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Vaclav havel and his memorandum.

A stimulating and somewhat controversial play, "The Memorandum" by Vaclav Havel, was staged last year at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. This was to commemorate the anniversary of the death of this famous dramatist and dissident, who was elected president of the free Czechoslovakia in 1989. (1)

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) was born in an influential intellectual Czech family. His father, an amateur writer, was an entrepreneur who built and owned the renowned Barandov Film Studios in Prague. His maternal grandfather, also an aspiring writer, was an influential politician, ambassador, and economist. The Munich betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 by France and Great Britain and the subsequent Second World War, resulting in another betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Allies, dramatically changed the life of all Czechs and Slovaks whose prosperous country was allowed to fall under the domain of the barbaric Stalinist Soviet Union and its "Evil Empire."

Under communist rule, Havel's bourgeois roots became a yoke which he could never shake off, and he was doomed to be a second-class citizen, living under the watchful eye of the regime, working as a chemical technician and a brewery worker. However, his passion was theatre and literature, and after joining a theatre group as a stage technician he advanced to assistant director and finally playwright of samizdat plays. His anti-communist sentiment first became public in 1956 when he addressed an assembly of young writers, and a life of humiliation, never-ending suspicion, and eventual imprisonment, followed him through the Prague Spring and the Soviet-led invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies in 1968 until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

"'The Memorandum" is a cryptic play which is not well understood, even by drama critics. It was the second play Havel wrote and earned him a reputation as an accomplished playwright. Its American debut was in 1968 at a Shakespeare festival in New York, where it won an award for best foreign play. In response to the dissident human rights action called the "Charter 77" for which Havel became the spokesman, the play was first produced in London in 1977 to protest his imprisonment, and ever since has been staged regularly around the world.

On the surface, "The Memorandum" is about the nonsensical stupidity and self-crushing weight of a large administrative bureaucracy grown out of control. Thus the satire appeals as criticism of bureaucracy and red tape, and in this it resembles the popular British comedy series "Yes Minister." But Havel's play goes a lot deeper.

Havel's protagonist is director of an unnamed institution, one of many typical socialist organizations which ought to have aided the smooth governing of the socialist state. The role was almost certainly inspired by his maternal grandfather Hugo Vavrecka, who was influential in managing the economic affairs of Czechoslovakia and who became the director of the Bata shoe company which later relocated to Canada. One can assume that Vavrecka would have been familiar with the 1912 book by E. M. House, Philip Dru: Administrator, about the fictional socialist conquest of America. (2)

The protagonist is Joseph Gross. Paradoxically, despite being a director, Gross is a little man with whom Havel associated himself--a good-natured, insignificant, submissive man with a pathetically elevated voice who gets knocked about by everybody. Only secretary Maria respects him for his humanity. The names of other characters were anglicized or changed, and even some genders were feminized. The malefic Ballas resembles the original name Balas, but no names, perhaps except Maria, signify anything. (Ballas in the Edmonton play was a woman and the resulting gender conflict added a new dimension to the play. (3))

Director Gross finds himself in a Kafkaesque office nightmare. A new administrative language called "ptydepe" gets introduced without Gross' knowledge and all the employees are forced to adopt this gobbledygook for the sake of efficiency. (4) Gross receives a memo written in ptydepe, but since nobody is authorized to translate ptydepe into the "inefficient" ordinary language and only a few claim to know it, Gross cannot find out what this important memo means. The plot revolves around Gross' conflict with Ballas, who had secretly introduced ptydepe, and who eventually becomes the new director through office intrigue. Ballas demotes Gross to the humiliating role of the "watcher," an informant who spies on everybody.

Modeled after Stalin's oriental practices of spying, there were many informants in the communist regime who infiltrated all spheres of public and private life, including churches and universities. No citizen could ever be safe from the eyes and ears of these despised individuals. Yet Havel, a compassionate humanist, hints that even these lowlives deserved some respect as there was no way to escape the inherent absurdity of the regime which often required such services from its citizens, and refusal was not an agreeable option.

Haunted by the bizarre memo issued by some mysterious authority from above, not unlike the Number 1 or 2 in the Patrick McGoohan series "The Prisoner," Gross finally convinces Maria to translate it. Once he finds out that the memo denounces ptydepe as an inefficient experiment and vindicates him, the rejuvenated Gross confronts Ballas, who surprisingly relinquishes, authority, but not without first firing Maria for insubordination (the new watcher saw her translating the memo). The employees are finally fed up with ptydepe and they all rebel against Ballas.

