An audience is a privileged private meeting with a figure of authority, like a king or a president. Thus it’s a meeting built on a clear unbalance of power between the interlocutors: the one granting the audience will always have more clout than the one requesting it. It’s this unbalance that’s at the heart of Václav Havel’s play.
Ferdinand Vanek, an intellectual and playwright fallen in disgrace and living under state surveillance, enters the office of the foreman of the brewery he now works in. Vanek is a blacklisted author who can no longer write. The foreman asks him about his work, about how he’s adjusting to the brewery, about his private life and writing, seemingly interested in him. Then he offers him a better job in the brewery. The foreman initially comes across as a sensitive man willing to help Vanek. But as the play progresses, it becomes obvious he’s acting out of self-interest, and the play, which started quite naturalistically as a slice-of-life story in a totalitarian state, takes a wonderful turn into absurdist territory.
Václav Havel belongs to the tradition of the theatre of the absurd. In his first period as a playwright, he satirized the bureaucracy of Soviet Czechoslovakia. His attention constantly turned to the dehumanization of individuals, the lifelessness of official language, conformism, the power of scheming arrivistes, and the difficulty of principled people to retain their values in a society where it’s easier to give them up. In this period of his career we can include The Garden Party, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, and his masterpiece, The Memorandum, an Orwellian satire about the invention of an artificial language, Ptydepe, and its implementation in official documents to weed out all linguistic ambiguities and give more clarity to the texts’ meaning.
Audience is the first part of the Vanek trilogy (composed also of Unveiling and Protest), which deals more openly with quotidian life in Czechoslovakia. It’s less about bureaucrats or party members and more about average people: workers, married couples, artists. It’s not about what goes on inside offices, but about what people say and do behind closed doors. This trilogy, with the exception of Leaving, is his most intimate and autobiographical: Ferdinand Vanek is after all a comical alter ego of Havel. The trilogy is not self-aggrandizing: Vanek is hardly a hero in them; in fact he tends to comes out badly at the end of them because his firm moral principles provoke more rage than admiration. The plays are really a medium for Vanek’s interlocutors to express themselves, with the humble playwright serving as passive, self-effacing listener.
Audience deals with the prosecution of intellectuals and artists. As I wrote before, Vanek is no longer allowed to write and now works in a brewery, rolling barrels, a task for which he’s not very fit. The real focus, however, is on the foreman, a man with a simple philosophy of loyalty between men: “I don’t want to boast, that’s not my style, you understand… but why shouldn’t I help somebody when I can? That’s the way I am… even today. People ought to help each other, that’s my philosophy. I help you out of a hole, you help me out of one, isn’t that so?”
But in spite of his benevolence, he knows darkness lurks in the heart of men. “People can be real bastards and no mistake,” he lectures Vanek. “Real bastards. Take my word for it.” He cautions Vanek not to trust his colleagues, except him of course. The foreman doesn’t include himself in the real bastards of this world, of course, and that’s a lovely piece of human psychology. We’re always absent from our moral judgments of humanity.
Although it’s not his style to boast, the foreman never misses an opportunity to remind Vanek that he only has a job because of him. “If there was someone else sitting in my place,” he informs him, “you wouldn’t be working here, I guarantee you that…” Vanek, trying to keep a low profile, always replies with polite gratitude.
It’s noticeable from the start, and it becomes more and more obvious, that the foreman resents and is a bit envious of Vanek. This comes across in little bits of dialogue. When he serves Vanek beer and he politely refuses, the foreman quips, “Wine is more your cup of tea, I suppose.” When Vanek insists in not drinking, the foreman presumes that he’s not Vanek’s “sort of drinking partner,” a far cry from the artistic types he must know:
Vanek: Not at all…
Foreman: After all, I’m not Gott (1), am I… I’m just an ordinary common or garden brewery foreman…
Vanek: You’re a professional just like Gott, just a different profession.
His resentment over Vanek isn’t just social and intellectual but economic too. Like most people, he thinks writers are rolling in money. He doesn’t stop to think that if he had any means, Vanek wouldn’t be rolling barrels in a brewery:
Foreman: Those plays of yours… good money, was it?
Vanek: It varied…
Foreman: You made five thousand a year, at least, didn’t you? At least five?
Vanek: That depends how many performances there are, how much it’s played. Sometimes you earn a lot, other times nothing…
Foreman: What? Nothing for the whole month?
Vanek: Maybe several months…
Foreman: You surprise me. So it’s not all wine and roses, is it? Like everything else…
Vanek: No, it’s not…
Foreman: Funny, isn’t it, when you come to think of it…
Vanek: Yes, I suppose so.
Foreman: Is it and all.
