Blind Parrot Productions

Our exposure to the art of other cultures has always been governed as much by the exporters, who send what they think Americans will like, as by the value of the art itself. And the same popular mind-set that, in the 60s, pronounced hallucinogenic drugs an integral part of Lewis Carroll’s creative spark and, in the 70s, fabricated not one but two lovers for Emily Dickinson has now declared political consciousness the divine muse, without which no inspiration can occur. Americans want to hear that every Central American citizen is a poet-protester, that every Soviet teeters daily on the brink of born-again capitalism, that the Chinese are 90-pound weaklings bullied by big bad Westerners. (Never mind that the traditional Chinese family has practiced forms of domestic genocide showing a disregard for human life Tiananmen Square only reiterated.) We want to cry and cheer, then snuggle into our luxurious lives and be guilty–or is it glad?–that we’re here and not there.

The new internationalism is making our illusions difficult to maintain, however. Like it or not, we now know that South African housewives watch movies on their VCRs, and that Neil Simon is one of the most popular American playwrights in the Soviet Union. What has always been obvious to those who have lived or traveled extensively overseas will become more and more apparent stateside as well–that not all artists respond in the same way to the same environmental factors, and that not all literature created under a state of censorship has a hidden antiestablishment message. So I wonder how Vaclav Havel’s Largo Desolato would be received by Americans if we didn’t know that its Czech author was once a dissident writer imprisoned by the Communist government and is currently president of Czechoslovakia? What if this play had been quietly slipped into some new playwrights’ competition somewhere? How much of what we read into Havel’s play is colored by his current star power and our own xenophilia?

Such questions must remain moot, however. Blind Parrot Productions has chosen to emphasize the play’s political ramifications: a press release promises “an emotional exploration of political oppression and personal obligation,” a display in the lobby details events in Havel’s and Czechoslovakia’s histories, and quotations from Havel’s February 1990 address to the U.S. Congress are sprinkled throughout both. We’re led to expect a work in which drably uniformed wardens recite long, solemn speeches in impeccable Masterpiece Theatre accents.

This description is more appropriate to Blind Parrot’s “curtain warmer,” Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe. This is as shallow and one-dimensional a piece of occasional agitprop as your garden-variety genius would be likely to whip up on reflex: a Brezhnevian bureaucrat demands that an artist make a statue–played by a live actor–take increasingly unnatural and submissive poses. But because Catastrophe was written in protest of Havel’s imprisonment, it will do to set us up for the good cry and cheer we expect to get from Largo Desolato.

Largo Desolato does contain fear and suffering enough, but it occupies a universe far wider than that surrounding any political office in Prague. The protagonist, Leopold Nettles, is a philosophy professor and author of many famous works: Phenomenology of Responsibility, Love and Nothingness, and Ontology of the Human Self. Lately, however, strange things have been happening to him. He has written nothing for a long time, he drinks and takes drugs and secludes himself in his apartment, and he repeatedly scurries to the door in anticipation that someone is standing outside it. Sometimes he’s right–he’s visited by his friend Bertram, who suggests that he might be having a nervous breakdown; by his girlfriend, Lucy, who insists that her love will restore him; by a young female student who offers him adoration even as he clumsily attempts to seduce her; by a sunny and solicitous young man who dates the severe, scolding female with whom Leopold appears to reside; by two supporters who offer to supply him with all the reading and writing materials he can use; and by two gangster types who advise him to change his name and disavow authorship of his essays. It emerges that Leopold is awaiting trial for “disturbing the intellectual peace,” and his unease and paranoia intensify until he is brought the news that he is not to be punished but ignored. Whereupon he orders everyone out and settles down at his desk to read, and presumably to write.

Largo Desolato succeeds not because of its story, but because Havel manipulates language so deftly. “When I run out of excuses to put off writing and make up my mind to begin,” Leopold confides to Lucy, “my thoughts start going around and around in a loop.” Do they ever! There are speeches that duplicate exactly what other characters have said earlier, stage business is repeated several times in succession for no apparent reason, and characters do things after purporting to have already done them. (It’s as if a videotape had been stopped, rewound, and played again at random.) Eventually Leopold finds himself uttering–and claiming as his own–words he’s heard from other characters. These games recall Ionesco (most notably The Bald Soprano, though the entrance of the student echoes The Lesson as well), but the effect is closer to Pinter (Leopold’s two more threatening visitors even resemble the actors in Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s production of The Birthday Party). The play’s chronological disorientation grows more eerily sinister as it goes on. (Tom Stoppard was a wise choice to translate Largo Desolato–his own plays similarly distort the sequence of events, and unless one is accustomed to this kind of verbal pinball, the translation difficulties might be overwhelming.)

Do the events of Largo Desolato reflect life in a police state? Are the linguistic ambiguities some sophisticated form of brainwashing? What does it mean that almost all the characters except Leopold wear gray? (Lucy soon trades her blue attire for gray, and the nurturant young man first wears white, then black.) Is Largo Desolato supposed to be an exploration of the creative mind in deterioration? Is Leopold a modern Saint Anthony, beset by demons?

Or could Leopold’s agony be a monumental case of writer’s block? During such episodes of creative paralysis, all writers contemplate giving up their mission and returning to comfortable anonymity. I lean toward this last interpretation–not only do the characters behave exactly as Leopold says his thoughts behave, but in their speech they drop pronouns just as we all do in our internal monologues–it’s as though Leopold were talking to himself. (David Perkins’s director’s notes offer little assistance, only further jumbling together Havel’s play, Beckett’s play, Havel’s life, and Eastern European history.) Clearly the questions here are whether to continue or surrender, to walk or merely talk, to be or not to be–but anything more than these is left to the viewer to decide in his or her own way.

Blind Parrot’s production is as surreal as could be wished. The action moves swiftly and crisply, holding our attention so closely that we never have time to recover from our vertigo–our own “disturbance of the intellectual peace.” The cast delivers uniformly excellent performances; Lee Wessof is particularly outstanding as the beleaguered Leopold. Tom Griffin has assembled a set one wouldn’t mind moving into–for a little while anyway–and Kurt Ottinger’s lights dance so energetically they almost seem characters in themselves. Robert Ian Winstin has composed and performs some of the most bizarre incidental music since the long fade-out at the end of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album. (Listen for the fragment of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in one of Winstin’s interludes.)

In spite of the pressure to find an allegory of social and historical upheaval in Largo Desolato, however, I could not see Leopold’s dilemma as any but an artistic one that might exist anywhere at any time. Maybe I don’t read the newspapers enough. Maybe I was having too much fun with the play as dramatic art. Maybe I respect Havel too much as a playwright to want to see him as nothing more than a mouthpiece for propaganda–however much this interpretation may demystify the artistic mind and sell plays to American audiences. But I’d rather think that Havel will still have a career in literature once he retires from his present employment.