Former Czech President and dissident leader Vaclav Havel died on December 18, 2011. To the end he wanted to return to his first calling, as a playwright. His success on stage was part of the Cold War as we knew it, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
In 2008 when his last play Leaving premiered in Prague and later in London, the whisper in London among theatre professionals and friends was that a distinct feature of it, ‘The Voice’, couldn’t work. With that went a respectful silence over whether Leaving matched Havel’s vintage pieces like The Garden Party, The Memorandum and Redevelopment.
Leaving’s ‘The Voice’, to be spoken by the author himself, was a kind of deus ex machina device. Sometimes it commented on the action, more often it issued instructions to the actors on stage. At times the disembodied playwright wandered in his thoughts in another dimension entirely, as he pondered fragments of a life in theatre. Much of the rest of that life had been spent in politics. Interlaced with difficult relationships with women, it’s that life we see coming to an end in Leaving, while we hear, extra to the visible actors, ‘The Voice’.
David Radok, who directed perhaps the definitive 2010 Czech production at Prague’s Archa theatre, said ‘The Voice’ gave him the clue to a play that veered between the farcical and the existential. The oscillation was typical for Havel, he might have added, and for Ost-Modernism in general. Ost-Modernism is a clever, hardly used term for how in the sixties the liberating power of the Theatre of the Absurd, and other fashionable aesthetic devices, gave alternative thinkers like Havel tools with which to poke serious fun at the oppressive, self-parodying Communist regime in the satellite countries under Soviet Russian control. In the East Bloc, after the brief, re-frozen political thaws of the sixties, much totalitarian ritual that was not life-threatening was absurd. The average human being behaved like a pathetic time-server, while personal indiscretions were elevated into crimes against the state. Power shifted from individual to individual unpredictably, and language was used to evade meaning.
When Leaving begins, and almost until the last scene, there is a swing on stage, where now ex-Chancellor Rieger’s younger daughter sits, her life all boyfriends and I-phone, and where now Rieger political successor Victor Klein balances precariously while holding forth. People enjoy having their feet off the ground, as life goes well for them. It had been the same for Rieger. But someone will one day cut down the swing, as Klein has just done for Rieger.
If you want to assess this play, and even enjoy it, don’t bother with the disastrous film Havel himself made of it, but compare any productions you can get hold of, and analyse that balance of autobiography, existential absurdity and farce, as it gets filtered through different languages and traditions. The Archa version, from Prague, it seems to me, was a real tribute.
Of Sam Walters’s production at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond the TLS also carried a superb review, though not uncritical of the play itself, whose weaknesses were more apparent in a farce-loving English environment.
What I would like to add is my own assessment of ‘The Voice’, and through that to come to the play.
To begin there is a difficulty at the start of the English text. This is admirably translated by Paul Wilson, but it places in a different relation to the text what Havel calls his ‘Advice to Directors’. In English this ‘Author’s Note’ precedes the Translator’s Acknowledgements and the Cast List from the Orange Tree production. But in the Czech original it comes immediately before the opening of Act 1. It is, in other words, barely ‘outside the text’, and, especially having been written by the author, can hardly be regarded as extraneous. The Note, furthermore, has exactly the same tone, and overlaps in content with what ‘The Voice’ will tell us from inside the play moments and minutes afterwards:
If this play is to resonate properly it must be acted in a civil manner: seriously, soberly, normally. It should not be tarted up with grotesque movements, clever staging ideas,exaggerated gestures or intonations, mugging*, biomechanics or anything striking that attempts either to explain, interpret or illustrate the text, or simply to make it more amusing. The author also suggests that not a lot of cuts be made to the text, especially not random cuts. He has come to this conclusion not out of a blind attachment to his own words, but from practical experience: cuts can easily tear the web of meaning that holds the play together, or can disrupt the play’s own rhythm, usually resulting – paradoxically – in greater boredom than might be the case if the text were left as it is.
