Václav Havel

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Václav Havel 1936-

Playwright, essayist, and poet Václav Havel is a major figure in Czech culture, and he is considered his country's foremost dramatist. His plays are powerful condemnations of the bureaucratization and mechanization of modern society and their effects on the individual. His keen satires depict the prevalence of cliché and official doublespeak in a totalitarian society and the chaos brought about by the disintegration of meaning. Many of Havel's works are considered absurdist black comedies because they employ grotesque and ludicrous elements that give expression to humanity's fundamental uneasiness in an inane universe. This focus on the absurd nature of existence in the modern world gives his works a universality that goes beyond his exploration of the uniquely Czech experience.


Havel was born into a wealthy family in Prague. Once his primary education was completed, he was denied access to higher education because of the Communist government's policy of discrimination against the bourgeoisie. Havel worked in a chemical factory and attended night classes in order to finish secondary school. Havel credits this period of his life with giving him the opportunity to "see the world 'from below,' that is, as it really is." It is from this vantage point, Havel believes, that one clearly views the absurd and comic dimensions of the world. In 1959 Havel accepted his first theater job, becoming a stage-hand at Prague's Divadlo ABC (ABC Theater); the following year he moved to the highly respected avant-garde Divadlo na zábradlí (Theater of the Balustrade), eventually becoming its literary adviser. Having begun writing articles and essays in the mid-1950s, Havel wrote his first play, Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party) in 1963, and it was produced by the Balustrade. Vyrozumění (The Memorandum) premiered in 1965, and Ztížená možnost soustředení (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration) debuted in 1968. These plays were highly acclaimed internationally. The Memorandum premiered in America in 1968, and Havel won the prestigious Obie Award. The same year he was honored with the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Throughout the early 1960s Czechoslovakia had been experiencing a gradual relaxation of government controls on culture, but this abruptly ended in 1968 when troops from the Soviet Union invaded the country in order to enforce closer compliance with Soviet policies. Although Havel's works were subsequently banned and Havel himself prohibited from working in the theater, he refused to abandon his country, and he continued to write plays and political works. His resistance to the Communist regime—which included co-founding the human rights organization Charter 77—resulted in his arrest several times in the 1970s. His plays written during this period circulated privately and premiered abroad. In 1979 Havel was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his involvement in an organization that sought to defend individuals unjustly prosecuted by the state. In 1982 the 36th International Theatre Festival at Avignon, France, included a six-hour "Night for Václav Havel," and featured Samuel Beckett's "Catastrophe" and Arthur Miller's "I think about you a great deal," plays dedicated to Havel and written in protest of his imprisonment. Havel continued to write and to have his plays produced outside of Czechoslovakia, and he was awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1986. With the collapse of the Communist state in 1989, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. When that country divided into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993, Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he still holds.


The main theme in Havel's work is the relationship between the individual and the government. Associated with the absurdist...

(This entire section contains 1131 words.)

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playwrights Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett, Havel explores the power of language and its ability to alienate and overwhelm the individual. These are the central issues inThe Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. Three one-act plays, written after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, are semi-autobiographical. Known as the "Vaněk Plays," they all feature a dissident playwright named Ferdinand Vaněk. In "Audience," Vaněk, unable to work as a playwright, is forced to take a job at a brewery. His supervisor there offers him an easier job in exchange for composing the weekly reports to the authorities that the supervisor must file on Vaněk himself. In "Vernisáž" ("Private View") Vaněk visits former friends, an affluent couple who flaunt the material possessions they have gained by renouncing their previous opposition to the government. They attempt to convince Vaněk to recant his dissent as well. "Protest" features Staněk, a successful script-writer whose daughter's boyfriend has been arrested. Staněk encourages Vaněk to write a petition to protest the arrest, but he himself refuses to sign it. Throughout these three plays Vaněk is a nearly silent figure who functions as an external conscience for his interlocutors, prodding them to inadvertently admit their cowardice and hypocrisy. Havel's 1984 work, Largo Desolato, is a semi-autobiographical play about a philosopher driven to abuse alcohol and pills by the pressure both from officials who want him to recant his writings and from friends who themselves are unable to support his efforts but still urge him to continue. Pokousení (Temptation), a 1985 variation on the Faust legend about a scientist who sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power, is an allegory in which the state is depicted as the true devil because it corrupts science in the service of political ends. Both Largo Desolato and Temptation develop the theme of humanity's tendency toward totalitarianism, the central issue as well in "Omyl" ("Mistake"), a play written in 1983 in response to Beckett's "Catastrophe."


Many of havel's works have met with acclaim both at home and abroad. Michael Billington, writing of a play production of The Memorandum in London, admired the play's "brutally logical satire on the use of language to enforce conformity" and observed: "The play may have grown out of experience of Czech communism: its application is universal." Similarly, Sarah Hemming, noting that The Memorandum was thirty years old at the time of its London performance, remarked: "As a political parable, the play seems almost prophetic: everything changes, and yet things remain the same." When the three Vaněk plays were staged together in New York under the title A Private View, critics praised the manner in which they effectively convey the ills of society and challenge the audience to reflect on existence in an absurd world. Overall, Havel is recognized as a powerful playwright who, as Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz has written, not only "gives shape to some of the most important issues of our time but also a thinker who from his small place in a small country in the heart of Europe sends forth an eloquent artistic diagnosis of men living in social groups East or West."

Principal Works

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Zahradní slavnost [The Garden Party] 1963

Vyrozumění [The Memorandum] 1965

Ztížená možnost soustředení [The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] 1968

Spiklenci [The Conspirators] 1971

Zebrácká opera [adaptor; from the drama The Beggar's Opera by John Gay] 1972

*"Audience" [also known as "Interview"] 1975

*"Vernisáž" ["Private View"; also known as "Unveiling"] 1975

Horský hotel [Mountain Hotel; also known as The Mountain Resort] 1976

†Hry 1970-1976 (play collection) 1977

*"Protest" 1978

"Omyl" ["The Mistake"] 1983

Largo desolato [Largo Desolato] 1984

Pokousení [Temptation] 1985

Slum Clearance 1987


Protokoly [Protocols] (essays, drama, and poetry) 1966

Dopisy Olze [Letters to Olga: June 1979 to September 1982] (correspondence) 1983

O lidskou identitu [In Search of Human Identity] (essays) 1984

Dálkový výslech [Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíždala] (interview) 1986

Open Letters: Selected Writings (essays, speeches, correspondence) 1991

*These three plays were produced together in New York in 1983 under the title A Private View; they are also known by the collective title "The Vaněk Plays."

†This volume contains Spiklenci, Zebrácká opera, Horský hotel, "Audience," and "Vernisáž."

Author Commentary

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Light on a Landscape (1985)

SOURCE: "Light on a Landscape," translated by Milan Pomichalek and Anna Mozga, in The Vaněk Plays: Four Authors, One Character, edited by Marketa Goetz-Stan-kiewicz, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1987, pp. 237-39.

[In the following essay, which was written in 1985, Havel discusses the experience of having other authors utilize his character Vaněk and coins the term "Vaněk principle" to describe the phenomenon.]

In the 1970's it was customary (and a good custom it was) for several of my writer-friends to spend one summer weekend with me in my country cottage every year. After 1969 they all had found themselves in a situation similar to mine; that is to say, they were banned in their native country and publicly disgraced for their beliefs concerning society. At these gatherings we used to, among other things, read our new works to each other. In the course of about two days before our meeting in 1975, and mainly to have something to read on that occasion, I wrote the oneact play "Audience." The inspiration came from personal experience—my employment in a brewery the year before—and the play was intended, as may be evident, primarily for the entertainment of my friends. Indeed, it is little more than a dialogue between the so-called "dissident" writer Vaněk (who works in a brewery) and his superior, the brewmaster. Though the latter is invented, obviously many of my own experiences—and not only those from the brewery—went into his making.

It never occurred to me that the play might be saying something (more or less significant) to other people, people who do not know me or my situation and who are ignorant of my having worked in a brewery. As it turned out, I was—as I had, after all, been a number of times before in regard to my literary work—mistaken: the play was successful not only with my friends but, also, having by various ways soon penetrated the relatively broad consciousness of the Czech public, also won its esteem. At times, it has even happened that total strangers, people in restaurants or casual hitchhikers I picked up, not only knew it but also had extracted from it pieces of dialogue, which they then used—in addition to short quotations or paraphrases—in various situations (in some cases as a sort of password among people spiritually akin). This wide domestic acclaim naturally pleased me, the more so as it occurred under conditions which made it impossible for the play to be published or performed publicly in my country. But what pleased me most is that something apparently happened which, I think, does or should occur with all art, namely that the work of art somehow exceeds its author, or is, so to speak, "cleverer than he is," and that through the mediation of the writer—no matter what purpose he was consciously pursuing—some deeper truth about his time reveals itself and works its way to the surface.

Stimulated by this experience, I later wrote two more plays, "Unveiling" and "Protest." All three have since been staged by many theatres in divers countries, and, in spite of the rather special and unusual circumstances from which they originated, they have turned out to be generally intelligible. The third one, "Protest," however, was actually written after a discussion with my friend Pavel Kohout as a counterpoint to his "Permit" (likewise a Vaněk play). These two were originally written with the intention of having them staged together, something that eventually did happen. Later, when I was already in prison, Kohout wrote another Vaněk piece, "Morass," and at approximately the same time my friend Pavel Landovsky composed "Arrest." Later still, after his release from the prison in which we had served time together, Jiři Dienstbier, another of my friends, wrote a Vaněk play as well.

If I am to make some marginal comments on the whole Vaněk series, it might, above all, be appropriate to emphasize that Vaněk is not Havel. Of course, I have transferred into this character certain of my own experiences, and I have done so more distinctly than is usual among writers. Undoubtedly, I have also implanted in him a number of my personal traits or, more precisely, presented a number of perspectives from which I see myself in various situations. But all of this does not mean that Vaněk is intended as a self-portrait. A real person and a dramatic character are entirely different things. The dramatic character is more or less always a fiction, an invention, a trick, an abbreviation consisting only of a limited number of utterances, and subordinated to the concrete "world of the play" and its meaning. In comparison with any living person, even the most enigmatic and psychologically most rounded character is hopelessly inadequate and simplistic. On the other hand, however, he should also exude something a real person cannot possibly possess: the ability always to say something perspicuous and essential about "the world as it is"—all within the context of the few lines of dialogue and the few situations that make up his entire being.

This holds true for Vaněk as well, perhaps more so than for many another dramatic character. Vaněk is really not so much a concrete person as something of a "dramatic principle": he does not usually do or say much, but his mere existence, his presence on stage, and his being what he is make his environment expose itself one way or an-other. He does not admonish anyone in particular; indeed, he demands hardly anything of anyone. And in spite of this, his environment perceives him as an invocation somehow to declare and justify itself. He is, then, a kind of "key," opening certain—always different—vistas onto the world in which he lives; a kind of catalyst, a gleam, if you will, in whose light we view a landscape. And although without it we should scarcely be able to see anything at all, it is not the gleam that matters but the landscape. The Vaněk plays, therefore, are essentially not plays about Vaněk but plays about the world as it reveals itself when confronted with Vaněk. (This, I must add, is an ex post facto explanation. While writing "Audience," I was not aware of this, and I did not plan things that way before-hand. It is only now that, removed in time and faced with Vaněk's literary and theatrical existence of several years, I have come to realize it.)

From what I have just said about Vaněk, it of course follows that the Vaněk of different plays and, even more so, the Vaněk of different authors is not always quite the same character. While it is true that as a "principle" or "dramatic trick" he moves from play to play, the principle is used differently every time, and as a character he is therefore always someone slightly different. The writers impress on him their own varied experiences, they perceive him in the framework of their individual poetics, perhaps they even project into him their varying interpretations of the man who was the original model. In short, every writer is different and writes differently; consequently, he has his own Vaněk, different from the Vaněk of the others.

For me, personally, all that remains is to be pleased that, having discovered—more unconsciously than on purpose—the "Vaněk principle," I have inspired other Czech writers who, as it happens, are also my friends, and have provided something of a key for them to use in their own way and at their own responsibility. And if the present collection of Vaněk-plays [The Vaněk Plays: Four Authors, One Character, 1987] says—as a whole—something about the world in which it was given us to live our lives, then the credit should be given collectively and in equal measure, to all the authors involved.

Writing for the Stage (1986)

SOURCE: "Writing for the Stage," in Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvížďala, translated by Paul Wilson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, pp. 35-72.

[The following interview was first published in 1986. Havel surveys his career and discusses the origins of several of his plays.]

How many plays have you written by now? Could you give us a bibliographical overview?

… [My] first play, still juvenilia really, was a one-acter called "An Evening with the Family" from 1959. After I went over to the Theatre on the Balustrade, I worked with Ivan Vyskočil on a play called Hitchhiking, which was performed in 1961. With Miloš Macourek, I wrote a cabaret play called Mrs. Hermannova's Best Years, which was performed, if I'm not mistaken, in 1962. I wrote several scenes for a poetic revue called The Deranged Turtledove, which was also performed sometime around that period.

My first independent full-length play was The Garden Party, which was given its premiere in the Theatre on the Balustrade in 1963. The Memorandum was mounted in 1965, but I had started writing it in 1960, and then rewritten it several times. In 1968 the Balustrade performed another play of mine, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. I also wrote a short radio play called Guardian Angel in the sixties, and in 1968 the Czechoslovak Radio broadcast it, with Josef Kemr and Rudolf Hrušínsky̌ (I never actually heard it). Also I wrote a television play called A Butterfly on the Antennae, for which Czechoslovak Television gave me a kind of prize. They even prepared to tape it, but, thanks to the Soviet invasion, this never happened. Later it was done by West German Television. The Garden Party and The Memorandum were published sometime in the 1960s by Mladá Fronta, along with two of my essays and a collection of typographical poetry, all under the title Protocols. A separate edition of The Garden Party had already been published by Orbis, which also later brought out The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. All three plays came out as well as a supplement to Divadlo magazine, and recently they were published together in book form under the title The Increased Difficulty, by the Rozmluva press in London. To make this survey complete, I should also mention a film version of The Garden Party, which fortunately was never realized (I say "fortunately" because Barrandov Studios had hired a director whose poetics were not very close to mine); another unrealized film scenario, Heart Beat (with Jan Němec); a sound collage called Bohemia the Beautiful, Bohemia Mine created in Czechoslovak Radio but never broadcast (fortunately for the producers who had commissioned it), and A Door to the Attic, a revue based on texts by Ivan Sviták, and apparently performed later (I'm not sure about this) in Viola. In the 1970s—that is, when I was already banned—the first play I wrote was The Conspirators (1971), but I don't think it was very successful. Next came The Beggar's Opera (1972), and in 1975 two one-act plays, "Audience" and "Private View," to which I added a third, "Protest," in 1978. All three feature the same character, Vaněk. In 1976 I wrote another full-length play, called Mountain Hotel. Except for "Protest," all these plays from my "banned" period were published by 68 Publishers in Toronto under the title Plays. (Unfortunately, a working version of The Conspirators was published by mistake; it was even worse than the final version.) After my release from prison, I wrote a miniplay in 1983 called "The Mistake" (it was printed by Svědectví); then, in 1984, came a full-length play, Largo Desolato, and, in 1985, Temptation. Both were published in Munich by Poezie Mimo Domov.Largo Desolato was also published earlier in Svédectví. Considering that I've been writing plays now for twenty-six years, I haven't written a great deal. I should perhaps add that all my plays were and still are performed by various theatres in various countries of the world, and they've also been published in foreign languages.

Do you remember how you got the idea for The Memorandum and where the word "ptydepe" come from?

I don't really like to admit this, but the idea for an artificial language called "ptydepe" was not mine: it came from my brother Ivan, who is a mathematician. Of course the play was my own idea, and I wrote it in my own way; I merely consulted with my brother in the passages on redundancy.

And how did you come up with the subject for The Garden Party?

