When Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum premiered in Prague at the Theatre on the Balustrade in 1965, Czechoslovakia was experiencing a moment of respite between the fall of Stalinism and the subsequent re-arrival of Soviet tanks in 1968. In the thaw of the 1960’s, Czech artists and writers blossomed, openly deconstructing the absurdities of the Stalinist era, and attempting to create radical new structures for what they saw as a hopeful future of progress and political reform. Havel, who began the decade as a stagehand and ended it is an internationally renowned playwright and prominent political voice, was instrumental in this artistic movement. The Memorandum, along with Havel’s other early plays The Garden Party and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, sits at an interesting transitional point in both Czechoslovak history, and in Havel’s oeuvre. Although these plays are often read as polemics in retrospect of Havel’s later position as a “dissident writer”, they were in fact written during a time of relative freedom and artistic openness.
The year before, in 1964, Havel published his first literary work in Czechoslovakia. Interestingly, it was not a play or an essay (the forms that Havel is most recognized for writing), but an anthology of Concrete Poems, published in an edition entitled Antikody (Anticodes). The term “Concrete Poetry” (poetry that considers the formal layout of the page in equal importance with the language) was first coined in the 1950’s to describe the work of a number of international artists and poets who were creating work in this form. It is interesting to examine these early small experiments with words and space in light of the fact that Havel would later become renowned for his use of language and structure in his plays. Indeed, many of the themes and formal concerns of Havel’s plays can be traced to these early poems. For example, in the concrete poem “Estrangement,” pictured here, Havel creates what at first glance appears to be a maze separating the letters “J” and “A,” which together form the word “ja”or “I” in Czech. Yet, the dotted lines make it ambiguous where a line begins and ends, what the correct path might be, and even if it is at all necessary to use these lines to connect the two halves of the first person singular pronoun. The “I” is estranged from itself through an illusory path that appears more complicated than it really is. This concrete poem strongly resembles Josef Gross’s predicament in The Memorandum: he cannot possibly begin to gain control of his strange world if he insists on playing by its ridiculous rules. The “vicious, vicious circle” that Gross finds himself trapped in is a man-made construct that crumbles as soon as someone refuses to play along.
The Memorandum can also be seen as being an absurd take on earlier literary figures caught up in existential crises. As scholars such as Paul Trensky and Katarina Hrabovská have pointed out, Josef Gross and his journey in the play bear a striking resemblance to the character Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s novel, Der Prozess (The Trial). The play’s circular structure, where the locations of scenes always follow one another in a regular pattern, seems to suggest a world that is doomed to self-perpetuation regardless of the characters’ actions inside of it, similarly to Kafka’s world where a man must stand trial for an unknown crime. Yet, the main difference rests within the fact that Kafka envisions this world as a monstrous and inescapable reality, and thus the terror one feels for Josef K. is quite real. For Havel, on the other hand, who has seen his country survive Stalinism and can reflectively look back on the hysterical slogans and conspiracies of that time, there is all too obviously a waking state lying beneath the nightmare. This is why we shudder at Josef K.’s plight, but can laugh at Josef Gross’s. The Memorandum reminds us that societal structures like those in The Trial (which all too readily resemble Stalinism) are indeed manufactured structures from which it is entirely possible for humanity to break itself free. It is this fact that lends the play its absurdist tone, as it recognizes the fact that these characters are trapped not by some all powerful mechanism, but by there own belief in a force of control.
The Memorandum invites audiences to laugh at human beings’ penchant for forcing inhuman conditions on themselves. For Havel, this profound observation about humanity often appears in his plays in the form of physical comedy. In a 1966 article, “The Anatomy of the Gag,” Havel examines Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times and comes to the conclusion that, “the gag awakens the experience of absurdity by defamiliarizing (revealing as absurd) that reality in which the person is in some sense socially (“objectively”) alienated from himself without being fully aware of it.” For Havel, what makes a gag work is when a mechanical action (such as Chaplin rapidly working on a factory line), is interrupted by a human need (such as Chaplin scratching an itch). The absurdity and dehumanization present in the first action is revealed through the second. It is this recognition that makes an audience laugh, and this comic setup that Havel mines in the structure of The Memorandum, as the characters relentlessly interrupt themselves with their baser human needs. From Havel’s humanistic perspective, the gag has enormous potential in that it reveals truths people have masked from themselves, and exposes the self-made structures at the root of a crisis of alienation.
It is surprising that a play as insightful about the mechanisms of bureaucracy has not been seen in a major New York production since it appeared in Joseph Papp’s inaugural season at The Public Theatre in 1968. This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that this original American production, which starred Paul Stevens and Olympia Dukakis, garnered an Obie Award and rave reviews. Yet, perhaps the time has just not been as ripe as it is now for a revival of the play. As America trudges through a painful recession it created with its own hands, it is a refreshing moment to watch The Memorandum lampooning the absurdities of society acting in its “best interest” with blind disregard for the human toll. As we try to sift through the bizarre language of “credit default swaps” and “mortgage-backed securities” in order to understand how we got into this mess, it is an ideal time to laugh at The Memorandum’s fabricated language; a language created for an offices’ own good and instrumental in its near collapse.