Assistant Professor of Theatre History Susanne Shawyer discusses the influences of Expression and Absurdism on Vaclav Havel’s play The Memorandum in her Talk on the Steps, 9 October 2016. She described how The Memorandum exemplifies aspects of these two influential Modern theatre styles, which both explore how to be human in the alienating modern world. Ultimately, she posits that Havel sees the theatre as an important place to escape the dehumanizing effects of mechanization and bureaucracy, and to find happiness. Read her talk below:
The Memorandum. It’s not a title that gives away a lot about the play. Shakespeare titled a play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark—that gives us more information about the main character than The Memorandum. Tennessee Williams gave us a script called Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—that at least gives us an interesting visual metaphor to go on. Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Topdog/Underdog or Neil Simon’s script The Odd Couple tells us about their central conflict in their titles.
But The Memorandum? What’s a memorandum other than a document. A memo. A piece of inter-office communication. It sounds boring. Dry. Bureaucratic. It doesn’t at all suggest the funny, poignant, and pointed play you’re about to see. Why did Czech playwright Vaclav Havel title his 1965 play The Memorandum?
I think he did it precisely because a memorandum, or memo, does in fact conjure up images: bureaucratic images. Images of offices, and the daily grind, of paperwork and meetings, and all the dry tasks required of us when we punch in and punch out, when we photocopy a document one day only to shred it another day, when we count the minutes until our next coffee break, or find that the highlight of our week is when someone brings in cupcakes to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday. Now I know not everyone here has worked in an office or even feels like they have a daily grind, but it is a stereotype familiar to us—television shows like The Office or The IT Crowd, and movies like Office Space, use deadpan humor to satirize the workplace, and the boring office job is a staple of sketch comedy. These recent examples of workplace comedy are part of a long tradition of comedies about bureaucracy and bureaucrats that stretches all the way back to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. His play The Wasps is about a man addicted to jury duty, and his play The Assemblywomen is about a female takeover of Athens’ legislature. Havel’s play is part of this tradition of bureaucratic comedy, and perhaps he simply named his script The Memorandum as nod to Aristophanes, the founder of our Western comic tradition.
Now Aristophanes relied on satire to create his comedy, painting pointed portraits of Athenian political figures and philosophers along with critiques of the government’s handling of the 28-year long Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. But as a citizen, landowner, and political representative, Aristophanes’s elite position of social and political power allowed him the freedom to criticize his government.
Vaclav Havel, on the other hand, was not so lucky. Havel grew up in Cold War Czechoslovakia, where the ruling Communist Party suppressed political dissent and turned the former economic elites into second-class citizens. The Communists reserved the best opportunities for advancement for the children of party officials and exemplary workers, and blocked opportunities for the children of pre-war landowners and entrepreneurs. Although Havel wanted to study the liberal arts at university, the former bourgeois status of his family resulted in his being sent to a trade school instead. But his skills as a craftsman got him a job as a stagehand at the Theatre ABC and then the Balustrade Theatre in Prague, and once introduced the world of theatre, he started writing plays.
Like Aristophanes, Havel wanted to use theatre to comment on the world around him. In his case, he used the theatre to point out what he saw as the flaws in the Communist system and the corruption of the Communist government. But as he wasalready identified as a second-class citizen he had to tread carefully. So he kept his satire mild and instead used two different theatrical styles to make plays like The Memorandum funny and pointed, comic and critical. This allowed Havel to criticize the flawed bureaucracy of the Czechoslovak Communist government without directly referencing real people, places, or situations. So, how did he do it?
The first style Havel uses in The Memorandum is Expressionism.
Expression was popular in Germany and Eastern Europe from about 1900-to WWII. Expressionist works critiqued capitalism, consumerism, materialism, and technological dependence, all from the point of view of one central character who feels trapped and alienated in a machine-like world. Expressionism argues that our modern world has turned us into automatons, robotic workers who have lost touch with the things that make us human—emotion and empathy. You might already know some examples of Expressionism, like the 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis or the 1922 Eugene O’Neill play The Hairy Ape, or the 1985 Terry Gilliam film Brazil. I always think of Expressionism when I’m at the DMV. The driver’s license office. And the experience of getting a new driver’s license. The long line of people waiting. The rows of chairs. The little paper number slips you pull from the dispenser. The anticipation of waiting for your number to be called, and it seeming like it will take forever. The collapse of your identity into that little paper number slip. The slow robotic shuffling of people as they slowly, one by one, approach the counter. The boredom. The deadening of your soul. You are no longer you; you are now B392. The relief at hearing your number called. Yes! B392. That’s me!
