History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/East European Post-WWII

Vaclav Havel

Havel described turmoils arising from state control of individuals, 2000

Czechoslovakian drama achieved notoriety with "Kopřiva" (Largo desolato, 1984) and "Vyrozumění" (The memorandum, 1965) by Vaclav Havel (1936-2011). Havel also wrote "Redevelopment" (1987). The mixing between anxiety with humor in these plays approximates the theatre of Harold Pinter. In particular, "Largo desolato" has some affinity with Pinter's "The birthday party" (1957) in that two individuals representing authority hound a victim at his home.

In "Largo desolato", “Professor Leopold Nettles, an existentialist philosopher who has been under police surveillance and harassment for writing a paragraph 'disturbing the intellectual peace', can escape from his dilemma by declaring that he is 'not the same person who is the author of that thing'. Nettles is so tortured by the expectations of his friends and by his own self doubts, however, that he has virtually imprisoned himself within his own apartment and his own mind...Nettles has been the vicarious moral voice upon whom all his friends, who have surrendered their own voices, depend. He is their excuse not to be. Their vague expectations and dependence contribute to his identity crisis: is there a split between who he is and the roles others expect him to play? The dichotomy between Nettles' current internal torment and the image he has projected in the past is revealed through the other characters. His friend Bertram notes 'I can't escape the awful feeling that lately something inside you has begun to collapse...that you are tending more and more to act the part of yourself instead of being yourself.' In fact, Nettles in his desperation increasingly acts the roles that others project on him, using the same phrases they have addressed to him. Urged to put his philosophical ideas to some practical use, he ironically does just that: he uses his reputation and writings to seduce Marguerite, a young student whom he sees as 'in mid-crisis about the meaning of life'. Before the seduction is complete, however, the agents of the authorities appear" (Carey, 1992 pp 207-208). “The doorbell always interrupts a conversation at its most important moment and the disrupted sentences are left unfinished"...On one hand, the interrupted business leaves Leopold alineated. On the other, the repetitions and circularity of the scenes give us a 'feeling of enclosure or entrapment' facing the central character" (Trojanowska, 1996 p 422).

In "The memorandum", “the theory of the new language discussed in the play is brilliantly worked out (Prague is after all the home of modern structural linguistics and Havel uses the terminology of redundancy in information theory to great effect) and their value as metaphor of the situation in a country where life and death 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’ downward path exactly corresponding to one of his renewed rise to power. Havel is the master if the ironical, inverted repetition of almost identical phrases in different contexts. And behind the mockery of the bureaucratic procedure, behind the Witttgensteinian 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 (Esslin, 1974 pp 279-280). “In contrast with the ascetic academism of the Ptydepe classroom, the privileged staff of the Translation Centre pamper themselves hedonistical...The life of the office is independent of the outer world. Procedures are self-perpetuating (Baláš is able to compromise Gross after Gross transgresses a minor rule) and major changes take place (the removal of the Accounts Department to an unlit cellar) without the managing director’s knowledge. To what end? The operation of this machine is irrelevant to anything outside itself. Ptydepe, manufactured to simplify office procedure, is exposed as being beyond human competence when the last remaining student creeps defeated from the classroom” (Day, 2019 pp 167-168). “Havel’s dystopia landscape is veiled by normalcy, but, like Ionesco’s plays, a simple situation escapes into absurdity” (Krasner, 2016 p 383). "Beyond the broad humor of a translation department forbidden to translate, this scene leads us toward Havel's more profound considerations. These patterns of behavior typical of office workers represent a system of conventions; and such expectations and possibilities shape behavior and attitudes, making these characters cherish their prerogatives (as Helena clearly does) while they ignore their duties. Anthropologists and sociologists remind us that whatever systems we live in seem natural and inevitable to us. Havel's characters are so accustomed to their grid of convention that they naturalize everything that comes into it: while the audience immediately grasps the absurdity of the situation, the characters do not. For them, Gross's request for help with the new language becomes just another source of papers to push and an advantage to be gained and lost, with nothing taking precedence over lunch. The introduction of Ptydepe, however, opens an entire complex in which unnamed, faceless authorities decree in the name of science and humanity, and those affected by the decrees risk being labeled unscientific or antihumanist if they object in any way. The characters in this play, not workers in the old communist proletarian sense but mid-level, white-collar managers and clerks, scramble to toe the line. Because they have internalized the rhetoric of the system, they justify their responses for and against the decree (at least publicly) with the accepted blather" (Whitsitt, 1996 pp 46-47). “Gross becomes a tool in the hands of those who keep functioning unperturbed in the name of new slogans. Like Brecht's Mother Courage they do not care under whose flag they do business, so long as the business flourishes. The spark of Gross' insight into the absurd nature of his mechanized existence that might have flared up when he discovered the incomprehensible message has been extinguished for good. His final phrase-ridden speech to Marie, who is fired as a consequence of her act of loyalty in translating the memorandum, shows that he will never be capable of experiencing that revealing moment of alienation which, Havel tells us, makes a man recognize the absurdity of his being tied to a mechanized process. Gross has become part of the process” (Goetz-Stankiewicz, 1979 p 56). “As with many of Havel’s plays, The Memorandum ends by beginning all over again” (Danaher, 2015 p 75).

