Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

Václav Havel 1936–

Illustration of PDF document

Download Václav Havel Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Czechoslovakian dramatist, essayist, and poet.

Havel is associated with the respected Theater on the Balustrade, Prague's leading avant-garde theater of the 1960s. His work is "blackly" comic and often disturbing. It is also controversial among leaders of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, yet Havel is acclaimed by critics in his own country and abroad. Some describe him as the most important Czech dramatist since Karel Čapek.

Working from a broad interest in the absurd nature of human existence, Havel writes plays that have a universal appeal despite their Czechoslovakian settings. In general, his dramas depict the mechanization of the individual by society and the role of language in this dehumanization process. These works have an intriguing circular quality: their focus shifts rapidly and repeatedly from the psychological to the metaphysical, to the social, to the patently absurd. His most famous plays, Zahradni Slavnost (The Garden Party) and Vyrozumeny (The Memorandum), are absurdist works, full of humorous social commentary, political parody, and bleak philosophical observations.

In 1979 Havel, who often and effectively satirizes bureaucracies, was arrested and sentenced to four and a half years in prison for allegedly subversive activities. His plays were also banned from the Czech stage. Havel, nonetheless, has strong supporters in and out of his country. He is a close friend and confidant of dramatist Tom Stoppard. Samuel Beckett's recent brief play, Catastrophe for Václav Havel is an anti totalitarian statement written to protest Havel's imprisonment.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104.)

Jan Grossman

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

A great theatre reveals not only itself and its story; it also reveals the viewer's story, and with it his urgent need to confront his own experience with the theme presented on stage. Such a play does not end with the performance; the curtain is only the beginning.

In his plays, Vaclav Havel has shown this true dramatic ability as have few in contemporary Czech literature. His key concern is the mechanization of man…. At the beginning of The Garden Party or The Memorandum, the audience is not dazzled by dramatic skills which elaborate on the subject; instead, there is mechanization itself, experienced as well as mediated by a manner which is technical and theoretical rather than dramatic.

Havel's potential as a playwright was once doubted by people who, however much they praised his literary talent, his analytical ability, his cutting aphorisms, thought he was too rationalistic and precise to fulfill current ideas of dramatic narrative and psychology…. Havel the analyst produced Havel the playwright at the moment he found the courage to be only what he really was; he derived a theatrical method from his own view of reality as soon as he discovered in it the fundamental characteristics of dialogue, which is the most valuable trait of his plays and the source of their universal appeal. They create a specific dialogue between stage and audience, with ample room for complementary meanings and associations.

In both The Garden Party and The Memorandum, the protagonist is the mechanism which controls the human characters. The mechanism of cliché dominates the former play: man does not use cliché, cliché uses man. Cliché is the hero, it causes, advances, and complicates the plot, determines human action, and, deviating further and further from our given reality, creates its own.

In The Memorandum, the protagonist also comes from human speech: man makes an artificial language which is intended to render communication perfect and objective, but which actually leads to constantly deepening alienation and disturbance in human relations. The Garden Party demonstrated the process in a manner which—within the framework of the playwright's poetry—was humorously aggressive propaganda, but the characters in The Memorandum no longer serve primarily to carry a message; they grow organically from the concept, represent it, contain it; and the author disappears behind his story and his style.

The theme has become psychological, by which I mean not that it has been softened by "human" details but, on the contrary, that the entire technique is mechanized, the characters are mechanized, and the material is interpreted on many different levels. Abstract speech is the subject: it is projected onto the mechanism of cowardice, the mechanism of power, the mechanism of indifference, and each of these in itself—as well as all of them in harmony—creates a stratified, complex picture of human depersonalization.

I do not know whether Havel's theatre belongs to the "absurd"—surely any influence shows only on its widest concepts. His plays are invented, artificial; but this quality has nothing to do with romantic fantasies or the unbridled insanity in which, forced to proceed according to the "law" of fantasy, people walk on their heads rather than their feet. Havel's artificial structuring of the world is made up of real, even commonplace and banal, components, joined most reasonably into a whole. The Memorandum's story of an artificial language never happened and probably never will, yet Havel convinces us that it could, at any time. His world is hypothetical; therefore, possible. And it is no sweet and rosy possibility, but somewhat cruel and definitely negative. The hero is not protagonist but antagonist: the ever negating spirit which, creating its own truth, forces us to face an always-possible doom. Yet it also expects us to rebel against the truth it "creates," it provokes a discussion, turns our point of view around, upsets our actions, our fantasies, and our ideas. (pp. 118-19)

Jan Grossman, "A Preface to Havel" (reprinted by permission of the author; an excerpt originally from his introduction to Protokoly by Václav Havel, Mladá fronta, 1966), in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. II, No. 3, Spring, 1967, pp. 117-20.

Paul I. Trensky

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2500

The work of Havel epitomizes the state of Czech literature in the middle 1960's, which is characterized by two main features: first, an orientation toward the West in general philosophical questions and literary techniques, and, secondly, an outspokenly critical attitude toward Stalinism and its contemporary vestiges. Havel's work would be unthinkable without the influence of the so-called theater of the absurd, but at the same time it is deeply involved in an examination of the social ills of Czechoslovakia….

As is the case with most absurd dramas, there is no plot, intrigue, or conflict in the traditional sense of the word in The Garden Party. The principal character of the work is Hugo Pludek, and, in the stratum of the action, the play deals with his overnight success. (p. 42)

His swift career is, however, realized at the expense of his personality. The most outstanding feature of Hugo is his ability to adapt to his surroundings, through which alone he is able to succeed in the world of bureaucracy. As he is constantly forced to assimilate to the new milieu, he gradually destroys his own self to such a degree that he ceases to be aware of his original identity. At the end of the drama Hugo does not even recognize his parents, nor do they recognize him. He has become a different, faceless being.

On the psychological level one could regard the play as being based on the traditional theme of the degradation of man by his lack of principles…. The techniques of The Garden Party, however, have little in common with the traditional drama or novel. Hugo, while trying to adapt himself, mutates directly into other personalities. The decomposition of his ego is realized not merely on the psychological level, but in the very structure of the drama. The essential dramaturgical device of the play rests in a direct character metamorphosis, which is, in general, widely used by the absurd dramatists…. Havel shares with other absurd dramatists the conception of modern man's identity as a vacuum; consequently, man can become anything at any time, depending largely on the influences to which he is exposed. All his characters are soulless, mechanical creatures who are formed and defined only by their environment. The human world is an impersonal world in which individuals are exchangeable.

An analysis of The Garden Party must of necessity focus primarily upon its language. Lacking a real plot, conflict, and set of characters, the play rests on a highly complex verbal structure, and it is actually the language which is its primary moving force. This aspect of Havel's play is also identifiable with the absurd theater in the West, which has substantially changed the role of language in the structure of the dramatic genre…. In the traditional theater the role of language was largely secondary. It served merely as a vehicle for expressing the ideas and emotions of the characters, for the elaboration of the theme and conflict, and as a necessary link between the stage and the audience. In a theater which accredits to characters no inner life, however, words cannot be used just as projections to the outer world. Language not only ceases to serve character development, but the opposite becomes the fact, characters being made the vehicle of language. Words form people by filling their inner void until human speech stops functioning as a means of communication and becomes a form of social behavior. And since language no longer serves to express ideas, it also has to be contentless. Indeed, long dialogues in The Garden Party are nothing but a collection of prefabricated clichés which the characters repeat over and over, or the more creative ones intertwine and twist, but seldom does the human mind exhibit any more originality than a perfectly functioning linguistic computer. Language is the symptom of the alienation of man, but in a much more intense way than, for instance, in Čexov's plays. It points up not only the impossibility of communication between people, but the very corruption of intellect by language. People cannot understand each other because they simply do not say anything. The play presents language as a proliferating object of a monstrous energy. Words constantly threaten to take over and play with their victims at their whim.

