U of C succumbs to Temptation

Our culture abounds these days with dystopic visions of modern society. Yet the dystopic visions offered by Radiohead or Fight Club or Office Space have the uncanny ability of showing a vision of the world as grey, dreary drudgery without simply affirming your psychotic whisper, "yes, everything is pure shit." Fortunately for the fate of your belief in life, this same ability is at the heart of the University of Calgary’s drama department’s latest production, Temptation, by Vaclav Havel.

Directed by David van Belle, it is the story of a bureaucrat’s deal with the devil and is a contemporary take on the Faust story. The story takes place within Havel’s vision of the repressive institution, an institute whose purpose and importance, while nebulous, is to be defended at all costs. Think of buildings where form is function, think of offices and the classrooms at the U of C. In order to escape the institution, Henry Foustka strikes a deal with the monstrous and repulsive Fistula. It is a sinister bargain that allows him entry into a world of immense spiritual power at a cost that Fistula is sure to extract.

Havel, now president of the Czech Republic, was an imprisoned political dissident when he wrote Temptation in 1985. Historically, it was written at a low point in Czech history. During the later periods of socialism in Eastern Europe and after the Russian invasion, a long period of social stagnation set in when hopes for reform essentially meant hopes for economic changes.

"As long as people have a good economy they are happy. Essentially what the government said to the people of this time was: ‘if you obey what we say you will eat,’" explains van Belle.

This blackmail helps explain the characters’ gestures of obedience.

"The characters have very formal relations and these are written into the dialogue of the play; there are repetitions and echoes as characters simply repeat what the others have said," says van Belle.

But this formality is made absurd by its fanatical adherence. Absurdity is a major motif as Havel was influenced by theatre movements such as the Theatre of the Absurd and philosophers such as Heidegger.  Seeing the play can help connect some of the more current dystopias to this sort of historical background and bridge the division between high and low culture.

The absurdity also keeps Temptation from being one long weepy lament of hell-on-earth-for-now-and-ever-after. As van Belle notes, "it’s a cautionary tale; once you have found an alternate way, what do you do with it?"

The absurdity of this theatre is its idea that formal relations are based on nothing. But this pessimism is tempered by the political content of his play. Life may not be nothing, but the fascist political conditions that humans live in are a specific human illness bred by institutions in both Eastern Europe and North America. 

"As Havel has said, you don’t see these types of formal relations in any animal but certain humans," van Belle states.

Temptation runs from Nov. 29 until Dec. 9.

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