In this case, the original impulse came from Ivan Vyskočil, for a change. After the shows, we'd always sit around in some wine bar, and he would talk about all the different themes, subjects, and ideas he had for plays. The fact is that he never, at least not in those days, turned any of his ideas into plays, but he did have a bottomless supply of them, and they'd always be different, because he'd be making them up as he was talking. Once he was talking about some connections or bribery or something, I don't really remember what it was, but I do know that he challenged me to tackle the subject. I did tackle it, but I don't suppose the play that eventually came out of it has any-thing in common with the original impulse.

Ten years ago, when you were approaching forty, you said, in a conversation with Jiří Lederer, that sooner orlater there comes a time in a writer's life when he exhausts the initial experience of the world that compelled him to write in the first place, and that that moment is a vitally important crossroads: he has to decide whether he will simply go on repeating himself, or try to find his second wind. You said that you yourself had been standing on this crossroads for some time, looking for this second wind. Now that you 're almost fifty, how do you feel about this?

I still think that a writer will find himself at a crossroads, probably around the age of thirty-five. At least that's how I felt it. Your first burst of writing necessarily draws on the things you've observed and felt and understood in your youth. One day, however, this initial burst drops off, runs out of steam, and you're faced with the question: What now? How should I go on? And if you don't want simply to reproduce mechanically the things you've already accomplished, you have to take a basic step. But this is very hard to do, because you feel bound by what you've already managed to understand so far, and what you've done. You are bound, in a sense, by your own literary history, and you can't simply slip out of that history and start again from the ground up. Moreover, you've become a little more modest, you've learned a few things, you've lost your literary virginity, as it were, with the wonderful arrogance, self-confidence, the still-sharp ability to see that goes with it.

I still think that this is true. But does it apply to me? Frankly, I'm not sure I have found anything like my second wind. After those first plays, which belong to that happy period of my first outburst of creativity, and which reflect my initial experience of the world, I've written quite a few other plays, some of which I'm rather fond of. But I'm still not entirely certain that I've really rediscovered myself. I can't write the way I used to write when I was young: I'm different, the times are different, and I'm interested in different things. But I don't think I would go so far as to say that aesthetically, for instance, I'm now walking on a new path. I'm still searching, in fact—searching for that second wind. Who knows whether I'll ever find it, or whether it can even be found. I mean, I don't know whether all the other things I will eventually write will not remain anchored forever in a feeling of merely searching for the lost certainty of youth—

In an incredibly short time after you finished Largo Desolato, you finished your next play, Temptation. Doesn't this indicate that you 've found some new approach after all? How do you feel about your two most recent plays?

I've always taken a long time to write plays; I write slowly and with great difficulty. Usually two or three years go by between plays, and each play goes through several drafts. I would rewrite them, restructure them, worry a lot over them, and once in a while I would give in to despair. I am definitely not a spontaneous type of author. And suddenly a very strange thing happened: in July 1984 I wrote Largo Desolato in four days, and in October 1985 I wrote Temptation in ten days. Obviously something had really changed; something had happened to me. But I'm not reading too much into this, and I certainly don't intend to draw any long-range conclusions from a mere change in my working rhythm or method. It doesn't necessarily mean anything in itself, let alone promise anything for the future.

For now, I tend to think there were external factors at work. For instance, when I came back from prison, I had a bad case of nerves. I was constantly depressed and out of sorts; nothing gave me any pleasure. Everything became a duty. At the same time, I carried out these duties, both the real and the apparent ones, with a kind of surly stubborness. An Austrian critic wrote of one of my plays that it seemed to have been written out of the very depths of despair, and that it was my attempt to save myself. I laughed at his notion of how plays got written, but now I feel as though I should apologize to him: perhaps my writing these plays so soon after coming home from prison really was an act of self-preservation, an escape from despair, or a safety valve through which I sought relief from myself.

Another thing, more external but perhaps more important because of that. Among the various manifestations of obsessive neurosis that marked my condition after my return from prison (and perhaps still marks it), there is one that probably every dissident knows: fear for his manuscript. As long as the text into which you've put your best effort, or which you consider very important, is not safely hidden away somewhere, or reproduced and distributed in a sufficient number of copies, you live in constant suspense and uncertainty. And this does not improve with time: you never get used to the notion that your manuscript is constantly in danger. On the contrary, your fear becomes a genuinely pathological obsession. And if the original fear was merely of a house search, or a body search, to be allayed by giving the manuscript to the neighbors in the early-morning hours, before house searches traditionally begin, then over time your fear becomes broader and more general: you begin to fear that they will lock you up tomorrow, that you will die or become ill, simply that something undefined will happen to you (the more uncertain the fear, the more advanced the disease) that will make it impossible for the work to see the light of day. And as the work draws to completion, the suspense grows: you begin to fear that someone will trip you just before the finish line. You begin to look forward to the time when you will have nothing incomplete lying around. Prison merely makes fears of this kind more profound.

I think this played an important role in my case. I wrote both those plays with increasing impatience, in feverish haste, in a bit of a trance. This doesn't mean they're not finished: I would never allow something to leave my hands that I didn't think was finished. It merely means that an imp has taken up residence in me who forces me to finish in a hurry. When the play is done and safely tucked away somewhere, I don't care what anyone does to me. I'm happy; I feel I've triumphed over the world once more. As long as it's lying out there on my table as a practically illegible manuscript, I tremble, not just for the play but for myself—which is to say, for that part of my identity that would be irrevocably torn away from me if the manuscript were confiscated. That's really all I can say in general terms about my last two plays.

Now, about Largo Desolato: More than once I've used, and abused, a theme or an idea that comes from the world immediately around me, and so I've earned the silent or vocal rebuke of those who, justifiably or unjustifiably, felt hurt. I always regretted this, but I would never think of dropping such a theme, or of not doing it again. The thing is, I know I have no right to do so. When the drama demands something, I must respect its will and not censor it. If I did, I would be sinning against the very essence of my profession. The role of the writer is not merely to arrange Being according to his own lights; he must also serve as a medium to Being and remain open to its often unfathomable dictates. This is the only way the work can transcend its creator and radiate its meaning further than the author himself can see or perceive. And so—without wanting to—I have sometimes wounded or hurt someone.

In Largo Desolato, all those I may once have hurt can see an instrument of divine justice taking revenge on me for them. The damage I inflict in this play is on myself, for a change. Everyone, including foreign drama critics, tries to see myself in its main character, the deranged Doctor Kopřiva, and many have felt sorry that I'm in such terrible shape. But the injunction not to censor the themes and the motifs that haunt me and inspire me is not something I can respect only when it concerns others, and then reject when I'm the one involved! I knew what I was letting myself in for, but I had no right not to let myself in for it. This play was inspired by my own experiences, certainly more directly than any other play I've written, and this is true not only of the individual motifs, but also about its most basic theme. I really did put a bit of my own instability into Kopřiva's instability, and in a certain sense it is a real caricature, containing elements of me and of my postprison despair. At the same time, it is not an autobiographical play; it is not about me, or only about me as such. The play has ambitions to be a human parable, and in that sense it's about man in general. The extent to which the play was inspired by my own experiences is not important. The only important thing is whether it tells people something about their own human possibilities. And anyway, if I was as badly off as Kopřiva, I couldn't have written a thing, certainly not with any ironic distance, so in fact the very existence of this play argues against its being autobiographical.

Regarding Temptation: As far as I know, I don't think anyone saw me in that play. And yet it is every bit as much inspired by my personal experience, which was even more profound and painful than the experience that lay behind Largo Desolato (Ivan Jirous put his finger on this in his essays on those two plays). But let me approach it somewhat systematically. The plays I wrote in the 1960s tried to grasp the social mechanisms and the situation of man crushed by these mechanisms; that is, they were—as we say today—about the "structures" and the people in them. The theme of man expelled from the structures and at the same time confronting them—in other words, the theme of dissenting opposition or resistance—did not appear. This is understandable: whether we like it or not, we always take off—regardless of how far we wish to fly—from the ground we know. I was "within the structures" then (that my "view from outside" particularized the structures in one way or another is another matter). At the time I had no dissident experience—at least not in the form it took in the 1970s. Later, when I was expelled from the structures and found myself a dissident, I naturally began to explore that situation and examine it in different ways (including the very same "view from outside") ! In other words, the ground from which I took off had changed. From this arose the series of Vaněk plays, three one-act plays that finally led to Largo Desolato, which examines what happens when the personification of resistance finds himself at the end of his tether.

After Largo Desolato, I didn't think I could go any further in that direction. I suddenly felt the need to begin in a completely different way, to draw from another barrel, to abandon the terrain of dissident experience (which in any case was suspected, somewhat unjustifiably, of being too exclusive). In short, I didn't want to depend so transparently on my own experience; I was tired of hearing yet again that dissidents could only write about themselves. Therefore, I decided to try writing about the structures again, as though I were inside them. I intentionally tried to recreate, to some extent, the atmosphere of my old plays. I was curious to see what would come out of it now, face to face with the present, after everything that had happened in the meantime. That was how I found the territory. What was to fill it up, however, has its own, deeper roots.

Ever since 1977, when I was first imprisoned, I'd been haunted by the Faust theme; it was in the air around me. I wasn't in jail for long that time, but even so, for various reasons, it was a difficult time for me. I didn't know what was going on outside; I could only follow the hysterical campaign against Charter 77 in the newspapers. I was deceived by my interrogators and even by my own defense lawyer. I was buffeted by strange and somewhat pyschotic states and feelings. I had the feeling that, as one of the initiators of the Charter, I had hurt many people and brought terrible misfortune upon them. I took upon myself an inordinant share of the responsibility, as though the other Chartists hadn't known what they were doing, as though I alone were to blame.

In this miserable state of mind, I began to understand, toward the end of my stay in prison, that a trap was being laid for me: a relatively innocent turn of phrase—or so I thought at the time—in one of my requests for release was to be published in a falsified version in order to discredit me. I had no idea how to stop this from happening, or how to defend myself against it. It was a very dark time for me, but then odd things began to happen. If I remember correctly, instead of the usual books, like Far from Moscow, I suddenly had delivered to my cell Goethe's Faust, and then, right after that, Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. I had strange dreams and was haunted by strange ideas. I felt as though I were being, in a very physical way, tempted by the devil. I felt that I was in his clutches. I understood that I had somehow become involved with him. The experience of having something misappropriated in this way—something I had actually thought and written, something that was true—clarified for me with fresh urgency that the truth is not simply what you think it is; it is also the circumstances in which it is said, and to whom, why, and how it is said. This is one of the themes of Temptation. (I've analyzed this experience at some length in my letters from prison, in letters 138 and 139.)

That was when the idea to work this Faustian material up in my own way first came to me. I returned to it several times, but I always threw out what I'd written. In fact, right up to the last minute, I simply did not know how to approach that multifaceted and essentially archetypal theme. Then, last October, I got an idea and began to play with it, to sketch it in my usual fashion, first with graphs of the entrances and exits, the scenes and the acts; then I wrote it. I actually did write the whole play in ten days. So that was how Temptation was written. Perhaps I have found, through this play, a new starting point; perhaps I've rediscovered myself; perhaps it is really the beginning of a new stage in my writing. A number of people have told me it's my best play, but I truly can't be the judge of that. Or perhaps, on the contrary, it's just a recapitulation of something I've already dealt with, a kind of personal revival, a résumé of what has already been. I don't know. All I can do is stand behind what I've already told you about this eternal search for a "second breath."

You say that the Faust theme had been haunting you for a long time and that you didn't dare tackle it, or didn't quite know how to deal with it. Are there any other themes that haunt you and that you haven't yet dared to tackle? After this Faust, I find no difficulty in imagining that you might give us a reworked or boiled-down Don Quixote

Nothing since has impinged upon me quite as strongly. Occasionally I've played with the idea of using other characters, like Don Juan, Oblomov, and their like, and I've even considered throwing a number of characters like that into a single play and having them confront each other. But I've given up such ideas for the time being. …

You are in the situation of someone who has been persecuted for some time, a situation that not infrequently leads to a kind of self-worship. How do you fight against this danger? Doesn't it present a threat to your creative work as well?

I don't feel threatened by that particular danger. It has to do with my nature, my disposition, my general type, both as an author and as a man. I'm the kind of person who is always doubting himself. I'm far more sensitive to critical voices than I am to voices that praise me. I hear many different expressions of sympathy, solidarity, respect, and admiration; some have even invested their hope in me. People I don't know call me up and thank me for every-thing I'm doing. I'm delighted by such voices, of course, because they confirm that our efforts have some resonance, that we are not just crying out in the wilderness. At the same time, however, I always find them somewhat embarrassing, and I continually ask myself whether I really deserve such attention, whether I'll manage not to disappoint all those expectations and live up to all those demands. After all, what have I really accomplished? I've written a few plays, a few articles, I've done some time in prison. I ask myself these questions, and I harbor these feelings, so perhaps the danger of self-worship you raise is not my problem. But I could be wrong; something like that is probably best judged by the people around me.

Overviews And General Studies

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Phyllis Carey (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Living in Lies: Václav Havel's Drama," in CrossCurrents, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 200-11.

[Carey places Havel's drama in three major phases: "the early absurdist comedies; the Vaněk morality plays; and the psychological-prison plays."]

Americans were captivated by the 1989 election of Vaclav Havel, a human rights activist who spent almost four years in prison, as the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Many who had heard that his ideas had played a vital role in the country's "Velvet Revolution" were introduced to his thinking through interviews, partic ularly the extended dialogue in Disturbing the Peace, as well as occasional pieces in the New York Review of Books. They learned even more from the philosophical-political essays of Living in Truth, and from Letters to Olga, the collection of fascinating, philosophical letters Havel wrote to his wife while he was in prison. Havel's political writings emphasize, among a great many other things, the "power of the powerless," the ability of seemingly impotent individuals to transform their societies through assuming responsibility for their humanity and living in truth.

Fewer Americans have been introduced to Havel's dramatic oeuvre, which provides a fascinating counterpoint to his philosophical and political thought. His plays, which have earned an international reputation and have won several awards in the U.S., were banned in Czechoslovakia between 1969 and 1989. In contrast to the moral clarity of the political essays, the plays explore the ethical ambiguity that plagues modern life regardless of its political context.

Havel, who served for a number of years as literary manager of the Balustrade Theater in Prague, has defined his dramatic goal as forcing the viewer/reader "to stick his nose into his own misery, into my misery, into our common misery, by way of reminding him that the time has come to do something about it.… Face to face with a distillation of evil, man might well recognize what is good" (Disturbing the Peace). Three major phases characterize Havel's drama: the early absurdist comedies; the Vanek morality plays; and the psychological-prison plays.

Absurdist Plays of the 1960s

Havel's first full-length play, The Garden Party (1963), demonstrates his enduring interest in the many roles language plays in modern society. As Havel himself notes, the action of The Garden Party is controlled by cliché, which not only inundates the dialogue but becomes the objective correlative of the humans who have surrendered themselves to the bureaucratic system.

The play derives its name from a garden party at an anonymous Liquidation Office. Hugo Pludek, the would-be protagonist, seeks a career in the system, but because each bureaucrat has become merely an interchangeable functionary, Hugo ends up compromising himself out of existence, unaware that the "Hugo Pludek" he is waiting to see at the end of the play is himself. As in the game of chess that forms a recurring motif in the play, the characters move in grid-like fashion within the rigid confines of prescribed, lifeless systems—social, political and linguistic—only to checkmate their own meaningless existences. Like a political address that avoids offending any group or individual, Hugo's final speech, echoing both Hamlet and Beckett's Watt, reduces the question of being to verbal gymnastics:

… we are all a little bit all the time and all the time we are not a little bit; some of us are more and some of us are more not; some only are, some are only, and some only are not; so that none of us entirely is and at the same time each one of us is not entirely; … I don't know whether you want more to be or not to be, and when you want to be or not to be; but I know I want to be all the time and that's why all the time I must a little bit not-be.…

If the language games of The Garden Party relativize the human out of the equation, the use of a synthetic language—Ptydepe—enables Havel in The Memorandum (1965), winner of the Obie Award (1967-68) for best foreign play, to focus on the process by which humans abdicate their humanity to linguistic and/or political systems.