[*mugging = pulling faces]
The Author’s Note is an invitation and a provocation to ignore the playwright’s wishes: a humorous challenge to any future director of the play. More importantly, it lays down the condition of any performance. The Author will be with us as we watch the play, reflecting, not least, on his own ‘practical experience’ as a dramatist and his life. Only in the English text, however, is ‘The Voice’ actually called ‘the voice of the author’. In Czech it is a disembodied, mechanically or digitally reproduced voice ‘z reproduktoru’.
It enters about 10 minutes into the First Act, repeating word for word what has been said in the Author’s Note. ‘I would remind the actors to play their parts as civilly and naturally as possible…’ The surprised actors suspending their actions and then, the verbal thunderbolt ended, continue.
The difference from the Author’s Note is the context which places this admonition immediately after Rieger, Havel’s alter ego, has just set forth the humanist and cosmopolitan ideals for which he became famous in office. He has just compromised them too, in deference to his economically driven successor. ‘I’ve always wanted…the whole world…to be safe and secure…nature [too],’ he declares. ‘Not however at the expense of economic growth!’ The first thing this play does, therefore, is to undercut the moral seriousness on which the life of its author has been premised. He too has been acting a part, and the part has been constantly reshaped to accommodate the views and interests of others with whom, as a matter of fact, he doesn’t agree. When he cast himself as a reluctant moral hero in Largo Desolato thirty years earlier his problem was the great man others wanted him to be. But he can’t help compromising, and so has become utterly comic to himself.
Minutes later again The Voice interrupts to justify a piece of authorial whimsy with some cinammon. ‘It’s hare-brained…but what can I do? I like it and feel it belongs there.’ Our playwright is not even intellectually serious. Soon after, the author/Voice sympathizes with a potentially impatient audience that the play is making a slow start. Perhaps he’s not even artistically competent.
Will the play rise above this sad self-pilloring?
I think it does, when the admiring student Bea Weissenmütelhofova arrives to dominate Act II. While the priapic Rieger instantly falls for her flattery, we see something serious in the PhD thesis she’s waving at him: he has no control over his name and his ideas. No control over his sexual eagerness either, but that is the farcical side of his dilemma. The serious intention is self-defence via a retreat into a disembodied voice no one can get at. In the form of this Voice he can at once mock his own excesses and try to induce in characters who should, who might, since he invented them, obey him, at least civil behaviour towards each other, ‘without making faces’. It is his political programme cut to a bare minimum, that people should behave nicely to each other, and straightforwardly. But, in all the productions I’ve seen and heard, the actors don’t know how to respond to the Voice, because there’s no stage instruction to that effect. It could be the Voice of God in a strange language, or it could be the voice of nothing.
The Voice at this point touches, a la Pirandello, on the old trope of the author’s control over his characters. But Havel brings to it the further thoughts of a man who has been given, for thirteen years of his life, immense political power as a Head of State, and is now reflecting upon the fact of that power, in tandem with a life in theatre. In fact the more power he had the more powerless he was.
Act II then not quite closes with the author reflecting on the control he has over his material, and by implication over his own life, and we hear this both as a comment on the dramatic writing and on the author’s moral self-esteem, when he ends the paragraph by posing as a vaguely real question whatever the casual speech-habit of ‘something beyond ourselves’ points towards. He has sincerely wanted to transcend his own interests, in writing and in life, but now that too looks like an excuse, and as for any meaning behind the effort, it’s all a terrible blur.
The incompetence theme recurs early in Act III. The playwright is so absorbed in his craft that he tends to forget who is on stage and who has exited. Central to Act III is then a quasi-Shakespearian soliloquy on what the author loves about the theatre. David Radok said in an interview that this speech inspired his whole 2010 Archa production. ‘What I love about the theatre,’ declares ‘The Voice’, ‘are the entrances and the exits, and the re-entrances, entering from the wings and on to the stage.’ In fact it is a disappointing passage with little meaning, something Havel acknowledges with a final dismissive flick: ‘At least that’s what I think.’ But because of the whole that Leaving amounts to, with its coopting of of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the departure of Madame Ranevskaya and her family from the the place they loved, and of the madness of King Lear, his entire Self lost in a storm of life-threatening confusion, Radok was poised to bring out, at the start of Act V, , an eerie sense of what Havel might have meant, by doors opening and closing and something always on the other side and ‘the mystery of the universe and of Being itself.’ Radok had all the characters carrying suitcases, in silent transit across a twilit, rather beautiful, washed out version of their familiar environment, as if they were already in some intermundia, or preparing to cross the river Styx. The author’s verbal gesture in the play is vague and almost impotent, the best lines borrowed from Shakespeare. But it is not nothing. That not quite nothing seems to be what the play is about.
