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"the Memorandum" Unsettling

"the Memorandum" Unsettling image
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This is Úie Year of Eastern Europe. To go and see the first performance of a Vaclav Havel play thus becomes a civic duty as well as an aesthetic pleasure. The Memorandum - Havel 's Obie Award-winning 1966 comedy - at The Performance Network, 408 West Washington through July 8 - is talky and repetitive, as Havel's plays tend and intend to be. Indeed, the mechanization of dramatic formspossibly constitutes the primary aesthetic. 'The Memorandum" is impossible to categorize - too absurd to be strictly allegorical, too allegorical to be strictly absurdist. There is little here of psychology, little of miracle, mystery, or authority. There is a trivial mythos, a minimalist ethos, a rudimentary dianoia. The play sets out not to edify, but to confuse and unsettle us. And in that it succeeds. "The Memorandum" chronicles the Catch-22 dilemma of a director of a large organiza tion . The play begins with Director Gross reading aloud from a "very important" office memorandum which both looks and sounds like "a hodgepodge of entirely haphazard groups of letters." It turns out that the memo is written in a new and unabashedly artificial "office language" which is being introduced into the organization. In order to know how his department is doing. Director Gross needs to derstand the memo. In order to understand the memo, he needs to have it translated. To have it translated, he needs an authorization. To get an authorization, he requires documents. To get the necessary documents, it must be clear that his department has "passed" the audi t. In order to kno w whether his department has "passed" the audit, andsoon. In his plays and in his politics, Havel attempts to introduce a new model of behavior. In "Disturbing the Peace," Havel wams "[DJon't get involved in diffuse general ideological polemics... fight 'only' for concrete causes." Gross is the main character of this absurdis t allegory , but he is certainly not the hero. This becomes clear by the time of his final speech, when, as Havel explains, Gross "defends his own moral degradation by appealing to the general absurdity of the world and to alienation, whichheexpresses in the.. .jargon of existentialism." The character called Maria runs through this play as a mouse through a castle. She is a creature of small triumphs and flourishes - a Frodo, if you will. In a tribute to Havel, Miroslav Cervenka wrote of "nehy a troufalosti" - tendemess and daring, and Maria exemplifies these twin Havelian goodnesses. The point of The Memorandum is the po int of Havel's political and theatrical oeuvre: "Man must ...come to his senses (and) extricate himself from this terrible involvement in both the obvious and the hidden mechanisms of totality, from consumption to repTession.... He must rebel against his role as a helpless cog in the gigantic... machinery...," ("Disturbing the Peace"). Cliché is cliché, as Havel has said and as no one can deny . All general statements are false, including this one. An anti-snob is the worst snob of all. Maria suggests the possibility of salvation, precisely because she is not thinking in any such terms. Maria is not grand enough to be "good" in any metaphy sical sense. Her credo, if expressed, which it couldn't be, might be something like this: "Work hard. Be helpful. Try not to lose your job." Maria is the "gofer" of the organization. She gets the onions, she gets the limes, she provides the pseudo-climax of "The Memorandum" by going out on a limb because Gross's speech about making a "new and quite different beginning" has moved her. But the title memorandum is a noncommunication which effects a non-change. The real climax of the play comes moments later when María "shyly bursts out" and says "I like you" to a Gross who has already dismissed her from his mind. "I like you" is the true climax of "The Memorandum" because it is the only time in the play that language serves to express an honest human connectedness. Tenderness and daring. All the more discouraging is the play's end, therefore. Mariahas been fired by Mr. Bailas because she translated the memo forGross. She appeals to Gross. In the final speech (it amounts to a monologue) mentioned above, Gross categorically and selfrighteously refuses Maria's request that he "perhaps at least put in a kind word" on her behalf. His final words outpilate Pilate: "Chin up, my girl! Keep smiling! I know it is absurd, dear María, but I must go and have lunch. So goodbye! Be good! " At this point, all of the actors, minus Maria, merge with each other and the audience. They all look at Maria. And Maria responds, "Nobody ever talked to me so nicely before." She leaves happy. The snakeof empty language has mesmerized the bird of hope. We should not be surprised. In Maria's one attempt at a speech, she f ar es little better than anyone else: "If your conscience is clear, you've nothing to worry about. Your innocence wil] be proved, but you have to fïght for it. I believe that if one doesn't give way, truth must always come out in the end." It is in a host of "minor" and "unimportant" details that "The Memorandum" shines, and these are brought into high relief in the current production thanks to the witty and energetic direction of Riek Sperling, a theatrical wunderkind who, like Maria, is "all gro wn up no w," and a cast and crew whose efforts generally range somewhere between competent and outstanding. I particularily valued Kathy Kinsell's portrayal of Maria. She "translated" the infamous memo, for example, with mounting excitement" and breathlessness which worked beautifully, right down to the "signature illegible." Much of the fun of the play comes, of course, from Ptydepe, the artificial language Havel invented - along Unes suggested to him by his brother Ivan, a mathematician. But only a fooi or an angel would venture walking those particular waters. Thanks to a host of genuinely funny "small touches," we leave the theatre feeling something of a cross between the innocent, gullible, smiling Maria, and the funereal others, on their lock-step way to "do" lunch. And what is there, af ter all, to say except (in the words of another Eastern European "dissident" writer) "Another day is coming. , Do what you can." In his plays and in his politics, Havel attempts to introduce a new model of behavior. In "Disturbing the Peace," Havel wams "[D]on't get involved in diffuse general ideological polemics... fight 'only' for concrete causes."


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