Josef Gross, the Managing Director of an anonymous bureaucracy, receives a memorandum in Ptydepe, an artificial language designed to make human communication scientifically precise by making words as dissimilar as possible. In his attempts to get the memo translated, Gross experiences the paradoxes of bureaucracy: he can obtain the documents he needs to authorize the translation only by having the memorandum already translated. While he struggles with the irrationality of the system, he falls victim to a subordinate's power play, is demoted, but eventually convinces Maria, a secretary, to translate his memo; the message, ironically, confirms in Ptydepe the inadequacy of the new language, urging its liquidation. The play ends with Gross back in charge and with the prospect of a new synthetic language—Chorukor—which will operate on linguistic principles of similarity.

In The Memorandum Havel explores the scientific effort to transform language into a technological tool. Here, the drive for scientific precision contends with the apparently human need for unpredictability. The language instructor's lesson on saying "boo" in Ptydepe illustrates how analysis increasingly deadens spontaneity: The decision as to which Ptydepe expression to use for "boo" depends on the rank of the person speaking and whether the "boo" is anticipated, a surprise, a joke, or a test, as in "Yxap tseror najx." Another hilarious example of a simple expression made as complex as possible is the word "Hurrah!," which in Ptydepe becomes "frnygko jefr dabux altep dy savarub goz texeres."

The precision exercised on analyzing the trivial contrasts with the imprecision in expressing what may be humanly significant. The ambiguous term "whatever," deemed the most used human expression, is rendered by the shortest Ptydepe word, "gh." Ironically, beneath all of the scientific pretensions, body language communicates and carries much of the action.

The preoccupation with using an artificial language in The Memorandum draws attention to the technological propensity to focus on means instead of ends. Enormous efforts to communicate precisely are undercut by the banality of what is expressed. Knowing the system, however, enables one to participate in the illusion of power and control. Like the specialized jargon of most professionals, Ptydepe represents an elitist code that paradoxically limits human communication both to a small group of cognoscenti and to those issues that can be analyzed and labeled.

Gross is caught between the need to fit into the system and his own humanistic platitudes. When Maria, fired because she translated the message without authorization, asks for his help, Gross excuses himself on the grounds that he cannot compromise his position as the "last remains of Man's humanity" within the system. He moves Hamlet's dilemma into Camus' theory of the absurd, and as so often in a scientific age, the descriptive becomes the normative:

Like Sisyphus, we roll the boulder of our life up the hill of its illusory meaning, only for it to roll down again into the valley of its own absurdity … Manipulated, absurdity … automatized, made into a fetish, Man loses the experience of his own totality; horrified, he stares as a stranger at himself, unable not to be what he is not, nor to be what he is.

Gross, the would-be existentialist who is always wishing he could start his life over, cannot translate his own language into responsible action. If Pudnik is entangled in language games devoid of human integrity, Gross demonstrates that when language becomes an end in itself, even the most accurate or the most eloquent expressions become impotent.

In the tradition of Kafka, Camus, and Beckett, probably his most significant mentors, Havel explores in The Garden Party and The Memorandum the paradox of human rationality pushed to its absurd logical extreme. As in Kafka, anonymous authority figures loom behind the absurd context; as in Beckett, the habits and rituals of daily existence frequently deaden people from the horror of their predicament; as in Camus, there is occasional recognition of the absurdity. But Havel's characters, unlike those of Camus, do not rebel; rather they adapt and use the absurdity as an excuse for their own inhumanity.

The Vanek Plays

Havel wrote three one-act plays in the mid-to-late 1970s that are based on one character, a Czech writer named Ferdinand Vanek: "Audience" (1975); "Private View" (1975); and "Protest" (1978). (In a fascinating twist to dramatic history, three other playwrights adopted Vanek for their own plays—Jiři Dienstbier, Pavel Kohout, and Pavel Landovsky.) Havel's Vanek plays focus on the role of the writer in a society whose corruption extends from the workplace to the privacy of home, and even to the professional life of writers.

"Audience" (also published with "Private View" under the tide "Sorry …") is probably Havel's best known work in the United States: it is often paired with Catastrophe, a one-act play Samuel Beckett wrote and dedicated to Havel while the latter was in prison in 1982. Although superficially simple, "Audience" raises complex ethical questions. Essentially a dialogue between Vanek and the increasingly drunken head-malster of the brewery where Vanek works, "Audience" focuses on the brewmaster's attempts to persuade Vanek to compose the brewmaster's weekly reports in exchange for an easier job. To do so, however, Vanek would, ironically, be supporting the system he is against by informing on himself.

Vanek's reluctance to accept the offer precipitates the brewmaster's assault on intellectuals, which some critics see as the heart of the play:

It's all right if I get filthy—so long as the gentleman stays clean! The gentleman cares about a principle! But what about the rest of us, eh? He couldn't care less! … Principles! Principles! Sure you hang on to your flip-ping principles! Why not? You know damned well how to cash in on them, you know there's always a market for them, you know bloody well how to sell them at a profit! Thing is, you live on your flipping principles! But what about me? … Nobody's ever going to look after me, nobody's afraid of me, nobody's going to write about me, nobody's going to help me, nobody takes an interest in me! I'm only good enough to be the manure on which your flaming principles can grow!

The play ends with Vanek making a mock exit and re-entrance, starting the dialogue anew with the malster, this time readily accepting the proffered beer and joining immediately in camaraderie. The "underlying message" of the play, as Damien Jaques (drama critic of The Milwaukee Journal) notes, would seem to be that "artists can have principles that they refuse to violate [but] the common man doesn't have that luxury" ["Chamber's 'By Havel, for Havel' Works," Milwaukee Journal, 2 June 1991].

But truth, as Havel dramatizes it, is almost never so obvious. Among the inescapable ironies of "Audience" is that the brewmaster—rather than not having principles of his own—has merely exchanged them for the mechanics of the bureaucracy and, as a result, has become a slave to the system. Although ostensibly the one in power—he is in charge of Vanek and several other workers—he confesses himself powerless because he is a mere dispensable cog. Vanek, on the other hand, is a threat by virtue of being an authentic human being. The drunken brewmaster, a blustery administrator of the powers-that-be, ends up begging the timid Vanek to bring an actress to see him so that he can believe "I didn't live for nothing—." To "live for nothing," however, as Vanek's reticence implies, is as much a choice as to live on principle, to live for something. The ending of the play, suggesting an alternative scenario, leaves the larger "audience" with the question of which alternative is preferable.

"Living for nothing" comes in many different packages, however, as "Private View"—perhaps the most accessible and humorous of Havel's Vanek plays—amply illustrates. Michael and Vera are Westernized Yuppies who have invited Vanek for a "private view" of their newly redecorated apartment. That their lifestyle has become their only absolute is clear early on as Michael proudly shows Ferdinand the Madonna he has long sought in order to fit his "niche." Rather than adjusting the niche, he has traveled widely to find a Madonna the right size. Correspondingly, he and Vera fit all of life's experiences into the niches of their consumer clichés, which they try to convince Vanek are the "solution" to all of his presumed problems: he should redecorate; he should have a child; his wife should take cooking lessons, etc.

As the play progresses, Michael and Vera increasingly sound like commercials. When they reach the topic of their sex lives, they are quite willing to perform a demonstration for Vanek. As Michael notes,

"Vera has remained as smashing as ever. … The body she's got now! It's a knockout! So fresh and young! Well, you can judge for yourself. Darling, do you mind just opening your dress a little bit? … After we've finished our little chat, we're going to show you some more, so you'd see what sophisticated things we do to one another."

When Vanek demurs and starts to leave amidst a barrage of advice, Michael and Vera suddenly fall apart. Their facade is their existence, and with no one to impress, they lose their only reason for being. They browbeat Vanek into staying, and the play ends where it began.

"Private View" provides a glimpse of private life with-drawn and alienated from public and political concerns. Michael and Vera accuse Vanek of being a coward and a romantic because he will not compromise enough to get a socially respectable job. They, on the other hand, in substituting consumer comforts and "self-fulfillment" for social responsibility, have become dehumanized, merely part of the decoration in their apartment. The satisfaction Michael finds in the almond peeler he has brought back from the States suggests the way in which their being and purpose have been trivialized, their identity subsumed in the objects that they serve.

Havel, describing elsewhere the interdependence of the social and the private, the historical and the personal, alludes to the problem at the core of "Private View":

… even the most private life is oddly distorted, sometimes to the point where it becomes implausibly bizarre, the paradoxical outcome of a paralyzing desire for verisimilitude. It is obvious what has made this desire so intense: the subconscious need to compensate for the absence of the opposite pole—truth. It is as though life in this case were stripped of its inner tension, its true tragedy and greatness, its questions. ("Stories and Totalitarianism," Open Letters)

If the "crisis of human identity" that Havel sees as the central question of all of his plays (Living in Truth) afflicts the bureaucrat, the blue-collar worker, and even the purely private relationships of spouses, it also afflicts writers themselves as the Vanek play "Protest" illustrates. Like all of his plays, "Protest" contains vague allusions to actual events or experiences in Havel's life.

As in the other two Vanek plays—and most of Havel's oeuvre—the action takes place in the language, in this case the dialogue between Vanek and Stanek, a fellow writer whose daughter is pregnant by a pop star who has just been arrested on a pretext. Stanek, who enjoys political immunity presumably because he can straddle issues, asks Vanek about protesting the pop star's arrest. When Vanek, who has already written a protest, presents Stanek with the document for his signature, Stanek' s inner conflicts come to the fore. In a lengthy monologue Stanek analyzes the "subjective" and "objective" arguments for signing the protest, demonstrating through convoluted logic both how "they"—the authorities—think and how he excuses himself from taking responsibility. His speech em-bodies "double think," becoming a brilliant exercise in reducing morality to rationality. Stanek does not sign the document and the play ends when Stanek learns that the pop star has been released, making the protest superfluous.

Part of Stanek's rationalizing anticipates what Havel explores in greater detail in Largo Desolato: the widespread abdication of personal responsibility to the professionals in morality. Stanek points out that "the rest of us—when we want to do something for the sake of ordinary human decency—automatically turn to you [Vanek], as though you were a sort of service establishment in moral matters." The question of Stanek's signature, therefore, involves his claiming identity as a responsible human being, a claim he is unable to make.

Havel's Vanek, however, around whom moral issues arise, does not play the role of a moral authority; rather, he comes off as a self-ironic, timid soul whose occasional embarrassment becomes the only comment on the "bad faith" of the brewmaster, Michael and Vera, and Stanek. In all three plays Vanek, who speaks very little, becomes a sounding board for the characters' reflections on their own identities and concerns. His simplicity contrasts with their sophistication and sophistry. He occasionally questions, often offers understanding, never condemns. Rather, he allows his own integrity and motives to be questioned and attacked as the other characters attempt to implicate or discredit him. If he is an alterego of Havel, he is also an anti-hero, his humility and self-effacement pointing beyond the human to a standard of truth that enables the other characters to glimpse their own duplicity and that gives his own character both its quiet dignity and its self-parody.

Psychological-Prison Plays

When Havel returned from his stay in prison as a result of dissident activities, he wrote a short play (1983) in response to Beckett's Catastrophe. The play, entitled "Mistake," foregrounds the human tendency—regardless of political system—toward totalitarianism, not only politically but privately as well. The plot is simple: four inmates in a prison—who have formed their own subsystem with their own kingpin—indoctrinate a new prisoner, who has inadvertently smoked a cigarette before breakfast, on his rights and responsibilities within the system. The new inmate, XIBOY, says nothing throughout the play, merely shrugging and looking embarrassed, to the increasing anger and frustration of the "King" and his cohorts, who finally realize that XIBOY is a "bloody foreigner." The play ends with King's "death sentence" for XIBOY.

The prison setting as a totalitarian system—although no doubt inspired by Havel's own recent experiences—underscores the human propensity not only to adapt to repressive systems but to duplicate them in subsystems, and to subjugate others, attempting to force them into unifor mity. The seemingly trivial offense against "non-smokers' rights" becomes a major crime in the context of the repressive systems operating without and within and suggests a subtle challenge to the West's preoccupation with minor "rights" when larger questions of human survival and identity are at stake. The foreigner's death sentence comes about because, speaking another language literally and perhaps metaphysically, he cannot be indoctrinated and subsumed into the system. His silence and lack of complicity become a threat to the status quo.

Havel's two full-length post-imprisonment plays, Largo Desolato (1984) and Temptation (1985), further explore the themes of "Mistake." Unlike the relatively flat characters of Pudnik and Gross in the earlier plays, the post-imprisonment drama excavates much deeper psychological terrain. In addition, the archetype of Faust joins Hamlet as the subtle distortions of truth become both increasingly ambiguous and perverse.

Largo Desolato, which won a Best Play Off Broadway award for 1985-86, probes the relationship between human identity and the roles one plays. Professor Leopold Nettles, an existentialist philosopher who has been under police surveillance and harassment for writing a paragraph "disturbing the intellectual peace," can escape from his dilemma by declaring that he is "not the same person who is the author of that thing." Nettles is so tortured by the expectations of his friends and by his own self-doubts, however, that he has virtually imprisoned himself within his own apartment and his own mind.

Like Vanek in "Protest," Nettles has been the vicarious moral voice upon whom all his friends, who have surrendered their own voices, depend. He is their excuse not to be. Their vague expectations and dependence contribute to his identity crisis: is there a split between who he is and the roles others expect him to play? The dichotomy between Nettles's current internal torment and the image he has projected in the past is revealed through the other characters. His friend Bertram notes, "I can't escape the awful feeling that lately something inside you has begun to collapse … that you are tending more and more to act the part of yourself instead of being yourself."

In fact, Nettles in his desperation increasingly acts the roles that others project on him, using the same phrases they have addressed to him. Urged to put his philosophical ideas to some practical use, he ironically does just that: he uses his reputation and writings to seduce Marguerite, a young student whom he sees as "in mid-crisis about the meaning of life." Before the seduction is complete, however, the agents of the authorities appear. Nettles takes a stand, swearing that he will not disclaim his paragraphs, that he will not give up his "own human identity." The agents inform him that his protest comes too late: he has already given up his identity, and his signature, therefore, "would be superfluous." Like Stanek, Nettles has spent so much time analyzing and worrying about his image that he has lost his own identity in the process. The play ends where it began, but with Nettles taking a bow as the actor playing a role in a play about playing roles.

Largo Desolato anticipates Temptation in its depiction of the external and internal demons that make Nettles's existence a living hell. The prospect of going to prison seems trivial in comparison with the torment and restrictions that Nettles experiences as a result of trying to serve all of his self-imposed masters, of playing all of the roles others expect of him. As in a dysfunctional family, most of the other characters have already abdicated their identities, becoming mere stage props or interchangeable characters, as evidenced by their very names—"First Sidney" and "Second Sidney," "First Chap" and "Second Chap," "First Man" and "Second Man." Largo Desolato depicts the loss of human identity both by those who depend on others to save them and by those who would save others from their own burden of humanity. For Havel, there are no specialists in being human; every human is challenged to be—or not to be.

Havel's long-term interest in writing a play based on the Faust legend found its fruition in Temptation, his latest full-length play. Temptation is by far Havel's wordiest play as he explores in depth the question of truth and the ways truth can be perverted. Havel's Faust, Dr. Foustka, who is a scientist, has been secretly studying black magic. Fistula, who plays the Mephistopheles role, becomes his mentor and points out that "the truth isn't merely what we believe, after all, but also why and to whom and under what circumstances we say it!" Here, ironically the Devil is paraphrasing Havel, who expressed this definition of truth in a 1982 letter to his wife (Letters to Olga [No. 138, 347]). Later, the Deputy of the Institute in the play convolutes the definition:

The truth must prevail, come what may. But for that very reason we must remind ourselves that looking for the truth means looking for the whole, unadulterated truth. That is to say that the truth isn't only something that can be demonstrated in one way or another, it is also the purpose for which the demonstrated thing is used or for which it may be misused, and who boasts about it and why, and in what context it finds itself.

