Václav Havel’s plays appear in hindsight as crystallizations of the ambiguous time of relative liberalization in a monolithic totalitarian society. This may perhaps also be the reason for their success in the West: Czechoslovakia then, and the West both then and now, seem to share the mood of relativism, uncertainty, and ambiguity characteristic of any transitional period. Although it is a matter of speculation whether Western society is actually evolving toward full-scale socialism, Czechoslovakia at the time of Havel’s greatest successes (between 1963 and 1968) was without any doubt moving toward a less pervasive socialism, at least as it is defined there. The monolith was cracked; the totalitarian machinery was breaking down, though still operating by fits and starts. This created a peculiar atmosphere, exploited by Havel to great effect: What was formerly unquestionably true and clear was suddenly being questioned. The leaders themselves encouraged such questioning by admitting past mistakes that included staged trials and real executions. The followers, on the other hand, could no longer be sure that the present party line would not change shortly and were thus inhibited from acting aggressively on the party’s behalf. There were indeed further changes and new revelations of misdeeds. Thus, the political situation acted as a destabilizing force, motivating people to question not only it but also everything else. This was an intense time of debate, of discoveries—and of defeats as well.
The Garden Party
Some of the questions Havel asked in The Garden Party could be formulated thus: Is it possible to adjust to the constantly changing policy emanating from above? If so, after all the maneuvering, is the human being still the same as before he started on the tortuous path of adjustment?
The Pludek family, middle-class, solid, and old-fashioned, fears that Hugo, their son, will not be able to make a successful career for himself in the confusing contemporary world with its contradictory signals. The Pludeks, survivors of a bygone era, manage to get by relying on routine, fortified by clichés that they keep repeating, as if trying to anchor themselves in a reality that keeps dissolving around them. In Havel’s dialogue, the meaning is hilariously stripped from these clichés and proverbs by deft substitutions, so that while they still resemble proverbial sayings (for such is the form and context in which they are found), their content has been decanted from them, leaving behind an exotic sediment at once both grotesque and absurd. The result is not only absurd but also humorous and vitally meaningful on a higher level: It is immaterial whether the Pludeks’ proverbs make sense because even perfect proverbs are irrelevant in the unstable world in which they live.
Hugo surprises his parents when, during and after a garden party, he penetrates an institution, learns its peculiar bureaucratic language, and turns this newly acquired knowledge against the institution and its representatives. His success is unexpected and phenomenal, but so is the price that he has to pay: He becomes a convert to the absurd and thoroughly relativist jargon of the institution, a jargon designed to hide the meaning of one’s ideas, for one’s commitment cannot be questioned if it is not clear what exactly one stands for. Thus, Hugo becomes an expert Inaugurator and Liquidator at the same time. When liquidation is in, he liquidates, but quickly, on noticing the slightest shift of policy, he begins to inaugurate, and so on. Thus, although Hugo is successful, he is no longer the same Hugo—indeed, his parents at first do not even recognize him. The parents themselves, however, are not immune to the contagion of the...
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debased language, and, after a long harangue by Hugo, they accept him.
It is not necessary to point to the political allusions, because the play of necessity operates on a level of abstraction that universalizes the plight of Hugo and his parents. This quality shows Havel a worthy follower of the great masters of the Theater of the Absurd, Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, whom Havel helped to stage at the Balustrade.
The Memorandum is, if anything, a further and quite logical extension of Havel’s concern for the debasement of language. Here he expresses this concern through the brilliant satiric device of an artificial language, Ptydepe, which the bureaucracy decides to employ for all communications.
The introduction of the new language strikes terror, not unlike an unexpected change of political line. The question Havel asks is: What happens to an otherwise loyal bureaucrat who knows nothing about the impending introduction of Ptydepe? Can he adjust? Finally, as in the previous play: What is the price of such an adjustment? Thus, some of the concerns with which Havel dealt in The Garden Party reappear but in high relief because of the striking effect of the artificial language with its unearthly and perverse sounds, designed to be impossible to learn, and even if learned, impossible to use. Here science makes its entrance, for Ptydepe is a scientifically designed, perfectly rational language. This beautifully implies the “scientifically” designed society of socialism, in which—so the State claims—all the imperfections are caused by the survival of “prescientific” attitudes.
Alas, the converts to the scientific and unnatural Ptydepe are not immune to sudden political change, and no sooner do they “learn” Ptydepe, than another language appears, called Chorukor, based on a diametrically opposed premise: While Ptydepe is based on the principle of maximum differentiation among words, with words increasing in length as their frequency decreases (the word for wombat, for example, is more than three hundred letters long), Chorukor is based on the notion that words with related meanings should sound the same as well, with only slight variations to distinguish them from one another.
The protagonist of The Memorandum, Josef Gross, is a humanist battling the opportunist responsible for the introduction of Ptydepe. When Gross’s chance to put his humanistic ideals to the test comes, however, he fails, having already accepted Balass, the careerist, and Ptydepe. When Maria, a girl in whom Gross is genuinely interested, is fired by Balass, Gross does not act, for this would mean countermanding Balass’s instructions and making himself vulnerable. Gross’s breakdown is a tragedy that contrasts with the prodigious ability to adjust found in a man such as Balass—a type that seems to predominate in bureaucracies. It is perhaps on this level, that of the depiction of “organization man,” that the play is of most interest to audiences in the West.