“Pinter frequently creates a feeling of threat through the use of an enclosed space; Havel often achieves the same effect by including in his plays a character or two, perhaps silent, who represent the omnipresent repressive state, for example Pillar in The Memorandum, the Two Chaps in Largo Desolato, and the Secret Messenger in Temptation (1986)” (Skloot, 2010 p 2).

"Largo desolato"

Leopold worries over state control of his writings. Havel in 1989

Time: 1980s. Place: Czechoslovakia.

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Leopold Nettles, a professor of philosophy, is sick with anxiety after receiving a visit from state authorities and dares not even leave his house in fear of the consequences of being found missing. He often looks through the peep-hole of the main door. His friend, Edward, can find nothing to say to calm him down. One day, Leopold receives the visit of two men named Sidney, but these are not the men he fears. On the contrary, they work in a paper mill and arrive to express their admiration of his stand. They believe that everything will work out well in the end provided he remain firm. They also specify that considering many people look up to him, he should be doing more than he does. Their talk is interrupted by Leopold's friend, Lucy. When the two men leave, she soon initiates love-making. "You need love," she affirms, "real love, mad passionate love, not that theoretical one you write about." He submits to her blandishments. Another of Leopold's friends, Bertram, expresses fears that he will crack under the strain and let all his friends down. "What happened to your perspective on things?" Bertram wonders, "your humor, industry, and persistence? the pointedness of your observations, your irony and self-irony, your capacity for enthusiasm, emotional involvement, commitment, even sacrifice?" Impatient to hear Bertram speak, Lucy appears covered only in a bedspread and so he goes away. To her, Leopold admits that he has fallen apart under the pressure just before two men expected to show up at last appear and order two assistants to remove the woman from the premises. The main purpose of their visit is for Leopold to deny having written a book he wrote: "Ontology of the human self". He hesitates, asks for time to think. On learning of this matter, his wife, Suzana, is surprised at his hesitation. "If you can't take it, you should never have gotten into it," she avers. The two Sidneys return to offer encouragement and carry suitcases containing office supplies and files of information he can use to write more books. Bertram wants to support him but is useless as a friend, Suzana is baffled as to what he need consider, Lucy is hurt that he seems to turn away from her. He next receives the visit of a philosophy student, Marguerite, an admirer who looks to him for help in life. In his crisis, she also wishes to help him. "You need love, mad passionate true love," she concludes, as did Lucy. After spotting the two men he must answer to, Leopold advises her to leave the room and head toward the balcony. Leopold tells his visitors that he refuses to comply. The two men retort that his answer is irrelevant. "Your case has been adjourned indefinitely," the first man announces. "Indefinitely for the time being," the second man specifies. "I don't want an adjournment," Leopold cries out. "I want to go there." After the two men leave, Leopold continues to look through the peep-hole at the main door.

