Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Play #3: Vaclav Havel's Largo Desolato

With Vaclav Havel, I have to start with Peter Brook writing about Jan Kott: "Here we have a man writing about Shakespeare's attitude to life from direct experience (my emphasis). Kott is undoubtedly the only writer on Elizabethan matters who assumes without question that every one of his readers will at some point or another have been woken by the police in the middle of the night. I am sure that in the many million words already written about Shakespeare -- almost precluding anything new ever being said by anyone any more -- it is still unique for the author discussing the theory of political assassination to assume that a director's explanation of his actors could begin: 'A secret organization is preparing an action...You will go to Z and bring a case of grenades to the house No. 12.'" From the Introduction to Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary

Mr. Havel is an extraordinary man...playwright, essayist, dissident, President first of Czechoslovakia and subsequently the first President of the Czech Republic following the Velvet Revolution. He is a man who risked his life for his art, for his ideals and for his people. He is a stunning profile in courage...

His play, Largo Desolato, gets to the heart of drama about the "great person". In 2001, I directed a production of Marlowe's Edward II, a hauntingly political play, especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In my director's notes, I wondered about the dreams of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden, when they closed their eyes at night, what did that still small voice deep inside their souls say to them. Did they listen? Did they ignore? Did those voices help or hinder them in their attempts to shape history?

Largo Desolato, in my view, shows us the inner workings of a person at the crossroads of history, in fact Havel wrote it in 4 days within a year of being released from prison,...the choices made, the competing demands, the threats, the hopes, the fears...all of those things that make us compellingly human. Written in 1985, Havel is on the cusp of great things, but while there, he shows us what it is like to look into the void. It is a thrilling, terrifying mechanistic, cyclical play, like Kott's Grand Mechanism, but also, in the creaking final days of Soviet style Communism, the machine is breaking down...what will happen next?

The story: Professor Leopold Nettles, the "hero" of Largo Desolato, is the author of a book that contains a troublesome paragraph laying him open to arrest on charges of "disturbing the intellectual peace." Pressed by the government to deny what he wrote, Nettles is tortured by internal demons as well as external ones. Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's foremost playwright, who is in constant conflict with his government, has created a vivid and terrifying portrait of the writer in the totalitarian state that is as real and immediate as today's headlines. (From the English version by Tom Stoppard)

The play is written in 7 short scenes, 3 of which have no dialogue. It is a nightmare of repetition, mechanical actions, and an almost oppressive sense of danger. Professor Nettles is pressured on the one hand by two factory workers, called First Sidney and Second Sidney, to take his theories to the next level, ie to stop being a philosopher and start being active. He is also pressured by two members of, perhaps, the secret police called First Chap and Second Chap, to renounce something he is written. Their banal idea for a return to normalcy is to have him simply say he is not called Leopold Nettles and they will leave him alone. At the same time, his estranged wife/lover/ex-girlfriend Suzana has taken up with his friend Edward, he is kind of with a woman called Lucy, although he doesn't admit it and it enrages her. Finally, a man called Bertram is trying to prod him into action as well, albeit with a series of qualifications.

Scenes are repeated over and over, lines of dialogue are as well...

Scene 1
As the music dies away the curtain rises slowly.
Leopold is alone on the stage. He is sitting on the sofa and staring at the front door. After a long pause he gets up and looks through the peep-hole. Then he puts his ear to the door and listens intently. After another long pause the curtain drops suddenly and at the same time the music returns.

Scene 2
As the music dies away the curtain rises slowly.
Leopold is alone on the stage. He is sitting on the sofa and staring at the front door. After a long pause he gets up and looks through the peep-hole. Then he puts his ear to the door and listens intently. After another long pause the curtain drops suddenly and at the same time the music returns.

