The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

An absurdist play, The Memorandum takes place in a group of offices in Havel’s contemporary place and time....

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

Today: The...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research how artificial languages are created and function. Discuss Ptydepe, the artificial language in The Memorandum, in these...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Trial, a book by Franz Kafka, published in 1925. It also concerns the trials and tribulations of a man, Josef K., caught up in the...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 138 words.)