"The memorandum"

Confusion arises when employees at an agency are required to learn a new synthetic language. 1969 Slovenia production of the play

Time: 1960s. Place: Czechoslovakia.

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A puzzled Director Gross receives a memorandum in a language he cannot understand. The deputy director, Balas, asks him where his colleague, Kubs, should enter incoming correspondence. Where else but in a logbook? But the logbook is full so that the men need to buy a new one, only the funds for such a purchase have run out. To resolve the difficulty, Gross hands them the money from his own pocket. Gross’ secretary, Shelley, informs him that the memorandum is written in Ptydepe, a new synthetic language. After buying the logbook, Balas informs his superior that there is another difficulty: the authentification department refuses to accept it due to its being purchased from unofficial funds. “Tell them to authenticate it on my authority,” Gross commands. Before going, Balas admits that the use of the new synthetic language was his idea. Gross commands him to rescind the project. He promises to, but on his way back informs his boss that he must put his command concerning the logbook in writing, or else face trouble concerning the matter of a rubber stamp, which Gross took with him to work at home, because the company’s bank number is inscribed on it. Gross yields. At the Ptydepe Translation Center, Gross learns from its head, Masat, that a translation permit provided by Dr Kunc, “a Ptydepist with a license equivalent to a doctorate,” according to the man himself, is needed to translate any Ptydepe document. Gross wishes to put Ptydepe on hold, but Balas informs him that he is in a bad position to issue such an order, because the purchase of the logbook and the transport of the rubber stamp are an abuse of his official powers. Instead, Balas proposes that he sign a written order for the use of Ptydepe. Gross relunctantly accepts to sign a retroactive order for it. In view of the difficulty in promoting a language he knows nothing about, Gross also accepts to step down as director to the position of deputy director, while Balas in turn steps up to become the new director. Gross meets Talaura to know how he can obtain a permit to translate his memorandum, but the answer is disappointing. “I provide it to anyone who as not recently received a memorandum written in Ptydepe,” she says. “I can’t be expected to issue personal documentation when I don’t know if it contains material that may conflict with the conclusions of the most recent performance review.” Aggravated by this conundrum, Gross exposes a contradiction in their in-house policies to a large group of employees. “An employee in our agency who has recently received a memorandum in Ptydepe can at best receive a translation only after his memorandum is translated,” he points out. “But what if what this employee wishes to have translated is his memorandum? It cannot be done. Why? Because his memorandum has been recently translated. In other words, we can find out what our memorandum says only after we already know what is says.” Confronted by this difficulty, Balas fires him, then, out of pity, offers him a position as office monitor, spying on employees in a small cubby-hole, while the previous monitor becomes the new deputy director. Another problem arises when Balas learns from Shelley that, due to the difficulty in learning Ptydepe, no one has yet been able to master it except the employees at the Translation Center. Moreover, Kinc and Talaura inform him that once people master the language, it begins to develop some of the characteristics of a natural language. To obtain more help, he hands back to Gross his deputy directorship. To understand at last his memorandum, Gross requests Alice, the secretary at the Translation Center, to translate it, who reveals that Ptydepe is to be eliminated and that he, as director, should take strong action against all those who had promoted it. When Gross informs Balas of this, he requests his old position back. Gross refuses until Balas points that he had signed the retroactive order for it. When everything seems to have returned to normal, Gross discovers that yet another new language has sprung up, Chorukor, under Balas’ direction. Gross also find out that Alice, spied on by the old monitor, was fired for disclosing an important text without authorization. He accepts this as a good challenge for her in the progression of her career.

Sławomir Mrożek

Slawomir Mrozek describes a young man who resents his father's liberal views, 2006

Of interest in East European theatre after WWII is the Polish playwright Sławomir Mrożek (1930-2013) and his family saga, "Tango" (1964).