Scene 5
(Suzana makes a sign to Edward who accompanies her to the kitchen. During the rest of the scene both of them can be seen through the glass-panelled kitchen doors taking out various foodstuffs from the shopping bag, putting them where they belong, and, during all this time either discussing something in a lively way or perhaps quarrelling. Leopold notices that First Sidney's glass is empty and fills it up for him) BTW, Suzana and Edward do this exact same thing in Scene 3 as well...

1st Sidney: Thanks! Cheers!
(First Sidney drinks the whole glass in one go and then burps, satisfied. Leopold refills the glass.)
1st Sidney: Thanks! Cheers!
(First Sidney drinks the whole glass in one go and then burps, satisfied. Leopold refills the glass.)
1st Sidney: Thanks! Cheers!
(First Sidney drinks the whole glass in one go and then burps, satisfied. Leopold refills the glass.)
1st Sidney: Thanks! Cheers!
(First Sidney drinks the whole glass in one go and then burps, satisfied. Leopold refills the glass. First Sidney takes the glass but when he is on the point of drinking it he puts it back on the table.)
1st Sidney: Someone has to be sensible --
(Short pause)
2nd Sidney: We're not holding you up are we?
Leopold: No --
1st Sidney: Are you sure? Because if we are you only have to say so and we'll push off --
L: You are not holding me up -- excuse me --
(Leopold gets up, goes to the place where his medicines are, turns his back to the room so as not to be seen, pulls out his box, quickly takes out a pill, throws it in his mouth and swallows it and puts his box back and returns to his seat. Pause.) Again, the repeat of an action done earlier

2nd S: Have you thought about it yet?
L: About what?
1st S: What we were talking about yesterday -- that it's time for an initiative --
L: Oh yes -- I haven't got round to it yet --
2nd S: Pity. You know, I'm an ordinary bloke, a nobody, but I can spot a few things and I've got my own opinion and nobody can deny me that. And what I think is, there's a lot that could be done -- certainly more than is being done at the moment --
1st S: One just has to get hold of the situation by the --
2nd S: Who else but you is there to get things going again?
(Leopold is starting to get nervous. He looks discreetly at his watch.)
1st S: We're not holding you up are we?
L: No --
2nd S: Are you sure? Because if we are you only have to say so and we'll push off --
L: You're not holding me up. Excuse me --
(Leopold gets up and goes into the bathroom, leaving the door open. There is the sound of running water and Leopold gasping. The sound of the water stops and shortly afterwards Leopold returns to his seat.) Again, the repeat of an action that occurs many times in this scene.

Going back to Peter Brook and Jan Kott, the fundamental difference between the theatre of Eastern Europe and the West is the palpable sense of danger always lurking beneath the surface of their drama. The Eastern Europeans had to use their theatre to talk in code to one another, to avoid the censors and to keep revolutionary ideas alive. Their theatre could literally be about life and death. One of my mentors, the Macedonian director Naum Panovski used to talk about keeping vodka around the theatre to try and get the censors drunk when he was working in Yugoslavia under Tito. If they were drunk enough, it was easier to slip things past them. The theatre in the West is so much more about middle class, middlebrow entertainment. "Hey gang, let's put on a show in a barn." The work becomes a commodity, the artists involved are nothing more than independent contractors and the entire purpose, in our era of celebrity and money, is to get noticed and turn a profit.

Meyerhold was murdered by the Soviets because he refused to compromise his ideas on theatre. He rebelled against Soviet socialist realism and "they" shot him. Is there ANYONE in the US who would be willing to die for their theatrical beliefs? Is their a Vaclav Havel, a Vsevelod Meyerhold, an Athol Fugard living here in this country? Somehow I doubt it, and I am OK with that because it reinforces the idea that we are a free you have to die for your work? No, because no one will sanction the killing! I guess the closest we have come was the controversy at Manhattan Theatre Club over their decision to premiere Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi and the religious lunatics who threatened to blow up the theatre if they did.

