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Book Report: Temptation

Having read a biography of Vaclav Havel, Your Humble Blogger was tempted to read more of Mr. Havel’s plays. I’ve read a few, but hadn’t (unless I had forgotten it entirely) read Temptation or Leaving, and since we don’t have Leaving on the shelves of the library that employs me, I read the other one.

It’s a difficult play. There are parts of it that I can’t imagine work at all, and other parts that might work visually but not verbally. The ending is utterly unsatisfactory and frankly unplayable as written—here, some stage directions:

… As he goes, however, he sets fire to FOUSTKA’s coat, so that a new chaotic element is added to the scene as FOUSTKA, his clothing on fire, runs to and fro in panic. Then, out of the summer-house where KOTRLY has placed his bowl, come thick sulphurous flames. The music thunders, the stage is completely obscured by smoke. As far as technically possible, the smoke invades the auditorium. After a while the music stops, the auditorium lights come on, and the audience sees that the curtain has come down in the meantime. There is a short silence, then music is heard again—this time the softly and the most banal muzak. If the smoke, or the play itself, has not driven the last spectator out of the theatre, and if there is anyone left to applaud, the first to take a bow will be a fireman in uniform, with a helmet on his head and holding a fire extinguisher.

Amusing to read, but I wouldn’t want to have paid for a ticket. The English, bye-the-bye, is George Theiner’s translation; I occasionally wonder to what extent the stylistic infelicities (or what seem to me to be infelicities) are the fault of the translator, rather than the playwright. The really brilliant strokes of theater (or what seem to be to be brilliant) are not verbal in this play: the Devil/Tempter/Mephisto character’s habit of changing into indoor slippers which he carries in a paper bag, the Deputy Director’s repetition of the Director’s clich├ęs and vice versa, and most of all the two silent characters who are both utterly magnificent creations. Wonderful stuff. Repetition throughout is used both for laughter and for disorientation, I might even say for pathos, in places. Just lovely. On the other hand, the actual dialogue is largely clunky and tiresome, and the themes (or what seem to me to be themes) are just not terribly interesting.

The biggest problem, though, for me, thinking about it as an actor, is that the misogyny and homophobia in the play are so jarring and awful that I can’t imagine even putting the thing on stage. Havel has… difficulties, let’s say, with women characters (and with women, evidently), so that’s one thing, but also his leads often reflect cultural misogyny, specifically in a double standard for dishonesty with sexual partners. While to some extent Havel is poking fun at the double standard, it’s also true that he asks the audience to identify with the flawed leads. In this play, though, there’s not only that part of it, but the women in question are themselves awful, and twice our lead physically assaults his girlfriend. Maybe in 1988 that just indicated his flawed nature, or maybe in Czechoslovakia in 1988 that just indicated his flawed nature, but an audience in the US in 2015 would (I hope) react to that now so strongly as to overpower the rest of the show. I could devote a few sentences to the incidental and unpleasant homophobia as well, but you can guess at it just fine, Gentle Reader, without specifics. In either case, I feel that the audience’s reaction of this playwright is an awful person! would overwhelm the show.

And that’s particularly a Big Deal in this case, because the audience would, I think, be going in to the show thinking Vaclav Havel is that playwright who overthrew the Communists, isn’t he? OK, no, probably they wouldn’t, because that was twenty-five years ago, and nobody remembers it, but to the extent that anybody knows who the hell Vaclav Havel is, they would think of him as a Great Man (which there is certainly a case for) and because of that, the discovery that he was a horrible misogynist and homophobe (which there is also a case for) would be even more detrimental to their ability to enjoy the play. I don’t think it’s easy to dismiss the bad stuff as a product of its time.

Which is too bad, because it is a product of its time, for good and bad, and yet it turns out that it’s not the politics that dated, but the misogyny and homophobia. Um, good?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,