Foustka begins his struggle with truth where Nettles left off in Largo Desolato; Foustka's philosophic description of modern humanity leads Marketa, a secretary at the Institute, to fall in love with him. When, his ego inflated by the "conquest," Foustka is confronted by the Director and accused of pursuing unscientific knowledge, Foustka appeals to scientific truth and morality to exonerate him. He claims that he has studied the occult in order to expose its unscientific basis. Marketa, who has believed Foustka's appeal to a higher authority as a basis for truth, ends up as Foustka's Ophelia, dismissed from the Institute and singing in madness. Foustka later learns that Fistula is a secret agent of the Institute, sent to test his fidelity to scientific truth. Foustka is finally entrapped by the complex web of lies he has woven; like Nettles, he has created his own hellish prison.

Finally aware that his attempts to manipulate the system have failed, Foustka acknowledges the devil—"here among us"—not Fistula, but "the pride of that intolerant, all powerful, and self-serving power that uses sciences merely as a handy weapon for shooting down anything that hreatens it, that is, anything that doesn't derive its authority from this power or that is related to an authority deriving its powers elsewhere." The play ends with a witches' sabbath, chaos, Foustka being set afire, and a fireman coming to put out the flames.

Temptation constantly challenges common definitions of truth while affirming its fundamental significance. Havel masterfully demonstrates how the most "truthful" expressions can be demonic when truth is instrumentalized, made a tool for some human purpose. At the same time, he creates seemingly demonic characters who see clearly the logical inconsistencies of selective duplicity. Ironically, it is a devil figure quoting Scripture who points out that living in lies carries its own rules: "You cannot serve two masters at once and deceive them both at the same time!

… You simply must take a side!" The play suggests, moreover, that to reduce truth to the limits of rationality in turn distorts the "truths" of that rationality. Temptation becomes a comic-bitter indictment of the postmodern mind.

The setting of Havel's plays alternates from modern apartment interiors to anonymous bureaucracies. Although the characters all seem to be aware of "higher authorities," those in charge might as easily be representatives of free-market countries as of communist or socialist regimes. As in Beckett, Havel's perennial setting is metaphysical: the contemporary human mind, imprisoned in its rationality, substituting scientific, political, and consumer systems to fill the need for an absolute.

The question of human identity that Havel explores in all of his works is not the issue of individual self-fulfillment that seems to preoccupy Americans. Rather, it is the universal question of the human on the brink of the twenty-first century, in which technical specialization has, paradoxically, produced greater standardization, and more and more people are living in an artificial environment, seduced by the comforts of effortless existence. The question for Havel from Pudnik to Foustka is whether humans choose to be or not to be human beings, to live in truth rather than to support the lies that make them mere adjuncts of one or another system: "Human identity, simply put, is not a 'place of existence' where one sits things out, but a constant encounter with the question of how to be, and how to exist in the world" (Letters to Olga [No. 139, 355]).

And what is truth? Havel never tells us directly in his plays. He assumes that we will recognize the many forms of its opposite—the excuses, subterfuges, rationalizations, illusions, pretexts, sophistries—even if many of his characters do not. Truth for Havel seems inextricably linked with assuming responsibility for one's humanity. To the extent we fail, his drama implies, we live in misery; hope lies in recognizing and taking responsibility for "our common misery."

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Shall We Dance?: Reflections on Václav Havel's Plays," in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, Vol. 10, 1991, pp. 213-22.

[In the essay below, Goetz-Stankiewicz traces the dance metaphor through Havel's plays.]

At fifty-three the Czech playwright Václav Havel has arrived at a crossroad in his life that he hardly could have foreseen. He has been catapulted by the political events in Central Eastern Europe from his writer's desk in a quiet country house in Northern Bohemia to the president's office in Prague's Hradčany Castle, and his life has undergone a change that could hardly have been more drastic. Today his dramatic oeuvre, written over a period of about twenty-five years, comprises nine full-length and four one-act plays (in addition to some early short pieces for stage, television, and radio). When audiences will be able to see a new play by Havel is an open question.

Now, when his name as an important political figure is appearing almost daily in the international press, seems the right time to take stock of his stature as playwright and determine what he has to tell the waning twentieth century, which has seen the splitting of the atom, the rise of the computer, the mechanization of war, the development of artificial insemination, and the realization of the visions of Orwell and Kafka, on the one hand, and of Bosch and Goya, on the other.

In the postscript to a Czech edition of his plays, Havel provides us, in a typically unpretentious way, with an insight into the first stirrings of playwriting in his life. Equally typically, his statements—never couched in merely informative literal prose—also contain a miniature sample of his artistic vision: "In 1956 I was twenty. It was the moment when, for the first time in our part of the world … there began that strange dialectic dance of truth and lie, of truth alienated by lie and deceptive manipulation of hopes." ["Dovétek autora," Hry 1970-1976, 1977]. Havel feels that this historical moment was felicitous for him as a playwright. Yet despite his claim that he could not have written what he did "without this concrete inspirational background," he was aware that from the moment he started writing, his plays reached beyond the local situation. As he says in a comment for future directors of Largo Desolato, written almost a decade later: "Any attempts to localize the play more obviously into the environment where it was conceived … would harm it greatly. Whatever would make it easier for members of the audience to hope that this play did not concern them, is directly opposed to its meaning [Havel's italics]," ["Z poznámek Václava Havla, psaných pro inscenátory hry Largo desolato," 1984]. Considering the political situation in Czechoslovakia, it is not surprising that Western theater directors and drama critics have tended not to heed the playwright's plea. With interesting and often impressive results Havel's plays have been searched for "clashes between the individual and society," for the deadening influence of "political artificial language" that no longer reflects reality, for rigid power structures and their victims, and for false values and manipulated attitudes, all giving eloquent testimony to an imaginative critic of a totalitarian political regime who was willing to go to prison for his moral convictions. The changed situation today has an odd air of déjá vu about it. In the past there was the "dissident" and "prisoner" obscuring the stature of the writer; now we have the president appearing center stage, and the playwright is literally disappearing in the wings.

When the writer Marie Winn, who translated Havel's latest plays, Temptation (1985) and Slum Clearance (1987), for the Public Theater in New York, visited Havel in Prague in the spring of 1987, he repeated to her what he had frequently said before in interviews as well as in print, namely that Czech writers "don't really like the word 'dissident.' It makes it seem like a special profession. I'm simply a playwright and it's irrelevant whether I'm a dissident or not" [New York Times Magazine, 25 October 1987]. Today one might ironically paraphrase Havel's words: I'm simply a playwright and it's irrelevant whether I'm a president or not.

In order briefly to stake out the area of Havel's writings, I would like to bring some other twentieth-century voices into the argument. They are disparate voices from various intellectual disciplines, but they have certain things in common: they reflect postmodern perceptions of the world, and they provide guideposts for orienting ourselves in Havel's dramatic universe—enjoyable and entertaining, yet on a deeper level surprisingly appropriate to contemporary ideas on humanity and its changing views of itself. The voices are drawn from literary theory, sociology, and physics. In his Physics and Philosophy [1958] the renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg, author of the principle of indeterminancy, raises two points that relate surprisingly to Havel's work. First, there is his discovery that every act of observing alters the object being observed; second, he notes the difficulty of rendering certain phenomena with ordinary words because "the distinction between 'real' and 'apparent' contradiction … has simply disappeared." Physics like philosophy, is faced with a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts."

When Eduard Huml, the sociologist in Havel's The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (written in 1968 and, compared with earlier plays, showing a refined perception of the nature of language) dictates to his secretary a treatise about human nature, his statements, though not incorrect, are altered by our observing them in the context in which they are spoken: "Various people have, at various times and in various circumstances, various needs." After pacing about thoughtfully, Huml continues the dictation: "—and thus attach to various things various values—full stop." The fact that these statements, hilariously banal tautologies, are undeniably true does not prevent them from ringing false. Havel has made language transparent and explored its double nature, though in this play the experiment is still somewhat rudimentary, and his language has not yet achieved the opaque yet mirrorlike quality of his later plays—a quality he referred to in his acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers in October 1989: "Words are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon." They can be "rays of light in the realm of darkness" or "lethal arrows. Worst of all, at times they can be the one and the other. And even both at once!" ["Words on Words," trans. A. G. Brain, The New York Review of Books, 18 January 1990.]

A cluster of voices pointing in the same direction are concerned with issues of freedom and constraint, of roles and changed identities, of constellations and interdependencies. They belong to the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and the American-Spanish philosopher George Santayana. Both have written about the phenomenon of the carnival. Bakhtin [in Rabelais and His World] sees in it "liberating energy of a world opposed to all that was ready made and completed," whose humor "revives and renews because it is also directed at those who laugh." But carnival can also unleash a sense of terror because it reveals something frightening in that which seemed "habitual and secure." The notion of carnival also implies a dance of sorts, a rhythmic swaying controlled by something other than reason. Santayana's lighter but essentially similar vision of the carnival stresses its salutary aspects, its moment of freedom when the exchange of the fig leaf for the mask brings release from habitual restraint, from "custom [that] assimilates expectations" ["Carnival," in Soliloquies in England]. It is here that we touch upon a key metaphor in Havel's writings—the dance.

Approaching his plays with the theme of the dance in mind, we discover that another pattern or rhythm, partly a light skipping, partly a dark throbbing beat, emerges beneath the tightly structured, sober surface of his texts. Occasionally the playwright lets this mysteriously threatening rhythm burst forth in the final moments of a play (The Mountain Resort [1976] and Temptation are cases in point) and calls into question the obviously cerebral control of the rest of the play. A quick scan of the metaphor of the dance in Havel's plays is revealing. In his first play, The Garden Party (1963), the dance in its literal meaning is present by implication only: a party surely includes some dancing. Yet the play is permeated by another kind of dance. The protagonist, Hugo Pludek, spends most of the play learning the forms of new behavior with regard to language. He observes the strictly prescribed steps of the "official language" minuet with precisely measured steps forward and backward, carefully placed silences, and clocked pauses, according to a choreography Hugo learns to master during the course of the play. Whoever joins this dance becomes an integral part of its modulations and precisely measured movements. The whole would not be the same without him. This dance of linguistic patterns, unrelated to reality (although seemingly adhering to logic), causes the incessant merriment of the audience, who come to recognize something vaguely familiar. It is here that we have the beginnings of what Havel later called the "adventure" of theater.

In his next two plays Havel perfects his choreography of patterns and movements (or dance steps and figures). In The Memorandum (1965) the characters' professional rise and fall turns on their ability to learn the artificial language Ptydepe. This results in a linguistic dance of power performed by the characters, punctuated by a pattern of familiar daily movements—the common exit to the cafeteria, the icons of cutlery held high and ready for use during the ritual of consumption. These two types of prescribed movements, one new but learnable (Ptydepe), the other reassuringly familiar (the ritual lunch breaks), performed with mind and body respectively, are choreographed by Havel into one interdependent cluster of motions, a perfect artifact that recharges its own mechanism and creates its own momentum.

Havel's next play, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, takes this double dance of mind and body one step further. Its mechanistic nature is brought home to the audience by a dramatic trick: the author jumbles the time sequence. Apologies for attempted seductions precede the attempt at seduction itself; characters who in scene 2 seemed well acquainted with the protagonist introduce themselves to him in scene 5. The comings and goings of a research team collecting "scientific" data to establish a "sample" of human life (Huml's name was chosen at random) alternate with the increasing number of women who, lovingly, are trying to run his life. All this provides a dance of pseudoscientifically and pseudoerotically patterned language that the audience begins to recognize because the patterns reappear at predictable moments. Gradually the audience also realizes that the words remain, but the characters who speak them can be exchanged. In other words, the dance as such remains, but its components, the dancers, change partners and places in the configurations. A kiss on the neck becomes an icon of special devotion; lunch brought in on a tray by wife or woman friend becomes a welcome rest for the hero from the familiar patterns of tearfully extracted declarations of love, linguistic strategies of self-defense, and push-button recall of happy memories.

Before moving on to the most challenging of Havel's plays, his Faust play Temptation, I will call on the social scientist among my aiding voices. Since his first major work, the German sociologist Norbert Elias has not only drawn attention to dynamic "figurations" and interdependencies but has also stressed the pervasive tendency to reduce processes conceptually to states. Using the metaphor of the dance, Elias argues against statuary concepts like, say, "the individual" and "society": "One can speak about a dance in general, but no one will imagine a dance as a form outside individuals. … Without the plurality of individuals who are … dependent on each other, there is no dance" [Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, Vol. 1, 1976]. In his well-known essay "The Power of the Powerless" (1978) Havel writes about the greengrocer who puts a political slogan into his shop window not because he wants to express his political opinion but because "everyone does it" and "because these things must be done if one is to get along in life." It is not necessary, Havel argues later in the essay, to believe in these things, but if one behaves as though one did, one has accepted the situation. And "by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, are the system." There are numerous other instances where Havel has made a similar point—explicitly in his prose, implicitly and metaphorically in his plays. The dancers are the dance.

In Temptation the Tempter and the Tempted (although it is not as clear who is who as my naming them implies) hold three razor-sharp dialogues. The former, a smudgy, non metaphysical but obviously astute fellow, makes a puzzling statement. Revealing his own familiarity with the mechanisms of Foustka's reasoning process, his "intellectual rotation," he comments on how Foustka manages to turn his pet ideas "into a sort of little dance floor on which to perform the ritual celebration of his principles." Principles on a dance floor? An intellectual ritual? Is the tight repartee of the two partners to be understood as a pas de deux of ambiguous ethics? But in a pas de deux each partner repeats in variations the steps of the other. Precisely! They dance with their feet, their bodies, their words, following fixed patterns of entrances and exits, appearing and speaking on cue. Temptation teems with variations on dance patterns presented as essential ingredients of human relationships. There are two key "dance" scenes: scene 3, the seduction scene, where Foustka, using his freshly discovered powers of linguistic persuasion, explains to Maggie what life is all about, whereupon she swears eternal love to him. The stage instructions for this scene (Havel's carefully planned, metronomically timed patterns of entrances and exits are, as always, of extreme importance) call for a dance at the back of the stage while the seduction dialogue takes place at the front. Partners are changed, and dancers float in and out, interrupting the wooing process. Repeatedly Maggie is being swept off to the dance floor by other partners, and Foustka's own choreographed linguistic mating dance, his "ritual celebration" (Fistula's perceptive words) of what he knows will appeal and achieve his purpose, suffers lamentable interruptions. While waiting for Maggie to return, however, Foustka is approached by another would-be partner, the Director, who, like a strutting peacock, performs another ritual of seduction, though more banal and obvious than Foustka's own, a stock package of I'd-like-to cliches complete with "homemade cherry brandy," a "collection of miniatures," "a good chat," and the possibility to "stay the night."

In the last scene of the play another dance takes place at the institute's office party, a masked ball with a "magical theme" to the evening, including not only pendants and amulets but also "a profuson of devil's tails, hoofs and chains." During the final minutes "a piece of hard rock, wild and throbbing," gets progressively louder while all figures (Foustka excepted) "succumb to the music"; "an orgiastic carnival" ensues, and the stage goes up in flames and smoke. An atavistic, primitive rhythm is unleashed, obliterating the strategic dance steps by which the rest of the play was controlled on every level. The dark and threatening side of the carnival spills onto the stage. There is, however, another variation on the dance in Temptation. A character called only the Dancer (literal and iconic meaning in one) appears intermittently at the flat of Foustka's woman friend and brings her flowers, leaving fits of jealousy and possible (but never proven) lies in his wake. At the end of the play he and Vilma execute some complicated tango steps at the moment when Foustka realizes that his own strategic steps of several levels of deceit had been vain and useless.

Thus Havel works with flexible figurations. His characters are parts or particles of certain groups or systems, yet they make up these systems. In the case of The Memorandum, Office Director Josef Gross comes full circle in the system to which he belongs. He loses his leading position, is demoted, and ultimately rises again, having learned to live within the constellation of which he is a part. If he watches his step—the English idiom fits the situation perfectly—in the dance of official dos and don'ts, if he says the right words to the right person at the right moment, if he choreographs his language suitably, he might well be able to remain on top of the bureaucratic pyramid he has climbed again at the end of the play.