The first act of The Garden Party is a parody of the family drama in a sense similar to the well-known one-act comedies of Ionesco. The stock situation and the cliché language of the soap opera are studiously burlesqued in order to unmask the bizarre nature of the petty bourgeois world which this genre glorifies. Both playwrights' conceptions of the bourgeois seem to be quite similar, based not on political factors, but on moral ones. The petty bourgeois is for them the incarnation of opportunism, mediocrity, and especially of conformity…. In Havel's play the spokesman for the bourgeois morality is Pludek-father, who is appalled by the nonconformist appearance of his elder son, Peter, and puts all his hope in his more ordinary yet apathetic younger son, Hugo. Pludek's complacent sense of purpose and propriety is, however, only a thin layer masking his inner void, which betrays itself in his hopelessly futile attempts to verbalize his creed concerning the messianic role of the middle class. (pp. 43-5)

The humorous effect of Pludek's speeches (and basically of all the characters' speeches in the play) is based upon the discrepancy between the form and the content. Pludek's posture is completely self-assured, showing great faith in his ideals, and at superficial reading the statements even give the impression of having been carefully chosen; yet he says precisely nothing. The sentences nullify themselves as they originate. From the dramaturgical viewpoint, the function of the phrases lies precisely in their meaninglessness. The abject way in which people speak is hyperbolized here to such an extreme that its absurdity comes fully to the fore. Circular logic and false syllogisms are constantly present in the dialogue. (p. 45)

The most conspicuous feature of the first act is the nonsense proverbs. Ionesco's use of this device, especially in La Cantatrice chauve, was probably the main source for the Czech author, who, however, extends its symbolic significance.

Proverbs are considered the deepest emanation of popular wisdom. Concentrated in their phrasing, vivid in their imagination, and compelling in logic, they are among the most distinguished verbal accomplishments of man. If their use becomes automatic, however, the speaker often ceases to perceive their content and easily distorts them. In The Garden Party the distortion of proverbs is symbolic of the downfall of traditional values. (p. 46)

The great originality of Havel's talent finds its full expression especially in the subsequent acts, when the play acquires the character of a political satire. All the features of the avant-garde dramaturgy are retained, but, while continuing to be a general critique of modern mechanized society, the play goes on to expose the absurdities of the socialist system in particular. The second act is an easily recognized allegory on the institutionalization of private life in present-day Czechoslovakia, while the third act lampoons the monstrous bureaucratic machinery of the country. The connection between the first act and the succeeding ones is made not only in the stratum of the action (Hugo's adventures), but in the ideological stratum as well. There are unmistakable parallels between the home of the Pludeks and the outside world. Life guided by the socialist ideal turns out to be as soulless and degenerate as that of the petty bourgeois. It is governed to an even larger degree by opportunism and conformity, with people acting and speaking as senselessly; the only difference actually is in the replacing of one type of verbal gesture by another. The "conservative" maxims of Pluoek-father are superseded by the mechanical repetition of official statements, slogans, and ideological clichés. (p. 47)

The last act of the play (Hugo's homecoming) contains some of the best examples of absurd dialogue, one being the dispute that develops among the Pludeks over their son's accepting the assignment concerning the liquidation of the Liquidation Office. Most important, however, is Hugo's lengthy tirade, which can be regarded as a clue to the symbolic meaning of the play. In answer to his parents' question as to who he is, Hugo defines his ultimate alienation….

There is nothing permanent, eternal, absolute in man, he is perpetual change, proudly ringing change, of course! Nowadays, the time of static, unchangeable categories is over; nowadays, A is not just A, and B just B; today we know that A can often be also B, and B at the same time A; that B can be B, as well as A and C; by the same token, C can be not only C, but also A, B, and D, and under certain circumstances, F can be Q or even Y or R!

There can be little doubt that this passage contains a parody of Marxian dialectics, referring to the thesis of permanent change…. In a world without absolutes, the thesis of permanent change became a method of proving everything as well as denying everything. The idea which was meant to be a weapon against the dogmatism of stilted values developed into a convenient tool for the justification of moral nihilism. In Hugo's mouth, dialectics serve as a theoretical justification of his opportunism. He applied the principle to himself so thoroughly that he changed from situation to situation virtually in front of our eyes.

The Garden Party offers wider possibilities for interpreting it as a parody of dialectics. Besides the thesis of permanent change, the work also seems to burlesque an equally important part of Marxian dialectics, the struggle of opposites, derived from the Hegelian triad. The opposite forces (thesis and antithesis) lead to a synthesis which is qualitatively superior to both, not just their mechanical agglomeration. We have a number of syntheses in the work. The competing Liquidation and Inauguration Offices are fused into one big institution. The old bourgeois world of the Pludeks and the new system are synthesized in the very personality of Hugo, who is also a curious fusion of both Plzák and the Director. The syntheses by no means lead to a qualitative improvement, however, but only to magnified absurdity. (pp. 54-6)

[The Memorandum] exhibits an easily recognizable affinity with the basic theme of The Garden Party: the subjugation of man by language. Language is again the main "hero," but the techniques employed in the work are different. The theme is externalized in a distinct plot, and character development is more psychological. The Memorandum is based upon more traditional standards, differing from The Garden Party very much in the way Ionesco's early plays differ from his later ones. This does not mean that diction has lost its significance, but it is no longer the sole stratum in which the drama is realized.

The role of Ptydepe [a new language] (and later Chorukor) in the structure of the drama is central. It creates the conflict between characters, influences their fate, and reveals, through their attitude toward it, their true nature…. [Ptydepe] has become a fetish to which everything is sacrificed—time, common sense, conscience, and people. Ptydepe symbolizes man's obsession with the idea of a rationally organized world. Language, the most ancient attribute of humanity, is found to be too spontaneous a product to satisfy modern man. (pp. 57-8)

The dehumanization in the play is complete. The intellectual content of man is narrowed to the problem of Ptydepe, and we never even find out what the actual business of the big office is. No other spiritual ambitions seem to be necessary, and once Ptydepe is not discussed, the dialogue turns to the most trivial matters imaginable. People vegetate in a vacuum limited by Ptydepe on the one side, and by physiological needs on the other. Havel uses some specific devices to emphasize the grotesque polarity. Physical details are given unusual prominence in the dialogue as well as in stage directions. The secretary of the Director, for example, is to sit throughout the play at her desk engaging in no other activity than teasing her hair. The only times she shows other initiative is when she asks permission to run errands for milk, rolls, and peanuts. (p. 58)

Lengthy dialogues consist of nothing but the evaluation of meals and drinks just consumed, cigars smoked, etc., in vivid detail. Sounds of drunken parties held in neighboring offices repeatedly reach the stage from behind the scene. Even more naturalistic details concerning man's physical needs are present. The scene involving Gross and Mašát is abruptly interrupted by the latter's departure, and the stage directions stress that Masǎt is still zipping up his trousers when he returns so that the purpose of his absence is evident. (pp. 58-9)

The scenes with the greatest force of absurd comedy are those in which Ptydepe is given voice directly. The use of the synthetic language on the stage creates complex problems, since the non-representational linguistic material has to be used in such a way that it acquires dramatic significance. Havel's experimentation with abstract language goes back to the time of his preoccupation with the so-called "evident" and "concrete" poetry of which he is a distinguished practitioner in Czechoslovakia. From the dramatic viewpoint, the use of Ptydepe in the play is a most important device for creating Gross's comical frustration. Starting with the opening scene in which he reads the incomprehensible text, it is constantly a force precluding him from communicating with others. His frustrations are especially strong when he attempts to discuss the idea with its followers, but the dialogue constantly slips from the existing language into Ptydepe…. (p. 59)

The Memorandum has, of course, much wider satirical implications concerning contemporary Czechoslovak society. A critique of the monstrous bureaucratic machinery is the most apparent, but not the most important symbolic meaning of the work. Of greater importance is the obvious disdain for the reforms introduced in the post-Stalin era that is clearly implied in the play. Ptydepe has been condemned, its failure recognized, its scapegoats sacrificed, but the system, breeding monstrosities of this kind, remains intact. The play ends as it began, one circle has been closed after which others will follow. There is a deeply pessimistic undertone in the play, despite the fact that it often radiates quite open satisfaction with the plights of the system which it portrays and which seemingly do not meet with the author's approval.

Havel's work represents a rare unity of a satirical, "committed" art with art of wide philosophical implications, at which Ionesco was striving in some of his latest plays, but never achieved to such a degree. From this viewpoint, Havel's plays have a unique position in world dramaturgy and the further course of the young playwright deserves to be watched with the greatest of interest. (pp. 64-5)

Paul I. Trensky, "Václav Havel and the Language of the Absurd," in Slavic and East European Journal (© 1969 by AATSEEL of the U.S., Inc.), Vol. XIII, No. 1, Spring, 1969, pp. 42-65.