Vaclav Havel, like Fugard, like Mandela, is an extraordinary human being who could not read the future and did not have a road map for where he was heading. Largo Desolato gives you a peek into the psyche and a glimpse at the soul, the fear, the hopes, the doubts and the dreams of a transcendent figure in modern world history. For that alone, it is worth the read.

Rick St. Peter
September 2, 2009


  1. This is sort of doubly interesting in that Tom Stoppard is the translator and, of course, depsite the strong English influences of his life, has never forgotten his Czech background. Even in the small snatch you show us, one sees echoes of his own Rock 'n' Roll and especially a play he wrote earlier than Havel's...Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), a play done in conjunction with an orchestra and score by Andre Previn, set in a Soviet metal hospital where the officials bend over backwards to set a man free if only he will admit something untrue and deny his principles.

    It played at the National this past year (and is currently being revived) and was exquisitely done. Again, Stoppard being brilliant, funny, and moving.

    Thing about translations is I always want to read more than one and see where the influence of the translator comes rigidly or unrigidly faithful they are in their translations and, if not, does it necessarily betray the original thought and intention of the playwright (Of course, not speaking any foreign languages, I wouldn't necessarily know how rigid or unrigid one was being, I suppose).

    This is particularly interesting to me since adapting TARTUFFE for you. Your only instruction to me was, "Don't worry about a strict adherence to the words. Only thought and action." And that was the way I approached it. But even as I started out, I was initially intent on having no one speak where Moliere hadn't had them speak; but I quickly saw that to do so presented missed opportunities for jokes or ripostes or more expansive examination of a thought. So not only did the language get more loose, but also the rules governing where and when someone spoke.

    The dramatist in me took over...and we always see places where we can "improve" another writers work...and I found my way into the play to make it my own as well as Moliere's.

    Though we referred to it as a "free" adaptation and it perhaps takes liberties here and there, it, in fact, remains remarkably faithful to the original and did not betray your original edict of embracing thought and action without a strict adherence to the words...nor did it betray Moliere's intent.

    Oddly enough, as a screenwriter I hated being rewritten and refused to re-write anyone else without their blessing, but I have no such compunction with translation (particularly with dead authors...I'd be ruthless in my cutting of Shakespeare). But I think a translator/adaptor at some point must "own" the script.

    I'm currently reading four different translations of an Ibsen play which...when I did the same with TARTUFFE...are fascinating in their choices when you compare one scene against another. Yet all seem to remain faithful to the thought, action, and intent of the play.

    Reading the snatch of the Havel play above, I see and hear a great deal of Stoppard.

    One day, I'd love to work in a situation where instead of just reading different versions of the play to arrive at a translation, one could start with a literal translation.

  2. Rick, thanks for the VERTICAL HOUR. Stayed up till three reading the first act, then polished off the rest first thing this morning when I awoke. Like AMY'S VIEW & SKYLIGHT, Hare has a great way of examining and distilling big issues through intimate stories.

    I really enjoyed it. Could see how Anton Lesser would be great in the role. I still have my doubts as to how well it would go down in Lexington, but if we let that worry us each time out, we'd be doing nothing but Natalie Needs A Nightie or Getting Gertie's Garter.

  3. Hello! I'm sorry... I'm writing about Stoppard's plays about the 60s... When is Largo Desolato set?
    Thank you very much!!
    ps. I'm translating Rock 'n' Roll into Italian, by the way... :)

  4. Thank you for these reflections. They helped me deepen my appreciation of the play which I just finished a few minutes ago. Indeed, many artists in the "free" world are among the first (and loudest) to claim their passion for freedom and rebellion against oppressive restrictions, even though they cannot possibly conceive what it would mean to actually live and make work under such a system. Fortunately, they no longer have to, for the most part.

    I also found the end of the play particularly devastating, because it is so ambivalent. Leaving Leopold in the "prison" of his everyday life, with no real conclusive direction, somehow seems like the most brutal thing that "they" could have done to him. It certainly puts things into perspective reading this play over twenty years after the fall...