Havel has remarked repeatedly that he is interested in the composition of "movements of meanings, motivations, … arguments, concepts, theses and words" rather than "the actions of the characters or the progression of the plot" [Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizaa-la]. This makes him indeed a "political" playwright in the oldest sense of the adjective. At a performance of The Memorandum in 1965, when the protagonist at the end defended the ethical collapse of the world in the jargon of "at that time newly discovered Existentialists," a perturbed member of his audience asked Havel whether he was serious about his defense of this collapse or whether he was trying to criticize this new "Western" philosophy that represented the very opposite of what grimly cheerful official Marxism was teaching. The playwright was delighted because "that particular man was disturbed, and I could not have wished for anything better." The juggling of phrases masquerading as true statements had had the desired effect: it had unsettled a set mind. The playwright had illuminated the mechanism of phrases and revealed their rotating dance within a seemingly closed system.

In one of his letters to his wife from prison, which have now appeared as Letters to Olga, Havel writes of "the electrifying atmosphere that attracts me to the theatre," that makes the audience share in "an unexpected and surprising 'probe' beneath the surface of phenomena which, at the same time as it gives them new insight into their situation, does it in a way that is comprehensible, credible and convincing on its own terms." These probes "bear witness, in a 'model' way, to man's general situation in the world. … Such theatre inspires us to participate in an adventurous journey toward a new deeper questioning, of ourselves and the world."

What is significant about this passage is that Havel makes it quite clear that as playwright he does not seek answers but rather asks questions; he does not set out to tell us things but invites us to an "adventure." In other words, he puts himself in the same boat with the audience. But what are these adventurous quests that he proposes to us?

Another contemporary playwright might help us out here. The connections between Tom Stoppard and Václav Havel have received some (but not enough) critical attention. Stoppard's recent play Hapgood (1988) reveals the artistic kinship of these two playwrights in a new way. Harkening back to Heisenberg, Stoppard's espionage thriller is built around a problem that physics and human beings have in common—their dual natures. As Kerner, the physicist, explains to Blair, the spy catcher: "Every time we look to see how we get a wave pattern, we get a particle pattern. The act of observing determines reality." And later: "Somehow light is particle and wave. The experimenter makes the choice. … A double agent is more like a trick of light. … You get what you interrogate for." Apply these words to Havel's plays and you have an inkling of what they are about. As his dramatic genius has been re-fining itself—from the vantage point of today, The Beggar's Opera, Largo Desolato, Temptation, and Slum Clearance represent his mature period—it has become increasingly difficult to pin down what one might call the meaning of the plays. No wonder, for that is what the playwright is aiming at: "I find it a lot of fun to write various rhetorically adorned speeches in which nonsense is being defended with crystal clear logic; I find it fun to write monologues in which, believably and suggestively, truths are spoken and which are full of lies from beginning to end." Stoppard's Hapgood is perhaps a double agent, perhaps a triple agent; her identity not only remains an open question but also becomes oddly unimportant when we take up the playwright's challenge and realize that she is "like a trick of light," that her nature changes with our question. When Macheath of Havel's The Beggar's Opera (1972) claims to join the general whirl of petty crookedness just because he refuses to pose as a lofty hero, this attitude could well be interpreted as being either good or bad (as wave or particle), depending on the interpretation of the director or—if the latter is particularly astute about Havel's work and keeps its mystery intact—on the frame of mind of the audience. Similarly, Foustka's and architect Bergmann's voluble justifications at the end of Temptation and Slum Clearance shimmer with ambiguities. We cannot but agree to the single statements, yet we feel that the whole thing comes, uncomfortably, to more than the sum of its parts and that it is somehow false or at least suspect.

If we put the ideas gleaned from other thinkers into formulas, we get something like the following: language and reality, order and chaos, individuals as parts and initiators of systems, movement and change as constants, questions determining answers. These are obviously vast and complex issues that touch—or mold? determine?—the lives of all of us. I do not think I am stretching a point if I propose that this is the stuff that Václav Havel's plays are made of, though at first encounter they may seem to be primarily a good show, exciting theater. But now, under Havel's guidance, we shelve the abstractions that represent precisely those static intellectual clichés that he has been trying to undermine all along, and we follow him, with open eyes and open minds, into what he calls the adventure of theater.

Robert Skloot (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Václav Havel: The Once and Future Playwright," in The Kenyon Review, n.s. Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 223-31.

[In this essay, which was written in the interim between Havel's terms as President of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic, Skloot explores the political nature of Havel's plays.]

In the short space of a few years, we have been witness to a Havel industry. Images of the Czech playwright-politician appear frequently in the West, and his words are quoted often whenever democrats of all kinds convene. His life is held up as an example of resistance to the tyrant's authority and the terrors of the state, and he is celebrated by those who have suffered brutal indignities as well as by those who have suffered not at all.

In 1992, with the fragmentation of his bipartite nation and the loss of his presidency, the simple fact of his unwavering commitment to human rights and to policies of tolerance and trust has introduced into the politics of the 1990s new spirit of both personal courage and political resolve. The mention of Havel's name is, for most observers, an occasion to chart the possibilities of changing old, repressive, tribal ways for new, humane ones, an exercise all the more needed as neighboring countries hemorrhage in an agony of self-destruction. In this essay, I want to explore the nature of political Havelism by temporarily disengaging it from the newspaper headlines and looking at a number of his plays. In doing so, I want to point out their distinctiveness as well as their problematic aspects and to ask whether, were it not for Havel's political importance, we should attend to (or attend at all) the theater of this astonishingly undramatic actor on the stage of modern history.

One result of Václav Havel's recent celebrity has been references throughout the media to his plays which, it is quite likely, have never been seen or read by most American commentators or journalists. Since 1963, when The Garden Party was first produced, Havel has written four short and five full-length plays which are available in English translation, the language in which I have come to know them, and several others. The remainder of Havel's artistic energy has been expended in political essays and correspondence, the latter including Letters to Olga, (published in English in 1988), Disturbing the Peace (in English, 1990) and Summer Meditations (in English, 1992). Havel's plays have been generally neglected by most American theaters. Because the predominant concern of most American theater has been, and continues to be, to provide entertainment for the dwindling numbers of middle-class audiences, Havel is not good "box office." For a while, smaller and "engaged" theaters and a few in universities, will produce Havel's plays as a statement of political solidarity with the momentous changes in European politics. At the same time, they will confirm the feebleness of America's theatrical art to rouse anyone to thought or action.

Aside from its political context, what is the artistic relationship between Havel's plays and those of his contemporaries? Discerning the thread that binds the plays of Czechoslovakia's expresident to other modern playwrights is important in understanding his theater. One dramatist who comes to mind is Harold Pinter who, not surprisingly, acted in two of Havel's short plays ("Audience" and "Private View") in 1977 on the British Broad-casting Company. Pinter shares with Havel an interest in how people respond to the space in which they live, particularly the enclosed kind of space which makes Havel's "Audience" and Largo Desolato reminiscent of Pinter's The Dumbwaiter and, especially, The Birthday Party. In the latter, first produced in 1958, Pinter creates the figure of Stanley, the inarticulate recluse who is, depending on the interpretation of the text in production, destroyed by a thuggish, malevolent society or "birthed" into a culture which may not be as corrupt as it is pragmatically brutal. In fact, such opportunities for interpretation separate Pinter's plays from Havel's. Pinter's plays suffer markedly when they are "located"; Havel's, on the other hand, are conceived within a specific political context which is very difficult to separate out from the texts and their implications. Pinter, who writes in a democracy, is interested in existential freedom and is nonideological in his plays; confinement is a condition of life, not of politics. Trying to make his plays overtly political (as in the presentation of McCann's Irishness in The Birthday Party) restricts and diminishes them.

Havel, who wrote his plays under tyranny, is deeply ideo-logical in both attitude and experience. His plays embody a knowledge of history and are always attached to a context; Pinter's float free and are open to multiple inferences. For Pinter, the threatening "Other" is whoever happens to be the annihilating force of the moment; for Havel, the Other is always the state which may be, depending on the depth of our compromise with its individious demands, surprisingly benign. Pinter's people talk elliptically, trying to conceal motive and expressing a wide range of psychological subtexts; Havel's people talk ambiguously, seeking to avoid blame or shame, but expressing a very narrow choice of psychological motive. Both writers do create a very powerful sense of the sinister, and Havel's plays may be called, as Pinter's have been, "comedies of menace." Pinter frequently creates a feeling of threat through the use of an enclosed space; Havel often achieves the same effect by including in his plays a character or two, perhaps silent, who represent the omnipresent repressive state, for example Pillar in The Memorandum, the Two Chaps in Largo Desolato, and the Secret Messenger in Temptation.

An even closer theatrical affinity exists between Havel and the English playwright Tom Stoppard, who was born a few months after Havel, also in Czechoslovakia. Kenneth Tynan has written a splendid comparison of the lives, plays and temperaments of the two writers [in Show People: Profiles in Entertainment, 1979]. Suffice to say that the two playwrights share a deep mistrust of all orthodoxy and authority, and an identical delight in the liberating power of satirical language. The beginning of Stoppard's Travesties with its multilingual, arch use of language made both artistic and incomprehensible (to the audience) in the hands (or at the scissors) of Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin reminds us of Havel's invention of Ptydepe, the unlearnable bureaucratic babble of The Memorandum, written in 1965. And, equally important, the "time slips" in Travesties have been an identifying feature of Havel's plays since The Garden Party, a theatrical device where one scene or piece of dialogue is repeatedly replayed, perhaps modified by changing who says a certain speech or who performs the repeated action.

In Stoppard's play, the "slips" are "under the erratic control" of Henry Carr, his irascible curmudgeon of a protagonist, and Carr's frequent narrative recapitulations in the performance of Travesties are intended by Stoppard to be metatheatrical intrusions. Havel uses the technique more as a metaphorical device, apart from character, in order to signal either a world careening out of control (when the words and actions are accelerated), or one denuded of objective meaning, leaving its inhabitants to their meaningless lives. Stoppard has adapted Havel's Largo Desolato, written the introduction to The Memorandum in its English translation, and has dedicated his own brilliant political comedy about life under tyranny in Czechoslovakia, Professional Foul, to Havel. Geographically speaking, Stoppard is the cultural and national bridge between Havel and Pinter since he was born in Czechoslovakia but relocated to England at an early age. Artistically, he has been more prolific and inventive.

The third and even greater influence on Havel, of an entirely continental source, is Eugene Ionesco. With The Bald Soprano, first produced in 1950 and called an "anti-play" by its Romanian-born author, Ionesco began a series of theater pieces extraordinary for their antic humor and complete disregard of what can be called the logical necessities of stage realism. Well into the 1960s, his work endured as one of the dominant influences on European playwriting, and his shadow looms large as a presence in Havel's work. In a brief tribute to Havel ["Candide Had to Be Destroyed," in Václav Havel; or, Living in Truth, ed. Jan Vladislav, 1987], Milan Kundera asserts that

… no foreign writer had for us at that time [the 1960s] such a liberating sense as Ionesco. We were suffocating under art conceived as educational, moral or political …

One cannot conceive of Havel without the example of Ionesco yet he is not an epigone. His plays are an original and irreplaceable development within what is called "The Theatre of the Absurd'. Moreover, they were understood as such by everyone at the time …

Looking at The Garden Party with its loopy dialogue, nonsensical action and its fragmentation of character (by the end of the play, the protagonist Hugo Pludek has assumed a second identity of the same name), or noting the pretentious social chatter and bourgeois accumulations in "Private View", it is impossible not to perceive the Ionesco of The Bald Soprano, The Lesson or Jack, or the Submission, the first two of which were produced by Havel's Theatre of the Balustrade in the early 1960s. And Havel's use of doors in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration and Largo Desolato, in particular as an expression of the intrusions of an erratic, malignant external universe, has Ionesco's type of comic paranoia as its model. Havel, however, adds the political context missing in Ionesco, and Kundera is but one of many observers who see this Absurdism with a political face as a true moment of cultural liberation in the dark history of postwar Czechoslovakian politics.

One additional name must be mentioned in relation to Havel, though not for his structural, scénographie or linguistic similarities. It is a thematic thread that ties Pinter, Stoppard, Ionesco and Havel together with Samuel Beckett who wrote his small Catastrophe in 1983 to commemorate and excoriate (though subtly, minimally) Havel's lengthy and near-fatal imprisonment. This thematic line can be expressed as the well-worn theme of "respect for individual worth and the individual's need for dignity," though it is the unique genius of each of these five artists that keeps this concern meaningful and frequently moving. The painful and occasionally fanciful existence of Pinter's Stanley, of Stoppard's Henry Carr, of Ionesco's Berenger and of Beckett's Gogo and Didi are all images of their creators' devotion to the irreducible minimum of human freedom, and it is no coincidence that all of them in their personal lives (though some more than others and Beckett least of all) have committed themselves to fighting on several fronts for a humane existence for all the world's abused inhabitants.

With his election to the presidency, Havel's career in the theater was suspended, and his political commitments needed to be worked out in the "real world." In this connection, I think of the Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (who took his name from a lesser-known Czech writer of the nineteenth century), for just as Neruda's Nobel Prize was earned for literature, Havel may receive his for peace.

Currently, the great attraction to Havel's writing in the West is extra-theatrical, based on its antitotalitarian ideology of tolerance and responsibility, as well as by Havel's personal drama of exemplary courage in the face of oppression. One curious result of recent events in Czechoslovakia is that Havel's political failure now aligns him better with the failure of his plays' protagonists (who share occasional details of a common biography with their au-thor). But if we examine Havel's artistic endeavor apart from his political life, how can we measure his achievement?

Looking at Havel's plays leads even a sympathetic reader to conclude that the stylistic and structural repetitions, for example, the time warps, the repeated gestures and bits of business, the identical dreary "journeys" of the protagonists (Gross in The Memorandum, Huml in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Nettles in Largo Desolato and Foustka in Temptation) show Havel repeating himself too much. Thus, Largo Desolato and Temptation, Havel's last two plays, reveal a continuing preoccupation with outdated theater forms and an inability to drive his thinking or technique into a more moving creative expression than it possessed before the time of his imprisonment in 1979. In his brief tribute to Havel ["Prague—A Poem, Not Disappearing," in Living in Truth], Timothy Garton Ash assesses the situation thus:

… I still cannot avoid a deeper disappointment. The play [Temptation, produced in 1986 in Vienna], even as Havel has written it, is weak. And it is weak, it seems to me, for reasons directly related to his situation. For a start, the dramaturgy and stage effects envisioned in his very detailed stage directions are stilted, and if not stilted, then dated—all stroboscopes and smoke, circa 1966. Not surprising if you consider that he has been unable to work in the theatre for eighteen years.

In 1986, in a culinary metaphor Brecht would have loved and perhaps agreed with, Ash concludes about Temptation: "The thing is overcooked."

The comparison to Ionesco now becomes useful, for it has long been noted that the best efforts of Ionesco are the early, short plays like those mentioned above. Absurdist drama, already a historical detail in the postmodern theater and unknown firsthand to anyone under thirty, was most successful when it remained playfully brief. When lengthy, as is Ionesco's work since Exit the King (1962), Absurdism turned turgid and not a little pompous because the fun (often touched with horror) and the spirit of invention was unsustainable. Consider the conclusions of The Garden Party and Temptation, two Havel plays separated by almost a quarter of a century. The former ends with a character hidden inside a large cupboard (eavesdroppers appear in several Havel plays), making a surprising entrance, walking down to the footlights and directly addressing the audience: "And now, without sort of much ado—go home!" For this play, essentially a cartoon, the ending is abrupt, silly and appropriate. But the ending of Temptation, a play that attempts to deal with some of the same themes as The Garden Party (the language of bureaucracy, the description of life without commitment), seems to result from an exhausted imagination that has reached a point of no return, and no advance. The concluding dance which Havel describes as "a crazy, orgiastic masked ball or witches' sabbath" is accompanied by excruciatingly loud music and an auditorium full of smoke. The stage direction reads:

The music suddenly stops, the house lights go on, the smoke fades and it becomes evident that at some point during all this the curtain has fallen. After a very brief silence, music comes on again, now at a bearable level of loudness—the most banal commercial music possible. If the smoke—or the play itself—hasn't caused the audience to flee, and if there are still a few left in the audience who might even want to applaud, let the first to take a bow and thank the audience be a fireman in full uniform with a helmet on his head and a fire extinguisher [a major prop in The Memorandum] in his hand.