Havel deploys Expressionism in The Memorandum as he creates for us a world that is both familiar to us yet oddly strange. You’ll recognize the trappings of office life: desks and desk chairs, memos and reports, filing cabinets and clipboards. You’ll see familiar character types: the bosses and their secretarial assistants, the office worker determined to do their best job and the office worker just trying to make it through the day. Yet something is off about this office. People behave oddly, robotically, sometimes without emotion. Some have emotion but not empathy. Some have empathy, but are punished for it. And our central character, Agency Director Andrew Gross, struggles to understand this familiar but strange world, this Expressionist world. He tells his underlings that “I’m a humanist, and my idea of running this agency is based on my belief that every employee is a human being who must become even more human.” But in an Expressionist world where emotion is lost to bureaucracy, technology and efficiency, can Andrew Gross succeed at helping his employees rediscover their humanity?
That’s a question for you to ask as you watch the show tonight. But I think the answer to that question lies in the second theatrical style that Havel employs in The Memorandum: the style of Absurdism, or Theatre of the Absurd.
Now while Expressionism was popular in the first half of the twentieth century; Theatre of the Absurd was popular after World War II. It takes its name from the famous essay by French philosopher Albert Camus titled “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In the essay, Camus recounts the Greek myth of Sisyphus, an ancient king who challenged the gods and was condemned by the God Zeus to roll a large rock up a hill for all eternity. Every time the rock just about reached the top of the hill, it would roll back down again, and Sisyphus would have to start all over again from the beginning. In his essay Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for life’s essential absurdity. He argued that as humans we can find happiness only if we accept that the world doesn’t make sense, and that the only thing we can control is how we react to the irrationality of the world. We can choose to stay calm and centered at the drivers’ license office, or we can allow ourselves to get frustrated by a seemingly opaque bureaucracy. We can lose our souls to the daily grind of boring office work, or we can try to remain ourselves even if our job leaves us unfulfilled. When we try to make sense of the world we are hoping that the rock will reach the top; but we just need to accept that it will always fall back down towards us. If we can accept that, the essential absurdity of life, we can be happy.
You might already know some examples of Theatre of the Absurd: the most famous is Samuel Beckett’s 1953 comedy Waiting for Godot; other examples include Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano or Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Like The Memorandum, these scripts theatricalise the absurdity of life by presenting in a funny way irrational behaviors and confusing character motivations and the futility of trying to make sense of them.
These plays also theatricalise absurdity with extensive use of nonsensical language. In fact, the memorandum that plays a central role in The Memorandum is an example of a nonsensical language. You will very shortly discover that the memorandum is written ins Ptydepe, an invented language created by bureaucrats to increase communication efficiency among employees. But as students of the absurd, we know that any attempt to increase communication efficiency or to make sense of the world must be futile and will come crashing down, like a rock, in hilariously funny and distressing ways.
You’ll notice tonight that all our characters start off trapped in the irrational, confusing, absurd, dehumanizing, daily grind of the workplace. But will they stay there forever? Is there any alternative to the official world of the Agency? Is there any way for them to rediscover their humanity and find happiness in a world that doesn’t make sense?
You’ll notice that the character of Alice knows of one alternative to this bureaucratic world: her brother works at the theatre. In Act One, Havel offers a shred of hope that the boring workplace, the inefficient bureaucracy, the emotionless coworkers and dehumanizing office is not our only option. Another option exists, and this option has existed since Aristophanes’s times. What is it? The theatre. There’s always the theatre as a way to find happiness in the absurdity that is life. Havel knows that the theatre relies on empathy for characters, and on the emotional exchange between actors and audience. Havel knows that the theatre can teach us to be human again. In the theatre, watching a comedy like The Memorandum, we, humans in an absurd and alienating world, can nevertheless find happiness.