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...
(The entire section is 1064 words.)