“This drama begins to demonstrate Mrożek's movement from more culturally specific (Polish) locations toward more universal themes...It was during this phase of his development that Mrożek's work began to resemble most closely worldwide literary movements such as the Theatre of the Absurd. Mrożek differs in important ways from typical absurdists, however. The absurdity in his work is not based upon existential angst but rather on a sense of cultural disconnectedness” (Ellison, 1999 p 701).

“The usual order of things in the conflict of generations is reversed in Tango: it is the father and the mother who are revolutionaries, the son who longs for a conservative order...If the fathers have reached s a stage of complete victory for all rebellion, then the only rebellion still possible is the rebellion against rebellion...What was the nature of the rebellion? It was...a revolt against puritanism and repressive morals, a revolt against traditional standards also in the arts...It was an act of courage just to dance the tango...considered too sensual, too obscene...But...the old conventions of behavior made sense because people believed in the philosophy that underlay them. That philosophy and that faith have been effectively destroyed. Arthur himself no longer believes in the ideas...[He is defeated because] he lacked the ruthlessness, the brutality, the inhumanity to put his views into practice” (Esslin, 1970 pp 158-161). “The tango here is the symbol of what the original impulse to revolt was about, for when the tango was a new and daring dance, the generation of Arthur’s parents was fighting for their right to dance the tango. At the end of the road when the revolt against traditional values has destroyed all values and nothing is left except naked power- Eddie’s power, the power of the brainless mass- the tango is being danced. The implications of this exercise in the dialectics of revolt are clear enough...values, once destroyed, cannot be reconstituted and that only naked power remains, and that finally, because the intellectuals are not ruthless enough to exercise naked power, its assumption by the Eddies of the world” (Esslin, 1974 p 275). "The couple in Mrozek's play have rebelled against Victorian social and moral conventions. Later we learn that Eleanor sleeps with a disreputable house guest, while Stomil, calmly accepting the ménage à trois, walks around with his pajamas unbuttoned. Mrozek's stage directions for Act I create a picture of chaotic freedom, suggesting a triumphant overthrow of the conventions of a time when it took great courage to dance the tango" (Valgemae, 1971 pp 45-46).

“Stomil and Eleanor once created meaning for themselves by destroying form in art, and thus paved the way for absurdist art. In the play, they are victims of the very formlessness they helped to create...Eugenia represents the old generation, once shocked by people like Eleanor and Stomil who made love in the first row of the orchestra at the opening night of Tannhauser, but now bored and cynical, having lived too long and seen too much to do anything more than fritter away existence in useless activities like poker. Uncle Eugene, with his memoirs and his nostalgia for the order of the past, stands for the aristocracy displaced by the cultural and political events of the twentieth century. Eleanor and Stomil, married in 1928, are the aging, now ineffectual, artists who once achieved their goal of destroying all tradition and consequently all form, 'all those fetters, those rusty chains of religion, morality, society, art'. They embody an entire way of thinking and acting that characterized the avant-garde in the first quarter of this century. Arthur represents the lingering spirit of romanticism in the contemporary world, the visionary desperate to have the world conform to his idealized concept of it. Ala functions as a representative of the apolitical, personal liberation movement which began to spread into all social strata in the 1960s. Eddie, with his gross habits and his small square moustache, represents the ignorant but powerful mob that resorts to Hitlers and Stalins to assert itself. As in medieval allegory, these forces are incompatible with one another and engage in a struggle for the soul of mankind...Eddie, who uses the pistol to overpower Arthur with two swift blows to the back of his neck at the end of 'Tango', asks during Stomil’s play: 'Where's the snake?' Although Stomil replies: 'The snake is in our imagination,' the snake in the household, the agent of the family's fall from disorganized ‘grace’ into the hell of tyranny, is the only person who asks about the serpent, Eddie himself” (O’Neill, 1983 pp 46-47).

