The Memorandum Summary
by Vaclav Havel

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The Memorandum Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Memorandum is perhaps Havel’s most widely performed play, along with Private View. Again, it would not do Havel justice to view the play exclusively as a parody of Communist bureaucracy and its lingo; rather, it is about the dehumanizing effects and the tyranny of language in any system that causes the disintegration of human identity.

The twelve scenes are set in a deliberately “generic” large organization, the purpose of which, like that of any amorphous self-serving bureaucracy, is not plain. Josef Gross, the managing director, and the development of his personality from the introduction to the abolition of the artificial language Ptydepe are both central to the play. Gross cannot decipher a memorandum directed to him because it is written in Ptydepe, a new office language introduced apparently without his knowledge by deputy director Ballas and his cronies and taught in classes in which every employee seems to have enrolled.

Ptydepe is presumably rational and precise and therefore superior to “dilettantish” natural languages, with their vagueness and ambivalence. Its goal is to eliminate imprecision by limiting all similarity between words and thereby achieve the highest possible redundancy in language. The result is monstrously long words that are formed by the least probable combination of letters. This new doctrine is difficult and complex, so it can be mastered only by discipline and most of all by faith. It is easy to see the parallels between Ptydepe and Communist ideology.

After attempting in vain to stop the spread of Ptydepe, Gross becomes enmeshed in a Kafkaesque catch-22: Even the translation director, Stroll, cannot perform the translation unless Gross’s text is “authorized” by a “Ptydepist,” a specialist who gives permission for each translation. Prior to an authorization, however, the memo needs to be translated. Gross realizes that since he cannot acquire Ptydepe himself because of his lack of faith, the only way to learn what his memo contains is to know it already.

Ballas glibly threatens Gross into submission by ridiculous charges, forces him to sign a declaration of compliance to Ptydepe, coerces him into self-indictment for his “wrongdoings,” and finally reduces him to the post of “staff watcher,” a spy who observes all employees through a crack in the wall. Gross regains his rank with the help of Maria, a sympathetic typist, who translates his memo at a moment when Ballas and his associates already begin to reverse themselves in a total rejection of Ptydepe. The memo itself utterly renounces the artificial language.

Ballas ingeniously justifies his reversal and again pressures the vindicated but naïve Gross into compliance, this time by threatening to expose Gross’s forced declaration of advocacy of Ptydepe. A search for culprits ensues. As a result, Maria is dismissed for performing an unauthorized translation. Gross conveniently rationalizes his inaction by claiming that if he maintains his position he will keep Ballas and his cronies in check. Ballas, in the meantime, introduces a new nonsensical bureaucratic language, Chorukor, a very antithesis to Ptydepe. Gross placates Maria by empty, hollow phrases invoking high ethical ideals; he blames the “difficult times” in which humankind, including himself, is fragmented, manipulated, and alienated. This “analysis” is ironic coming from an unwilling conformist who diagnoses in himself the very ills that are Havel’s primary philosophical concerns but who fails to assume his individual responsibility.

Summary

(Drama for Students)

Scene I
The Memorandum opens in the office of Josef Gross, the managing director of an office. He is reading his mail when he comes across an important memorandum written in what seems like an incomprehensible language. His secretary, Hana, informs him that it is written in Ptydepe, a new language that is supposed to be more efficient for communication. Gross learns that his deputy director, Jan Ballas, has ordered its...

(The entire section is 1,851 words.)