Václav Havel first came to world attention as a playwright. Events and the power of his ideas launched him into the role of dissident, political prisoner, revolutionary, and finally, the President of Czechoslovakia (and later of The Czech Republic). Yet throughout the world-altering events that placed him in the center of history, Havel felt that his essential calling was still the same: he was a man of the theater, a writer of absurdist drama.
Havel was born in 1936 to a wealthy family, yet his privileges were quickly stripped away by the Communist regime that took power after World War II. His family’s property was confiscated and he was forced to attend trade school, continuing his academic studies on his own. After a stint in the army, Havel began his theater career as a stagehand at the ABC Theatre.
From there, he moved to Theatre on the Balustrade, where he saw his work onstage for the first time: first a few comic sketches (Motormorphosis and Ela, Hela, and The Hitch), and then his first full-length production, The Garden Party. That play along with The Memo established his international reputation as a playwright. He briefly thrived during Prague Spring in 1968, a program of reform whose slogan was “socialism with a human face.” While his play The Increased Difficulty of Concentration was playing in Prague, he travelled to New York for the premiere of The Memo (then translated as The Memorandum) at the Public Theater. It was to be his last chance to leave the country for more than 20 years. In Prague, Russian tanks rolled in and with them came a far more repressive regime. Suddenly, Havel found his work banned and himself isolated. He also found himself in legal conflict with the “anti-parasite” laws, which stated that one could be jailed for not working. Havel eventually chose to take a job at a brewery, which he preferred as an alternative to his new isolation.
Now his plays were performed in friend’s living rooms instead of on stage, but their influence was undiminished. They were distributed via samizdat, and a recording of Havel and his friend Landovsky reading the play Audience — a semi-autobiographical account of his time in the brewery — became so popular that people could be heard in cafes quoting it. Essays followed, including his seminal “Power of the Powerless,” which articulated his credo that “living in truth” would contribute to the fall of Czechoslovakia’s “post-totalitarian” government.
His political profile grew when he co-authored Charter 77, a human rights manifesto inspired, in part, by the Helsinki Accords. This soon led to his arrest and imprisonment. He remained in prison for four and a half years, with his only respite being the weekly, tightly proscribed letters to his wife, Olga. Those letters, with coded references to obscure philosophy that Havel included to slip his ideas past the censors, were gathered and published in a book called Letters to Olga.
After his release, Havel continued to be monitored by the police, at times in almost comical ways. During one vacation across Czechoslovakia, the secret police car that was trailing him got stuck in a ditch, and Havel stopped to help. After they were rescued, the police followed him to his friends’ house, arrested him and took him to the local jail for two days before releasing him.
In the meantime his writing continued, with more plays about his alter ego Ferdinand Vaněk, first introduced in Audience, followed by a string of other works on the state of Czechoslovak society, including Largo Desolato and Temptation. Vaněk became so popular that friends used the character in their own plays, a practice that continues to this day. Indeed, there may not have been such a popular and effective representative for the need for political change since Beaumarchais’ Figaro.
By the end of the 1980s, Communism was collapsing. The Berlin Wall fell, and on November 17, 1989, what would be known as Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution began. Havel quickly became its de facto leader. The revolutionaries established their headquarters in The Magic Lantern Theatre. Within two months, the old regime was overthrown, and Havel found himself suddenly, and by his own account reluctantly, in the role of President. In Wenceslas Square, he famously declared “Truth and love must defeat lies and hatred,” and indeed, it seemed at last to be so.
Havel served both as Czechoslovakia’s last president and as The Czech Republic’s first president, when in 1993 Slovakia chose to secede. While in office, he refused to be connected to any political party or movement. Inevitably, he had his detractors as well his supporters. His style as president was unconventional. He surrounded himself with artists even then, having a costume designer create new military uniforms, and asking Frank Zappa to be a political consultant.
After his wife Olga died, he grew ill with lung cancer. Part of his lung was removed, and he was nursed back to health by the actress Dagmar Veškrnová, whom he later married. This too was the cause for some public dissatisfaction, as his first wife was well loved.
Throughout his presidential career, he continued to advocate “living in truth,” that is, finding a way to combine the moral and the political. He helped dissolve the Warsaw Pact, and he was a champion of human rights worldwide.
His work on human rights continued after the presidency, but he also returned to his artistic work. During the 2006 Havel Festival in New York, he revisited his complete works, and soon after he wrote his first new play in 20 years, Leaving, about a man forced to leave political office. A film of Leaving followed, which he directed. In what turned out to be his final work, he took an old dialogue, The Pig, and, in collaboration with Vladimir Morávek, combined it with Smetana’s The Bartered Bride to create a full production for the 2010 Theatre World Brno festival.
He was planning yet another play in December 2012 when he passed away at the age of 75. Three days of mourning were observed in the Czech Republic, and artists and politicians again mixed as both paid tribute to his lasting legacy.
Photo by Alan Pajer