Temptation explores in greater measure Havel's major theme of betrayal (by society, of self), but its satirical attack on a world destined to disappear in flames is too discursive and distended, lacking precision or sting. Temptation features the usual Havel touches: repetitive and replayed dialogue or action, long speeches of apology for or exculpation from corruption (Havel's protagonists are frequently compromised intellectuals and/or academics), an environment of bureaucratic timeserving and political cowardice, and ample though insufficient flashes of antic wit. But, unlike Beckett whose work traced an endangered and dying universe with ever greater austerity and concision (including Catastrophe), Havel's proliferating scenic and linguistic excesses provide a smaller payoff.

In Tynan's essay referred to earlier, he discusses Stop-pard's difficulty in expressing genuine emotion and in creating convincing female characters. These are Havel's problems too, although in his defense it could be argued that in the kind of comic universe he creates, having either would be unusual. Nonetheless Havel's comic plays, essentially cerebral and objective, exclude the opportunity for the expression of deep, genuine feeling. His world is usually one of evasion and avoidance, like the world of classical farce which it frequently resembles in its dependence on rapid entrances and exits through a multiple number of doors. At his weakest, Havel replaces feeling with activity, providing gestures instead of activated concern. When this occurs, as in the recurrent business with PUZUK the computer in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, the face washing/door slamming of Largo Desolato or second dance sequence of Temptation, the plays lack, in Tynan's phrase, "the magic ingredient of pressure toward desperation."

The most common Havel story (and clearly a political one) involves the increasing pressure of a (male) protagonist to decide whether or not to betray himself or his friends. Mostly, Havel's characters fail the test miserably. But on the way to failure, the plays suggest a way to a true if limited salvation: the involvement in a genuine experience of love with a woman. Thus, in The Memorandum, Gross is attracted to the pure adoration of the office clerk, Maria, but he abandons her at the moment of her greatest need and marches off to lunch with his office staff. That Maria remains "happy" because "nobody ever talked to me so nicely before" does not excuse Gross's avoidance of moral action nor his failure to reciprocate Maria's genuine expression of love toward him. Similarly, at the conclusion of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Huml almost reaches an expressive emotional reciprocity with Miss Balcar who, at one moment in the final scene, is reduced to tears by her need for Huml despite the gassy academic discourse he puts between them. Though he embraces her and kisses her "gently on her tearful eyes," and she exits "smiling happily," it is clear that Miss Balcar will be the fourth of Huml's failures with women in this play and additional proof of his intellectual and political cowardice.

At the end of Largo Desolato, Marguerite arrives to give Leopold Nettles one final chance for rejuvenation through love. "You have given me back the meaning to my life," she tells him, "which is to give you the meaning back to yours." But their intense embrace is interrupted by the doorbell, and a terrorized Nettles leaves her immediately to chase after and to be humiliated by the two sinister chaps who inform him his gesture of "heroism" will no longer be required. Lastly, in Temptation, it is Marketa who serves as the abused image of innocence when her moment of courage in defending Foustka in front of their hostile bosses ends only in her summary dismissal after Foustka's betrayal of her. She returns later in the play dressed and behaving like a lunatic Ophelia, the one serious moment in the "witches' sabbath," but one deprived of tragic resonance because Havel has her return under peculiar circumstances for a last appearance as one of Foustka's tormentors.

In all of these scenes, I sense that Havel is flirting with a way to express a potentially liberating emotional occasion, liberating to his protagonists and to himself as a playwright of satirical political comedies. But in all of them, he deflects the serious tendencies of the characters and himself, preferring to avoid the entanglements of emotion with a disengaged, objective posture. It would be possible to argue that this lack of emotional commitment is the result of the political environment of his country, but I do not believe this is the case. Instead, I see this pattern as a refusal to extend these wonderful comedies into a more profound and troubling territory which would have serious and I think very positive results on Havel's playwriting. Havel turns back to his satire of bureaucratic and academic language in the arias of his cowardly protagonists, preferring the Ionesco "anti-play" to, say, Beckett's "tragicomedy." In this critical context, I would choose the two short pieces "Audience" and "Protest" as Havel's most successful plays, although I have a great liking for the stylish, sustained confidence of the comic ironies of The Memorandum. These plays are relatively brief, with all male characters, and emphasize the anguish of moral action and the fallibility of the human character, and are very funny.

In the third of his "Six asides about culture" (1984) [in Living in Truth], Havel compares the Czechs with their northeastern neighbors: "We live in a land of notorious realism, far removed from, say, the Polish courage for sacrifice." I understand Havel to refer to the Polish inclination toward the deathly side of human existence rather than his own Czech appreciation of the dark side of human organizations, and to the Polish strain of fatalism which is outside of and resistant to Havel's satirical assault on the notorious political realism of Czechoslovakia. Havel has yet to write a play as powerful as, say, Mrozek's Tango, that terrifying exposure of malignant brutality which, it should be mentioned, was adapted for the English stage by Tom Stoppard.

In John Webster's early seventeenth-century tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, the title character confronts her state supported executioners and replies to their murderous threats with an ingenious and unlikely metaphor:

I know that death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits, and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways.

Havel's stage would until now has had the doors but not the death. His new, resumed life as an expresident may include an appointment with the theater where, contemplating the murderous world around him, he will be hard pressed to avoid writing pointedly about how countries and peoples die. In his part of Europe the dire situation isn't, or isn't only, a joke.

"… if you must have a revolution," wrote Timothy Garton Ash [in "The Revolution of the Magic Lantern," in The New York Review of Books, 18 January 1990], "it would be difficult to imagine a better revolution than the one Czechoslovakia had: swift, nonviolent, joyful, and funny. A laughing revolution." This revolution culminated in Havel on the balcony overlooking a huge public square, in Prague's open air, unconfined, and recorded by accredited journalists rather than hidden informers. As president, Havel's voice was aspiring and consoling, simple and moral, a deliberate rejection of the anxious volubility and fussy cowardice of his absurd protagonists. Now it appears that he has been given a new, unwanted freedom so that he may, in the words of the Israeli novelist David Grossman, "hallucinate another kind of future," or perhaps, another kind of play. For a brief political moment, Havel's was the triumph of life over art, though the future may demand otherwise.

The Memorandum

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Jeremy Kingston (review date 29 March 1995)

SOURCE: A Review of The Memorandum, in The Times, London, 29 March 1995, p. 28.

[In the following evaluation of a recent British production of The Memorandum, Kingston praises the play but finds its absurdist elements dated.]

Written and produced in 1965 when its author, Vaclav Havel, was a relatively free man; first staged in this country 12 years later, when he had been placed under house arrest, this famous play [The Memorandum] is being revived at a time when he appears to have become incarcerated again, although now as his country's President.

The Velvet Revolution gives a special significance to the words spoken by the typist Maria, the only decent character in the play, trying to embolden her pusillanimous boss: "I believe that if one doesn't give way, truth must always come out in the end."

It has not done so when the play ends, and, perhaps, within the multiple ironies of the closing scene Maria herself has given way. Her boss's fatuous blatherings make her curiously happy. But on the other hand, this may be because she is leaving him to join her brother's theatre group—just such a group as the Theatre on the Balustrade, for whom The Memorandum was written.

Her boss is Josef Gross, who could well be known as Josef G, recalling Josef K, Kafka's hero [in The Trial], who woke up one morning to find himself arrested. Josef G arrives at his office to find himself being supplanted by his scheming deputy. The weapon used is a synthetic language called Ptydepe, pronounced in four syllables: P-tiedip-py. This is supposed to increase the efficiency of inter-departmental memos and instead leads to impotence and chaos.

Havel writes amusing scenes in which this ghastly tongue is being taught, culminating in one where the instructor (John Baddeley) has suavely replaced it with another, based on directly opposite principles. But the play's real meat is the endless circling by Gross around the building, becoming ever deeper entangled in the deceit and betrayal. David Allister, in physique like a harassed Clement Attlee although twice the height, gives his voice the wobble of panic and his shoulders the hunched look of a beast of burden.

Shortly before the half-way mark the play is becalmed in repetition, and some of the Absurdist baggage has not worn well. But Sam Walters's production recovers in the second half, and the scenes between Allister and Victoria Hamilton, excellently conveying Maria's plucky goodness, are tense and eloquent.

Among the play's happier inventions is the character of Mr Pillar, played here by Ian Angus Wilkie in silence for almost the entire play, but communicating volumes by his nods, insouciant shakes of the head and ominous shrugs. In an office, or a nation, where human speech is condemned, silence may seem wise. But it fails to save Pillar. The only true course, even if it is foolhardy, is not to give way.

Michael Billington (review date 30 March 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Memorandum, in The Guardian, 30 March 1995.

[In this review, Billington admires the irony in The Memorandum as well as the play's "brutally logical satire on the use of language to enforce conformity."]

Vaclav Havel's most durable play, The Memorandum, from 1965, gets a welcome revival at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, which for two decades has treated him almost as a house author. And even if the work now seems a trifle over extended, it reminds one, in its brutally logical satire on the use of language to enforce conformity, of what Havel once called his "spiritual kinship" with Kafka.

Havel shows Josef Gross, the managing director of a large firm, suddenly discovering a surreptitious plan to replace the native vernacular with Ptydepe: a synthetic language designed to iron out all ambiguities and evasions. But although office business is meant to be conducted in this new nonsense speak and the language is assiduously taught, almost no one can understand it. Unable to translate a memo written in Ptydepe or get the authorisation to decode it, Gross realises that "the only way to learn what is in one's memo is to know it already".

In this world of insane Catch-22 bureaucracy, Gross is demoted, then sacked but, with the discrediting of Ptydepe, finally restored to office, only to discover that an even more absurd artificial language has taken its place.

What is impressive is how many targets Havel manages to hit in the course of the play. On the one hand he attacks the linguistic perversion, conformism, surveillance and recantation that are part of any oppressive ideology: on the right, one might add, as well as the left.

But he also exposes the shallow humanism of Gross who, while prating of moral values, is the archetypal organisation man who does everything possible to save his own skin. The play may have grown out of experience of Czech communism: its application, however, is universal.

Havel's concern with symmetry makes it hard for him to end the work when he should. But his writing also has a blithe playfulness seen at its best in the very funny Ptydepe tuition scenes here conducted by John Baddeley with a donnish absorption in linguistic minutiae that suggests Alan Bennett as Shakespeare's Holofernes. In Sam Walters's astute, intelligent production David Allister's palpitating Gross confirms that the victim of conformity is also its ultimate apologist and there is an outstanding debut by Victoria Hamilton as a shy secretary punished for her misplaced sympathy.

It is, among many other things, a sharp-toothed attack on office politics written by a man who himself now seems trapped in the deadening politics of presidential office.

Sarah Hemming (review date 30 March 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Memorandum, in Financial Times, 30 March 1995, p. 17.

[Hemmings argues that the subject matter of The Memorandum is still current: "the use of language or jargon to obscure meaning has by no means vanished, " she maintains.]

One problem facing any writer in a totalitarian regime is that many words and phrases are hopelessly devalued by their official use. In The Memorandum, the Czech dissident playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel tackles this dilemma head on, by making language itself the subject of the play. His 30-year-old comedy deals with a monolithic office of uncertain function, where a new language is introduced to make communications more precise and to galvanise the chronically inefficient staff. Naturally, the project is doomed. The language proves too difficult for most employees, those who do master it begin to introduce unwelcome spontaneity, and the labyrinthine rules attached to its use are utterly self-defeating.

It is a funny and very clever play, and its revival at the Orange Tree in Richmond reveals it to be just as pointed as at its premiere. The portrayal of an unwieldy bureaucracy, whose only purpose seems to be self-perpetuation, will strike many people as familiar; the use of language or jargon to obscure meaning has by no means vanished. And while the play is about language, it also uses it as a metaphor: it takes little effort to see the imposed language as communism—or any political system. As a political parable, the play seems almost prophetic: everything changes, and yet things remain the same.

Havel focuses on Josef Gross, a mild-mannered and ineffectual managing director (a pleasing performance by David Allister), who one day receives a memo so opaque it beats even the legendary Birt-speak communications. The memo is written in Ptydepe, the new language that Gross discovers has been introduced under his feet by his grasping deputy (John Hudson) and his sinister silent sidekick (Ian Angus Wilkie). A whole new industry has grown up behind his back of translators, teachers and experts, and Gross finds himself frogmarched into the new system, struggling to keep his authority and trying, in vain, to get his memo translated.

The play's comic portrayal of a bewildering, intransigent bureaucracy and nightmarish love of control is reminis-cent of Kafka, while some of its bully-boy characters and its circular progress remind of you of Animal Farm. In the space of 24 hours, Gross is demoted and returned to power, the useless language is introduced, discredited and another introduced to take its place, while those involved in its implementation invent rules so complex they never need to do anything.

If the play has faults they are, as you might expect, that it can be verbose and over-intellectual. But it is very droll and beautifully acted in Sam Walters's meticulous, funny production. A strong cast revels in the play's absurd humour: John Baddeley is enjoyable as a blustering teacher, Roger Llewellyn as a florid translator and Stephanie Putson as a bimbo secretary. Victoria Hamilton, meanwhile, is sweetly serious as the Havel figure, the junior secretary who bucks the system by speaking the truth—and loses her job. The programme offers a primer of essential Ptydepe words, so I can tell you that the play runs at the Zup Zot until April 29.

Paul Taylor (review date 31 March 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Memorandum, in The Independent, 31 March 1995.

[In the following, Taylor offers a favorable assessment of The Memorandum.]

At the start of Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum, the managing director of a company is seen desultorily sorting through his in-tray, when all of a sudden he's arrested by the contents of a particular document. I use the verb advisedly, for from that moment the MD's life is turned upside-down with the abrupt arbitrariness and illogic that characterise Josef K's arrest at the beginning of The Trial. The memo that launches the absurdist lunacy in this 1965 play (now spiritedly revived by Sam Walters at the Orange Tree) is written in "Ptydepe". Sounding like gobbledegook, it is a synthetic language that's been designed to eradicate all ambiguity and imprecision from office discourse by making words as different as possible from each other in spelling. On lesser-used nouns, this procedure takes its toll: the word for "wombat" is 319 letters long. Vulnerable to blackmail because he innocently took the company's endorsement stamp home for the weekend, David Allister's splendidly rattled, mystified MD allows himself to be hustled into giving verbal authorisation for the Ptydepe classes that have already been functioning without his knowledge.

By so doing, he plunges his career into a dippily downward spiral and the office into situations that allowed the young Havel to theorise on the tortuous entanglements of totalitarian bureaucracy. To get a translation from Ptydepe, for example, you need an authorisation from someone who needs an authorisation from someone who, by definition, can't give it. The only way to learn what is in a memorandum, therefore, is to know it already.

Though the production can't disguise the protracted nature of the play, Walters' cast brings a biting exuberance to its bureaucratic shenanigans. Particularly enjoyable are the Ptydepe classes presided over by John Baddely's hilarious bow-tied enthusiast of a tutor. He demonstrates, say, the many intention-differentiating Ptydepe equivalents for the word "boo!" with the serene pedantry of the blinkered expert—a fact underlined when, after a power shift in the office, he's seen teaching another synthetic language (based on opposite principles) with just the same dispassionate eagerness.