The Voice continues on its theme of writerly impotence in Act IV. Faced with the breakup of the relationship betweein Rieger and his ‘long-term partner’ Irena, the author can’t do love either, whereupon, a few minutes later, he falls back on his love of an empty stage.’I also love an empty stage. The question is, how long can it remain empty.’
A writer wants time alone. Also with an empty stage he can say something to his audience ‘about the emptiness of the world’. But an audience will start to leave if nothing happens. And so perhaps he reflects on a life that he has filled with relationships, and where he has entertained others. An emptiness lurks; but there is no need to go on about that, and in any case he hasn’t the eloquence.
He puts the words of Shakespeare in his characters’ mouths. Thus Rieger, in his Lear-like agony: ‘We came crying hither. The first time that we smell the air we wail and cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. Let us have less government!’ At the end of Act IV ‘The Voice’ summarises Havel’s entire techinque:
I have a word of my own for this kind of phantasmagoric or dreamlike confusion of lines or variations of lines, and some minor nonsense, taken more or less at random from previous scenes. I call it ‘hubbub’ and I like to put it somewhere before the end, perhaps in the place where catharsis is supposed to occur. What is it? A prelude to some finally raveling or unravelling of the plot? A metaphor for the chaos of the world or the chaos in the mind of the main character? A pure expression of authorial mischief? A product of dramatic logic? A deliberate trick? Probably all of the above.
A ‘rock version of the “Ode to Joy”’ immediately follows this speech. It is at once Beethoven, the anthem of the European Union, in whose political vision Havel has so stoutly believed, and it is now a theme on his daughter’s phone. At the same time the scene, and the characters in it seem to be possessed by a higher power, bringing the storm borrowed from King Lear to an end. We are left to piece together once again some vague thoughts about the meaning of Being, and how something might move us, like the playwright moves his characters, mostly unsuccessfully, for they are not even nice to each other.
Hereafter ‘The Voice’ dwindles again, just repeating that desire for the characters to be civil to each other. The play ends trivially , with a final speech from ‘The Voice’: ‘The theatre would like to thank the audience for turning off their mobile phones. Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred.’
Radok was able to give the play a stronger ending by picking up in the comic menace of the two journalists frequently on stage, at first when Rieger is still a celebrity and later transferring their attention to Klein. The journalists making the lives of those in power a misery, and evoke such a memory of Havel’s persecution and imprisonment by the Communist secret police that Radok momentarily transforms them. His staging of the play ends with the entire cast being packed into a lift on their way to indefinite detention. It’s a scene that by chance resonates with Sartre’s classic Huis Clos. Hell is other people, who, unfortunately, are not at all nice to each other, whatever a Havel, who briefly was a great popular leader and a Head of State, with moral charisma, might have entreated of them.
Leaving, what Havel finally left behind, is certainly not a masterpiece, and nor, one felt him saying there, had his life been such an achievement. Yet one might think that with ‘The Voice’ he had hit on a potentially successful device somehow to convey the powerlessness of power.
I am a writer, not a director, but in the case of this play I would want to body The Voice. There should be a Hamlet-like Havel character lurking in the wings, first muttering to himself and then as if composing a text. It would always be unclear who he was talking to. Meanwhile one might suppose that Havel, like the Duke in Measure for Measure, was, in writing plays ridiculing the Communist regime, looking to implement ‘craft against vice’. (Measure for Measure, III ii 280) Expand the links with the Bard, and of his own frequent, and powerful, plays within plays. Havel didn’t have Shakespearian gifts to bring to his task, alas, and he knew that. Against it he left us with a last, post-Communist play that almost takes as its subject a lack of intensity, a lack of eloquence, a lack of commitment: indeed an emptiness, caricaturing his life and leading nowhere in particular.