Vaclav Havel‘s first full-length play The Garden Party was on at two Prague theatres in December 2013 to commemorate the arrival fifty years ago of a homegrown theatre of the absurd on the Czech stage. I caught the one by Andrej Krob at the Divadlo na Zabradli, a gorgeous 100-seat auditorium tucked away in the narrow streets on the New Town side of the Charles Bridge. Without a crib to hand I understood about five per cent of the dialogue. But the gestures, the speech rhythms and the sets told the story, and there were some terrific moments when fragments of Shakespeare broke through. Havel wove a web of misquotation, pseudo-proverb and bureaucratese into a consummate language of counter-Communist farce. Take a public life rendered meaningless by dialectical materialist nonsense, add to it all the fears and lies that invade the private spaces between the characters’ ears, and you have a play that not only marks an era but has a life in it that is still to be relished. Here’s a picture of Havel attending a rehearsal for this production in November 2011:
Six weeks later the playwright who became his country’s first post-Communist president, and spiritual father, was dead, aged 75. Yesterday, December 18, was the second anniversary of his death.
In 1963 the ruling Czechoslovak Communist Party was still shooting political prisoners. The ideological climate wasn’t as repressed as after the abortive Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion, five years later, but what Havel wanted to show with Zahradni slavnost was how, since no one knew what was true, and the official use of language was absurd, life was reduced to endless manoeuvring to stay ahead of the game and not succumb. The gap between the absurdity of Communist politics, with its constant mindless speechifying, and absurdist theatre was never great, but it took a true lover of theatre, of Shakespeare, and of words, to make it work. That was Havel’s achievement.
Picture a tiny curtainless stage with, before the play begins, a table with wine and glasses and two chairs, a suit jacket hanging from a closed wardrobe and what will turn out to be a chess game being played from both sides by a single player. You know there’s going to be a domestic thread to the action and some problems with identity. As in The Comedy of Errors, the farce that pretty much began them all? Yes, but filtered through the absurd words people struggle to use to define their positions. And public life is all about positions, as the chess board shows.
His parents want chess-playing Hugo Pludek to get on, and he does, by outplaying everyone else on the board. The players are ridiculous institutions and their employees, on the one hand the Liquidation Commission and on the other the Inauguration Commission. Something like that. And as all the characters in public life wriggle their ways into being in the right place when something new starts and something old stops, their lack of identity is desperate and desperately funny. When certain ideological fashions and leaders fall from grace and others are elevated in their place, who wants to be caught out supporting the wrong cause, especially when ‘liquidation’ might be at stake. It’s a pity to spell it out. The play is endlessly allusive and entertaining to those who can hear all the jokes.
As an anglophone listener two moments grabbed me towards the end of this hour-and-a-quarter Two-Act play. One was when the pathetic nonentity Pludek senior praised his boy.
Mrs Pludek: Did you hear that, Alfred? The construction of a Central Commission for Inaguration and Liquidation!
Mr Pludek: I heard it, Berta! Jaros always thought of his future. He studied and studied and studied. Hugo thought of his — and there you are! — an outstanding success.
‘Jaros’ is a madeup didactic legend to whom Pludek attributes proverbial gestures and wise sayings throughout the play. In the old days everyone would have known with ‘studied, studied, studied’ that this was Lenin being satirized. Alas I sat there in that pretty Prague theatre called ‘On the Balustrade’ in English, just ten days ago, and remembered British ex-prime minister Tony turning it into government education policy circa 1998. (Thereby hangs a tale, since I was teaching at the time – watch out for my next post.) In Britain I’ve lived through plenty of ideological nonsense (with a nasty undertone threatening class liquidation for non-followers like me.) I just don’t know a play that could ever properly make fun of it here, as Havel did there. Democratic Britain was never Communist Czechoslovakia, but why did we ever put up with politicians quoting Lenin? And as late as 1998?
Hugo’s peroration on how to survive in public life was the other terrific moment on stage I could share.
HUGO: …and the point is that just when it is better to be more, and not to be less, and when, on the contrary, it is better less to be — and more not to be; besides he who is too much may soon be not at all…
Of this monologue that takes up a page and a half in the printed text, was ever better use made turning Hamlet’s existential musings into political farce like this? Fabulous. This is the actor Petr Reidinger delivering it:
And here are his parents gazing on in wonder:
In the old days living in cramped flats meant a constant folding and unfolding of bedclothes for nights spent on couches and floors. Andrej Krob’s production nicely added the portable duvets to his portrait of these madly unstable identities forced upon people by ridiculous times.
To end on a light note, Mrs Pludek’s mismatched bargain-basement outfits are just what women had no choice but to wear. But this wasn’t a play about the absurdity of Communist economics. That aspect of life was quite bearable, compared with the unbearable assault on intelligence and integrity.