A little cinnamon with it


Vaclav Havel’s Leaving, performed at The Wilma Theatre, Philadephlia, 2010

From World Affairs:

No matter how moral, humble, and immune to the temptations of power you are, once you’ve had it, it’s impossible to ever be free of it. It comes to define you as much in its absence as in its presence. The more you have achieved, the higher you have reached, the stronger its grip on you will be. You cannot keep it, at least not in a democracy, and yet psychologically you cannot entirely give it up. For the rest of your life, you are going to be defined not by what you do but by what you did. You are condemned to be an ex-chancellor, ex-secretary, ex-president.

So what do you do? How do you resolve this dilemma so common to former top politicians, retired athletes, and aging movie stars? On the face of it, Leaving is pessimistic about the possibility of a solution. Rieger accedes to becoming a shadow of himself. But there are also smaller, subtler hints at a solution, which though far short of being a universal recipe, could work for at least one individual. Some of them have to do with cinnamon.

When Rieger offers Dick, who is interviewing him for a tabloid paper, a beer, the man asks for a little cinnamon with it. When the same thing happens a few minutes later, the audience is naturally somewhat puzzled. The author’s voiceover comes to our rescue: “The business with the cinnamon: there is no psychological or any other explanation for it whatsoever. Or at least as far as I know there isn’t. For now, let’s just call it a product of pure authorial whimsy, or of my somewhat self-centered delight that I can come up with any harebrained idea at all and the actors will have to play it with a straight face.”

Entertaining as it is, Leaving provokes some uncomfortable questions about its text and its author. Is it self-referential? If all politics is just an absurd farce of musical chairs in which politicians say their interchangeable and ultimately empty lines only to make room for other interchangeable versions of themselves, does that also apply to the author who was once a politician? Can someone whose vision of the world is intrinsically absurd preach to others about conscience, responsibility, and “living in truth”? And if the sacrosanct slogans of the Velvet Revolution can be parodied on stage to the point of making them meaningless kitsch, does that imply a measure of hypocrisy bordering on cynicism in this playwright, both in the play and in real life? It is not an idle question. Hypocrisy and kitsch are something of which Havel has sometimes been accused by his domestic critics.

Havel does not dismiss the question but ponders it, politely and seriously, and then somewhat hesitantly suggests a few considerations rather than a coherent answer. “I am not sure one is capable of reflecting absurdity without having a strong sense of meaning. Absurdity makes sense only against a meaningful background. It is the deeper meaning that is shedding light on the absurdity. There must be a vanish point, a metaphysical horizon if you will where absurdity and meaning merge.”