Theater 61 Press is releasing five new books of translations of Havel's plays (The Havel Collection) The initial book release event will be on Oct 4, in honor of what would have been Havel's 76th birthday. Here is one of my essays from the collection, about the play The Memo. The website for Theater 61 Press (put up just last month) includes a number of other essays from the collection.)
Bureaucracy is often a deliberate mask for the misuse of power. Although it is possible for bureaucracy to creep in through an accumulation of well-meaning rules, there is another more sinister sort of bureaucracy that can be used as a tool. Communist regimes frequently depended on that tool, though in time, they also became entangled by their own bureaucratic structures. It is no coincidence that one of Václav Havel’s main obsessions in his plays was the workings of bureaucracy.
I came to Havel through Ionesco. I grew up reading Ionesco’s work, and it was the similarities between the two writers that first appealed to me. And Untitled Theater Company #61’s Ionesco Festival in 2001 was the inspiration and precursor for our 2006 Havel Festival. It was also Havel’s own love of Ionesco, I believe, that gave him the confidence to allow us to present his complete works.
I mention the connection because Ionesco’s influence seems clear in this particular play. Ionesco wrote at one point that his plays were about the tragedy that communication between people was impossible. In The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, and many other works, language explodes into nonsense.
In The Memo, language implodes into nonsense. It is the office bureaucracy that provides the pressure for the implosion…and by implication, the calculated government bureaucracy that was the hallmark of Communism. Like in Orwell’s 1984, a new language is created whose purpose is pure manipulation. Unlike 1984, however, it is not a coolly powerful Big Brother that is organizing the implementation of the new language. The irony in this and many other Havel plays is that those in power are equally victims, equally caught in the machine they themselves created.
The Memo was written before Prague Spring, at a time when Communism was a bit more benign in Czechoslovakia than it would become soon after. There was a censorship board, but they were lax enough and unsophisticated enough that a play like The Memo could pass by unnoticed, or at least not completely understood. The Soviet crackdown had not yet taken place, and Havel’s writing was not yet banned. This was only his second play, though in some ways, this was the one that solidified his reputation, both as a writer and a dissident.
So many of the tropes that would become characteristic of Havel’s plays are evident in this early work: the shifting of power, the silent characters, the way that the hero’s moral compass slowly degrades through his own tragic flaws, the repetitions of phrases and of actions, the highly structured plot, the final monologue of capitulation, and of course the play with language.
When I directed the play during the Havel Festival, however, another of Ionesco’s phrases about his own work came to mind: tragic farce. With its constant and quick entrances and exits, The Memo works like a farce, and much of its humor comes when that rhythm is achieved. The absurd world that Ionesco was mirroring was that of France, soon after World War II. Havel’s absurd world mirrors 1960s Czechoslovakia. But the farcical world of The Memo is a world we’ve all experienced in some ways: one in which bureaucracy is deliberately employed as an excuse for otherwise unjustifiable behavior.