The foreman then offers Vanek a job as a warehouseman. “You’d be in a warm place and you’d shut up shop at lunchtime, say you was clearing up,” he explains Vanek, “and you could think up some more jokes for those theatrical plays of yours, in peace and quiet.” The little dig about Vanek being a write of ‘jokes’ is another fine moment that reveals the foreman’s contempt for the playwright, and probably intellectuals in general, although he turns it into an offer of help. Although Havel satirized the state first and foremost, here he also turns his attention to the loneliness of writers and thinkers, incapable of reaching out to the men they supposedly serve. It’s an idea that he’d later develop in Largo Desolato.
Notwithstanding the quip about the jokes, this is a pretty good offer for Vanek, who relishes at the prospect of not having to roll barrels anymore. The problem is that the foreman wants something in return. Two things actually, both equally ridiculous and impossible for Vanek. First, he wants Vanek to introduce him to his friend the actress Jirina Bohdalová (2). Vanek’s inability to grant this wish only serves to further anger the foreman, who already suspects Vanek thinks he’s too good for a proletarian like him.
The second request is that the foreman is obliged to write reports about Vanek. Unfortunately Vanek leads a very pristine life, without incidents worthy of reporting. He figures that since Vanek is a writer and knows about ‘politics and things,’ he’s the perfect person to write reports on himself. In other words, Vanek is supposed to invent things to report himself on, to make the foreman look good with the authorities. This is when the play becomes wonderfully absurdist:
Vanek: … I can’t inform on myself…
Foreman: Inform… inform? Who’s talking about informing?
Vanek: It’s not myself I’m worried about… it wouldn’t do me any harm… but there’s a principle involved. How can I be expected to participate in…
Foreman: In what? Go on, just say it! What can’t you participate in?
Vanek: In something I have always found repugnant.
Vanek’s moral intransigency leads to the climax of the play, when the foreman launches a long diatribe against “bloody intellectuals” for “putting principles over people:”
Foreman: Principles! I’m not surprised you hang on to your bleeding principles – they come in handy, don’t they, you know how to make a mint out of ‘em, you do, they give you a living – but what about me? Nobody gives me a hand, nobody is scared of me, nobody writes about me, nobody gives a blind bit of notice what I do, I’m just about good enough to shovel the muck out of which your principles can grow, I’m good to find you cosy warm spots for you to play the hero in, and what do I get for all that – nothing but a raspberry. One fine day you will go back to your actresses, you’ll boast about the time you worked here rolling barrels, showing off what a fine big he-man you are – but what about me, eh? What about me?
Vanek ends up looking like the bad guy because of his firm devotion to his principles, which have the uncanny ability of getting a rise out of everyone. Only in the topsy-turvy world Václav Havel creates in his theatre could a man become villainous for refusing to inform on himself. Vanek is a bad person because he doesn’t share the philosophy of the foreman, the one about loyalty between men. Vanek isn’t willing to sacrifice his values, like the rest of the Czechs, so he’s an anomaly.
I can’t, however, stress this enough: Vanek doesn’t feel like a hero because of his moral convictions. He feels bad about their effect on other people. He doesn’t bring attention to them, he doesn’t pontificate like a romantic revolutionary. He simply asserts his identity, which is that of a man who has certain core values. Havel deserves credit for the lack of a condemnatory tone in his plays. Vanek is an agreeable person who doesn’t judge, who’s always ready to understand others. With this play, Havel shows he can laugh at himself and at the problems of his country with a gentle humor (I’m always astonished at how humor flows so naturally from writers who have experienced so much suffering. For me Mikhail Bulgakov is the example par excellence. A Russian satirical playwright who lived in the time of Stalin, he was forbidden to stage his plays; so he turned to humor and fantasy, and wrote one of the 20th century’s comical masterpieces, The Master and Margarita). This humor that laughs in the face of totalitarianism is what I admire most about Havel’s work: it would be so easy for an ideologist to sink into propaganda, into solemn sermons against the nature of tyranny, conformism, etc., to sit in judgment on the sheeple. But Havel disarms all judgment with the lightness of his humor. Havel shows that comedy, rather than being a minor genre, is as good a tool as seriouness to reveal new insights about the human condition. For this is the fundamental purpose of the play, not to, like a non-fiction reportage, show the facts of a regime, but to reveal the psychology of totalitarianism, the way it affects human relationships, the small hypocrisies its citizens indulge in, the miniscule moral battles that have no winners.
As Milan Kundera, Havel’s countryman, once wrote: “Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil” (3). Replace ‘novel’ with ‘literature’, and you have a theory of literature that holds true to writers in general.
1: Karel Gott, the most popular male singer in the Czech Republic.
2: Born in 1931, she’s a famous Czech actress.
3: Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera.