Czechs and Tech

Bennett Fisher talks about his upcoming Theater Pub show, “The Memorandum.” Be sure to join us on Tuesday, May 15th at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale for this one night only event! 

I’m intrigued by difference in the sort of plays that become popular in each culture. In the states, we seem to have collectively come to the conclusion that the domestic, family drama is the quintessential form for the great American plays, but even if we can identify those recurring patterns between Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, Curse of the Starving Class, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Glass Menagerie, it’s hard for us to pin down what makes them specifically American. Having spent a lot of time with Czech plays, I have begun to identify a kind of pattern there as well – plays that revolve around what happens when innovation backfires.

The most celebrated and widely referenced play from Czech theater history is Karel Capek’s Rossums Universal Robots, better known as R.U.R. Capek coined the term “robot” in R.U.R. to describe an android, servant class. Terminator, The Matrix, Blade Runner – pretty much every film where the machines decide to stop obeying humans – are all derivative from Capek’s play: R.U.R.’s plot revolves around the robots gaining a deeper consciousness, revolting against their human masters, and building a new society. There are far fewer explosions in R.U.R. compared to The Matrix, but the play is the first piece of literature to really probe the difference between man and machine and ask whether something artificial can possess human qualities. Moreover, it is a story of progress misguided. The designers build the robots with the purest intentions and, almost unintentionally, become slaveholders. Instead of empowering humanity, the robots rebel against their creators. Each new solution only seeks to exasperate the problem, and we leave the play deeply skeptical about our own capacity to predict what will lead to progress or disaster.

In the same way that Arthur Miller follows in the wake of Eugene O’Neill, picking up the mantle of the family drama and examining it with his own, distinct literary lens, so too does Havel follow Capek’s lead with his work. Like R.U.R., the conflict in The Memorandum is fueled by the character’s desire to create a new, better system. The more fervently the perceived solution is pursued, the more entrenched and unsolvable the problems become.

I like that the play feels so rooted in the Czech dramatic aesthetic, but, just like Miller and O’Neill, the aspects of the play that really resonate are not the things that tie it to an individual culture or specific time, but to all cultures and all times. In an era when text messaging and Facebook seem to contribute to our sense of isolation more than they make us feel connected, Havel’s scathing rejection of progress for progress’ sake seems especially relevant. All the monotony and inefficiency of working in an office are rendered spot on. There are the mounds of meaningless paperwork, meetings where nothing of importance is discussed, joyless workplace birthday parties, obsessive conversations over what and where to eat, and, of course, all the unbearable types of coworkers – the backstabbing subordinate who wants the promotion, the overly-chipper manager, the insufferable self-styled intellectual, the horndog, the assistant who can’t be bothered to assist, the weird quiet guy, and, of course, the one person who seems genuinely good and likable, but who is certainly doomed.

Fair warning, if you come Tuesday night, you might be inclined to call in sick on Wednesday. And perhaps not just because you had more beers than you might on a weeknight.

Don’t miss “The Memorandum” in a one night only staged reading on Tuesday, May 15th at 8 PM. The show is free, with a suggested donation at the door. Get there early because we tend to fill up!

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