Among the guiding principles of the Theatre of the Poor is to present plays that are timely and relevant. As much as possible we try to produce plays that can reflect or refract our moment in history, even though they were written long ago. We believe that theatre speaks to us in the here and now, and that it should cause us to reflect on who we are and how we got here, whether collectively or individually.
As the second play in our “Lost in Translation” themed season, Largo Desolato resonates more with this precise moment in world history than any of our other scheduled productions. It was originally written in Czech by the playwright, political dissident, and eventual President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. The “Velvet Revolution” that he led in Prague brought millions of people to the streets in November-December 1989, and by means of national strikes and peaceful demonstrations, bloodlessly ended the Soviet-controlled Communist regime. It was an unprecedented victory for individual liberty, democratic government, and human dignity.
Largo Desolato is Havel’s semi-autobiographical account of the price he paid for freedom. His proxy, Professor Leopold Nettles, is caught in strange, endlessly recurring cycles of paranoia, anxiety, psychological paralysis, self-absorption, and substance abuse. Havel brilliantly conflates the Theatre of the Absurd with the realism of the Naturalistic theatre of psychology, secrets, and a past that is always present. While the world outside is teeming with political unrest, Leopold is stuck inside inside a dingy apartment where shadows, hard angles, and skewed decor depict his inner condition, in the manner of the Expressionist painters and scenic designers of the 1920s. This leader of a human rights movement becomes a prisoner of his own persona, and of other people’s expectations, hopes, and needs. He becomes trapped and enslaved by the movement he helped to create. Ultimately he becomes his own torturer.
The oppressive regime that Leopold is fighting is pushing back against him–hard. Subject to unannounced visits from creepy, Stasi-like envoys of the government, Leopold begins to fray as the pressure on him mounts, and ultimately he falls apart in the face of a zugzwang situation in which any move he makes results in catastrophe. And then, Leopold is “rescued” by a deus ex machina designed to continue his torment by failing to offer him any foreseeable resolution: he finds that “the process is the punishment,” as anyone knows who has ever been audited by the IRS, or entangled in a frivolous lawsuit.
Now, even now, as these words are being written, populist movements that dwarf in scale what happened in Prague thirty-three years ago are occurring in Iran, Brazil and China. In Iran, there is a national uprising in support of women’s rights and against tyrannical theocracy. In Brazil, millions of people are demonstrating in cities across the country, preparing to march on the capital Brasilia in numbers expected to rise to the tens of millions. They are protesting what they believe to be a stolen election that, contrary to their constitution, installed a convicted felon as president. In China, millions more are rising up to protest not only China’s draconian “zero Covid” policy, which has forced the lockdown of tens of millions of people in cities like Shanghai, but also the flagrant human rights violations of the Chinese regime itself. A human rights activist, Havel would have sympathized with what these people are going through, having experienced it himself. Largo Desolato is his record of an important moment in history, and paired with the knowledge of what is now happening abroad, furthers our understanding of these events, and prepares us for the possibility of having to live through similar world-historical upheavals ourselves. If history is any indicator, we almost certainly will. And will we be willing to renounce our convictions and even our identities in exchange for avoiding arrest, imprisonment, or worse? This is the question at the heart of the play.
William Conte, Artistic Director