"The nonconformist father, Stomil, argues that 'in opposition to everything past we're paving the way for the future.' After questioning the nature of that future in that "brave new cock-eyed world', his son, Arthur, makes a comment that is bound to echo loudly in the ears of a Western audience: 'You've been kicking over the totems for so long that there's nothing left for me to kick against- nothing! Abnormality is the new norm' The audience of New York or London can hardly ignore the topical impact of Arthur's words. They point directly to Western society, for which the hunt for sacred cows has become a mass movement and which has grown so used to protests of all kinds that it has practically institutionalized them...Arthur wants not only the right to create a world order, but also- and more important- the right to overthrow that order again, 'the right to rebel'...This double vision causes Arthur's downfall. His father, Stomil, expresses it with the fine empathy but lack of precision native to him: 'He was ruled by the mind, but with too much passion. Abstraction betrayed his sentiment, and sentiment killed him'. Arthur grandly dismisses the family's practical objections to his attempt to impose order by reestablishing nineteenth-century formalism when he proposes to his young cousin on bended knee, then forces the family into outdated, moth-eaten wedding clothes and tries to persuade his father to shoot his mother's lover: 'I'm not interested in the details- it's the principle of the thing'. But when Ala, Arthur's bride, informs him nonchalantly that she has slept with Edek the morning before their wedding, he is outraged and wants to shoot the whole family. At this point Mrozek deflates the idealist in him with a Swiftian sense of proportion; not being able to lay hold of the revolver that is to establish justice, Arthur with a sudden flash of awareness sees himself not as the redeemer and world restorer but as a comic figure, enmeshed and tripped up by the practical realization of his own ideals" (Stankiewicz, 1971 pp 190-200). "Artur is willing to sacrifice his uncle Eugene and his own conscience in order to satisfy his fetish- the idea of a world-order- but he is weak and incapable of killing. This brings about his doom. Brute force and self-indulgent 'liberalism' triumph in the end" (Kejna-Sharratt, 1974, p 79).


Tango maneuver

Time: 1960s. Place: Poland.

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Arthur is angry at seeing his great-uncle, Eugene, play cards instead of writing his memoirs. To punish him, he places a bird-cage over his head. He also commands his grandmother, Eugenia, to lie inside a coffin with lit candles beside it. Arthur next scolds his father, Stomil, for walking about with his pajama bottom improperly buttoned up, but he ignores him. The father reminds him it is thanks to his generation that he is so free, but Arthur regrets such freedom, "in this brothel where nothing works because everyone can do whatever he pleases". But to Stomil, "every man is entitled to his own kind of happiness". Arthur continues to speak of this theme to Eugene. "Don't you realize that, precisely because everything is possible, nothing is possible anymore?" he asks. The loss of tradition and convention have made revolt impossible. Considering himself an artist, Stomil presents to the family a puppet-play on Adam and Eve. After a few exchanges, the lights go out and a gun-shot is heard, with the result that he is the only one amused. Arthur challenges his father by announcing that a supposed friend of the family, Eddie, sleeps with his wife, Eleanor. But after Stomil proposes to shoot him, Arthur discovers his father playing cards with both. Having failed to do anything with his father, Arthur next attempts to turn the clock back by convincing Ala to marry him. She hesitates but finally accepts. When he asks for Eugenia's blessing, she hesitates. Glad of this turn of events, her brother, Eugene, threatens to shoot her unless she does. She finally yields. On the wedding day, there is a newly discovered order in the household, though Stomil remains doubtful as to whether it can be maintained. "Formalism will never free you from chaos," he prophesies to Eugene. Eleanor is also glad of this turn of events, still enthusiastic about Eddie acting as both her servant and lover. But at the last moment, Arthur no longer wants to go through with the ceremony, empty of any meaning, still looking for an idea to build an entire life on. A sick Eugenia enters the coffin a second time, but this time to die. This gives Arthur the idea that death is the best idea of all. He begins by condemning Eugene to death and is about to enforce it when Eddie kills him from behind. In view of the family's weakness to decide on anything, it is now Eddie's turn to command. To celebrate the coming of a new family order based on old traditions, he dances a tango with Eugene.

Radovan Ivšić


More criticisms of the state abound in «Akvarij» (Aquarium, 1986), as expressed by the Croatian writer, Radovan Ivšić (1921-2009).