Martin Esslin

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

Havel's cheerfully beaming appearance is deceptive. His plays are very funny, certainly, but there is a core of deep pessimism, even despair in them. They are a mixture of political satire, absurdist images of the human condition, philosophical parables, and zany, black humor. Kafka and Hašek, the twin tutelary spirits of Prague, are equally present in them. (p. 139)

Kafka built up a picture of human anguish in the face of the mysteries of existence that was both dreamlike and concrete, fantastic and real. Kafka's subject matter is the most universal, his imagery the most local; it owes everything to Prague, its atmosphere and history.

Hašek's Good Soldier Schweik is also both local and universal. Here too we have the Czech's reaction against the incomprehensible, the blatantly idiotic rule of an alien and stupid militarist caste: Schweik reacts against the stupidity of his oppressors by taking their stupid orders at their face value and stupidly carrying them out to the last detail. He too, like Kafka's anguished and tormented heroes, finds himself in an absurd world, but he strives to end its absurdity by carrying it, ad absurdum, to the point where it must collapse because, at the back of his mind, he has a faint hope that the crash of the absurd order will leave room for a more rational one. (p. 140)

[In] a wildly absurd world [Havel's] characters conform to the apparent logic of absurdity by behaving in a wildly absurd yet logical manner. In The Garden Party they surrender to the logical dilemma that a government that asks the Office of Inauguration to abolish the Office of Liquidation cannot really abolish the Office of Liquidation because only the Office of Liquidation can carry out a liquidation, and therefore to carry out the liquidation of the Office of Liquidation you have to keep the Office of Liquidation unliquidated. In The Memorandum we find the similar dilemma that the order for the introduction of a new official language, being written in that new official language, cannot be correctly interpreted because it is written in a language that the official charged with implementing the order cannot understand. These are Schweikian situations, but their implications on a deeper level of significance are truly Kafkaesque. It would be wrong to interpret Havel's Schweikian dilemmas as mere satire against the idiocy of a local bureaucracy. The bureaucracy depicted by Havel has profound metaphysical features; it also represents the inner, logical contradictions of existence itself, the dilemma inherent in the use of all language (and Havel's logico-linguistic antinomies have much in common with Wittgenstein's critique of language as a vehicle for logic), the antinomies inherent in all rules of conduct. (p. 141)

Martin Esslin, "A Czech Absurdist: Vaclav Havel," in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 139-42.

Martin Esslin

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250

[The Garden Party] displays a mixture of hard-hitting political satire, Schweikian humour and Kafkaesque depths which are highly characteristic of Havel's work. (p. 278)

[The Memorandum] delves into the tortuous world of bureaucracy. It shows an organization of uncertain purpose but vast complexity which suddenly finds itself confronted with the fact that someone has introduced a new official language in which all business must henceforth be transacted. (pp. 278-79)

The theory of the new languages discussed in the play is brilliantly worked out (Prague after all is the home of modern structural linguistics and Havel uses the terminology of redundancy and information theory to great effect) and their value as a metaphor of the situation in a country where life and death have in the past depended on the exact interpretation given by the individual to sacred Marxist texts, is clearly immense. The construction of the action is completely symmetrical, each scene on Gross's downward path exactly corresponding to one on his renewed rise to power. Havel is a master of the ironical, inverted repetition, of almost identical phrases in different contexts. And behind the mockery of bureaucratic procedure, behind the Wittgensteinian language game, there is a third level of significance: for Gross is a kind of Everyman enmeshed in an endless and futile struggle for status, power and recognition. (pp. 279-80)

Martin Esslin, "Parallels and Proselytes," in his The Theatre of the Absurd (copyright © 1961, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), revised edition, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 198-280.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273

[The] controlling idea [of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] could be best summed up by such fashionable sociological terms as "alienation", "frustration", "lack of communication", "loss of identity". The trouble is that the author evidently mistrusts such "scientific" interpretations of human behaviour, or at least does not believe that they can be of any help in themselves. He reminds one of a man treating lack of feeling in purely rationalist terms; however analytical his play may seem to be, this approach, too, is exposed as part of the general decay.

Thus the essay on human values which the main character, a social scientist, is dictating throughout the play may impress as quite reasonable and acceptable in its premises: seen against the utter confusion of its author's personal life and his obvious inability to establish any genuine relationship with his wife or his mistress or anyone else for that matter, it becomes a sham. The point is emphasized by the pathetic little machine which a quasi-sociological team brings to the hero's home in order to compute his identity; it fails as miserably as he does.

In such a centre-less, spiritually mechanized life concentration is difficult if not impossible, and all experience equally worthless. This is made plain by Havel's ingenious rearrangement of the chronological sequence, very much like the cutting up and splicing of a recording tape; the play hardly has a beginning or an end; the seams have been made invisible. The dramatic effect is remarkable and the message even clearer.

"Mechanized Minds," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3653, March 10, 1972, p. 267.

Jarka M. Burian

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

[The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] is a more humanly oriented work [than The Memorandum]. The satire is less sharp for its only object is the absurdity of scientific attempts to analyze man in the name of humanistic goals. Here the central dramatic device is Puzuk, a sensitive, childish machine designed to interview people. Whimsically, the machine seems more delicate and temperamental than the humans that use it. The general theme is frustrated humanness in the context of domesticity become routine. The central character is a writer, given to philosophical speculations about human values and needs, who finally stresses the need to have needs.

[The] play's action approaches that of a conventional comedy much more closely than [either The Memorandum or The Garden Party]. What reveals Havel's signature, however, is its structure. Havel presents the action in cubistic fashion, to convey the fragmented consciousness of man. As scene follows scene, we realize that Havel is juggling with time to parallel scenes with the wife and with the mistress. Although we seem to be progressing normally, we are actually witnessing deliberately repeated scenes with different characters, and jumping back and forth in time…. At the end of the play we have once again arrived at the very beginning, with the repetition of the opening lines. (pp. 311-12)

Jarka M. Burian, "Post-War Drama in Czechoslovakia: 'The Increased Difficulty of Concentration'." in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1973 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), Vol. 25, No. 3, October, 1973, pp. 311-12.

Walter Schamschula

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2671

The theater of the absurd, in my view, has two genetic components which determine its life as long as it persists in the way we know it from Beckett and Ionesco. One is its innovative dynamism which opposes it to the theater of the naturalist tradition. The other component is its indebtedness to the philosophy of existentialism which itself is based upon the collective experience of World Wars I and II. Hence, there is a component inherent to the dynamism of the drama itself, and a component imported from outside literature into the world of art.

As to the first, there is evidence in Ionesco's theoretical writings that the drive for innovation is one of the major forces in the genesis of the theater of the absurd. Our century has eradicated taboos and traditional concepts in the arts more thoroughly than have previous millennia…. [Drama] has done away with motivated action, the element without which playing theater earlier would have appeared senseless. The motivation (be it psychological, ethical or sociological) has been destroyed either entirely or in part, so that the remaining fragments of a "meaningful" action have lost their logic. Ionesco and Beckett criticism have used the terms "non-action" or "anti-action," that is to say that the audience is no more involved in the déroulement of changing human interrelations, but that it is now increasingly fascinated by the way the familiar item called action is being torn apart. The process of destruction is now being focused upon. The defamiliarizing device has become fully autonomous, whereas in the traditional theater the device had merely a subsidiary function.

Let us now return to the just mentioned way of destroying the action. Both types, the total destruction and the partial one, are represented in Havel's plays. In some of the plays the annihilation of anything that seemed vital to the theater is brought to perfection, and the very identity of the acting persons is at stake, e.g. in The Mountain Hotel. But he also offers examples of a partial destruction of the motivation with the result that the remaining fragments of an action have turned into nonsense. Such a partial abolition of logic may be found in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration…. (pp. 338-39)

Let me … briefly discuss the other component of the theater of the absurd: the impact of existentialist thought (it may be too pretentious to speak of existentialist philosophy). The symbolism of human abandonment in a hostile world, man's being unsheltered ("unbehaust") and left prey to the malice of this world, enters, in some plays of the French theater of the absurd, into the idea of some prison or cage, or of a trash can in which the acting persons find themselves trapped and from which there is no escape. The existentialist background of this type of theater has turned all attention to questions of existence, such as physical survival, identity, physical desires, freedom versus captivity, etc. The moral issue has lost its significance where the individual is exposed to a system of madness which is beyond human control. (p. 339)

Since the world is conceived of as a huge madhouse, a system of defunctionalized interrelations, it is obvious that the easiest access which satire could find in this type of drama is in an area where not single phenomena but entire social systems or systems of communication are satirized. In Havel's work, the mentioned destruction of motivation of action undoubtedly also reflects a perversion of the social order. But this does not fully answer the question, which of the two components is more essential to his drama: the existentialist experience of the individual or the satiric defamiliarization of social structures with at least a glimmer of hope that some of these structures could be repaired.