Ballas represents the typical shrewd manipulator resembling a combination of the stupid "pointy-haired boss" and the "evil HR director Catbert" in the popular Dilbert cartoons, and in a larger sense Ballas "and her men" represent the evil within the system against which the little guy, Gross, must struggle. Ballas and her desire to "automate" is the "permanent menace to our organization ... Manipulated, automatized, made into a fetish, Man loses the experience of his own totality; horrified, he stares as a stranger at himself, unable not to be what he is not, nor to be what he is."

Ptydepe is different from Orwell's language in 1984, which is an efficient means of control imposed by Big Brother. Here and in other plays Havel makes it plain that big brother was created through the stupidity and participation of all, and that all, including directors, are now its victims. But there is no escape, and even the rebellion against ptydepe amounts to nothing because Ballas finds a new way to nullify the discontent--she humbly admits her mistake and denounces ptydepe as inefficient, demotes herself back to being the deputy, and hands the directorship back to Gross, whom she then slyly manipulates into a mutual pact against the rebels who demand truth and justice for the horrible consequences caused by ptydepe. But Ballas again defies Gross and introduces yet another gobbledegook language, "chorukor," that will replace ptydepe, since the scientists and language experts have proposed a new and improved version guaranteed to succeed this time. Science has been hijacked by shrewd manipulators and "experts" who impose their pseudo-science and propaganda on mankind.

Maria begs Gross to reverse her dismissal, but he refuses, although not for the lack of civil courage; rather to save her by allowing her to escape the fate of the never-ending circular evil of the system full of depressing Catch-22 paradoxes--her release and freedom is to be found in theatre where her brother is involved. Gross' paradoxical Shakespearean monologue which concludes the play, with the background party noise of the careless mob of clerks and officials, summarizes the Sisyphean futility of his effort, but Gross, a modern Hamlet, must sacrifice himself and he joins the rest of them marching out of the party straight into a funeral procession, each holding a threatening fork and knife in preparation for the final dinner. What this sinister funeral meal is, Havel leaves to our imagination. It would not be a stretch to imagine the sacrifice of the Black Mass where the evil finally consumes itself. (The impressive concluding scene in the Edmonton play with threatening hellish sounds was an excellent finale.)

Until the very end, Gross still believes that a human common-sense Aristotelian balance will save the organization if he defeats Ballas and her men, but by the sinister end Havel hints that even the struggle and the sacrifice of the well meaning director may be in vain. Superficially, Havel's idealized socialist state, towards which the world is progressing, seems to be the opposite to the anarchy described both by G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who was Thursday and Karel Capek's Krakatit, but, whether Havel knew it or not, there are intriguing similarities. As history has proven, it would require super-human direction, a kind of Chestertonian god-like President Sunday, to save Havel's progressive socialist state from eventually devolving into the evil anarchy of Krakatit. The symbolism of fire extinguishers which every manager carries signifies the easily flammable and self-destructive nature of the system which must constantly be controlled and suppressed. The references to the communal goose dinner mean the silliness of the whole situation, a "meal of stupidity," and the goose's curse. (5)

Despite his satire, Havel's original intent was not a comedy, but a tragedy. Havel may have been born and raised as a civilized atheist, not unlike many of his Czech compatriots, but his spiritual pilgrimage through the darkest parts of hell led him to the discovery and worship of the Supreme Being, first by accepting the philosophical god of Heiddeger, acknowledging that Christianity is the best and the only logical solution to the puzzles and the struggles of human life, and accepting Christ as his saviour. The name "Vaclav" was a hidden symbol of his conversion, and this popular Czech name will forever signify the Christian origin of the Czech nation. (6) Havel died on Sunday, 18 December 2011, and his faith was made public when Archbishop of Prague Dominik Duka solemnly revealed the final secret of the beloved Czechoslovak president, who was archbishop's former fellow-prisoner and friend--Vaclav Havel will forever belong to the Catholic Church of which he is a member through his baptism, confirmation, and eucharistic communion. The last words Havel said to Cardinal Duka were: "I am not feeling well, but we know that He IS." (7)

Havel was not the only person opposing the regime. There were other well-known dissidents like Karel Kryl, a very popular and influential songwriter with Catholic upbringing, and there was also a multitude of anonymous men and women who rose to oppose the regime in their own smaller and less noticeable ways. Many university students, intelligentsia, priests and religious, and countless simple ordinary people, some of them abroad, none of whom could tolerate the oppression of marxist socialism and its atheism any more--all formed together an invisible cloud of charged particles reaching critical mass, a cloud of spiritual plasma whose high potential and hot fire the regime could not extinguish any more.

Vaclav Havel was the most instrumental force in the dissident movement, a new Moses leading his people out of the desert. Through his civil courage he persistently challenged the communist government and he became the catalyst, the yeast, and the torch of the silent and peaceful mob that finally toppled the evil giant by the might of pens and minds rather than by the strength of swords, through steadfastness and willingness to intelligently sacrifice themselves. This was, in fact, not unlike the Communique of Christ to mankind, and Havel democratically presiding over his fellow-citizens thus left a legacy and his own memorandum for the world to follow.

