Orwell woven with Ionesco — and a strong dose of Kafka



Czech play resonates on heels of American midterm election

There is a word that has somewhat gone out of general usage — now why did I say “usage”? why not just plain “use”? — and that word is gobbledygook.

It means any impenetrable blabber of officialese — governmental, political, legal, religious, corporate, wholesale, retail, military, medical, cultural, totalitarian, or whatever other pseudo-language comes down the pike to clobber us between the ears.

George Orwell had a good bit to say about this — and so, in a ding-dong way did Eugene Ionesco. “The Memorandum,” an unnerving comedy by Vàclav Havel (poet, playwright, essayist, humanist, anti-Stalinist, sometime political prisoner, subsequent first president of the Republic of Czechoslovakia), weaves Orwell and Ionesco neatly together with a strong, scary dose of Franz Kafka thrown in to keep the kettle boiling.

Close on the heels of an American midterm election that was jam-packed with vicious gobbledygook from start to finish, top to bottom — no, the other way round — Havel’s 1960s “Memorandum” can now be seen and appreciated to even greater advantage.

It hadn’t been done in this city since Joseph Papp directed it in 1968, the first season he took his New York Shakespeare Festival indoors to a Public Theater on Lafayette Street. I think I’m pretty safe in saying that Joe must have relished the 3-J trifecta of Kafka’s Joseph K, on trial for his life for a nameless crime; Joseph Gross, Havel’s “Memorandum” protagonist, a government civil servant entangled in a state-ordered artificial language called Ptydepe; and, well, good radical young Joseph Papp himself.

The first thing we need to know is how is Ptydepe pronounced. Jenn Thompson, the deeply committed director of  “The Memorandum” at the Beckett, enunciates it slowly and carefully for this journalist:  P-tide-a-pea.

“Sounds like a sneeze,” the director murmurs. As for the scattered enunciations of actual bits of Ptydepe here and there in the play’s English translation by the late Vera Blackwell, “all the actors say it differently according to their different feelings.”

The strength of “The Memorandum,” as always with Havel, lies in its low-key, everyday, matter-of-fact tone (less is more). So that when one character, a bossy young woman named Helena (Kate Levy), suddenly pops up with “See you later, alligator,” and keeps on saying it from time to time, you’re not really all that surprised. It’s the threat behind the normalcy that’s terrifying. See Orwell.

When we first meet Joseph Gross (played by James Prendergast), he’s the Director of some unnamed government agency that’s been delegated to change all bureaucratic discourse and translate all official documents into Ptydepe — but Joseph G. just can’t get his tongue or his brain around all this. His unit has an offstage Staff Watcher whose job is to spy on all personnel of the department through a chink in the wall. For his failure to master Ptydepe, Joseph Gross is demoted, first to the post of mere Deputy Director and then, lower still, to that of Staff Watcher — but he’s no good at that either.

What appears below is the Ptydepe translation problem in a nutshell. (Ballas [Mark Alhadeff] is the new departmental Director; Stroll [John Plumpis] and Savant [Trent Dawson] are toadying apparatchiks.)

BALLAS: Nellie [i.e., Helena]! Why do you refuse to issue those damned


HELENA (to Ballast): Look, doll. I can’t issue them until I’ve made sure they don’t conflict with the decisions in the memos, and I can’t determine the

decisions because the memos are written in Ptydepe and, as you well know, I’m forbidden to make any translations whatever. Where’s the girl with my limes? [Helena has sent an intern across the street to buy a bag of limes.]

BALLAS: Then why doesn’t Otto translate the memos?

STROLL: I can translate only after getting the authorization from Alex!

BALLAS: Then Alex will have to start granting the authorizations!

SAVANT: I can’t, if nobody has the documents from Nellie!

BALLAS: Do you hear that, Nellie? You’ll have to start giving people the documents regardless!

HELENA: But I’m not permitted to translate!

BALLAS: Why doesn’t Otto do the translating?

STROLL: I can translate only after getting an authorization from Alex!

BALLAS: Then Alex will have to start granting the authorizations!

SAVANT: I can’t, when nobody has the documents from Nellie!

BALLAS: Do you hear that, Nellie? You’ll have to start giving people the documents regardless!

HELENA: But I’m not permitted to translate!

And so on and so forth and so forth and so forth….

Savant (the scholarly name is significant) has already reported that wherever Ptydepe has started to be used, “it has automatically begun to assume some of the characteristics of a natural language: various emotional overtones, imprecisions, ambiguities….”

“Emotional overtones?” cries by-the-book Ballas. “But in that case Ptydepe is losing its very purpose.”

Well, that gives the game away. But wait! Amidst all the gobblegobble of that make-believe time and place there is also one character who says absolutely nothing until almost the very end.  He is a certain Pillar (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), addressed by Ballas only as “Mr. P.,” and what Mr. P. bursts out with, at long silent last, is: “Death to all artificial languages! Long live natural human speech! Long live Man.”

But it wasn’t that particular declaration that made Jenn Thompson ache to direct this play for TACT. It was the radio, up in Brooklynite Thompson’s hideaway in Connecticut, that for weeks leading up to our recent  Election Day had been spouting forth lies and — her words — “horrendous horseshit” as proved fact.

All that on the radio plus one deadly line in “The Memorandum.” Ballas says it to Joseph Gross toward the end of Act I: “You don’t expect us to fall on our knees when faced with facts.”

Us voters, for instance.

“I came to that line and it gave me a shiver” says Ms. Thompson, the granddaughter of blacklisted journalist-author-screenwriter Marian Spitzer. “A pretty tough old lady,” says that granddaughter, who was born “right here in Manhattan, December 13, 1967, New York Hospital, seventh floor” — just eight months and eight days before those Warsaw Pact tanks ground Prague Spring into the dust, and the plays of a certain 31-year-old Vàclav Havel, including “The Memorandum” (inspired in part by the self-lacerating, fact-trampling Soviet show trials of the 1930s), could no longer be seen at Prague’s Balustrade Theater or anywhere else east of the Berlin Wall.

Joseph K. and Joseph Papp are gone, but Joseph Gross lives on — just now in the Samuel Beckett, of all places, on New York City’s 42nd Street, also known as Theater Row.