Critical Context

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Temptation has two primary critical contexts—as a play on the Faust theme and as a play by (and possibly about) Havel. As a Faust play, the work coheres with the myth’s emphasis upon the folly of personal intellectual ambition, while remaining sympathetic to the character’s desire for truth. Temptation also repeats the myth’s traditionally dim view of sexual pleasure; it is sex that drives Maggie mad, that inspires Vilma’s violent imagination, and that motivates the abuses of men in power. Fortunately, Havel does not partake of the worn “eternal woman” theme but rather comments ironically upon it with the mad Gretchen figure, Maggie-turned-Ophelia.

Havel tells the Faust story more directly than does, for example, Thomas Mann in Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (1947; Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, 1948), yet he shares with Mann an attempt to use the myth to examine the troubled political situation of his country. The sexual politics of Temptation bear a clear resemblance to the common “government as brothel” metaphor in contemporary European writing; references to writers such as Jean Genet exist alongside allusions to a specifically Central European body of works: the fireman’s reference to the film Hoí, má panenko (1967; The Firemen’s Ball, 1968), by Milo Forman, Jaroslav Papouek, and Ivan Passer, and Poár v suterénu (pr., pb. 1974; fire in the basement), by Pavel Kohout, or the tango’s relation to Sawomir Mroek’s Tango (pb. 1964; English translation, 1966). In accord with Temptation’s Faustian context, this government is not merely corrupt but essentially evil. In that regard, Havel’s indictment is more firmly based in traditional humanism and is more severe than the satirical writing that was a normal political style in Soviet Europe.

As a play by Havel, Temptation has importance as an extension of previous themes and as a personal statement. Havel’s first independently written play, Zahradní slavnost (pr., pb. 1963; The Garden Party, 1969), features an act 2 setting much like the garden scene that transforms into Temptation’s Walpurgis Night. The play also echoes the absurd intellectual optimism of the computer scientists in Ztíená monost soustední (pb. 1968; The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1969); Foustka even bears some resemblance to the hopelessly entangled hero of that satire. However, Temptation also repeats the frustratingly circular power politics of Spiklenci (pr. 1974; the conspirators) and the evasive rhetoric of Havel’s third Vank play, Protest (pr. 1978; English translation, 1980).

As with Largo desolato (pb. 1985; English translation, 1987), the story tends to inhibit the formal logic to some extent. This is not the first time Havel has used a known story for his plot; his Zebrácká opera (pr. 1975; The Beggar’s Opera, 1976) used John Gay’s fable as the basis for a nonmusical play that focuses, like Temptation, on the unscrupulous behavior of those in power. The most important difference in Temptation is its changed tone. The play is neither particularly humorous nor particularly bitter (as are the post-invasion plays). Temptation provides a compelling metaphor for the place of the exceptional individual in a limited society. Neither the hero nor his opponents are completely good or evil, yet their situation seems to be a fair evaluation of the way the philosophy of government in Soviet Europe affected the freedom and creative vision (good or bad) of unusually gifted people.

The play relates, at this individual level, most distinctly to Havel’s personal life. The tricks which the institute employs to entrap Foustka are like the tricks documented by...

(This entire section contains 835 words.)

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Havel in his notes on house arrest, “The Age of Chicanery” (1979). The problems of individual expression, noted in essay form in Havel’s “Stories and Totalitarianism,” link Foustka to the drama of Havel’s own political life in communist-era Eastern Europe. The primary theme, temptation, cuts across the play and Havel’s life in two ways. Every time Havel or Foustka is tried, he must decide whether to submit to the temptations—the rewards—of intellectual recantation and political cooperation. If Havel yielded, his ability to work in a theater would be more secure, or he might be allowed to visit the West with a guaranteed permission to return or be allowed any number of other pleasures and privileges. At the same time, he had to resist the added temptation to pursue martyrdom selfishly, to allow his personal difficulties to distract attention from the Czech political issues of freedom and responsible government. Kopriva inLargo desolato shows how such a temptation can induce paralysis. Foustka demonstrates how the hero as collaborator ultimately fails, whether collaborating with East or West, the underworld or the political machine, because any such gesture comes at the cost of individuality. As Havel remarked in his comments on Temptation, “The truth is not only that which one thinks, but also under what circumstances, to whom, why, and how one says it.” At the end of the play, Foustka simply disappears, consumed by the smoke.