The implications of an atomic hair-polisher - a discussion about Vaclav Havel's 'Guardian Angel' - to be premiered on Radio Prague on Tuesday

Gerry Turner and Gordon Truefitt

This coming Tuesday we are broadcasting a world premiere here on Radio Prague, the first ever English-language production of Vaclav Havel's Guardian Angel, a radio play, which he wrote in 1968. I'm joined by three people who have a connection with Havel or with the play. Firstly Barbara Day, who was in Prague in the 1960s, knew Havel then and also wrote her dissertation on the work of the Theatre on the Balustrade, where Havel was working at the time. I'm also joined by Paul Wilson, who translated the play for us, and by Gerry Turner, who is one of the actors in our production, has lived in Prague for many years, and has also translated works of Havel in the past.

Barbara Day,  Paul Wilson and Gerry Turner
I'd like to start with you, Paul Wilson. What was it like translating this play?

Paul Wilson: "It was a lot of fun. I worked with my wife Patricia, who is an actress, and we translated it by speaking the parts out loud. It was also nice to get back to working with some of Havel's earlier stuff, because I've translated a lot of his speeches in recent times and some of his longer prose works, and this was short and fun and very acerbic. It was a hoot to do!"

And it must have been quite difficult at times. There are some very bizarre things - like an atomic hair polisher, for example.

PW: "Yes, I think the most difficult thing about translating a play like this is in that it was written in a very specific situation in the run-up to the Prague Spring. There's a sinister note running through the play that is very hard to convey in English, because the nuances of the Czech also reflect the totalitarian atmosphere that he's trying to describe. And we don't have that kind of vocabulary in English. We don't have a vocabulary with those associations, so it was very hard to get that sinister aspect"

How would you summarize the plot in a few sentences?

PW: "There are two characters. One is a playwright Vavak, who is obviously someone like Havel, who has had a great deal of success in his own sphere. He's visited by someone who at first appears as a mysterious, very importunate stranger, who makes all kind of demands on him. It's very clear, I think, to the Czech listener, that this person is someone who is working for the cultural department of the secret police, and he's come to deliver some sinister message to the playwright. The message that he delivers to him comes in the course of the play."

Here is a short extract from the beginning of the play when the visitor, Mr Machon, has arrived, and he's getting to know his unwitting host, Mr Vavak:

MACHON: How do you do. Mr.Vavak?

VAVAK: Yes, that's me. How do you do?

MACHON: Ah, wonderful, I'm at the right place. May I come in?

VAVAK: Of course - of course.

(Sound of door closing and footsteps.)

This way, please - now - let me take your coat. You can leave that suitcase here -

MACHON: I'll just take it with me. Do you have some slippers? I've got a new pair of shoes and they're killing me --

VAVAK: Of course - you can have mine.

MACHON: And what are you going to wear?

VAVAK: I'll just wear my socks. Would you mind if I asked -

MACHON: Is this the living room?

VAVAK: Yes. Do you mind if I ask --

MACHON: And that over there?

VAVAK: The bedroom.

MACHON: And there?

VAVAK: My study.

MACHON: Nice apartment. Can we sit in your study?

VAVAK: If you'd like. It's a bit of a mess.

MACHON: I don't mind. A cozy mess is better than ordered discomfort.

Gerry Turner
Gerry Turner, you play Mr Vavak in the play, who is a playwright, visited by this strange and menacing character, Mr Machon. Obviously Vavak is very like Havel himself. Even his name Vavak isn't so very different from Vaclav, is it?

Gerry Turner: "I suppose we've come to see other sides of Vaclav Havel in the last fifteen years, which were not obvious to us earlier. That's true as far as I'm concerned. If this is a 'confession', which in a sense it is, it's interesting to listen to it now in the light of his career. There are features of the character in the play which are far from attractive. He's extremely gullible - the audience has twigged from the start who this visitor is, but of course the comedy of the play is that there we are for thirty minutes, waiting for the character of Vavak to realize his situation."

So how did you find playing that role?

GT: "I found it atrociously hard. I think it's one of the hardest roles I've ever played."

There's a strange lack of hope, isn't there, there's no redemption, is there? You're this character who cannot see beyond the end of his own nose.

GT: "The situation is utterly surrealistic. Secret policemen don't tend to come in and sell you hair-polishers..."

Machon comes in with a present for Vavak, which is an atomic hair-polisher...

GT: " ... which is a completely nonsense situation. It's surrealism. How does one react, how does one play this? To play it naturalistically is very, very hard."

VAVAK: (Thinks) A new kind of vacuum cleaner?


VAVAK: (Thinks) A washing machine?


VAVAK: (Thinks) An automatic duster?

MACHON: You're getting warm!

VAVAK: I give up.

MACHON: An atomic hair polisher.

VAVAK: I beg your pardon?

MACHON: An atomic hair polisher.

VAVAK: An atomic hair polisher?

MACHON: Yes. An atomic hair polisher.

VAVAK: I've never heard of such a thing.

MACHON: Of course you haven't. It's an experimental prototype. My brother made it. He's a mechanic.

Barbara, how do you see Machon?

Barbara Day: "Well, I'd like to challenge the assumption that the audience, the listener, will know that this man is a 'fizl' - a secret policeman, because I think that for an English-speaking audience, and even for a younger Czech audience, this isn't going to be clear. We're living in a completely different age now. And it reminds me a little bit of Stephen King's play 'Misery', in which the central character, a novelist, is kept prisoner by one of his fans. There's very much that way that the artist is consumed by his fan, or somehow even destroyed by the very people who profess to admire his work. And I think that is much more clear in today's climate."