The desirable goal of reverting to the country's mother tongue can't be achieved because, even when reinstated, the MD is still in hock to his enemies. They, after all, manoeuvred him into the position of authorising the now-despised Ptydepe. The saddest aspect of the whole affair is that it corrupts his human instincts, tempting him to pass off as high-minded necessity his refusal to defend Maria, the young secretary (movingly played by Victoria Hamilton) who had risked her job by translating the original memorandum for him.

This document, though couched in Ptydepe, had, it turns out, pledged full support from on high for the MD's negative stance towards the language—head office, like God, moves in mysterious ways. Curiously undated and with spot-on comic acting, The Memorandum gets this reviewer's endorsement stamp.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett (review date April 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Memorandum, in Plays & Players, Vol. 24, No. 8, April 1995, pp. 32-3.

[Below, Hughes-Hallett characterizes the mood of The Memorandum as one of "weary, witty disenchantment. "] Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum is set in the kind of office in which not only the people but even the notebooks are in danger of having their official existence denied if they lack the proper documents. The office routine is time-wasting and somewhat ludicrous but functions fairly smoothly until the deputy managing director, possibly, or possibly not, prompted by some unknown superior, introduces Ptydepe, a synthetic language designed to ensure the absolute precision of official memoranda by eliminating all the unnecessary and confusing emotional overtones of natural language. It's first rule is 'If similarity between any two words is to be minimised the words must be formed by the least probable combination of letters'. A Ptydepe department is set up to translate memos for staff who have not yet learnt the new language and evening classes instituted to make sure that they do learn it fast. Confusion follows.

The plot is circular, or rather caucus race-shaped, in that everyone ends up exactly where they started in the hierarchy of the firm, but the Ptydepe affair shakes things up enough to reveal both the funny and the sinister side of excessive bureaucracy. In Sam Walters' production the former is sensibly given prominence. The play takes the form of a Kafkaesque political allegory. One of the firm's regular employees is the staff-watcher, whose wretched job is to stand in an airless cupboard all day listening to conversations in adjoining offices; there are references to authorities 'higher up' who never appear and whose opinions, which can only be guessed at, are all-important. The two senior members of the Ptydepe department are given to behaviour strongly reminiscent of some of Pinter's thugs, putting their unshod feet up on the managing director's desk and talking across him, ignoring his nervous questions. But in this production the play's strength lies in its wit and the blend of realism and absurdity in its observation of office life: the pert secretary, Hana, played by Cindy O'Callaghan, who spends all day back-combing her hair, the rituals of coffee-making and lunch in the canteen, the frisson of embarrassment when the wrong person uses a Christian name and, most revealing of all, the tidy emptiness of the executives' desks. (When the managing director and his deputy change jobs for a spell all they have to move are their fire extinguishers.)

Our hero is Mr Gross, managing director, played with pleasant bafflement by Roger Swaine. When he objects to Ptydepe his deputy, using the kind of Alice in Wonderland logic that sounds unanswerable if you say it fast enough, persuades him to step down. Later he is as easily reinstated but the real action is taking place off-stage. The apparently bewildering shifts in the bosses' balance of power seem to reflect quite accurately the mood of the staff, as reported by Hana after her regular trips to the dairy-shop. The ambitious deputy is played fast and smoothly by John Challis but he's eclipsed by his wordless henchman Peregrine Pillar, who says nothing until the final scene but gets most of the laughs. Paddy Ward, who plays him, shrugs, grimaces and twitches with devastating precision.

John Baddely as a Ptydepe teacher is deliciously unctuous and Tony Aitken as the goody-goody of the class gives a marvellous performance, hinting in his few short scenes at a whole story of the unpopular man who tries too hard and whose world melts round him when even the teacher turns on him. But for me the real delight of the evening was Liz Crowther's performance in the tiny part of a sweet down-trodden secretary, the only character in this whole play about work who is ever actually seen to do any (and even her job consists mainly of doing her superiors' shopping). I have seldom seen anyone who looked so obviously, wholesomely good, and her reaction to Gross's cowardly refusal to help save her job—'No one ever talked to me so nicely before' is a moment radiant with selfless innocence in an evening whose predominant mood is one of weary, witty, disenchantment.

A Private View ("The VaněK Plays")

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John Simon (review date 5 December 1983)

SOURCE: "Farcical Worlds," in New York Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 48, 5 December 1983, pp. 149-50.

[When the three Vaněk plays were staged off-Broadway in 1983, they were given the collective title A Private View. In the following review of that presentation, Simon declares "Protest" the best of the pieces.]

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and fighter for human rights, is utterly heroic and admirable in the latter capacity. Twice jailed (once for four and a half years) and reduced to such menial labor as working in a brewery for championing freedom in general and the unjustly prosecuted in particular, he has also proved a decent and interesting writer, even if not in a league with such fictionists as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, and the brilliant but politically unsavory Vladimir Paral. Though, right now, he is out of jail, Havel's works cannot be openly performed or published in Czechoslovakia, which makes the Public Theater's mounting of A Private View, a triple bill of his one-acters, an act of justice as well as satisfaction.

In all three plays—separately conceived but forming a cohesive triptych—Vanek, the manifestly autobiographical hero, confronts representative members of his repressive society, all of whom variously pretend not to be part of the official tyranny, though all of them variously contribute to it. The names of the onstage characters have been changed (although most Czechs would recognize them); many of those mentioned in the dialogue bear their real names. In the first play ["Interview"], Vanek is summoned by the Head Maltster of the brewery where he funlessly rolls out the barrels. The H. M., while plying Vanek with the local brew, which the poor fellow detests but must partake of, tries to get him to inform against himself in writing, which the H. M. will pass on to the watchful and suspicious powers that be; in exchange, Vanek will be moved to a soft office job. "Who but yourself would know the kind of things They want to know?" the H. M. argues with inexorable logic; moreover, as a writer, Vanek is just the person to put those reports in good writing. A somewhat less Kafkaesque subplot has the H. M. urging Vanek to bring a famous actress he knows to the brewery, so he, the H. M., can spend a night of love with her to console him for his dreary life. Vanek handles his boss with consummate tact, but still gets into trouble for refusing to become a self-stoolie (or is it autopigeon?), and the play ends on a grimly funny note.

In the second work ["Private View"], a prosperous aparatchik and his wife, who claim to be Vanek's best friends, invite the dramatist to dinner with the double purpose of impressing him with all their material goods, many of them brought back from the West, and of hectoring him into making his life as nice as theirs, which he, being in the political and economic doghouse, manifestly couldn't do even if he wanted to. Yet these rich and crass "friends" desper ately need validation by an honest man—as the H. M. did, too—and feel likewise indignant when, for all his courtesy, he cannot quite oblige. Here again there are some wonderful ironies, but the best play is the third ["Protest"]: Vanek tries to get Stanek, a prosperous sellout of a fellow writer, to sign a protest petition in behalf of a young non-conformist in serious trouble. As it happens, the young man is the boyfriend of Stanek's daughter, and Stanek intended to get Vanek and his group to draft just such a protest; when, however, he is asked by Vanek to add his signature, he comes up with the most hilariously horrifying doublethink to justify his refusal.

There are three difficulties with these highly deserving plays. First, they are all a bit overlong for what they have to say, and, despite a small final twist, telegraph their endings. Second, there is, understandably but disturbingly, something self-serving here that leaves me feeling queasy: This Vanek-Havel is so patient, brave, and incorruptible, yet so tolerant of the weaknesses of others! While they are champions at what Havel, in a feuilleton entitled "The Trial," calls "the puny attempts to skate painlessly over the real dilemmas of life," you can tell by a glance at Vanek's cheap, well-worn, honest boots, the only foot-gear he has, that no skates have ever been clamped to them. A Private View contains noble and harrowing truths that needed saying, but either somebody else should have said them or the hero, even if he is, shouldn't emerge as such a saint.

Lastly, this well-designed and generally well-acted production—Stephen Keep and Richard Jordan are particularly good—is marred to a degree by Lee Grant's overdirecting. Miss Grant, an expert at Neil Simon farce, has goosed all three plays (but especially the second) into such hyperactivity that some of the real humor and horror gets lost in the nonstop shuffle.

Incidentally, for what is redundantly referred to as "a Turkish yataghan," we are given an ordinary curved saber. Vera Blackwell's translation sometimes sounds awkward but not cripplingly so.

Edith Oliver (review date 5 December 1983)

SOURCE: "Voice from Abroad," in The New Yorker, Vol. LIX, No. 42, 5 December 1983, p. 183.

[The following is a highly favorable assessment of the off-Broadway production of A Private View. Oliver asserts: "The performance of these plays, in the impeccable translation of Vera Blackwell, is itself impeccable. "]

A Private View, at the Public, is a program of three brief one-act satires by the brave dissident Czech dramatist Vaclav Havel. Each of them is an encounter centering on a character called Vanek, who is plainly based upon the author himself. The first two plays are set in 1975, shortly before Havel was sent to prison for protesting to the government on behalf of human rights; the third was written in 1978, shortly after his release, when he was employed in a brewery, pushing empty barrels around.

"Interview," which opens the evening, takes place in the office of the Head Maltster, who is seated at his desk when Vanek enters after being summoned from his work. The maltster, pouring himself beer after beer, and getting drunker and drunker, first warns Vanek about the people around him and then, after circling the point of the inter-view for quite a while, offers him a promotion to an office job on a couple of conditions: first, that he bring a famous actress to the factory to meet the maltster, and this Vanek agrees to do; and, second, that Vanek prepare his own secret report on his activities for the maltster to present to the authorities, and this Vanek refuses to do. The maltster, bursting into sobs, delivers a tirade on the intellectual's contempt for the poor working-man and then passes out, his head on his desk. As Vanek is about to go, the maltster wakes up; having forgotten all that has gone before, he greets Vanek and begins the interview over again.

In the second play, "Private View," Vanek, all but down and out, visits a prosperous couple—his former best friends—in their new flat, which is furnished to the brim with artistic atrocities. The couple offer him bourbon from America, offer to play him new rock records, and offer him boundless advice on how to be as rich and happy as they are. (One way, of course, is to get rid of the "failures and has-beens," the dissident troublemakers who are Vanek's colleagues.) Angrily, he starts to leave; there are sobs and hurt feelings, and he returns. All ends with hugs and kisses and recorded music.

In "Protest," Vanek has been sent for by a successful writer of television scripts who is worried to death about being overheard or spied upon or stepping out of line. He begins by saying how much he admires Vanek's courage and envies his conscience. He then tells Vanek that a young songwriter, who is his daughter's lover, has been arrested for outspokenness, and that the scriptwriter needs Vanek's help. Vanek takes a protest, already prepared, out of his briefcase, and the rest of the play is given over to Vanek's attempts to persuade the writer to sign it, and the verbal and intellectual squirming of the writer, who, of course, refuses to do so.

The performance of these plays, in the impeccable translation of Vera Blackwell, is itself impeccable, under Lee Grant's direction. Miss Grant is able to maintain the correct tone and the European Absurdist style from beginning to end, with an able American company. As Vanek, the one sane figure in a world gone mad, Stephen Keep (who looks like a young Joseph Papp) spends much of his time listening, and he does so with dramatic intensity. The other actors are Barton Heyman, Concetta Tornei, Nicholas Hormann, and Richard Jordan, and all of them are good. The scenery is by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, the lighting is by Arden Fingerhut, and the costumes are by Carol Oditz.

Leo Sauvage (review date 26 December 1983)

SOURCE: "Dramas in Two Worlds," in The New Leader, Vol. LXVI, No. 24, 26 December 1983, pp. 16-17.

[In this review of A Private View, Sauvage praises "Interview" and "Protest" but severely censures "Private View," stating: "The play is bad, and made worse by [director Lee] Grant's misdirection and [actress Concetta] Tornei's physical miscasting" as Vera.]

Three one-acters written between 1975-78 by the dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel have had their initial New York production at Joseph Papp's Public Theater under the title of A Private View. The plays, which seem to be excellently translated by Vera Blackwell, premiered separately in London. Naturally, they cannot be seen in the author's own "socialist" country.

The first and last of the trio, "Interview" and "Protest," are short tales of extraordinary dramatic power, exemplary in the sense Cervantes gave to the word. Rather unexpectedly, Havel concentrates—with bitter, yet only slightly sarcastic understanding—not on people like himself but on those who have more or less reluctantly adapted to the totalitarian system. What the conformists are still able to feel, and how they cope with it, is revealed when they are faced with a dissident playwright named Ferdinand Vanek, who is obviously Vaclav Havel himself.

Admirably acted by Stephen Keep, Vanek is a quiet, steady, sturdy symbol of human resistance. Havel, a permanent victim of the Prague regime even if he is out of jail for the moment, intends to demonstrate that the authorities have not entirely succeeded in extinguishing the emotional and moral life of their servants. Deep, or not so deep, inside, some of the submissive majority cannot help admiring, indeed envying, the dissident, however they try to wriggle out of the discomposure this causes them.

Unfortunately, there is also the second play, the title piece. Placed between the two small masterpieces, "Private View" comes close to spoiling the whole evening. Certainly, it upsets Havel's demonstration.

One of the jobs Vanek/Havel had to take in order to survive through the 1970s was that of a laborer handling barrels in a brewery. "Interview" begins when the "head maltster"—as the program identifies him—summons Vanek to his office. Looking like a George Grosz drawing of a fat bureaucrat, the chief is a former blue-collar worker who has managed to climb to a position that allows him to drink beer, fall asleep at his desk, snore, and dream of spending a night in the arms of a beautiful actress whom, he learns with rapture, Vanek knows. Though vulgar and well aware that he has to be very careful to retain his cushy spot, he is neither brainwashed nor mean. Vanek's political status doesn't seem to disturb him, except for one problem: They want him to write a weekly report on his worker, and he doesn't know what to say.

Eventually, he thinks of a solution. After long, embarrassed, circuitous small talk punctuated by the opening of beer bottles and interrupted by frequent trips to the toilet, he suggests that perhaps Vanek would be willing to concoct the entries to his own dossier. After all, he is a writer by profession. An easy desk job, it seems, could be arranged in exchange for these innocent flights of imagination.

"Interview" is a farce—thick, coarse, uninhibited, enthusiastically staged by Lee Grant in her directorial debut, and pushed to the limit by Barton Heyman's lavishly un-refined head maltster. But it is not devoid of meaning. When Vanek tries to slip out of the office without having relieved his superior's headache, the "interviewer" arouses himself from a moment of drunken stupor and, forgetting the previous conversation entirely, invites the disgraced intellectual in to start all over again. And Vanek, who has until now carefully kept his distance, is ready to join the man in his revels. In the eyes of Vanek/Havel, then, the dull-witted bureaucrat is not an enemy, only a sad example of Czechoslovakia's "new society."

In "Protest," Vanek's presence unravels a quite different member of the unhappy group who once thought they could reap the benefits of satisfying the regime without becoming dissatisfied with themselves. Stanek, a novelist and television scenarist, and a former good friend of Vanek, has given up all independent writing in favor of his well-rewarded hack work. He has suddenly called Vanek, whom official intellectuals of course prefer to avoid, because a young songwriter lately placed under arrest happens to be the boyfriend of Stanek's daughter. Maybe, Stanek tells Vanek, a protest signed by well-known dissidents would help the young man. Vanek, although previously ignorant of his ex-friend's personal connection to the case, has come to Stanek's comfortable villa with a briefcase containing precisely such a petition. By asking Stanek whether he wants to sign it himself, he launches an exquisitely peculiar dialogue wherein the accommodationist, pen in hand, details all his good reasons for refusing. It's a great scene, superbly played by Richard Jordan as Stanek and flawlessly directed by Grant.

Like the head maltster who represents the industrial bureaucracy, the opportunist from the intellectual bureaucracy is not hopelessly corrupt—for he is as little at ease with himself as with Vanek. In "Private View," by contrast, Michael and Vera, the husband and wife whose apartment Vanek is visiting for the evening, have no conscience. They are soulless, perhaps brainless, certainly tasteless profiteers. Thanks to Michael's position in the upper-class bureaucracy, they have recently traveled to the U.S., bringing back every American gadget, record and piece of furniture they could lay their hands on.