Let us now analyze Havel's major techniques in order to provide a broader basis for answering the central question. While discussing The Garden Party, [critic Miroslav] Kačer introduced the notion "absurdní ozvláštnění" (the absurd defamiliarization) which seems workable. Taking this notion as point of departure, I will now discuss the most prominent types of "absurd defamiliarization" in Havel's work. As far as The Garden Party is concerned, some of them have already been described by Kačer. The list, however, has to be completed in view of the more recent plays.

One of [the devices that Havel uses to gain an absurd defamiliarization] is called the GAG by Havel himself. The gag, in his definition, is a sequence of two phases which, taken by themselves, do not cause any particular effect. Only in their close succession do they become efficient as a comical device. The gag has the most immediate effect, being the most concise form of defamiliarization and resembling the joke as described by Freud. "The inauguration of a monument to prosperity is not a gag. A sleeping Chaplin is not a gag. When, however, the monument to prosperity is inaugurated and, while the cloth falls, it becomes apparent that the beggar Chaplin sleeps in the arms of the statue, then this is a gag."

There are, according to Kačer, several type of gags in The Garden Party such as the VERBAL GAG with a great variety of possibilities. There is e.g., the word game which adds a grotesque element to the language as a communication system that has lost all meaning…. (p. 340)

Another type of gag is the sudden, seemingly unmotivated transition from one language to the other, a burlesque element widely utilized in a different context, in the medieval macaronic poetry of the vagrants. In The Garden Party, the alternating language is sometimes Slovak. This reflects a certain everyday experience in contemporary Czechoslovakia, where Slovak has been increasingly upgraded since the end of the war. In radio and TV, Czech and Slovak broadcasts alternate without being translated. The way this bilingualism is introduced in The Garden Party, however, is a particular effect which cannot be translated into any foreign language….

[In addition to gags, two] more structural elements should be mentioned. One of them has been identified by Kačer as a parody of the proverb. It could also be called a PSEUDOPROVERB. The other one is a PARODY OF THE RHETORICAL STYLE of official propaganda machineries…. (p. 341)

The essence of Havel's pseudoproverbs is that while their structure promises profound wisdom, the promise, however, remains unfulfilled. (p. 342)

Besides the verbal gag, the author also works with MIMETIC DEVICES. Wordless action, a traditional element of the burlesque, farcical theater, with a climax in the silent film and contemporary pantomime, has also been utilized in the theater of the absurd…. In Havel's plays, pantomimic action is sometimes the continuation of the spoken theatrical dialogue. In Act III of The Garden Party, the secretary performs her act of liquidation first by registering, then by putting the registered documents into the wastepaper basket, thereafter by undressing the director and throwing his articles into the basket until he remains in his underwear. In The Audience, drinking beer is an important means of characterizing the two dramatis personae. The brewer drinks beer at short intervals and urges the writer Vaněk to join him who, as an intellectual, does not like beer and only sips at the glass. Repeatedly—this is one of the recurrent elements—the brewer goes to the men's room and returns, buttoning his fly. At the time of his absence, Vaněk pours the contents of his glass into the glass of the brewer. Mimetic action has thus become a substantial part of the play and underlies the principles of defamiliarization.

The devices listed above are also procedures of the traditional burlesque theater and not necessarily an innovation of the theater of the absurd or of Václav Havel. What is new about them is that they are employed within the context of the absurd, adding to the overall idea of a world absorbed in senselessness. This context, however, is created by components of greater capacity than the listed burlesque devices: by the arrangements of larger units of the dialogue and the abolition of a semantic continuum. In this respect Havel appears to be very innovative and original.

Perhaps the most unmistakable trademark of the theater of the absurd is the abolition of those components that seemed to be essential to the theater: identity of characters, integrity and dramatism of action, and everything that comes with it.

Perhaps the most complex topic for an analyst of Havel's plays will be the question of identity of characters. There is no guarantee in his dramatic work that a person stays what he is throughout the entire play. Roles are interchangeable. A dialogue may be reversed in the sense that what had been said by person A and answered by person B is later said by person B and answered by person A. This already occurs in The Garden Party and becomes one of the prominent techniques in The Mountain Hotel. (pp. 342-43)

[In The Mountain Hotel] which contains the most consistent use of this technique, a stereotyped set of absurd actions is passed on from one person to the other. It is, however, quite sizable in two other pieces also, The Beggar's Opera and The Conspirators, plays with a relatively traditional structure of action. (p. 343)

Havel [also] likes to make use of a CYCLICAL STRUCTURE of his theatrical pieces. In some of his plays, furthermore, a decisive breakthrough or solution is avoided by a reentry into the action from the very beginning. This is the case in The Memorandum, The Conspirators, The Audience and The Varnishing Day [Vernissage] where the end marks a new start from the very beginning, which produces an impression of relativity and futility. Everything appears useless like the actions of Sisyphus who never reaches the top of the hill with his rock. The cyclical order of many of Havel's plays, of course, speaks much in favor of a more profound involvement of the philosophy of existentialism in his work.

There are, on the other hand, instances when Havel's plays result in a genuinely dramatic outcome, like in The Guardian Angel, where Machoň succeeds in cutting Vavák's ears. This type of a climaxing end of a drama is the alternative offered by some pieces of the theater of the absurd: a cruelty which is neither psychologically nor logically motivated and appears as senseless as the cyclical replay of the action. It therefore misses … the effect of the classical tragedy: identification of the audience with the heroes and shared grief. (p. 344)

In connection with the recurrence of elements of the dialogue, we should also mention a particular effect which has been recognized and named by Jiří Voskovec in his preface to the 1977 edition of Havel's plays. He calls this device havlovská spirála, the HAVEL SPIRAL…. The best example of a Havel spiral may be found in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration: certain recurrent replicas tend to be repeated more often and at an increased pace until all of them, like an avalanche, burst upon the scene. Nonsense turns into madness, the nightmare has become a menacing reality, and the listener as the addressee of the performance has joined the author in this existential tarantella.

Let us now raise the question whether Havel has shown a development in the sense that, as a result of changes in the political situation in his country and in his personal life, some of his positions have been abandoned or modified. This is a legitimate question since the author himself has declared that the year 1968 marks a turning point in his career as a writer. After that year he found himself deprived of the possibility of being staged or printed in Czechoslovakia. Performances abroad could not be of any help since Havel was used to writing for a very specific public, the audience of the Theater at the Balustrade. So he had to rethink and reconsider his way of writing plays, and he underwent a crisis of creativity…. (pp. 344-45)

Havel tried to overcome the crisis by experimenting and searching for new means of expression. The question is, however, whether there is a fundamental shift from one position to another, from the critical period of his early plays to a more or less didactic or satiric drama. The first effect of the political changes was the creation of The Conspirators, where he translates the history of the communist road to power in Czechoslovakia into a permanent non-action. The form is cyclical, there is a constant exchange of characters and roles, complete promiscuity of sexes (which is one of the expressions of the loss of action). At the end, the revolution stands where it stood at the beginning. (p. 345)

[The Mountain Hotel] is the piece where the experiment has become the subject, where the exchange of characters and roles is made a system…. The mountain hotel, where the play is located, is one of the "windowless cages," Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain turned into a madhouse with no escape.

After The Mountain Hotel, the two one-act plays The Audience and The Varnishing Day, the most successful pieces of the second period of Havel's creativity, show a return to a reproduction of real circumstances, and this reproduction is more realistic than anything in Havel's work. There is no "exorcism of history" as in The Mountain Hotel, but the historical—for the most part autobiographical—details do not create a system of logical motivations of action. The cyclical structure of the plays prevents them from becoming semantically valid in an unequivocal way. On the surface, these plays are satires of certain aspects of contemporary Czech society. Underneath, however, the secret police in The Audience and the conformist couple in The Varnishing Day are becoming symbols of the uncontrollable menace of absurdity.

In terms of the employment of certain techniques and procedures, the second part of Havel's creative career shows more of an evolution than the first. He is indeed experimenting; his experiments, however, do not aim in one specific direction. But still, there is a common denominator: Havel has concentrated his devices, limited himself to a handful of tricks. While The Garden Party was a firework of gags and punch-lines, the reduction of devices in the later period has created a more somber and depressing atmosphere. The Mountain Hotel is no exception from this rule: there is an expression of anguish in the piece, of erosion of human values, a destructive force which is translucent through the entire mechanism of the experimental theater. It is not by accident that the most threatening image of anxiety, the Havel spiral occurs in the last three pieces.

As to the intensity of disintegrating action, the plays of the second period show a variety of possibilities. The Mountain Hotel offers a maximum, the two one-act plays a minimum, of destructive techniques. Yet the destructive elements are there and forceful enough to short-circuit the fragments of an action which reflect the social reality around the author.

Since Havel's entire work shows consistency in its subordination under the principles of the theater of the absurd, the question remains to be answered whether this theater employs the model of the absurd in order to satirize the society in which the author lives or whether the defamiliarization of concrete circumstances of that social life serves to unveil something more profound and essential: the helplessness of a thinking individual in face of a mechanism of power which is universal. By formulating this question, I suppose I have already answered it: Havel's plays increasingly reflect a universal nightmare. An unfulfilled dream has turned into an evil one. (pp. 345-46)

Walter Schamschula, "Václav Havel: Between the Theatre of the Absurd and Engaged Theatre" (originally a paper presented at the University of California between March 30 and April 2, 1978; copyright © 1980 by Walter Schamschula; reprinted by permission of the author), in Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe: Evolution and Experiment in the Postwar Period, edited by Henrik Birnbaum and Thomas Eekman, Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1980, pp. 337-48.

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4443

In approaching Havel's brilliant and startling plays it might be useful to become aware of how the main theme of his work, which had been formulated as 'the relationship between man and the system' in 1968, expanded and deepened to what the author himself calls the 'existential dimension of the world.' Perhaps the development Havel has undergone in his relatively brief career as a dramatist can be followed best by starting with a simple proposition: that social systems make their—more or less pronounced—demands to organize individual man into a system, in order to achieve certain—more or less laudable—aims which in turn are to serve the interests of man. Already we see a suggestion of a vicious circle in the argument: man is an organism, the system functions as a mechanism; one must subdue the other or be subdued. Around these tensions Václav Havel builds his unique, grimly comic theatre. (p. 45)

Havel's theatre explores language as the primary agent in man's absurd situation. The real hero of his plays is the mechanistic phrase, uttered from habit, repeated with parrot-like readiness, which decides people's actions, composes events, and creates its own absurd reality…. [His theatre is made up of] an exploration of the tremendous power of the word or phrase which becomes the unquestioned property of all, prevents anyone from thinking, and is the prime enemy of common sense and reason. (p. 46)

Regarded on the surface the absurd has no place at all in Havel's work. But then, in the fashion of some Surrealist painters, he injects into this perfectly sane situation one absurd element which inverts the whole meaning and stands it on its head…. [Human reasoning is] proved irrational. However, with Havel the point at which the 'reversal into absurdity' takes place is identifiable: it is the moment when the project in a man's mind—an idea, let us say—can create a mechanism which, once it begins to function, adapts everything to its function and makes it part of the mechanism. The theme of mechanization in Havel's plays is the search for that concealed point at which reasoning becomes absurd. The same theme in the Western branch of absurd theatre revolves around the claim that this point can never be found. (p. 48)

A Czech critic said of Havel that when watching his plays one has the impression of listening to conversations between two rather primitive cybernetic machines which have at their disposal only a very limited range of answers to a very limited range of questions. In Havel's first full-length play, The Garden Party, we are even made the witnesses of the schooling process of such a machine, a young man named Hugo Pludek. In the course of the action he rises from being a monosyllabic, chess-playing son of an obscure middle-class family to the honourable position of heading a newly established ministerial commission which is to solve the political impasse in society (we never find out which society nor which political system—and it does not matter in the least). On closer inspection it appears that the impasse is a strange one indeed: the difficulty turns out to be a linguistic one; it is language that has created an acute political problem. How does Havel go about putting such intangible and undramatic material on the stage? He builds his play quite logically around one point of language and leads his audience on an extremely comic four-act exploration of the power of language itself. At one moment words seem to provide the only logical element on stage, at the next moment they create complete confusion. The audience, unable to stop laughing, is taken through bounds and leaps of reasoning, across swamps of phraseology, as it watches sense turn into nonsense and nonsense into sense. (pp. 50-1)

[In The Garden Party, Havel's main concern is] the power of language as a perpetuator of systems, a tool to influence man's mind and therefore one of the strongest (though secret) weapons of any system that wants to mould him to become a well-functioning part of a system rather than a free spirit—unpredictable, erring, imaginative, mysterious in his tireless search for the truth.

The Memorandum, although again highly amusing, is an even more relentless exploration of language as a tool of power. The subject is grimmer than that of The Garden Party, not only because the hero's absorption into the system is represented not as a career but as a matter of survival, but also because Havel has by now mastered the art of placing the action against a background of 'real' life in an office hardly distinguishable, as a Czech critic says, 'from the office where we were yesterday.' The setting is deceptively naturalistic and only some time after the opening of the curtain does the audience begin to adjust to the fact that only the surface looks normal, everything else is absurd! Or does this realization itself make it realistic in the deeper sense of the word? It seems that this secret tie—almost complicity—between the absurd and real emerges in the works of many of the best modern writers. (p. 53)

By the half-way mark of the play the hero's fortunes have reached their lowest point. In the second half we are shown his gradual recovery and renewed rise to the position of director. Just as his downfall had been paralleled by the relentless rise of Ptydepe, his ascent now takes place against the background of Ptydepe's dwindling fortunes. (p. 55)

[Near the end of the play], Gross is given the opportunity he had yearned for when his fortunes were low: to be able to start all over again and do things differently. But in the last moment Havel crushes our hopes. The symmetry of the play suddenly reveals itself not as reflecting the rise of goodness and fall of evil, as it had seemed to, but rather as a constant, rigidly mechanized process. The theme of mechanical adjustment which was treated with bright exuberance in The Garden Party is struck here on a more sinister level. Against his better convictions and allegedly humanistic ideals, Gross succumbs in turn to the absurd order of the Ptydepe movement, to the empty slogans, promises, and flattery of the opportunists, and finally to the new but equally absurd order of a new synthetic language, Chorukor, introduced at the end of the play….

In his next play, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Havel again manages to amuse us while he unfolds before our eyes one of the grave problems of our century. (p. 56)

Again, as in Havel's earlier plays, language reveals its mechanizing power with frightening obviousness. Each thought and each emotion that is expressed is dictated by stereotyped language. The hollow ring of duplicated words pervades the whole play.

It is in this play that Havel has mastered the task of revealing language as a killer of intellect and feeling. Man is no longer the victim of the system as shown implicitly in The Garden Party and explicitly in The Memorandum. Rather man perpetuates the system by modelling his own life on it, and he depends on it as his stronghold. At first he fails to recognize that it is also his prison and tries to escape from this anonymous monster that schematizes his daily life and mechanizes his emotions. But the way he goes about escaping shows that the harm has been done: Huml wants to escape not by breaking but by doubling the system, and he thus creates a new mechanism which, far from destroying the old one, neatly fits into the spinning cogs. By necessity Huml himself becomes doubly mechanical and begins to repeat his own responses with machine-like exactitude. The events on stage appear as in a broken and endlessly repeated mirror-reflection and as the play proceeds, we feel an increasing certainty about being able to predict with machine-like precision the actions and reactions of the individual characters. (p. 59)

Havel has achieved a surprising tour de force. By making the audience adopt an almost automatic reaction to the characters on stage, he has shown that the tendency to mechanize the process of living resides secretly within the individual character and is therefore both more intangible and more dangerous than we take it to be.

If The Increased Difficulty of Concentration explores man's notorious tendency to mechanize his life and thus reduce it to the primitive level of adapting to and functioning in a certain environment, Havel's next play, The Conspirators, is a test of what happens when this idea is applied to a political situation. The Conspirators … is a merry-go-round of political power. The play is constructed with mathematical precision. In fifteen scenes which follow one another like hammer blows, the struggle for political power unfolds with the inevitability of a mechanism set in motion. What sets it in motion is man's greed for power which, when rigidified and mechanized by a social system, becomes a sine qua non of his life. He tries to attain it by any means and his claims about high ideals—the common good, the nation's welfare, freedom from oppression—are merely coverups for his ruthless struggle to get where he wants to be. All in all this is not a highly original theme: from Macbeth to Büchner's Danton's Death and Brecht's The Rise of Arturo Ui man's craving for political power has proved to be among playwrights' main sources of inspiration.

However, Havel's signature on the play is unmistakable. Reduced to the bare essentials, the struggle for power of four 'public figures' (the chief prosecutor and the heads of the police, the military, and culture) is stylized into a grotesque circular dance of greed and deceit in which moves are as predictable as the periodical return of, say, the fiery white horse or the leaping lion on a moving merry-go-round. The central mechanism (provided in this case by the system) has taken over and the characters seized by its rhythm not only succumb to it but, as it were, propel its motion into greater smoothness by their own weight (the make-up of their characters—in turn formed by the system).

By saying that The Conspirators is about the struggle for power, we have indicated the inner meaning of the play. On the surface—as far as the characters themselves are concerned—it is a play about revolution. Again, as in Havel's other plays, it is revolution studied in a test tube. Not for one instant does the action even remotely approach a concrete problem. It remains suspended in the thin air of theoretical abstractions, and in the lengthy discussions 'freedom' and 'political oppression,' 'democracy' and the 'evils of anarchy,' 'unifying action' and 'reactionary groups' remain linguistic labels which have never been exposed to a real situation. The revolution never gets beyond the language lab. Havel's pen is getting sharper, his wit is getting more sinister. The mood of The Conspirators is dark indeed. (pp. 59-60)

[The Mountain Resort] is a logical outcome of the author's earlier work. Throughout his earlier plays Havel had explored the impact of mechanization on thought and behaviour. In The Mountain Resort he takes this approach to its 'absurd' conclusion by allowing it to take over the entire action. It is as if he had fed a number of attitudes, actions, gestures, and dialogues into a computer and let the computer rearrange them until they represent an organized, geometrical structure. The result is a seemingly well-constructed five-act play, in which, however, phrases, movements, and gestures have become autonomous, and the characters entirely inter-changeable.

The action takes place on the terrace of a mountain resort; the characters are a group of holiday-makers…. [They] speak each other's words, remember each other's pasts, go through each other's movements. To put it in another way, the gesture or word is there, but the character who carries it out or speaks it changes from act to act; the memory of Paris is there but in each act someone else remembers and someone else forgets. Havel tried to make these occurrences the subject matter of the play, in order to find out 'to what extent they are capable—all on their own—to create meaning.' The themes of the disintegration of human identity and existential schizophrenia which Havel has repeatedly called his main concerns, are obviously apparent again insofar as they can be expressed solely by these 'automatized occurrences.' (pp. 68-9)

Havel has revealed to us this realization: the closer his writing reflects a situation he knows personally, the better he writes and the broader his appeal will be. Vernissage is a parable on the hollowness of a successful life. All the clichés of 'Happiness' which have moulded the imagination of the average man from Prague to New York, from Sydney to Stockholm, are juggled throughout the play, and produce a terrible, hollow sound. It is a happiness which depends on an audience, for it is meaningless in itself; with an audience it loses its reason for being. It is remarkable that this play emerged from a 'Socialist' society and was written by an author who felt he 'had to lean on what [he] knew.' As a comment on contemporary Czechoslovakia it is certainly a fascinating document about a society, the official, constantly reiterated ideals, aims, and evaluations of which bear no relation whatsoever to the values of an individual who thrives under this regime. However, from a Western point of view Vernissage can plainly also be regarded as a critical comment on the materialistic values of an affluent society. Although Havel, with typical modesty, calls his two one-act plays [Vernissage and Audience] 'miniatures, written on the side,' both succeed in communicating strong meaning on an international scale.

Havel's most recent one-act play, Protest, draws even more openly on the author's basic experience as a 'dissident' writer…. In Protest Havel takes the bull by the horns and writes about the most acute problem not only of Czech writers and intellectuals but also of creative men anywhere in the world where freedom of expression has been harnessed by a stultifying ideology. Protest is a brilliant dialogue during an encounter between two writers. There is Staněk who has managed to swim with political currents, who is on good terms with the authorities, and whose works are still produced on television and in film studios. (p. 71)

The other writer, Vaněk (a partly autobiographical figure who also appears in Audience), is a playwright whose works used to be staged successfully in Czech theatres but who, after a drastic change in the political climate, has become ostracized and persecuted by the regime, writing for underground circulation only, and spending most of his time and energy in composing petitions and letters of protest which find their way into the press abroad but which have little effect on circumstances in his own country.

The play consists of a visit Vaněk pays to Staněk, whose success with things in general is reflected in the superbly blossoming magnolia tree outside his window, his recently acquired villa, and the surrealist painting in his elegant study. In the course of the conversation between the two—Vaněk shy, clutching a briefacse, in stocking feet; Staněk effusive, pouring cognacs, offering cigars and his own slippers—we discover that after years of non-communication Staněk had asked Vaněk to visit him…. Finally, as his motivations become increasingly puzzling, he steers the conversation to its inevitable aim: he would like to ask Vaněk to initiate 'some kind of protest or petition' on behalf of composer-singer Javůrek who has recently been imprisoned.

However, as Vaněk (and the audience) are trying to cope with this extraordinary request, it becomes clear that Staněk's motivation is not indignation about the persecution of innocent people but that he has a personal axe to grind—his daughter is expecting a child by Javůrek. For once Vaněk responds with assurance and efficiency. Rummaging in his brief-case he produces a petition of the kind Staněk had had in mind. (pp. 71-2)

[When Vaněk] ventures the hesitant question whether he, Staněk, would not like to add his signature to the petition, the benevolent host embarks slowly but with increasing rhetorical power on an argument which proves, with irresistible logic, that he would do great harm to the cause of the dissidents if he did sign the document and that, due to his solidarity with those who tried to preserve the moral fibre of the nation, he would have to abstain from what he basically would like to do. (pp. 72-3)

In addition to its weighty political meaning Protest is an incontestable proof of Havel having grasped a basic ailment of our age. Psychology, ideology, and scientific objectivity have taught modern man to rationalize his moves. His knowledge of set patterns of behavior make him act consciously in relation to such patterns. This can be inocuous or sinister. It can spell mediocrity or evil. In his three one-act plays Václav Havel expresses what he is striving to portray, namely 'the existential dimension of the world.'

In a way all Havel's writings are a critique of the reassuring first line of the Gospel according to St John: 'In the beginning was the Word.' That does not mean that he has created characters who indulge in the language of silence (like some of the characters of Beckett or Peter Handke). On the contrary, language is 'the primary moving force' in Havel's plays and his characters talk a lot, too much in fact. But the more they talk, the less they say. Their conversations read like parodies of elementary phrase-books with sections like 'How to converse about world affairs with a sixty-word vocabulary'…. It would take a volume in itself to define and order the great and resourceful variety of stock phrases in Havel's plays…. [They] consist of words which no longer express reality but obscure it. Isolated from the real world, they create a solipsistic universe of abstractions which obliterates both rational thought and common sense. (p. 73)

Our primitive ancestors believed that once a force was named, its power-spell was broken. Contemporary man, by constantly repeating the great cliché nightmares of his age, somehow believes he is dealing with them. Modern psychology has frequently used this ancient insight: formulating your fears and doubts will help you to overcome them. Havel shows us again and again that this act of the recognition of a problem can be useless if it takes place in language only. (pp. 74-5)

In this instance the meaning of Havel's works for our Western society becomes particularly obvious. Although certain forms of standardization and mechanical conformism have for some time been the targets of attacks by some of those believing in 'individualism,' another form of standardization has developed among them. The 'non conformists' have formed another standardized group, whose reactions and type of language (not to mention clothes or haircuts) have become as predictable as those of the 'conformists.' Havel's comment on this kind of phenomenon has not been matched by a Western playwright.

Another target of Havel's is folksy wisdom mechanized by habitual thoughtless usage. In The Garden Party the hero's father, Pludek senior, reacts to most things with comments that have the ring of proverbs but are sheer nonsense. The form is empty, the content has gone: leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare and Milton contain whisky bottles, the opening line of an ancient song is used to sell shaving lotion. (p. 75)

The patterns of repetition in Havel's plays seem at first arbitrary, even chaotic, but on closer inspection one discovers highly structured, almost geometric forms. Scenes are re-enacted with reversed characters; identical situations have opposite meanings because the context is different. Like a hall of mirrors Havel's work reflects itself. (p. 76)

[In The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] Havel explores the most disturbing aspect of the destruction of man by language. When Renata wants to know whether he is still in love with his wife, we hear the voice of Huml (who is busy hanging up her coat back-stage) 'You know very well I stopped loving her long ago! I just like her as a friend, a housewife, a companion of my life—.' In this brief scene Havel shows us how the cliché can be used to prove or disprove anything. A clichéd image of 'love' has taken over the form of the word like a parasite and pushed out its real content. Here this process of forcing out the true meaning of a word is demonstrated before our very eyes. The word we are left with becomes an empty shell.