A journalist discovers that staying at a military camp resembles fish swimming in an aquarium. Underwater Walk of Sea Life at the London Aquarium

Time: 1980s. Place: A military camp in Yugoslavia.

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A journalist has been hired by a daily called “Liberty” to write an article on a military camp. He is stopped by a sergeant accompanied by two soldiers to show his pass. After some trouble, the journalist finds it, but declines the sergeant’s invitation to act in a friendlier fashion. As the sergeant walks off to find the attendant meant to welcome the journalist, the latter is surprised to find an old female friend of his, Feather. They are only able to express their sentiments in a fragmented way as the sergeant returns. The journalist is unable to find a match for his cigarette, but the sergeant pretends not to hear. As was the journalist, the sergeant is surprised to find Feather in the camp and takes fright when she begins to speak in coded letters. With the journalist still struggling to find a match, the sergeant finally finds one but it only emits smoke as the attendant, surnamed Ear in a Leather Jacket, walks in. Ear in a Leather Jacket scolds the sergeant after noticing that he failed to check whether the journalist’s pass matched his identity card. It does, but despite the journalist’s protests, Ear in a Leather Jacket leaves the room with the pass to verify its authenticity. Meanwhile, Feather asks the journalist to tell her stories as he did ten years ago when they last met. He obliges by telling her the story of the dove and the falcon that killed the dove along with the one of the princess who kept falling on her way to thank the prince for his gift of red boots. They approach to kiss each other, but are interrupted by the sergeant accompanied by his superior, Colonel Nell, who asks the latter for his report. However, the sergeant has nothing to report. Colonel Nell discourses to the journalist about his interest in art and stamps but when Ear in a Leather Jacket approaches them, he switches to military subjects, including the head in the camp, General Gala, and orders the sergeant to bring over a calculator. Colonel Nell returns to the subject of philately, but when Ear in a Leather Jacket approaches them again, he switches to the subject of the camp. The same event occurs a third time until he is able to return to the subject of philately, “the sublime instrumentation of reality”, according to him after many tries to obtain the correct wording, which he promptly loses again. Meanwhile, Feather weeps while professing to laugh with happiness. Colonel Nell announces that General Gala has at last freed himself from his arduous tasks to welcome the journal correspondent. The general orders that the calculator be removed. He conveys to the journalist a warning that his editor-in-chief should only publish official communications and chess problems. He next orders that the table and chairs on which the calculator lay be placed back as they were to play chess with the journalist. Still without matches, the journalist asks the general for some fire. The general promptly takes out a gun, aims at him, and pulls the trigger, but the firearm jams. After learning that the journalist has no knowledge of chess, he orders him away and plays instead with Colonel Nell. Left by themselves, the journalist and Feather are about to engage in another kiss when an alarm sounds, a matter for Ear in a Leather Jacket to investigate while the general, unconcerned, continues to play with the colonel. A female prisoner appears and is shot down. The journalist takes a picture of the dead body as Ear in a Leather Jacket saunters leisurely towards the chess table and orders the carcass be removed, a matter for two soldiers that the journalist photographs as well. The colonel comments that he loves chess because the board reminds him of a stamp album. Bored at watching the journalist and Feather, the sergeant plays soccer with the two soldiers, another scene that the journalist photographs. The men are joined by Ear in a Leather Jacket. The colonel checkmates the general, who angrily sweeps away the chess pieces. To calm him down, the colonel asks for another game. The general will let him now when. Unwatched, the journalist and Feather agree to escape, but, on reaching a staircase, they hear gunfire. The journalist has yet another story to tell, this time about a fish in a tank. “It could no longer move forward. There was a glass barrier. Light could pass through the glass but not the fish. It stayed in the aquarium.” After trying to get up, he drops his identity card down the staircase, picked up by Ear in a Leather Jacket. The soldiers tie up the journalist and Feather to take them away. A voice over a loudspeaker announces that when a silent old man was asked by many people to speak just one word, he said: “Fire!”