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The Guardian (London)

30 March 1995


Vaclav Havel's satire, The Memorandum, shows his affinities with Kafka
By Michael Billington

VACLAV HAVEL'S most durable play, The Memorandum, from 1965, gets a welcome
revival at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, which for two decades has
treated him almost as a house author. And even if the work now seems a
trifle over extended, it reminds one, in its brutally logical satire on the
use of language to enforce conformity, of what Havel once called his
"spiritual kinship" with Kafka.

Havel shows Josef Gross, the managing director of a large firm, suddenly
discovering a surreptitious plan to replace the native vernacular with
Ptydepe: a synthetic language designed to iron out all ambiguities and
evasions. But although office business is meant to be conducted in this new
nonsense speak and the language is assiduously taught, almost no one can
understand it. Unable to translate a memo written in Ptydepe or get the
authorisation to decode it, Gross realises that "the only way to learn what
is in one's memo is to know it already".

In this world of insane Catch-22 bureaucracy, Gross is demoted, then sacked
but, with the discrediting of Ptydepe, finally restored to office, only to
discover that an even more absurd artificial language has taken its place.

What is impressive is how many targets Havel manages to hit in the course of
the play. On the one hand he attacks the linguistic perversion, conformism,
surveillance and recantation that are part of any oppressive ideology: on
the right, one might add, as well as the left.

But he also exposes the shallow humanism of Gross who, while prating of
moral values, is the archetypal organisation man who does everything
possible to save his own skin. The play may have grown out of experience of
Czech communism: its application, however, is universal.

Havel's concern with symmetry makes it hard for him to end the work when he
should. But his writing also has a blithe playfulness seen at its best in
the very funny Ptydepe tuition scenes here conducted by John Baddeley with a
donnish absorption in linguistic minutiae that suggests Alan Bennett as
Shakespeare's Holofernes. In Sam Walters's astute, intelligent production
David Allister's palpitating Gross confirms that the victim of conformity is
also its ultimate apologist and there is an outstanding debut by Victoria
Hamilton as a shy secretary punished for her misplaced sympathy.

It is, among many other things, a sharp-toothed attack on office politics
written by a man who himself now seems trapped in the deadening politics of
presidential office.

(Submitted by Tara)