In 1977 while visiting the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakian-born playwright Tom Stoppard was detained by Communist authorities for attempting to take a petition, authored by Russian intellectuals, out of the country to Amnesty International. That real-life event and Stoppard’s friendship with Czech playwright and freedom fighter Václav Havel form the starting point for Stoppard’s play, ‘Professional Foul.’
The play concerns a philosophical colloquium (an academic conference or seminar) held in 1977 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. A Cambridge professor named Anderson accepts an invitation to speak on ethics at the conference. Anderson hopes to skip out on part of the colloquium to attend the England-Czechoslovakia World Cup soccer qualifying match. Pavel Hollar, a former student of Anderson’s -based on then-imprisoned Czech playwright Václav Havel- visits Anderson at his hotel.
Hollar has written a thesis arguing that “the ethics of the State can only be the ethics of the individual writ large.” Hollar’s thesis is loosely based on Charter 77, a pro-democracy statement written by Havel and others, smuggled out of communist Czechoslovakia. Hollar hopes that his thesis will gain worldwide support for his democratic movement. The authoritarian Czech regime would consider such a document a political crime. Hollar asks Anderson to smuggle his doctoral thesis out of the country.
Professor Anderson refuses Hollar’s request to sneak the document out of Czechoslovakia because “having accepted their hospitality I cannot in all conscience start smuggling … you know … it’s just not ethical.” A disappointed Hollar asks Anderson to hold on to the document overnight as Hollar might be searched after leaving Anderson’s room. Heavy-handed and unethical tactics by Czech authorities investigating his involvement with Hollar caused Anderson to miss attending the football game.
While dealing with the unscrupulous police, Anderson hears on the radio that a Czech player has a breakaway and is about to score a goal on the English team. An English player, Broadbent, fouls the breakaway player, preventing the goal. Broadbent’s action is considered a “professional foul,” a deliberate and strategic violation of game rules and good sportsmanship committed to keeping the opposition from scoring.
Anderson reconsiders Hollar’s situation and then goes on to violate his own personal ethics and commit his own professional foul by arranging to have the thesis smuggled out of communist Czechoslovakia.
‘Professional Foul’ asks us to consider the meaning of our own- possibly abstract- ethics when surrounded by an unethical authoritarian regime gone power mad.
Watch the Play on youtube at this link https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6DEE570E1AD3E6F9
Thanks, and a tip of the hat to By Екатерина Лаут – https://www.soccer.ru/galery/1055391/photo/733388, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70291193 for the image.