Sunday, 6 May 2012

Václav Havel: Unveiling

Life is rough and the world is divided. The world doesn’t give a damn about us and nobody’s coming to our rescue – we’re in a nasty predicament, and it will get worse and worse – and you are not going to change any of it! So why beat your head against the wall and charge the bayonets?

Unveiling is the second part of Václav Havel’s Vanek trilogy. Like Audience, it’s a satirical look at everyday life in former Soviet Czechoslovakia. The play finds the playwright Ferdinand Vanek, the author’s comical alter ego, visiting a couple of friends, Vera and Michael, at the unveiling of their newly-decorated apartment. Vanek can’t help looking around with curiosity. The place is dripping with opulence. The room is decorated with a “mass of sundry antiques and curious objects,” and the floor is covered with “a thick, shaggy carpet,” Persian mats and, to cap it off, “a bear skin with a stuffed head.”

Vanek: It looks different here somehow –
Vera: I hope so! Michael has poured a lot of sweat into it! You know how he is when he gets involved in something: He won’t let go till he has everything just the way he’s planned it –
Michael: I only finished the thing the day before yesterday: we haven’t had anybody over yet, so this actually is a sort of an unveiling.

“As I was working on this,” Michael explains, “I thought about you often – what you were going to say when you saw it all.” But all the extravagance surrounding Vanek, a reserved and introspective intellectual, fails to impress him. The unveiling, however, progressively becomes an excuse for Vera and Michael to gloat over their perfect lives. The night comprises a series of situations for the happy couple to revel in their wealth, happiness and completeness. They’re a couple who have found new prosperity: Michael travels to Switzerland, from where he brings musical records and rare delicacies; they have a clever young son, Pete. They even brag about their active sex life, and demonstrate it in front of Vanek. In short, they have everything, and they rub it in Vanek’s face at the same time they criticise his poverty.

Vanek and his wife Eva, absent from the play, are chastised for everything: Eva is a bad cook and housekeeper, the couple claims; they should have children; they should take better care of their home. They keep insisting that Vanek’s marriage is having problems and become furious when Vanek defends Eva. Like an Epicurean, Vanek is satisfied with the simplicity of his life. This is one of the play’s themes: spiritual satisfaction versus materialistic completeness. Or as Michael puts it:

One really shouldn’t be indifferent to what one eats, one shouldn’t be indifferent to what one eats on, and what one eats with, what one dries oneself with, what one wears, what one takes a bath in, what one sleeps on. And once any of these things starts to matter, you’ll find that something else suddenly matters, too, and then another thing gets you, and so a whole sort of a chain of things develops – and if you head down that road, what else can it mean but that you’re upgrading your life to another, higher level of culture – and that you raise yourself to a kind of higher harmony – which then in effect translates itself into your with other people!

The first time I read the play this seemed like a witty attack on consumerism. But it would be strange that in a Soviet state in the ‘70s, with shortages, a playwright would bother to write about something as alien to his audience as consumerism. Now if this were a ’50s American play, I could see it. The play is actually an attack on conformism and peer pressure. The word conformism isn’t used, of course, but to paraphrase Borges, in a riddle about conformism the only word you can’t use is conformism. But you can notice its presence. The prosperity of Vera and Michael comes from their having caved in to the social pressure to conform to the Soviet party line. We can infer, from snippets of dialogue, that once they were like Vanek, possibly political activists sticking to moral values and fighting for civil rights. Hence Vanek’s surprise at seeing the redecorated apartment. In a state that controls every facet of life, including economy, you can’t get ahead in life without being an accomplice because there are barriers set up against you if you resist the system. Take Michael’s Switzerland travels, for instance; for that you need a visa; and you can’t get one if you’re flagged, as Vanek undoubtedly is, as a threat. Michael travels because he’s in good relationships with the party. Vanek, on the other hand, has a miserable job in a brewery: that’s the price for defying the authorities.

Peer pressure and conformism go hand in hand. Vera and Michael are doing the state’s job when they try to seduce Vanek into becoming like them with the promise of materialistic happiness. In a state where the pressure to conform is immense, friends and neighbours will try to indoctrinate the stubborn members who resist joining the others in the official social order. Vera and Michael aren’t just gloating, but trying to persuade Vanek to shed his identity and become like them. Everyone must be like everyone else, be stripped of their individuality and join mainstream society. For politely holding on to his own self, Vanek has become a pariah.

