wed 19/09/2018

Václav Havel, 1936-2011 | reviews, news & interviews

Václav Havel, 1936-2011

Václav Havel, 1936-2011

An encounter with the dissident playwright and leader of the Velvet Revolution

A life lived in truth: Václav Havel

In Rock’n’Roll, the play by Tom Stoppard, two characters haunt the stage without actually appearing on it. One of them, Syd Barrett, absconded from Pink Floyd to lead the life of a hermit. The other, Václav Havel, gave up the life of an internationally acclaimed, domestically banned playwright to become a head of state. Only one of them was in the audience for the premiere at the Royal Court. And it wasn’t the hermit.

A few days later, I had the great privilege of interviewing the dissident playwright who took the Czech Republic into NATO. The accidental president cut an unpresidential figure as he nursed a beer in the Royal Court’s underground bar, his once stocky frame much diminished by illness, his manner shy and quiet. Havel understood English well enough, and spoke it too, but he chose to mutter his half of our conversation in Czech while Paul Wilson, long the translator of his prose works, interpreted.

I feel that I am somewhat a child of the 1960s

Václav Havel was from a wealthy bourgeois family who once owned the whole Prague apartment block which he grew up in. Havel was initially a poet, but he gave it up out of a reluctance to write directly about himself. Drama, he wrote, is "a genre in which the persona of the author is best concealed". He dashed off his first play with a friend in the late 1950s while doing military service. “It was a kind of joke,” he told me. “Back then, in the army, they gave a lot of support to so-called 'cultural activity', and anyone who took part in a theatre troupe was relieved of certain military duties. So a friend and I wrote a kind of socialist, but critical, play. In the end, they saw through us, saw that we were making fun of them, and the play was suppressed, but in the beginning, we did it just for fun. But still, I have to say that this happened roughly at a time when I had already begun to think that I might write plays.”

By the period of so-called normalisation after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, several of Havel’s best-known plays – oblique, absurdist commentaries on life under communism such as The Garden Party (1963) and The Memorandum (1965) – had already been staged. “The 1960s is known as a time that had its own atmosphere,” he said, “its own charge of energy, which made the decade very different from the Fifties, or the Seventies, the Eighties, or any other decade. There were many reasons for this, among them the fact that a new generation was starting to take part in public life, one that was not marked by the Second World War and everything connected with that. But it has a lot of other causes as well. And it was in this atmosphere that I was given the opportunity to start my artistic, theatrical and public life, and the whole atmosphere of the time, naturally, influenced me and left its mark on me. Naturally, my visits to the United States and Western Europe were very important, because it was at a time when I was first able to travel; then the year 1968, which was the outcome of all the previous events in our country, and so I feel that I am somewhat a child of the 1960s.”

Then came 1968 and the ousting of President Dubček. With no further access to a theatre, he wrote a trilogy of one-act plays for private performance about a non-conformist character much like himself called Ferdinand Vanĕk. The first – Audience (1975) – was a semi-autobiographical play about an intellectual who, like its author, had been reduced to working in a brewery. Like all his post-1968 plays, they had their first performances in the West. In this country, Havel was particularly supported by the RSC and the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. (Conspirators at the Orange Tree pictured above right.)

In the 1970s Havel turned increasingly from plays to essay-writing. In Living in Truth Faber anthologised his essays in which, with a combination of moral rectitude and Svejkian obduracy, he logged his views on the world about him, and defined the nature of his identity within it. Most wide-ranging and definitive of these was "The Power of the Powerless" (1978), in which he outlined what it meant to live in truth in the Soviet empire. "There is an invisible line you cross," he wrote, "beyond which they cease to treat you as a writer who happens to be a concerned citizen and begin talking of you as a 'dissident' who almost incidentally... happens to write plays as well."

Havel was imprisoned as one of the authors and signatories of Charter 77, a document encouraging the communist government to adhere to its own laws. His years in prison from 1979 to 1982 yielded  Letters to Olga, a compendium of  correspondence to his first wife. He was subjected to censorship of an absurd, Kafkaesque arbitrariness: he was informed that in his one creative outlet, a weekly letter to Olga, he could write only about himself. He turned the brief into a Hamlet's nutshell, with the walls of which he discoursed on an infinite variety of topics. As well as logging his various bodily malfunctions, or mundanely telling Olga what to include in his next monthly package, or analytically listing his good and bad moods, he took the opportunity to compose a series of essays on politics and philosophy which, to confound the censor, adopted a highly obfuscatory style. Tender billets doux they were not. Alongside Living in Truth, they form as robust a literary monument as his collected plays.

After his release from prison he wrote two plays – Largo Desolato (1984) and Temptation (1985), a riff on the Faust legend – with uncharacteristic speed. There was only one more play, Redevelopment (1987), an anti-autocratic allegory which had its world premiere abroad in the same month as the Velvet Revolution swept its author into office.

While Havel steered Czechoslovakia through its early days of democracy, there was a rush to perform his now unbanned works. Apart from one secret performance of The Beggar’s Opera in a pub in 1975, he had not seen any of his work performed in any language for 20 years. First up was a star-studded production of The Garden Party at the National Theatre in Prague. “To tell you the truth I had a rather ambiguous reaction, because I realised the extent to which that kind of poetics had fallen into disuse in the Czech theatre; it was as though, suddenly, they were not accustomed to it, and the plays were badly performed, in a way that betrayed a lack of understanding for the style. But then it began to change.”

It was an odd expression of my need to bring order to what I will leave behind me

Although the plays dried up, he insisted that the burden of office did not stifle all forms of creativity. “I had no time to write plays, but it can’t be said that I was denied any opportunity to be creative, because I tried to channel my creativity into my speeches, which I wrote myself and I struggled with them every weekend and there are whole volumes of them, and they, too, are products of my creativity, though very different from plays.” Two years after leaving the presidency he also went on to write To the Castle and Back, a quirky memoir which he described as “an odd collage combining my own journal entries and documents from my presidency. I felt I owed the public some report on the last 20 years.”

In a book-length interview published in English in 1990 as Disturbing the Peace, Havel said, “I dream of old age as a time of rest, when nothing more will be expected of me.” Thanks to illness, that time of rest never quite happened. The complete plays were published “with a lot of financial support from me and on my initiative. It was an odd expression of my need to leave my affairs in order, to bring order to what I will leave behind me.” There was one more play, Leaving, premiered in 2007.

At the end of our converstion I proffered my copy of Living in Truth and asked President Havel if he would autograph it. He obligingly inscribed his name in round flowery letters with a thick blue felt tip, then produced from his inside pocket a red felt tip and, under his name, carefully drew a heart.

I dream of old age as a time of rest, when nothing more will be expected of me

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