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“The Ptydepe Word Meaning ‘Wombat’ Has 319 Letters” An Information-Age View of Technology and Satire in the Works of Václav Havel E. Bert Wallace Motormorphosis, a sketch written during 1960 and 1961 by a young Václav Havel, was written as one part of a threeact evening of absurdist cabaret called Autostop (or Hitchhiking). In Havel’s contribution a group called “The Enemies of Motorism” gathers to hear a lecture by the renowned Professor Macek, director of the Motormorphological Institute of the Second Faculty of the Polyclinic. The meeting’s Facilitator,1 obviously having little sense of what’s going on, opens the evening by insisting on creating an “informal atmosphere” while the professor feebly attempts to begin his lecture. Eventually, after a scolding from the Facilitator for procrastinating, the professor enlightens us about his field: professor. Motormorphosis is, essentially, the phenomenon of pathological processes caused by psychoneurological problems which result in the slow and general transformation of a human into a car. . . . First the human skin self-polyurethanes. This is followed by the pneumatization of the human feet into tires, followed by the brakation of the human hands, followed by the carboratorization of the lungs, and the pistonization of the stomach. The motor muscles stiffen, bones transform into the chassis—at the same time, the function of the brain gradually disintegrates, up to the moment [of] motormortality. facilitator. Isn’t he sweet!2 The sketch, though heavily rewritten and restructured by Ivan Vyskocil, was produced in Prague in 1961 at the Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo na Zabradli), a force in the mala divadla (“small theatre”) move- 104 E . B E R T W A L L A C E ment. It has been suggested that without the mala divadla, the Czech Revolution of 1990 could not have happened.3 I will not join the considerable throng examining the overtly political importance of Havel’s work.4 Nor will I linger too long on Havel’s existential treatment of Soviet-style bureaucracy (as in The Garden Party) or attempt to illuminate his (regrettably) nontheatrical writings of the last twenty years. I do suggest that, from his earliest through his most recent plays, Havel shows an interest in the comic possibilities of unchecked fascination with and unwarranted faith in technology as a means to human perfection and social progress. Specifically, machines of varying descriptions in Motormorphosis, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, The Memorandum , and Redevelopment are employed to contemplate the “crisis of modernity” at the heart of Havel’s plays.5 Furthermore, this recurring theme will be shown as a factor in the relevance of these cold war plays to young, modern audiences. The 2006 Havel Festival in New York produced “for the first time anywhere the complete plays of Václav Havel,” including the world premiere of Motormorphosis, newly translated by Carol Rocamora and never before produced as originally written.6 In Motormorphosis Havel deals explicitly with consumerism and technological fascination, leading ultimately to dehumanizing transformations clearly influenced by early exposure to Kafka and Ionesco.7 Though those gathered to hear the lecture are “Enemies of Motorism,” they can’t help but be fascinated by the machines they ostensibly loathe. One speaks of his hatred of all things automotive, all the while using the language of cars: “I’m moving full-speed ahead to the future . . . er, walking full-speed ahead, that is.” Another says he hates cars, but “only the driving part.” He’s a mechanic who can think of nothing but disassembling and repairing the machines. Yet another has an ill-defined feminist objection to cars: “I’m here to keep an eye on the men.” As Professor Macek describes all the various eponymous syndromes relating to the disease (“Macek Vibration ,” “Macek automotorhypnosis,” and so forth), the audience quickly moves from a theoretical objection to cars to an actual enthrallment with the motormorphic process. As in Rhinoceros, they all ultimately transform into the objects that initially disgusted them. The production consisted entirely of Czech-style marionettes, the transformations rendered at once surreal and quite literal.8 The sketch is just that—a sketch, not a fully realized play. Rocamora reports that Vyskocil recognized this and...


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pp. 103-109
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