Although Michael would have access to luxuries unknown to his ordinary comrades, it is difficult to believe a high-ranking Communist would openly lead such an "Americanized" life. Surely Michael would understand that he was putting an end to his career.

More important, because it lacks the leitmotif of guilt and embarrassment that carries the other plays, "Private View" introduces an element of incoherence into what is supposed to be an interrelated trilogy. Michael and Vera conspire to seduce Vanek into relinquishing his principles out of friendship—or, as becomes increasingly evident, out of desires that reach beyond the bounds of normal friendship. There is an incredibly ludicrous scene where Concetta Tornei, as Vera, exhibits her breasts to Vanek while Michael, portrayed by Nicholas Hormann, vaunts their beauty. No less grotesque is the concluding sequence. When Vanek is told that breaking with fellow dissident playwright Pavel Kohout (throughout, Havel refers to the various offstage characters by their real names) would make life easier for him, he takes his coat and prepares to leave. With Vera crying hysterically on the sofa, however, and Michael swearing at his guest for turning his back on their longstanding bond of affection, Vanek comes back, not to drink beer with a head maltster this time, but to join in what is obviously going to be a triangular sex party.

The play is bad, and made worse by Grant's misdirection and Tornei's physical miscasting. I recommend, therefore, walking out after "Interview," without going too far away to be back in time for "Protest."

Robert Brustein (review date 12 March 1984)

SOURCE: "Private Views, Public Vistas," in Th e New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 10, 12 March 1984, pp. 27-9.

[In the evaluation below of A Private View, Brustein argues that Havel has made Vaněk the spokesman for his own views, and in so doing has "created for himself an insoluble problem: how to dramatize the cowardice of others and contrast it with your own heroism, without appearing impossibly self-righteous. "]

I am late in reviewing Vaclav Havel's A Private View at the Public Theater for reasons that suggest how political considerations can inhibit one's critical judgments. I have not greatly admired Havel's dramatic writings in the past (I found The Memorandum, for example, a post-Absurd-ist contrivance hamstrung by crude linear plotting), but in view of the courageous public actions of this Czechoslovakian dissident, it somehow seemed insensitive to be making aesthetic judgments on his techniques. How does one criticize the art of a man exemplary enough to draw tributes from Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard without seeming to mitigate one's admiration for his personal heroism? Still, Havel is not just a symbol of political persecution, he is also a serious writer who both seeks and deserves an honest assessment. The problem is that Havel's new play is compromised by the very virtues that make him a hero to the West.

A Private View consists of three short playlets unified by its central figure, Ferdinand Vanek. When we first see Vanek [in "Interview"], he has arrived, cap in hand, for an interview with his bibulous boss, the head malter in a brewery. An intellectual and a playwright, Vanek has taken this job for reasons partly economic (he needs money), partly political (a troublemaker banned from editorial jobs, he needs to identify himself with working people). But his beer-soaked interrogator, alternately menacing and friendly in the manner of a Kafka bureaucrat, views him as a condescending creature from another class whose friendship with such dissidents as Pavel Kohout is [compromising] his credibility with the authorities. Guzzling bottles of brew and interrupting their conversation for frequent piss calls, the boss holds out promise of a better-paying job if Vanek will fix him up with an actress and admit his dissident sympathies. Always humble and agreeable, Vanek will arrange the assignation, but stoutly refuses to inform on himself. The boss grows more sloshed; Vanek makes another entrance to start the interview again, this time assuming the coarse macho manners appropriate to his environment.

"I am a swine and the swine go home," says Brecht's Kragler of Drums In The Night, another character who learns that the best defense against authority is pliancy. The second playlet ["Private View"], however, suggests that Vanek's self-denigration is more a modest authorial pose than a strategy for political adaptation. Here Vanek visits two friends from his past, a swinging middle-class couple in a trendy apartment festooned with vulgar objects purchased abroad. "We're having our own little private view here this evening," they tell him. And as he drinks their whiskey from the "States," munches their gourmet "grundles," and tries to admire their conversation-piece confessional and Biedermeier clock, Vanek is unwillingly drawn into the experimental lives of this advanced couple. The wife puts her hand on Vanek's crotch and exposes her breasts, while extolling the sexual prowess of her husband; before long, the couple is making love in front of him—forcing the uneasy Vanek to avert his eyes ("Won't my being around make you nervous?")

Soon they get down to the real subject of the visit, which is to rebuke him for his unorthodox politics and his dissident associates (Kohout is again mentioned as a dangerous influence), meanwhile suggesting that if Vanek would only conform he could be enjoying similar luxuries and privileges. Throughout this colloquy, Vanek remains silent, unprotesting, a figure whose very impassivity seems to make his critics furious. Finally, Vanek confesses he is sorry to have caused his friends so much trouble and anguish, and just as he adapted earlier to the proletarian camaraderie demanded by the head malter, he now sits contentedly listening to his bourgeois friends' rock records and drinking their bourbon.

The plays are apparently based on real incidents (and, according to the translator, Vera Blackwell, "real people"). But although Vanek is undoubtedly an autobiographical figure, there are significant differences between the dissident Havel and his unprotesting hero. These are even more evident in the third and final playlet of the evening, "Protest," which takes place four years later, in 1979. Here Vanek—just released from a year in prison for his political activities—visits a successful writer, Stanek. In the security of his studio, Stanek is able to profess deep contempt for the authorities—"this nation is governed by scum"—but publicly he has been enriching himself by writing for TV and film. Like any other media artist, he displays both guilt and defiance regarding the moral com-promises necessary to prosper in such a job. But Stanek greatly admires Vanek's integrity in regard to art and human rights, even though, having read his play about the brewery, he disapproves of the "unrealistic" ending. Now a young friend of his daughter (she is pregnant by him) has been arrested for political reasons, and Stanek wants Vanek to submit a petition for his release.

Vanek has already written such a petition and collected some signatures, including that of Pavel Kohout. It never occurs to Stanek to sign it himself. Instead he makes suggestions about how to make the document milder, less provocative, and then offers Vanek some money for his persecuted comrades (naturally he doesn't want this known). Still preternaturally mild-mannered, Vanek finally asks Stanek to become a signatory to his own petition. The panicked Stanek responds with an outpouring of shame and remorse. He had always assumed that only dissidents made protests, that when you wanted something dangerous done you turned to agents—"Can everybody become a fighter for human rights?" Filled with self-loathing, he determines to regain his lost honor and self-respect, and sign, then rehearses all the reasons why he shouldn't: he will lose his job, his son will be unable to continue with his studies, he will no longer be able to do any "backstage maneuvering." Inevitably, Stanek decides to with-hold his name, and when he asks Vanek, "Are you angry?" receives the reply, "I respect your reasoning."

This Christ-like response enrages Stanek. He accuses Vanek of "benevolent hypocrisy," of "moral superiority," of hiding his contempt behind a mask of reasonableness. Still impassive, Vanek refuses to defend himself against these charges, but the issue resolves itself at the end of the play when news comes that the young man has already been released and the petition is unnecessary. Vanek assures the relieved Stanek it was his "backstage maneuvering" that produced the happy results, and, considering for a moment whether to return Stanek's donation, decides to keep the money and leave.

Clearly, Havel has created for himself an insoluble problem: how to dramatize the cowardice of others and contrast it with your own heroism, without appearing impossibly self-righteous. The playwright's strategy is to make Vanek at times a "swine who goes home," scraping before authority and conforming to whatever is demanded, at other times a model of compliant sweetness. Still, the savagery of Havel's satire on the moral dilemmas of those who lack his courage raises doubts about whether he shares his hero's charitable nature, and the difficult sacrifices he has made on behalf of human rights suggest that whatever his faults, conformity is not among them. Vanek, the character, is exonerated from Stanek's accusation of "moral superiority" by the uncritical way he behaves toward others; but the man who invented him cannot entirely escape the same charges.

It is a problem compounded by a conflict between the public and private aspects of Havel's character, between the hero who acts and the playwright who creates. I can't begin to suggest how it could be avoided, except to avoid writing about yourself altogether. But since political protest is at the very center of Havel's obsessions, this alternative would rob him of his subject. Brecht escaped the problem because he had a much less exalted view of human character ("Unhappy is the land that needs a hero"), including his own (he was willing to adopt any strategem for survival). But without personal heroism, a once proud, progressive nation would be doomed eternally to slavish servility.

Lee Grant's production at the Public Theater strives bravely, though not always successfully, to disguise the contradictions in Havel's style and tone. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's set is a garish false proscenium decorated with Communist worker symbols, tanks and hammers, providing an ominous reminder of the totalitarian context of the plays. Stephen Keep, looking like a latter-day Leslie Howard, manages to keep the character of Vanek modest and charming in the face of the most irritating provocations. But it is these provocations, and Vanek's gentle response to them, that ultimately undermine one's faith in the veracity of the proceedings, and leave one wishing Havel had found a more direct way to express his outrage and contrast his own behavior with that of his craven friends.

Catharine Hughes (review date 14 April 1984)

SOURCE: "Where Theater Matters," in America, Vol. 150, No. 14, 14 April 1984, pp. 281-82.

[In this review of A Private View, Hughes offers a moderately favorable assessment of the play.]

The first portion of the Czech dissident's three-play evening [A Private View] is entitled "Interview." Like the remaining two, both of which stand on their own but are interrelated, it features the obviously autobiographical Vanek (Stephen Keep). Initially, he is called into the office of the head maltster of the brewery to which he has been sent to perform menial labor as punishment for his nonconformist behavior. There, amid phony bonhomie, he is asked in effect to inform upon himself in writing. In exchange, he will receive a far softer office job where he will, in theory, be able to pursue his writing. Although observing "I couldn't very well inform on myself," he handles his interrogator with consummate politeness and skill as the brief play moves to its somberly funny conclusion.

In the second segment, "A Private View," Vanek goes to visit his supposedly "best friend," a prosperous aparatchik, and his wife, who seek to impress him with their material possessions, their records from the West, their art and interior decoration. And not coincidentally, to convince him of the error of his dissident ways. He, too, could enjoy such things if only he would confine himself to the political straight and narrow. He cannot agree. Nor can he provide them with the salve to their conscience that such agreement would offer. A combination of bemusement and sardonic observation, he must remain true to what he believes, his worn-out shoes and clothes and his jailing notwithstanding.

"Protest," the best and concluding segment, finds Vanek at the country home of another supposed friend, this one a successful television writer Stanek (Richard Jordan). Stanek's heart, of course, is in the right place; his convenience is not. Vanek has brought with him a protest on behalf of a youthful nonconformist that he wishes Stanek to sign. As it evolves, the boy is the other writer's daughter's lover. Although his daughter is soon to bear the young man's child, a curious and at times very funny form of doublethink enables him to justify his refusal, at least to himself. For, in the end, "It doesn't seem possible that really everyone should be a fighter for human rights."

Havel has twice been jailed for his views, most recently for four and one-half years, so perhaps he can be forgiven for making his alter ego into a little too much of a paragon, a little too pure, a little too perfect. And, frankly, one does not think overly much about this when viewing A Private View, which has been somewhat busily directed by the actress Lee Grant. What comes through in the end is a sense of the statement Havel made to Le Monde in April of last year: "I am not on the side of any establishment, nor am I a professional fighter against any other. I am simply on the side of truth against lies, of good sense against non-sense, and of justice against injustice."

Further Reading

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Kriseová, Eda. Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography, translated by Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Written by a friend and colleague of Havel, this book details the author's private and public life, touching briefly on his literary career.


Blair, Erica. "Doing without Utopias: An Interview with Vaclav Havel," translated by A. G. Brain. Times Literary Supplement, No. 4373 (23 January 1987): 81-3.

Critiques both totalitarian and capitalist societies and discusses the role of art in Czechoslovakia.

Havel, Václav. "Second Wind." In Good-bye Samizdat: Twenty Years of Czechoslovak Underground Writing, edited by Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, pp. 205-10. Evanston, I11.: Northwestern University Press, 1992.

Discusses the writing process and the shaping of the writer.

Mestrovic, Marta. "From Prison, a Playwright Yearns for a Stage." The New York Times (9 April 1989): II, 5-6.

Interview in which Havel recounts the effects of his imprisonment on his writing and assesses the state of theater in Czechoslovakia.


Baranczak, Stanislaw. "All the President's Plays." The New Republic 203, No. 4 (23 July 1990): 27-32.

Explores the relationship between Havel's "realistic plays," including the Vaněk series and Largo Desolato, and his "parabolic plays," most notably The Memorandum and Temptation.

Bradbrook, M. C. "Václav Havel's Second Wind." Modern Drama XXVII, No. 1 (March 1984): 124-32.

Surveys Havel's post-1960s plays, which Bradbrook unifies through the theme of conscience and "the power to say NO."

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. "Vaclav Havel." In her The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights without a Stage, pp. 43-88. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Broad overview of Havel's dramatic output.

——. "Václav Havel: A Writer for Today's Season." World Literature Today 55, No. 3 (Summer 1981): 389-93.

Traces in Havel's plays the theme of language as a tool' used to annihilate the individual.

Grossman, Jan. "A Preface to Havel." Tulane Drama Review 11, No. 3 (Spring 1967): 117-20.

Consideration of The Garden Party and The Memorandum by the artistic director of Prague's Balustrade Theatre, where they were first staged.

Schamschula, Walter. "Václav Havel: Between the Theater of the Absurd and Engaged Theater." In Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, edited by Henrik Birnbaum and Thomas Eekman, pp. 337-48. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1980.

Surveys Havel's work written prior to 1978 in order to assess the playwright's place within the theater of the absurd.

Stern, J. P. "Havel's Castle." London Review of Books 12, No. 4 (22 February 1990): 5-8.

Relates events in Havel's life to aspects of his plays.

Trensky, Paul I. "Václav Havel and the Language of the Absurd." The Slavic and East European Journal XIII, No. 1 (Spring 1969): 42-65.

Focuses on the use of language in The Garden Party and The Memorandum, noting Havel's association with the theater of the absurd, particularly Eugene Ionesco's work.

Vladislav, Jan, ed. Václav Havel; or, Living in Truth. London: Faber and Faber, 1985, 315 p.

Important collection of essays about Havel's life and works.


Ambros, Veronika. "Fictional World and Dramatic Text: Václav Havel's Descent and Ascent." Style 25, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 310-19.

Examines The Garden Party as the interaction of written text and theatrical performance.

Trensky, Paul I. "Havel's The Garden Party Revisted." In Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, edited by William E. Harkins and Paul I. Trensky, pp. 103-118. New York: Bohemica, 1980.

Investigates Havel's use of language in The Garden Party.


Clardy, J. V. "Václav Havel's The Memorandum: A Study in the Terror of the Czechoslovak Bureaucratic World." Cimarron Review 6 (December 1968): 52-7.

Reads The Memorandum in the context of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, characterizing it as "a terrifying account of the dehumanizing effects of Stalinistic bureaucracy."

Flannery, James W. 'Taking Theatre to the Bureaucrats: An Experimental Production of The Memorandum by Václav Havel." Educational Theatre Journal 29, No. 4 (December 1977): 526-34.

Explores the challenges and impact of staging The Memorandum in a non-theatrical setting.


Blackwell, Vera. "Havel's Private View." Cross-Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture 3 (1984): 107-19.

Analyzes the function of Vaněk in "Audience," "Private View," and "Protest," recounting the enthusiastic response the plays received at their American premiere.

Quinn, Michael L. "Ferdinand Van k, or Compliant Protest." In Text and Presentation: The University of Florida Department of Classics Comparative Drama Conference Papers, Vol. X, edited by Karelisa Hartigan, pp. 73-81. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990.

Surveys the Vaněk plays and discusses the appropriation of the Vaněk character by other writers.


Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. "Variations of Temptation—Václav Havel's Politics of Language." Modern Drama XXXIII, No. 1 (March 1990): 93-105.

Contends that Temptation is the "most challenging" of Havel's critiques of language.

Additional coverage of Havel's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 36; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 25, 58, 65; Major Twentieth-Century Writers.


Václav Havel World Literature Analysis


Havel, Václav (Vol. 123)