Unhappiness is also at the core of the play. Vera and Michael, for all their optimism, feel uncomfortable. Havel shows this by exaggerating the domestic bliss of their lives. They complete each other’s sentences, they complement each other; it’s like they’re putting on a show and Vanek is the audience. They’re insufferable soul mates, so perfect and harmonious and attuned to each other you almost suspect they exchange thoughts telepathically or that they’re robots following a program. But it’s imperative to convince Vanek they’re happy, because his own brand of Epicurean happiness, of the type that comes from not desiring anything, makes him dangerous. If a man doesn’t want anything, he can’t be bought, like Vera and Michael have been.

Although I wrote that this novel was not about consumerism, I meant for the time it was written. The funny thing about time is that it changes things. In the post-Cold War world, Unveiling only makes sense, to me anyway, about the dangers of consumerism, which is ironic considering Havel was in favour of a free market. The play makes the reader think about the power of materialism to lull people into obedience, to destroy an individual’s critical attitude. The message goes like this: once you start having things, you want to have even more things. And you’ll even learn not to disturb the social order that allows you to safely acquire them, even if that social order is depriving you of more important things, like civil or labour rights. Supporting this obedience, of course, is the need to provide for the family:

Vera: Just take the responsibility you suddenly have. It’s up to you what kind of a person he will turn out to be – what he’ll feel – think – how he’ll live –
Michael: But not only that: because it was you who tossed him into this world, who offered it to him for his use and who provides him with some orientation in it, you suddenly start feeling a much greater responsibility for this world that now contains your child – do you know what I mean?
Vanek: I guess so…
Michael: I never believed this, but now I see how a child gives you a brand new point of view, a brand new set of values – and suddenly it begins to down on you that the most important thing now is what you do for that child, what sort of a home you create for him, what sort of a start you give him, what openings you provide – and in the light of this awesome responsibility you start seeing the utter insignificance of most of the things you had once thought world-shattering –

If Vanek had a kid, he too would “see many things far more sensibly, realistically, wisely.” In other words, having a child means considering things like human dignity, freedom and rights more trifles. A child can wipe clean the critical attitude of a person and reprogram him with a new set of values, which won’t clash against the state’s values. It’s better to keep one’s mouth shut, not cause any trouble and behave like others. Mind you, I’m not mocking Michael’s position. It’s very easy to feel indignant from a chair in my living room, in a democracy, where I take my rights for granted. At the same time, I’m capable of enough scrutiny (and self-scrutiny) to realise that the number of people who behave like Michael (and I’m in that group – I’m typing this in a laptop probably assembled in China) has been growing steadily for years now, with horrible consequences to the world. After reading this play, I remembered a news I read some time ago: the average income in the USA has reached the lowest value of the past 25 years; that means Americans are earning less than what they did before the fall of the Soviet Union. On the same news, I read that corporations are declaring record profits. Around the world it’s the same grim picture of unbalance, with austerity being the future of Europe for the next years (decades?). And I doubt the victory of the socialist François Hollande on today’s French presidential elections will change anything. If the last years have proven anything, is that left and right are meaningless labels.

Unveiling is a play that could have been written today, in any country. It started as a satire of communism, but the Soviet Union has fallen and the world didn’t magically improve, as promised. Naomi Klein, a journalist many hate and many adore, argues in The Shock Doctrine that the reason capitalism seemed so awesome in the past was because it was competing against communism. Capitalism had to seem appealing because it was fighting for its survival. Now that capitalism has triumphed, it is free to show its true nature: misery for the masses and fortune for a small elite. No middle class, like in the 19th century. In 1953, the dissident Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote of the ‘captive minds,’ the intellectuals who supported communism. Havel’s play today can be read, perhaps against his intention, as a parable of our collaboration with capitalism for the sake of cheap LCD TV sets made in totalitarian countries. Funny how the dogmas change but the world continues the same.


  1. While I have not read or seen this play, I find it interesting that you can read it in a new context as a critique of capitalism, as it was not intended to be. I agree that to some extent, all systems, even those that seem diametrically opposed to one another, pressure and corrupt along similar lines.

    1. Hello, Brian.

      I'm certain John Milton would be horrified at our considering his Satan an anti-hero. For me it's a good thing that texts change their meaning with time, it's what keeps them vital.