firmly entrenched, and Czechoslovakia was dependent on the rest of the Soviet block. However, this had created serious economic problems for Czechoslovakia, led by president Antonin Novotny. The standard of living was low, compared to what Czechs were used to, though it was comparable to other Eastern Bloc countries. The agriculture industry was in shatters. The market was based on the premise that anything produced could be sold, though this was not true. Membership in and loyalty to the communist party guaranteed a person a better job, even if he or she was not qualified for it. Everyone who wanted a job was employed.

Faced with this faltering economic situation, reform measures were proposed in 1964 and 1965 that would have created a mixed economy. More private businesses would be allowed. Incentives would be offered for success. Prices, credit, and interest would interplay. More foreign trade would be allowed. Though initially approved, none of these reforms were actually implemented. Still, industry grew a little in 1965, but overall the economy would suffer for many years.

Despite this kind of communist control, before the 1968 crackdown, Czechoslovakia had something of an unrepressed intellectual and cultural life in the early and mid-1960s. There was more contact between Czechoslovakia and Western Europe. Films were being produced and seen outside of the country. Novels and plays described life under communism. There was some censorship, but writers, like Havel, still protested against those in power and promoted reform.

In 1968, however, Novotny was ousted by pressure brought by students and writers. He was soon replaced by a hard-line Soviet supporter, Gustav Husak, who took a strong stand against such agitators. Writers such as novelist Milan Kundera were driven out of the country. Czechoslovakia was more repressed than ever, and while writers such as Havel continued to protest for many years, it was not 1989 that Czechoslovakia emerged as a free country.

Literary Style

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Setting An absurdist play, The Memorandum takes place in a group of offices in Havel’s contemporary place and time. That is, Czechoslovakia in the mid- 1960s, when the country was under the rule of Soviet-aligned communists. Under this system, everyone was employed in jobs that were sometimes meaningless and redundant. Each of the three of- fices is essentially the same, with the furniture arranged differently. Unseen at the conjunction of the offices is the space of the staff watcher, George. His job is to spy on everyone else and make sure they are following the rules. This setting emphasizes oppressive atmosphere and the uniformity of attitudes among those who work in the offices.

Language At the center of The Memorandum is an artifi- cial language, Ptydepe. This language is supposed to be more efficient and accurate than common vernacular in office communications. Lear tells his students that Ptydepe is scientific, rational, and precise, yet difficult, complex, and redundant. Words in Ptydepe are so long, they must be broken up into subwords. Common words, however, are the shortest of all. Only a few in the office even understand a little Ptydepe, and most drop out of the language classes because it was too hard to learn. Even Stroll, the head of the translation center, says that while they are in charge of translating documents, they are ‘‘no experts.’’ Thus, translations, like the one that Gross so desperately seeks, are hard to come by.

Thus in the play, language is used as means of control. Since there are a limited number of speakers/ translators and authorization for translations are hard to come by, power is held by those who know Ptydepe. This is Gross’s central problem. Ptydepe is used all around, but he has no idea what is being said. Though he is managing director for most of the play, he does not have much real authority. Also, when Maria breaks the rules and translates Gross’s memorandum for him, she ends up losing her job, for the breach of the rules concerning language is unacceptable. Though Ptydepe’s flaws are seen by the end of the play, another artificial language will take its place: Chorukor.

Repetition There is a certain amount of repetition in the action and dialogue of The Memorandum, which underscores the endless circle of redundancy of this office life. Conversations are repeated, nearly word for word, over and over again. For example, the managing director’s secretary, Hana, constantly asks to leave to get a specific item at the store. She needs to fetch milk first, then the rolls, and so on each of the two days of the play. Hana also tells her superior that he will like the lunch they are serving that day. Similarly, every correct answer Thumb gets in Lear’s Ptydepe class provokes this response from the teacher: ‘‘Correct, Mr. Thumb. You get an A.’’ There is a birthday party for a co-worker each day in the office adjacent to the translation center. As Ballas works against Gross in scenes 1-6, Pillar works against Ballas in scenes 7-11. When Gross explodes his frustrations at the bureaucratic catch 22 that is the translation center in scene 6, Ballas expresses nearly the same sentiments in scene 9. Though Ptydepe is the first artificial language that fails, it is not the last. Chuorukor will take its place. All these parallels show how unchanging the organization is at its core; only the topic of controversy varies.

Compare and Contrast

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1965: Czechoslovakia is a whole country, as it has been for most of the time since its creation in 1918.

Today: The country has been split in two for many years. The rise of Slovak nationalism after the Velvet Revolution led to the creation of two new countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

1965: Czechoslovakia is a communist country, controlled by the Soviet Union as part of the Warsaw Pact.

Today: The Czech Republic and Slovakia are free, independent nations. Havel is the president of the Czech Republic, as he has been since 1993. Previously, he was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992. Havel was the first noncommunist president since the 1940s.

1965: Under the Soviet economic model, everyone has a job, but the standard of living is low in Czechoslovakia.

Today: Unemployment is higher, but the standard of living is also higher, in the new free market economy of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

1965: Those in power, primarily the Communists, have restrictions on what can be written. Censorship, while not as harsh as at other times in Czechoslovakian history, still exists.

Today: There is no overt censorship on creative endeavors in the Czech Republic.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnes, Clive, ‘‘Season’s Last Show is a Czechoslovak Satire,’’ in New York Times, May 6, 1968, p. 55.

Billington, Michael, review of The Memorandum, in The Guardian, March 30, 1995.

Hatch, Robert, review of The Memorandum, in The Nation, May 27, 1968, p. 709.

Havel, Vaclav, and Vera Blackwell, trans. The Memorandum, Farber & Farber, 1992, pp. 53-129.

Hemming, Sarah, Review of The Memorandum, in Financial Times, March 30, 1995, p. 17.

Hughes-Hallet, Lucy, Review of The Memorandum, in Plays & Players, April, 1995, pp. 32-33.

Kingston, Jeremy, Review of The Memorandum, in The Times, March 29, 1995, p. 28.

Meche, Jude R., ‘‘Female Victims and the Male Protagonist in Vaclav Havel’s Drama,’’ Modern Drama, Winter, 1997, p. 468.

Oliver, Edith, ‘‘Hayf Dy Doretob!,’’ in New Yorker, May 18, 1968, pp. 73-74.

Review of The Memorandum, in Time, May 10, 1968, p. 74.

Skloot, Robert, ‘‘Vaclav Havel: The Once and Future Playwright,’’ in Kenyon Review, Spring, 1993, p. 223.

Further Reading Carey, Phyllis, ‘‘Living in Lies: Vaclav Havel’s Drama,’’ in Cross Currents, Summer, 1990, pp. 200-11. This essay gives an overview of Havel’s work as a playwright, including a brief discussion of The Memorandum.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa, and Phyllis Carey, eds., Critical Essays on Vaclav Havel, G. K. Hall & Company, 1999. This collection of essays covers all of Havel’s writings as well as his political life. Several discussions of The Memorandum are included.

Hvizdala, Karel, and Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, translated by Paul Wilson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. This book is composed of conversations between the authors in 1986, and includes Havel’s own descriptions of his life and work.

Korbel, Josef, Twentieth Century Czechoslovakia: The Meanings of Its History, Columbia University Press, 1977. This book gives background on the history of Czechoslovakia from its inception to 1968, with one chapter focusing on the era The Memorandum is set in.

Kriseova, Eda, Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography, translated by Caleb Crain, St. Martin’s Press, 1993. This biography covers the whole of Havel’s life, including both his political and literary accomplishments.


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Sources for Further Study

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta. “Václav Havel: A Writer for Today’s Season.” World Literature Today 55 (Summer, 1981): 389-393.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Markéta, and Phyllis Carey, eds. Critical Essays on Václav Havel. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.

Kriseova, Eda. Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography. Collingdale, Pa.: Diane, 1993.

Schonberg, Michal. “A Biographical Note on Václav Havel.” Modern Drama 23 (March, 1980): 1-5.

Schumschida, Walter. “Václav Havel: Between the Theatre of the Absurd and Engaged Theatre.” In Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe: Evolution and Experiment in the Postwar Period, edited by Henrik Birnbaum and Thomas Eckman. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1980.

Trensky, Paul I. Czech Drama Since World War II. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1978.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide