Václav Havel Havel, Václav (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Václav Havel 1936–

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Paul I. Trensky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Martin Esslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin Esslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4443 words.)

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Samuel Beckett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)





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...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)