Last evening, 11 friends came over to read Vaclav Havel’s popular play, The Memorandum. We read it as an investigation into organizational life which, though written about the bureacracy of Communist Czechoslovakia, had been described as all too universal.
The basic premise of the play is that a new language is being introduced to speed office communications. Yet the memo announcing the new language is, you guessed it, in the new language. As the Managing Director drives himself crazy attempting to chase down someone who can translate for him, he discovers that it is his own deputy who has initiated the new language– while simultaneously instituting policies that hamstring anyone seeking a translation.
The play is partly about absurdity and the climax of its commentary on organizational life is the scene where the deputy himself is trying to get a translation done and turns from player to player in a literal “vicious circle” of policies that make them each dependent on an input from another. There is lots of politicking, with alliances forming and re-forming, while employees and managers spend most of their time obsessed with where they can obtain free food and drink. Amidst the constant distraction, it seems that the characters who are most silent and compliant are the ones pulling the strings.
During these readings, we generally sit around my living room — a mixture of actors, scholars and dancers — adopting and switching characters as we please. In this case, I sat directly next to the Managing Director and at one point, could literally feel his character’s exasperation, as he was befuddled and over-run by the incoherence of the organization. As the play neared its end, I felt myself cringing, as several characters repeated identical speeches to earlier in the play, initiating a predictable recapitulation of the same ineffectual process — as the first language is scrapped for being too difficult and a new language is initiated which is simpler because it combines meanings into fewer words.
Though we identified several similarities to modern organizational life (pre-meetings to plan meetings to have meetings), there were also several aspects that seemed a bit anachronistic — such as the mindless emphasis on policy and red tape and the staff spies.
At the same time, the rush to “get on board” with a new framework or strategy before we have fully understood and internalized it, did seem familiar to me. Just as the characters in the play, very little actually gets done in the new language while everyone is busy enforcing policies related to it. It made me wonder — why was language so central to Havel’s exploration of this oppressive organization?
I also wondered at the centrality of the two silent, compliant characters who end up orchestrating the biggest twists in the plot. Knowing that Havel has written about The Power of the Powerless whose collusion unwittingly keeps oppressive systems in place, I wondered if these characters were meant to symbolize that sort of “everyman”. His writings on this point, which were very important to movements such as Solidarity in Poland and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, are in sharp contrast to our usual ideas about the role of formal leaders in transformational change — and pique my curiosity.
Finally, two scenes in the play particularly stood out for me, for their authenticity. First was when the main character turns to speak to the “Staff Watcher” whom he knows is watching him through an “observation chink” in the wall. “Watcher, are you there?” he says, then asks for a cigarette. It was a surprising and refreshing twist, where a trapped character finds a degree of freedom by commenting on precisely what is keeping him confined.
The second was in the final scene, when, after an employee is wrongfully terminated, the Managing Director encourages her to go on to great things and then says,”And now, as absurd as it may seem, I must go to lunch.” What is it about food and drink at work that get so much of our attention?
I would enjoy hearing your thoughts, questions, reflections.