Toward the end of most of Havel's plays the protagonist gives a lengthy speech in which he summarizes his outlook on man, society, and life in general. The speeches are highly amusing conglomerations of logical fallacies, pseudo-dialectics, and false analogies. With his acute sense for the mechanizing power of the word, Havel explores man as the victim of the language he has created. He does so by exploring the area where the system and the individual meet, where standardization penetrates into every fold of life. It has been pointed out repeatedly that this is obviously the work of a man who has grasped the enormous effect of a centralized political system on the life of the average man.

But it would do injustice to Havel's dramatic genius if his work were to be interpreted merely from a political point of view. The playwright himself has told us that 'the theatre shows the truth about politics not because it has a political aim. The theatre can depict politics precisely because it has no political aim. For this reason it seems to me that all ideas of the so-called "political theatre" are mistaken …' By trying to give expression to the tensions between the individual and the social system in his own society—and there is no question as to who remains the victor there—Havel has also made one of the most intelligent artistic comments on man in modern mass society in general—applicable in New York as well as Prague, Stockholm, Rome, or Warsaw.

He does this by taking to task the nature of language itself, particularly the catch-phrase or slogan whose power, well known to dictators of all kinds, is mostly misjudged by well-meaning defenders of the humanistic values of a free society. It is here that Havel's main contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd is to be found. (pp. 78-9)

Havel has forced us into literal logic. Beginning with a sort of Kantian proposition that man cannot perceive or express truth in its entirety, he then reverses the argument by reducing the possibilities of expression to one word. He therefore implies that, under certain circumstances, one word could express a complex phenomenon. In other words,… one single word can wield great intellectual weight—which is, of course, a fallacy, but is also an astute observation of the power of slogans which carry a built-in, incontrovertible evaluation. This is explosive material in quite different types of modern society where slogans—whether they be 'enemies of the people' or 'women's liberation'—with their absolute evaluations are part and parcel of the daily life of the average citizen. (p. 79)

Havel's most recent play Protest takes his exploration of language as a vehicle for a certain mode of thought still another significant step further. In a long speech, Staněk, faced with the request to sign a petition on human rights, explains to Vaněk (who has handed him the petition) that, if he wants to act 'truly ethically,' he must abstain from signing the document. The arguments which lead to this conclusion seem to me to contain the most brilliant tour de force of logic which Havel has written to this point. (p. 84)

Staněk in Protest, assessing the consequences of certain political moves in a totalitarian country which tries to cope with a small number of people who try to show that they do not agree with the regime, does so with the foresight of a brilliant chess player. (p. 85)

Staněk's weighing of pros and cons corresponds to reality but only to a reality within the patterns of thought which permeate a society which has been forced to think in these patterns. Staněk has applied the reasoning process of a closed system of thought to a simple ethical question: Should I lend my voice to try to help an innocent man who is in trouble? The whole intricate net of reasoning which he unfurls before our eyes is the type of reasoning he has been taught by the system he lives in. It is pseudo-reasoning, and totally false in absolute terms. It is, in a nut-shell, perhaps the best portrayal of perverted 'rational' thinking that has ever been put on stage in modern theatre. As such, Staněk's arguments are also more important than might appear at first sight for a Western democratic society where moral norms are questioned and relativistic points of view have often become ethical guide-posts. A Polish cartoon sums up the issue in a humourous way: Two men are having a discussion. One has just finished his argument. The other scratches his head thoughtfully: 'Clearly you are right … But … from which point of view?'

There is no question that Havel's plays deal with the burning issues in his own society. However, they not only turn out to contain surprisingly apt comments on another society that wrestles with different kinds of problems, but they also reveal themselves in their timeless aspects—wisdom expressed in terms of excellent theatre. Havel himself seems to know how these things work: 'Drama's success in transcending the limits of its age and country depends entirely on how far it succeeds in finding a way to its own place and time … If Shakespeare is played all over the world in the twentieth century it is not because in the seventeenth century he wrote plays for the twentieth century and for the whole world but because he wrote plays for seventeeth-century England as best he could. Without wanting to compare Havel with Shakespeare we can nevertheless see that the principle is the same. Havel writes for Czechoslovakia as best he can, therefore (as he would say) his work carries so strong a message outside its borders. (pp. 86-7)

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, "Václav Havel," in her The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights without a Stage (© University of Toronto Press 1979), University of Toronto Press, 1979, pp. 43-88.

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383

[Under their present regime, the Czechs are] faced daily with an official language…. With the "official" language there goes an "official" consciousness which is outside the daily life of an average person. The process of constant pigeonholing of everything as either good or bad, the unshakable value judgments which go with these words (examples like "enemy of the people," "subversive bourgeois revisionists" or "lackeys of Imperialism" will suffice) have created a chasm between everyday language and the official language; and this has resulted in a sort of linguistic schizophrenia of every person who has some sort of official post. In this connection one is bound to remember Orwell's concept of "Newspeak," which was intended to subjugate the mind by linguistic means.

Havel has brought this phenomenon to the stage for the first time and in an inimitable way. The three plays [The Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Mountain Hotel] … are examples of this. The first play is about a young man, Hugo Pludek, who acquires a new consciousness through learning the official language…. This learning process makes for entertaining theatre: the audience watches Hugo's rise to power as he begins to declaim snappy proverbs which are rhythmically perfect but make no logical sense, as his self-assurance grows when he spoons out arguments in circular logic, as he achieves agility in balancing false syllogisms and prefabricated phrases like a sword-juggler. Thought is no longer needed—and indeed, in true "Newspeak" style, to be avoided—if the acrobatics of linguistic devices hold the floor. (p. 390)

[At the end of the play] Hugo has become a talking machine, a robot, repeating language which has become independent of its user. He has become a well-functioning particle in a system.

Havel's next and possibly best-known play, The Memorandum …, takes up the same theme; but by now language (or "Newspeak") has become, as it were, the central character, and the human figures around it seem to exist only in relationship to that center, which is both the most explicit as well as the most alienating aspect of the play, because the author has performed the dramatic feat of having literally created a new synthetic language. Despite the humor of the play, however, the tone is a shade grimmer than that of The Garden Party. The learning of a new language is no longer seen as a tool for a career but has become a necessity for survival. The setting is a huge bureaucratic establishment…. Everything is predictable; any particle of the set pattern of events (be it another figure or another synthetic language) could easily be substituted.

The Mountain Hotel … takes this notion to its dramatic as well as philosophical conclusion…. The mechanizing of communication has become the very subject of the play. A number of phrases pertaining to food, joy, the weather, memory, sex, hope, disappointment, et cetera have been distributed regularly throughout the play, as if a computer had ordered input data in a certain way. Then certain characters are attached to the phrases and made to speak them at various times. Of course, since the regular reappearance of the phrases is the first concern of the play, the characters are secondary and are shuffled around so that each of them gets to say a certain phrase at a certain time. The result is a perfectly constructed "well-made play," except that its form is inverted. Phrases and movements have become autonomous, and the characters have become interchangeable. The play is perhaps the only literary work setting up one consistent portrayal of what we call modern man's disintegration of personality.

