Jacques and His Master
16 October 2021
Milan Kundera (1929), one of Europe’s most famous contemporary novelists, wrote his play Jacques and His Master (1981) in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, during the period when he was unable to publish his work because of his political views. He responded to a theatre’s invitation to write an adaptation of F.M. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot under a pen name, and ended up adapting, or rather writing his own stage version of Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, a novel by the famous French Enlightenment writer Denis Diderot (1722-1787).
In his preface to the play, Kundera gave several reasons for his decision, explaining that he found in Diderot’s unusual novel a condensed form of the essential elements of modern Western thinking: intelligence, humour and imagination. Reason and doubt, playfulness, the relativity of all that is human are essential defining elements of the Western mind in its search for wisdom and beauty. Moreover, Kundera was fascinated by Diderot’s narrative technique, especially the way he absorbed the Irish-English writer Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) and even partially incorporated his epistolary novel Tristram Shandy in his novel. Stern’s and Diderot’s narrative technique was novel and most unusual. Kundera develops it in a different genre: his two central characters keep asking themselves »self-referentially« whether they are »conceived« well, and, even more so, whether they themselves are to take blame for their own fate or perhaps everything is determined somewhere high up above, in some wider and greater scheme. The characters in the play try to tell their mostly love stories and keep interrupting each other, interfering with each other’s stories; they experience rapture of love and carnal passion, they cheat and are cheated on, scheme and get revenge, and end up being punished for their own (and other people’s) mistakes. And yet, in Kundera’s play, they are also redeemed, as this is, after all, theatre, where the essential insight is that one must always carry on, happily or unhappily, even when one does not know which direction to take.
The following features make this distinctly postmodernist play surprisingly original and witty, one might even say »postdramatic«: the use of several distancing procedures; narration which is turning into action and back into narrative again; the characters entering their own and other people’s stories and freely stepping out of their roles or take on others, depending on the situation. Obviously, one can read the play as a critique of the regime in which it was written as it highlights the issue of betrayal, the prevalence of bad poets, rewriting of history, alienation, living with a corked-up mouth, the use of platitudes, etc., These are barbs that have, unfortunately, not been blunted in the half-century since the play was written.