(1) The play was staged in November 2012 by the Department of Drama at the University of Alberta in cooperation with the Wirth Institute for the Austrian and Central European Studies, the CSSK or the Czech and Slovak Canadian Society, and the SVU Edmonton, the Edmonton branch of the Czech-Slovak international cultural organization the Society for Arts and Sciences.

(2) Bata shoe company, anglicized as Bata, also called the "Henry Ford of Europe," was one of the most progressive employers in Czechoslovakia before the World War II. It was known not only for its efficiency, and "Bata-ville" villages (like Batawa in Ontario), but also for excellent social care and good benefits for its employees, providing medical care, housing, kindergartens, warm meals, etc. Several huge plants were left in Czechoslovakia after the Bata family relocated their firm to Canada in 1939, and the memories of workers carried the legacy of the company throughout the communist era. Havel's maternal grandfather became the friend of Tomas Bata and eventually the director of his company in 1932.

(3) Blackwell likely named Gross after Director J. Grossman who first staged the play in Prague on 25 July 1965. In communist Czechoslovakia all directors of institutions had to be the members of the Communist Party, but Havel's play does not mention or explore that aspect at all, so the play assumes a more general scope.

(4) The cryptic name "ptydepe" was most likely based on an abbreviation. Abbreviations were frequently used by the bureaucrats out of necessity, especially in the military with its vast array of cryptic abbreviations which the soldiers had to memorize. For example, "Petemide" was the name given to one such commanding officer because he spelled the abbreviation "PTMD" with funny-sounding spelling "Pe-Te-Mi-De". ("Proti-Tankova.-Mina-Delostrelecka" means "Anti-Tank-Artillery-Shell." It should correctly be spelled as "Pe-Te-eM-De".)

Havel's "ptydepe" was most likely inspired by such an abbreviation. "PTDP" spelled as "Pe-Te-De-Pe" which Havel changed to "ptydepe" for easier pronunciation. Or perhaps his commanding officer spelled it "Pe-Ty-De-Pe" or "PTy-De-Pe." In Scene 11 Havel makes one such joke--the clerks are giggling when one of them mentions that due to the maximum redundancy of ptydepe a brief summons to the military HQ filled thirty-six single spaced pages. "Chorukor" may be from the abbreviation "Cha-eR-Ka-eR." "Ch" in Czech is a unique sound and the letter that alphabetically follows "H," "ch" sounds somewhat like "kh" in English which is used to transliterate it.

(5) Frequent references to the goose dinner in the play also puzzle drama critics. Communal meals were a unique feature of the socialist system in Czechoslovakia. As in English, "husa" or "goose" implies silliness and stupidity, especially when referring to a woman. "Stupid goose" would particularly apply to Ballas' female gender. It is an insult equivalent to calling a man "vul" or "ox."

(6) St. Vaclav (907-929) is the patron saint of Bohemia. He worked for the conversion of pagans to Christianity, and his fame became legendary throughout Europe after he was murdered by his brothers' followers. His grandmother, St. Ludmilla, who brought him up as a Christian, was murdered in 921 by orders of Vaclav's pagan mother Drahomira. The popular English Christmas song "Good King Wenceslas" will forever remind the world of his goodness. At least four generations of the Havel family before the president bore the name Vaclav, including his father "Vaclav Maria Josef Jan Evangelista," indicating the strong Catholic roots of the family.

(7) The solemn declaration of Archbishop of Prague Cardinal Dominik Duka on behalf of the Czech Catholic Church issued on 18 December 2011, the day of Havel's passing, ordered that all the bells of all chapels and churches in the Czech land to toll at 6:00 pm to commemorate Vaclav Havel. The archbishop made it unequivocal that Havel was in full communion with the Catholic Church. The stress of Havel's last statement was on the word "is" or "exists," signifying not so much Heidegger's Being, but rather the holy name of God, Yahweh, "Who Is." Duka emphasized the peaceful process by which freedom was won and which Havel championed: "We are also grateful for his attitude and for the fact that nobody need to have a bad feeling that for the return of freedom and democracy this nation paid dearly by violence, bloodshed and revenge." Source: the official website of the Czech Catholic Church:

Peter Hala was born and educated in Czechoslovakia. In 1980, his family managed to escape the communist regime and came to Canada. He works at the University of Alberta in computing, automation, and control systems. His interests and hobbies include history, philosophy, mathematics, literature, music, and various outdoor pursuits.
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Author:Hala, Peter
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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