Introduction to The Increased Difficulty of Concentration

The Increased Difficulty of Concentration is what might have been.

It was written at a heady point in Václav Havel’s career. He had had great success with The Garden Party and even greater success with The Memo. Prague Spring had come, and with it the freedom that allowed Havel to travel to New York for a premiere at The Public Theater. So perhaps it is no coincidence that Havel at the time wrote about a man who is juggling demands upon his time: from his abstract philosophical musings, to his women, to the strange pseudo-scientific investigation of self, embodied in the Pazuk.

This does not mean that The Increased Difficulty of Concentration is free from social critique. The so-called scientific theories that led to the creation of the Pazuk echo the language of Communist ideology. But the play also explores formal innovation, using the structure of farce in a way that is unmoored in time, so that a door slammed may signal not only another complication but also another break from linear narrative.

It is also the first appearance of what Havel calls his “hubbub,” a climax consisting of the reiteration of the lines and conflicts that beset the protagonist, a technique he will continue to use in many of his future plays.

All these devices highlight the scattered, overwhelmed protagonist’s attempts to keep his world straight, despite the increasing demands he has created for himself by his ambition and philandering. His high-minded ideas sound empty and bereft of real conviction or content when contrasted with his actions. His final monologue claims that individuality can only be found in the heart, but by that point, it has become doubtful that he can identify what is in his own heart.

It is clear that, even in this work, Havel is interested in the dilemma of living in truth. Here, truth is defined personally. This play satirizes a philosopher who talks about the importance of love but lives a life almost empty of true feeling. Havel uses that same blueprint to satirize hypocritical moralists of a political ilk.

If the Soviets tanks had not rolled in soon after, perhaps Havel would have continued in this more personal vein. Instead, his Vaněk plays soon would place the personal content back into a political context.

Edward Einhorn