Themes and Meanings

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The Memorandum is a satire on the bureaucratic system of the former socialist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Despite the boasts of the planned economies of socialist countries during the Cold War era, it was no secret that they were far behind the capitalist West in production and economic vitality. As with all dogmatic systems, so in Marxism it is forbidden to acknowledge the failures of the system. Thus, socialist states covered up their basically inefficient structures with the complicated façade of bureaucracy in an attempt at least to look busy. The socialist paper mill is noted for the absurdities it grinds out, for finding “work” for people who must work, even when no real work is to be found. Such absurdity is the main theme of The Memorandum, which centers on a bureaucratic language that no one can understand, invented in the name of “efficiency,” the invention of which in turn spawns the creation of a “translation office” which in practice is empowered to translate nothing.

The Memorandum is a comic play, yet its humor is the same as can be found in Prague native Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; Metamorphosis). The comic quality of Gross’s bureaucratic nightmare rapidly devolves into a very vicious circle indeed, when the humanistic hero, who throughout the play has struggled with a certain dignity against the dehumanizing situation, in the final moments accedes to the absurdity and sheds the last remnants of his self-respect in favor of the easy way out. The Memorandum is a play about incompetence—a chilling incompetence that destroys human beings.


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AbsurdityThe Memorandum is a play full of absurdities, most related to Gross’s problematic memorandum. The language that the memorandum is written is at the core of the absurdity. Ptydepe is an artificial language that is supposed to be more efficient for office communication. Yet the language is cumbersome, repetitive, and hard to learn. Only a few at the office actually know it. The absurdity grows as Gross tries to get the memorandum translated. A catch-22 of bureaucracy prevents anyone in the organization’s translation center from actually translating the document for him. Anyone who receives a memo in Ptydepe can only get a Ptydepe text translated after the memorandum has been translated, an absurd paradox. A similarly contradictory circle exists in getting authorization for the translation from the bureaucrats. Gross tries to get around this situation by going to Lear’s Ptydepe class to get the memorandum translated. But he is thrown out of the class for being doubtful about the language, closing another means of getting the document translated. In the end, Gross gets the memorandum translated by Maria. She only does it out of pity for him, and ends up losing her job in the process. The play’s absurdities are Havel’s comment on the economic structure of life under communism in Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Eastern Bloc, where everyone was employed but the jobs were often meaningless.

Betrayal and Deception
Several characters in The Memorandum engage in betrayal and deception, adding to the absurdity of the play. Ballas continually works to undermine his superior, Gross, betraying and deceiving him at every turn. Ballas uses the fact that Gross brought the bank endorsement rubber stamp home to do work as blackmail to get him to sign one document. Ballas also does not tell Gross that he ordered the introduction of Ptydepe straight out in the beginning, behind Gross’s back. Ballas also ordered the introduction of a translation center, moved the accounts department to the basement, and instructed all staff member, save Gross, to...

(This entire section contains 730 words.)

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take Ptydepe classes, bypassing Gross entirely. Ballas blackmails him again, getting him to sign a supplementary order for the introduction of Ptydepe. This is used in another blackmail scheme of Ballas’s. All of Ballas’s deceptions pay off in the end, to some degree. Though he gains, then loses, the managing directorship, he uses the advantage gained by his numerous betrayals to keep his job when Gross wants to get rid of him.

Other characters engage in similar betrayals and deceptions. Pillar conspires with those in the translation center against Ballas, before Ballas accuses Pillar of being against Ptydepe from the beginning. Everyone’s actions are monitored by George, the staff watcher, who does his work from an office located between the walls of everyone else’s work space. It is George’s observations that leads to Gross’s only major deception of the play. George catches Maria translating Gross’s memorandum, and reports the action to Ballas. Ballas orders her firing, and Gross does not overturn it, despite the fact that her translation led to his regaining the managing director’s job. Betrayal and deception are a fundamental part of the life depicted in The Memorandum. The bureaucracy seems to function on it.

Individual versus Machine
Gross is a man caught in the wheels of the bureaucratic machine. No matter what he does, he cannot escape its teeth. If it is not Ballas and Pillar using the details of bureaucratic paperwork to manipulate Gross into doing their will, the demands of getting approval so that the translation center will translate his memorandum ensnare him. For a time, Gross loses his job, until Pillar begins to conspire against Ballas. Ballas also becomes caught in the bureaucratic machine, and is as frustrated as Gross.

The only way that Gross can succeed in his goal to get the memorandum is to go outside of the machine. Maria, the translation center secretary, finally feels sorry for him and does the translation. The memorandum praises Gross for his human touch as a bureaucrat. This tiny rebellion against the machine leads to Maria’s firing, but Gross will not save her job. He sends her off with human-like words of support. His position relatively secure, Gross seems to accept that he is a cog in the machine at the end of The Memorandum.