Themes and Meanings

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Temptation addresses the traditional themes of the Faust myth in the politicized context of Cold-War-era Soviet Europe. The limits of individual human knowledge and power remain prominent in Václav Havel’s play, as do secondary themes of love and sincerity, the idea of the spirit, and the price of power. By creating a contemporary context, Havel adds a specific, concrete dimension to the themes that have been treated more universally by writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the librettists of the grand opera.

Havel’s Temptation concerns the place of the individual, and of personal ambition, in a political world that is governed by rules that limit freedom of expression. The individual, however clever and insightful, eventually falls victim to frustrated desire when it comes into conflict with some powerful organization. Trapped by the research limitations of an institute devoted to self-confirming hypotheses and the affirmation of conventional wisdom, Foustka seeks escape not in an alternative science but on another plane of existence; with no outlet for his personal desires in the real world, he looks for one in a spiritual realm that probably does not exist at all in the concrete terms of his imaginings. Foustka’s revolutionary impulse is displaced into mysticism; his dissent becomes not an attempt to change the world, but to escape from it. The play’s conclusion indicates that such an escape is illusory at best and at worst is self-destructive, impossible. In the real world of political power, no individual in a society can, with impunity, escape from the society of others. Individual knowledge is limited by the inability of one person to comprehend fully the lives of others. Those others cannot control, absolutely, the thoughts of the individual; they can, however, restrict personal choices or cast a member into the margins of social life.

Secondary themes receiving original treatment include the love story; Maggie’s attraction, loyalty, and madness seem in retrospect to be quite real, caused by her susceptibility to the individual attraction and eloquence of Foustka. It is Foustka, not Maggie, who doubts the sincere power of love and refuses to accept its spiritual gift. He fails to comprehend the difference between Maggie’s inexplicably ethereal devotion and Vilma’s self-conscious erotic fictions.

The spiritual element in Havel’s play, despite the unmasking of Fistula as an agent provocateur, remains strong. If Maggie’s love is real, and the other human affections similarly authentic (the landlady’s bond with Foustka for example), then the world is not composed entirely of political and sexual opportunism. Foustka also insists on the reality of evil at the end of the play, though evil is no longer conceived of as a separate spiritual order; rather, evil is the conscious abuse of power in a world where people understand that certain natural laws of justice exist but refuse to observe them.

The price of power in Temptation is articulated in unusual terms for a Faust treatment. Typically, Faust pays for his knowledge and pleasure—his power—with his soul. In Havel’s play, the lost soul is not Foustka’s but the society’s. Those who ultimately embrace evil are the political officials, who commit any deception, provoke any response, in order to maintain their positions of power. The price of power remains that of spiritual integrity, yet it is the spiritual integrity of the community, not of the individual, that is lost.

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Characters