The Increased Difficulty of Concentration
After the success of these early plays, Havel made a departure of sorts with The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. Gone is the focus on bureaucracy and office intrigue but not Havel’s preoccupation with language. Can language survive ethical relativism? Is it possible to have more than one personality: professional and private, with the latter subdivided further into husband and lover?
The protagonist, Dr. Huml, is a social scientist, a victim of the routine forced on him by circumstance and by his own choices. His behavior, robotlike and lacking in human feeling, is echoed by his tautological writings. It is very fitting that Dr. Huml, an intellectual, a member of the elite, becomes by the end of the play an unwitting collaborator in the dehumanizing policies to which he ostensibly objects. His writings and indeed his very life have had an alienating, dehumanizing effect, and it is only just that he in turn should become a guinea pig for others.
The Experimental Plays
Havel’s Spiklenci (the conspirators), The Beggar’s Opera, and Horský hotel (mountain resort) are of uneven quality because of their experimental nature and have thus been accorded less attention than his earlier plays. To be fair, one has to stress that two vital elements of the theater, the staging and the reaction of the audience, were no longer available to him, with the exception of The Beggar’s Opera. Havel himself is not quite sure about Spiklenci, in which he deals with multiple conspiracies, moving from office intrigue to the shadowy world of revolutionary dictators, generals, and prisoners. This is a somber and unreliable world in which loyalty changes as unpredictably as the party line (or official language) did before. Havel is making a point here about the importance of the individual in history. The events of conventional history—the demonstrations, government policies, and so on—are alluded to but always remain incidental and unimportant. The real history is conspiratorial. The implications are astounding: The role of the masses is that of extras; the revolution itself is a deal struck among a gang of power-hungry little people with few, if any, redeeming features. Most ominously, the system of conspiracy neutralizes the good man and gives an unfair advantage to the ambitious clod, the darling of absolute power.
The Beggar’s Opera, yet another version of John Gay’s masterpiece The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728), suggests that competing establishments, competing centers of power, are essentially the same beneath their surface enmity, as are their victims: the weak, the innocent, the defenseless. The play deserves to be staged, but perhaps Bertolt Brecht’s treatment in the 1920’s casts such a spell that few dare to stage Havel’s version, whatever its merit.
Horský hotel is another matter. Here the problem lies in an experiment that involves, as before, the use of repetition, nonsense, and dislocation based on interchangeability of characters and consequent lack of plot, development, and structure. The play is difficult to read, but may be salvaged, as Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz suggested, as a film script.
The Autobiographical Plays
Havel returned to the stage—in the West, if not in his own country—with three one-act plays: Audience, Private View, and Protest. The plays met with great acclaim in the New York production in 1983 and were well received in Europe, Canada, and Australia as well. The popularity of these linked autobiographical plays, which differ considerably from Havel’s early work, is particularly interesting given their genesis: They were originally conceived and performed as private entertainments for Havel’s friends in Prague.
All three plays deal with the problems of a playwright, Vank, who like Havel is not allowed to publish in his country. In Audience, a brewery foreman asks the laborer-playwright Vank to inform on himself, since the boss is tired of writing police reports about him. In Private View, several friends attempt to bribe Vank to give up and make his peace with the regime because surrender pays so well. In Protest, Vank is called by an old acquaintance who has since accommodated the authorities but who now has a favor to ask. Ultimately, Vank refuses to accept the byzantine rationalizations by which men and women excuse their failure to take a stand.
Hugo, Gross, Huml, and Vank’s tempters have lost or are about to lose something precious. Havel never spells out exactly what it is they are in the process of losing. He only tells the reader how that loss occurs. That seems sufficient in a world little aware of the existence of values that are precious enough to be preserved at any price. Havel’s oblique reminder of their existence is a minor triumph in a major struggle in which he has acquitted himself as a master of his art and a hero of his nation.
Following his 1978-1983 period of imprisonment, Havel wrote a new play, drawing on the story of Dr. Faustus. Temptation tells the story of Dr. Henry Foustka, a scientist in a research institute, who is involved in various experiments of an ethically questionable nature. He also habitually treats his staff in a dehumanizing fashion and makes a great show of the idea that they are producing and protecting the Truth, even as all of them are constantly involved in idle chatter.
The devil is represented by one Fistula, an informer, who seeks to draw Dr. Foustka into his circle by mentoring Foustka in his investigation of black magic. The main action of the play deals with how Foustka struggles to cling to his respectability after his temptation, until he finally realizes that he is ruined and will be punished. Foustka claims that his dabbling in sorcery was solely to discredit it as unscientific. Fistula turns out to be a double agent, and the devil is the pride of the system that uses science for its own ends, a criticism of Soviet-supported and controlled communism. However, the ending of the play is left ambiguous, and the audience is never told precisely what manner of punishment will befall Foustka, since his final immolation onstage is a highly symbolic scene, not to be taken literally.
In leaving Foustka’s precise fate unspecified, Havel gives the play its greatest strength because he leaves it up to the reader put the pieces together and realize that while the individual parts may be true, they add up to a lie. Even truth can become demoniac if it is instrumentalized and robbed of its own life.