Another aspect of Havel's work in which he touches an essential fiber of contemporary consciousness is his startling treatment of a theme which has become the trusty war-horse of academic research projects—the dynamics of man's life in groups, namely the "tension between the individual and society." (pp. 390-91)

[The Conspirators is a stark] version of the self-propelled circuit of social endeavor. The play could be called a computerized study of revolution. In their systematic struggle for power the four main figures, representatives of public guidance and safety (the Heads of the Police, the Military, the Law and Culture), are choreographed through a series of steps of a dance of power, nourished by greed and triggered by deceit, the movements of which become entirely foreseeable by the second act and inevitably lead back to the initial constellation. (p. 391)

[Havel's three short plays, Audience, Vernissage, and Protest] have one remarkable feature in common. They are all built around one and the same character: a semi-autobiographical figure, a quiet, thoughtful, shy man named Vaněk who is faced with different situations to which he responds in his own particular way; his figure takes on a reality which goes far beyond the time and place of the actual stage play. If the character itself is semi-autobiographical, the situations he gets into are entirely realistic in that they deal with various facets of what the West has come to call a "dissident" writer under a totalitarian regime. (pp. 391-92)

[In Protest Havel] takes up the complex, burning issue of freedom of speech and molds it into a remarkable one-act play with two characters and a briefcase, some brandy glasses, a pair of slippers and a magnolia tree as the only props. The content of the play revolves around the signing of a petition which lands in the furnace at the end of the play. Vaněk comes with the document in his briefcase to another writer who is getting along well and whose plays are performed all over the country because he is accommodating to the rules of the regime and writes only what is "allowed." The intellectual and dramatic highlight lies in the final speech with which the successful writer explains to Vaněk why—in the interests of the common good and "relentless objective reflection" on the issue rather than "subjective inner feeling"—he could not possibly sign the human rights petition to free a recently imprisoned composer-singer. The singer is free for other reasons before the end of the play, and the tangible value of the petition is nullified. However, we have witnessed an argument on social ethics which Havel has left as a sort of interim legacy for the theatres of the world. It is food for thought for directors and actors just as much as for philosophers and social scientists—and above all, perhaps, for thinking human beings under any regime….

Havel's work, though reflecting in a unique way the features of his own society, contains startling resources for the Western consciousness and emerges in all its artistic and philosophical importance, if considered in the context of contemporary international literature. His figure Vaněk (which has already been taken up by two other Czech playwrights, Pavel Kohout and Pavel Landovský, who have used the character in two of their own plays and have thus given it continuum and an additional realistic dimension) is a sort of ethical, incorruptible Alice in a dubious land where reasoning and actions are based on the attempt to survive within a system whose nature is accepted without question. As to the issue of the Individual versus Society, Havel's work reveals the relativism of ethical standpoints in Western literature (examples from Pinter to Robbe-Grillet from Beckett to Pynchon abound)…. Havel's explorations of language as a tool of power relates as much to the West German playwright Peter Handke's angry study of a man molded linguistically into a social system, as it illuminates a burning problem of Central-Eastern European writers and cultures: namely, that the struggle for a free language is in fact a struggle for political and social independence. (p. 392)

[Havel] is not only a playwright who 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. More than that. While imparting his diagnosis of our ills, he makes us laugh—which, they tell me, is half the cure. (pp. 392-93)

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, "Václav Havel: A Writer of Today's Season," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 388-93.

Samuel Beckett

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092





Rehearsal. Final touches to the last scene. Bare stage. A and L have just set the lighting. D has just arrived.

D in an armchair downstage audience left. Fur coat. Fur toque to match. Age and physique unimportant.

A standing beside him. White coverall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.

P midstage standing on a black block 18″ high. Black wide-brimmed hat. Black dressing gown to ankles. Barefoot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets. Age and physique unimportant.

D and A contemplate P.

Long pause.

A (finally): Like the look of him?

D: So-so. (Pause.) Why the plinth?

A: To let the stalls see the feet.


D: Why the hat?

A: To help hide the face.


D: Why the gown?

A: To have him all black.


D: What has he on underneath? (A moves toward P.) Say it.

(A halts.)

A: His night attire.

D: Color?

A: Ash.

(D takes out a cigar.)

D: Light.

(A returns, lights the cigar, stands still. D smokes.)

D: How's the skull?

A: You've seen it.

D: I forget. (A moves toward P.) Say it.

(A halts.)

A: Molting. A few tufts.

D: Color?

A: Ash.


D: Why hands in pockets?

A: To help have him all black.

D: They mustn't.

A: I make a note. (She takes out a pad, takes pencil, notes.) Hands exposed. (She puts back pad and pencil.)

D: How are they?

(A at a loss.)

D (irritably): The hands, how are the hands?

A: You've seen them.

D: I forget.

A: Crippled. Fibrous degeneration.

D: Clawlike?

A: If you like.

D: Two claws?

A: Unless he clench his fists.

D: He mustn't.

A: I make a note. (She takes out pad, takes pencil, notes.) Hands limp. (She puts back pad and pencil.)

D: Light.

(A returns, relights the cigar, stands still. D smokes.)

D: Good. Now let's have a look.

(A at a loss.)

D (irritably): Get going. Lose that gown. (He consults his chronometer.) Step on it. I have a caucus.

(A goes to P, takes off the gown. P submits, inert. A steps back, the gown over her arm. P in old gray pajamas, head bowed, fists clenched. Pause.)

A: Like him better without? (Pause.) He's shivering.

D: Not all that. Hat.

(A advances, takes off hat, steps back, hat in hand. Pause.)

A: Like that cranium?

D: Needs whitening.

A: I make a note. (She drops hat and gown, takes out pad, takes pencil, notes.) Whiten cranium. (She puts back pad and pencil.)

D: The hands.

(A at a loss.)

D (irritably): The fists. Get going.

(A advances, unclenches fists, steps back.)

D: And whiten.

A: I make a note. (She takes out pad, takes pencil, notes.) Whiten hands. (She puts back pad and pencil. They contemplate P.)

D (finally): Something wrong. (Distraught) What is it?

A (timidly): What if we were to … were to … join them?

D: No harm trying. (A advances, joins the hands, steps back.) Higher. (A advances, raises waist-high the joined hands, steps back.) A touch more. (A advances, raises breast-high the joined hands.) Stop! (A steps back.) Better. It's coming. Light.

(A returns, relights the cigar, stands still. D smokes.)

A: He's shivering.

D: Bless his heart.


A (timidly): What about a little … a little … gag?

D: For God's sake! This craze for explicitation! Every i dotted to death! Little gag! For God's sake!

A: Sure he won't utter?

D: Not a squeak. (He consults his chronometer.) Just time. I'll go and see how it looks from the house.

(Exit D, not to appear again. A subsides in the armchair, springs to her feet no sooner seated, takes out a rag, wipes vigorously back and seat of chair, discards rag, sits again. Pause.)

D (off, plaintive): I can't see the toes. (Irritably) I'm sitting in the front row of the stalls and can't see the toes.

A (rising): I make a note. (She takes out pad, takes pencil, notes.) Raise pedestal.

D: There's a trace of face.

A: I make a note. (She takes out pad, takes pencil, makes to note.)

D: Down the head.

(A at a loss.)

D (irritably): Get going. Down his head. (A puts back pad and pencil, goes to P, bows his head further, steps back.) A shade more. (A advances, bows the head further.) Stop! (A steps back.) Fine. It's coming. (Pause.) Could do with more nudity.

A: I make a note. (She takes out pad, makes to take pencil.)

D: Get going! Get going! (A puts back the pad, goes to P, stands irresolute.) Bare the neck. (A undoes top buttons, parts the flaps, steps back.) The legs. The shins. (A advances, rolls up to below knee one trouser leg, steps back.) The other. (Same for other leg, steps back.) Higher. The knees. (A advances, rolls up to above knees both trouser legs, steps back.) And whiten.

A: I make a note. (She takes out pad, takes pencil, notes.) Whiten all flesh.

D: It's coming. Is Luke around?

A (calling): Luke! (Pause. Louder) Luke!

L (off, distant): I hear you. (Pause. Nearer) What's the trouble now?

A: Luke's around.

D: Black out stage.

L: What?

(A transmits in technical terms. Fadeout of general light. Light on P alone. A in shadow.)

D: Just the head.

L: What?

(A transmits in technical terms. Fadeout of light on P's body. Light on head alone. Long pause.)

D: Lovely.


A (timidly): What if he were to … were to … raise his head … an instant … show his face … just an instant?

D: For God's sake! What next? Raise his head! Where do you think we are? In Patagonia? Raise his head! For God's sake! (Pause.) Good. There's our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I'm off.

A (to L): Once more and he's off.

(Fadeup of light on P's body. Pause. Fadeup of general light.)

D: Stop! (Pause.) Now … let 'em have it. (Fadeout of general light. Pause. Fadeout of light on body. Light on head alone. Long pause.) Terrific! He'll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here.

(Pause. Distant storm of applause. P raises his head, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies.

Long pause.

Fadeout of light on face.)

                                                   (pp. 26-7)

Samuel Beckett, "'Catastrophe'" (a play written for Václav Havel; reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © by Samuel Beckett), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 47, January 10, 1983, pp. 26-7.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Havel, Václav (Vol. 123)