Always Never the Same: Dramatic Temporality in Havel’s Vernisáž

Cole M. Crittenden, Princeton University

Vernisáž, the second play in Václav Havel’s “Vaněk” trilogy, is, like much of his work, a satirical piece that focuses on the senselessness that prevails in social interactions within a constrained society. Drawing on Absurdism, Havel foregrounds the repetitiveness, miscommunication, and semantic emptiness in a politically captive Czechoslovakia. But Havel is not only a political writer, and the uncertainties he depicts have relevance beyond the borders of political art. Like other Modern and Postmodern playwrights before him, Havel writes plays that show, among other things, an awareness of the experience of time, not only as a theme, but also as a representational problem in drama.

This paper will first limn the tradition of meta-temporal drama that Havel draws on, showing how Vernisáž is influenced not only by Absurdist playwrights such as Beckett, but also by Anton Čexov, who made the way characters regard time an important aspect of characterization. Havel’s play will then be discussed as a work that actively exposes time as a dramatic structuring device and questions the validity of any overarching systematic model of time (in much the same way the play subverts the overarching political model at work). Drama is a genre whose element is time, and the physical embodiment of performance that is culturally tied to dramatic form will be invoked as a necessary component of the literary text. As will be shown, the haunting of the literary text by theatrical enactment (and vice-versa) creates a complicated system of intersecting time schemes, and one of Havel’s many achievements in Vernisáž is the exploration of this intersection. The circularity of the play, a hallmark of Havel’s drama in general, will be examined as a metaphor for the entire dramatic process, in which no reading is self-sufficient and no production the production. Repetition, something on which all plays are predicated, becomes the focus of Havel’s play. But even as Havel relies on repetition, he also denies its authenticity, which is forever compromised because of time’s irreversibility.