Those of you who remember the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago might also recall news of another street confrontation in Prague that summer. I'll never forget a wire photo of a Czech man throwing a rock at a Russian tank. Anyway, that was the end of the liberalization of the Czech government. The following April, Dubcek resigned and Husak became the new Czech Communist party boss. Censorship was imposed, and Czechoslovakia's leading dramatist, Vaclav Havel, resigned from his post at Prague's Theatre on the Balustrade. Havel's plays were banned, yet he continued to write. Ten years later Havel served time for refusing to shut up, largely for his advocacy of human rights. Well, as they used to say in Prague, "Viva Dubcek."
Czech theater was very hot, very creative in the 60s, and Havel's comedy The Memorandum won an Obie in '68. But you don't get to see much of Havel's work these days, even though it's available. The Memorandum is a brilliant and complex satire of bureaucracy. The problem is, it's long, over two hours, which makes it a strenuous experience for an average local audience. Based on an absurd premise, The Memorandum is like an Ionesco one-act laboriously and relentlessly expanded three or four times in length--long past the point where humor and intimidation start to lose their impact. But I don't think Havel's thorough treatment of the subject is simply the result of an Eastern European tendency toward overelaboration. I think Havel is making his play on bureaucracy in spades.
The situation is an office where Joe Gross, the managing director (played by Michael Nowak), establishes the routine in a superb opening pantomime: sorting the mail, discarding most of it, placing his rubber stamp and pad just so, and efficiently pushing memos from the in to the out tray. This status quo is irrevocably disrupted when Gross encounters a memo written in typographical gibberish. This gibberish, it turns out, is a new, scientific language called "ptydepe," which is meant to replace common, sloppy language with a precise office language that will eliminate error and double meaning. Gross opposes ptydepe, but is blackmailed by his deputy director, Jan Ballas (played by Chuck Goad), into institutionalizing ptydepe by signing a "supplementary order." Ballas uses his leverage to take Gross's job, and Gross is launched on a bureaucratic odyssey, trying to get his memo translated in hopes of vindicating himself and regaining control.
Gross's odyssey proceeds from the managing director's office to the ptydepe classroom to the translation center, and round the same circuit three more times. You get the point. But, as I said, this is a complex satire, and no rock in the bureaucratic wasteland is left unturned. First of all, no one understands ptydepe except the head of the translation center, his ptydepist, and the ptydepe instructor. The language is nearly impossible to learn--wombat, translated, has 319 letters--and Gross can't obtain the official authorization necessary for a translation of his memo. Meanwhile, office politics are afoot to unseat Ballas, the new managing director, who can't manage to read his own memos. Havel's treatment of this convoluted plot is as precise, and maddening, as ptydepe itself.
In the end, however, Gross wins out, only to find ptydepe replaced by "chorukor," a revisionist office language. Chorukor corrects for ptydepe's overemphasis on eliminating redundancy. So, instead of ptydepe's anal retentive distinctions, there's the blurry similarity of chorukor's vocabulary, in which all the days of the week sound alike. After all, the worst that could happen is that you have a meeting on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.
If nothing else, I walked out of The Memorandum with an informed appreciation of what goes on in the upper echelons at my day job.
Lifeline Theatre has taken the absurdist (whatever that is) approach to producing The Memorandum. The acting style is consistently stilted and the dialogue is briskly delivered in a variety of what I assume to be English accents. It's appealing at first, but the joke gets old. Each character has a single quality, which doesn't sustain interest in the long run. For instance, Michael Nowak gives an otherwise fine performance of the gaunt, brown-drab Joe Gross, but there's precious little humanity in his character to begin with. That tends to make a moot point of the dehumanizing gauntlet of compromise, demotion, buck passing, and power lunching that Gross must run. Also, absurd caricatures, such as Meryl Friedman's as the ptydepe instructor, can easily stray off target and become merely ornamental. Friedman cranks her role to a frenetic pitch, to an effect without object. It seems that in the case of The Memorandum the object would be to ground the play in the reality it addresses, however insane that reality might be.
In spite of these shortcomings, at least director Gregg Mierow has chosen a production style and maintained it--always a good idea. And he keeps the play at an accelerated but not rushed pace, bringing it in under two and a half hours. Mierow's greatest strength, though, is his use of details and running gags. Like the way Gross, when he's booted out of his office, takes along the fire extinguisher. Ballas, of course, hangs his own personal extinguisher on Gross's hook. And throughout his slide down the corporate ladder, Gross has to lug his fire extinguisher along. Another great little touch is the musical "Good morning!" that the secretaries chirp at the start of the working day. God, how I hate that.
That utterly ridiculous "good morning"--enough to make you bite the rim off your coffee mug--underlines a major theme of the play: the dehumanization of business language. Call it newspeak, call it etiquette, but meaningless rhetoric like "M'elp you?" is slowly draining the blood out of us. And that's not the worst of it. In The Memorandum, language takes on an insidiously tactical function. In the workaday grubbing for power and recognition, the tactful thing to say is either a lie or a half-lie. Gross realizes as much when he says we live in a world where it's "impossible not to be what we aren't, and impossible to be what we are." In America we call it kissing ass, or, more often, keeping your job.
At the conclusion of the play, Gross (freshly reinstated as managing director) fires the translation center's secretary, the one who broke the rules to translate Gross's memo for him. But Gross cans her in such a way that he makes it sound like he's doing her a favor. Even she says that no one has ever spoken so nicely to her. I wish I had an unemployment check for every time I've seen that happen.
Glasnost comes a bit late in Vaclav Havel's career, and I don't think it applies to Czechoslovakia anyway. And what does The Memorandum have to do with us? I mean, we have the First Amendment, don't we? Last I heard. You figure it out. Monday morning, at work, you figure it out.