A sparsely lit, rather gloomy set. Some rehearsal for a play is going on. A fussy director, who is getting late for a caucus and his exasperated female assistant are touching up the last scene of a production. The protagonist; an inert being stands on a pedestal. Luke, the man in charge of lighting is running errands at the backstage. Luke seldom speaks except for his occasional bewildered ‘what?’
The Protagonist seems lifeless, his limbs are limp and his head hangs low. As time ticks away the protagonist is stripped of his agility, dignity and individuality one after another. His coat and hat are taken off, exposing him in his grey night dress. His crippled palms must not be in a tight clinched fist indicating his anger; they are rather joined together and adjusted to a height up to his waist marking a gesture symptomatic of servitude. All his visible flesh must be whitened. He must not even ‘squeak’ let alone speak. He is no longer an exclusive entity, he is no longer himself. Just another marionette in the hands of an oppressive state he seems to have lost control over his faculties and the director’s assistant must regulate his movements.
But just when all appear to have come to an end, the seemingly lifeless protagonist stirs and looks up. He fixes his straight gaze upon the audience to the sound of a distant storm of applause. The comatose has finally come to its end.
The above scene constitutes one of the most politically potent moments in theatre that I have ever come across and is from Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe. With its obvious resonance to the Bible in its characterization of a director who orders for light and in its naming of the light man Luke, this is a plays that speaks of communist despotism as a distorted religion – a perversity that stagnates freedom while dissimulating liberation and equality all the while.
The protagonist is Christ as a modern man bearing the cross of violent subjugation and rude indifference. He must resurrect. The play was penned in French in 1982 in protest against the unjust repression of an artist’s freedom by the totalitarian states and was dedicated to Beckett’s lifelong friend Václav Havel.
I was barely a toddler of three when the Velvet Revolution shook the grounds of the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia and by the time I grew up, it was no longer fashionable to talk about it. Václav Havel never featured in our university literature syllabus and nor was he ever mentioned in passing at the sophisticated and ‘liberal’ literary circles of Presidency College, Kolkata. I had a vague idea about Charter 77 and Havel as a president who also took pleasure in writing plays, but nothing more. Our intellect was fed on a diet of Chomsky and Fanon for starter, classical Marxism in main course and may be feminism for desert. Che Guevara was revered.
Be it the college canteen or the college street coffee house, his face was looming large everywhere. Our professors told us about the swinging sixties. Some of our seniors gloated over the leading role our college took during the Naxalbari movement but all were conspicuously oblivious about the reticent dissident who dared to stand tall in the face of communist totalitarianism just about two decades back. It was almost by accident that I got introduced to the writings of Václav Havel en route my reading of Beckett. Catastrophe had left me intrigued. I pondered for days over who could be that friend who inspired optimism in this existentialist?
I rummaged through the library till I stumbled over an essay by Václav Havel titled A Word About Words. He was awarded Peace Prize by the German Book Sellers Association and this was his acceptance speech. A first glance at the essay and I was taken aback by the writer’s sheer range of knowledge! In the course of the essay he made relevant allusions to topics as varied as the fatwa on Salman Rushdie to Heidegger, from religion to the French Revolution, from Freud to the gulags – and all these came from a man who was denied of formal higher education by the ‘vice’ of belonging to a bourgeoisie family!
Havel has been classified by most as an absurdist playwright. His work does indeed verge on the mode of nonsense. But while his friend Beckett speaks of incommunicability and the failure of human language to impose a meaning upon this rather chaotic universe, in him we meet an absurdist with his conviction rooted in the power of words!
Unlike other writers of the absurd genre, who seem to have lost their confidence upon language as a medium of communication, Havel saw words as pregnant with multiple possible meanings. It is this strength of language that can be grossly misused as well, rendering the words diabolic. An advocate of free speech Havel went on to point out that ‘unfettered words’ can assume unreasonable importance as totalitarianism tries to muffle them. He showed how with changed context words can come to connote differently and how this ambivalence can be distorted by those in power.
His views about language pervade his plays like Memorandum. A strange and supposedly scientific language is imposed in an office, where no work gets done except for some meaningless trifles. The author’s wry wit is here directed towards the intellectuals who come up with tongue twisting jargons and is ever ready with their discourse but never do anything constructive.
Havel’s sardonic humour strikes his readers as he mocks again at the pseudo intellectuals in A Butterfly on the Antenna.
His views on freedom and the power of those who are resolute and uncompromising nonconformists, in the face of dictatorship come across to his readers in his essay on dissidents titled The Power of the Powerless. In Politics and Conscience we meet a politician, who aspired to come up with an ‘anti political politics’ free from all the biases. While written in the context of the socio-political realities of his own country, Havel’s ideas hold good universally and time has come that we seek inspiration from the words of this world leader to deal with the problems specific to our own situation.
Hugo in The Garden Party conceded to work for the bureaucracy at his parent’s behest. He did not mind a compromise or two to climb up the rungs of success. Like many amongst us he had come to realize “only someone who in certain situations knows no to exist, can exist all the better in another situation”. He chose to turn a blind eye and to conform to a biased system only to lose his sense of selfhood and become hollowed out by the end. We see intellectually bankrupt Hugos engaged in shameless bootlicking all around us. Havel’s words remind us unless we shake off our complacency and hypocrisy, degeneration and regression shall rule large.
Priyanka Mukherjee is a friend of CRI.