MACHON: [...] I simply have to lend you a hand.

VAVAK: Lend me a hand?

MACHON: The fact of the matter is I've decided to do everything within my powers to help you. I know I'm taking a risk but, forgive me for saying so, I simply can't leave you in this situation.

VAVAK: I beg your pardon but am I in some kind of situation? I not aware of anything --

MACHON: My friend! I think I've made my relationship to you quite clear, so why are you trying to make out that you don't know what's going on.

VAVAK: I'm sorry, but I really - in any case, I'm not certain that even if I were in some kind of situation that, after everything you've done for me, I'd still deserve your -

MACHON: Why these interminable scruples and apologies? You artists always have to have compunctions about things!

There is one paradox, isn't there, in that in terms of the dynamic of the play, Vavak is desperately boring and Machon is the entertainer, he's the one who the person who hears the play, can engage with, enjoy and relish, isn't he?

PW: "He's like the Devil in 'Paradise Lost'. He's more interesting than God. The same dynamic exists in the play 'Audience', Havel's one-act play, where Vanek is working in a brewery and the brewmaster is the kind of diabolical character, who really engages the audience. So I think this is a similar sort of thing. But I think there's another dimension to this play too, and if you look at it historically, he's describing in great detail the kind of censorship that existed in that regime in the 1960s, in which every writer had a kind of "Doppelgänger", whose job it was to follow him very closely, to know the writer better than the writer knew himself, and then to use that knowledge as a way of manipulating the writer."

Barbara, you were in Prague in the 1960s, around the time when this play was written. How much insight can we get into the play from thinking of it in the context of the theatre of the 60s in Prague and the Theatre on the Balustrade, where Havel was working?

BD: Well, I was just thinking that there are similarities - and Havel must have been writing the two plays at much the same time - with 'The Increased Difficulty of Concentration'. You have this very strange and rather sinister machine, the 'Puzuk' in 'The Increased Difficulty of Concentration', and that was produced at the Theatre on the Balustrade at just about the same time, 68 and 69. Then there was Milan Kundera's play, later called 'Ptakovina' - 'Cock-Up', but at that time running under the name 'Two Years, Two Weddings', and a similar theme - again at the Theatre on the Balustrade in 1969, with a similar surrealist, sinister quality to it."

And Havel has always been a great admirer of Kafka as well, and there's one Kafka story with this machine for punishing 'In the Penal Colony', and when you hear this play there similarities as well.

PW: "I'm just wondering if there's a symbolic meaning to that particular machine. It's almost like a brainwashing machine, in a funny way. To me, when I revisited the play in my mind, it seemed to me that the machine - the atomic hair-polisher - which is so absurd and Monty Pythonesque, is actually a stand-in for the kind of mental constructions that the ideology forced onto people, assuring them that it would make them better human beings - in actual fact being quite toxic and dangerous in its effects."

MACHON: It's not complicated at all. What's the voltage here?

VAVAK: Two twenty.

MACHON: I thought as much. You see the polisher runs on 16,000 volts so I took the liberty of bringing along a small transformer.

VAVAK: How thoughtful of you. You think of everything.

MACHON: We plug it into the wall here, and we plug the other end into the polisher and we turn it on here.

VAVAK: You're making me feel very guilty. You shouldn't have gone to all this trouble. How can I ever pay you back?

MACHON: Your pleasure is my reward. Now d'you see this bit here?

VAVAK: Yes. It looks like a crusader's helmet.

MACHON: This is the so-called central accelerator. You slide your head into this opening before you start the polishing process. But before you do that, of course, you have to wash your hair. You turn the accelerator on here and you adjust it here and then it starts the polishing.

VAVAK: What's the principle behind it?

MACHON: It's quite simple: a secondary electrical current is produced here and it passes through here into your hair which becomes polarized in such a way that your hair forms a conductive loop around your head. Through this contact point B, the primary current of 16,000 volts is admitted into this circuit --

VAVAK: But that will kill me! MACHON: As long as you don't wriggle your head excessively inside the accelerator, you won't come to any harm. There is a layer of air between the polarized hair and your skin which acts as a perfect insulator. And besides that, the secondary current, even although it has a high voltage, has a tiny intensity. You remember Ohm's law, don't you?

Gerry Turner and Gordon Truefitt
Now, this is very much a play of its time, of the late 60s in Czechoslovakia. Do you think, in all honesty, that a play like this still has something to say to today's audience?

BD: "I think the quality that I mentioned earlier, that it can be read not just as a secret policeman, but also as a fan - as a writer and artist really being forced to do work he doesn't want to do."

PW: "This is a question for a longer discussion. I think it also applies to Havel's other plays as well. I've seen productions of his one-act plays which were written in a very specific situation and they resonate according to the quality of the acting. I find this play, as a play about a relationship between a sinister manipulator and an innocent playwright, quite translatable, and quite relevant to today. I don't know if there's a specific thing you can apply it to, a specific social situation, but I think that the tendency to want to control writers is still with us. It didn't die with the regime."

GT: "I was struggling with a chapter of Saint Luke's Gospel today, and there are points at which - unless you know the realities of Roman Palestine - there is obviously something that we're missing. But nonetheless there is a very powerful message coming out of it."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.