13) Václav Havel, master of the (political) Theatre of the Absurd
At the start of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Václav Havel was a 53-year-old playwright, essayist, and political dissident whose works had not been staged publically in Czechoslovakia since his blacklisting after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968. While the late president is revered worldwide as a stalwart champion of human rights, at heart the unwitting “philosopher king” was a dramaturg. Havel often said he wanted nothing more than to be left in peace to write. In this edition of The Czech Books You Must Read, we look back at his literary legacy.
‘Writers in this country are expected to produce more than just readable books. The idea that a writer is a nation’s conscience has its logic and tradition here. This tradition continues in the totalitarian system and acquires a special flavour. The written word acquires some extra ‘radioactivity’. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be locking us up for it.
‘I confess that sometimes I feel like screaming, “I don’t want to play the part of a nation’s conscience. I only want to do what other writers do – tell the truth”. Or, “You cannot expect hope to be delivered to you by some professional hope suppliers – you must look for it inside yourselves”.
‘But, at the last moment, I hold my scream, swallow it, and remind myself of what I was once told: “Man’s real trial is not in fulfilling the task he gave himself but in fulfilling the role given to him by fate.” It’s hard to say what fate we brought upon ourselves.’
– Václav Havel, there, in an interview with the BBC that aired in September 1986. At the time, of course, no one could have imagined that the “dissident playwright” would, a few years later, become Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president. Or that Havel would be compelled to remain the “nation’s conscience”, albeit as a writer of political speeches, not plays, for nearly two more decades.
Havel was born in 1936 into a wealthy, cultured family. His maternal grandfather was a Czechoslovak ambassador; his paternal grandfather, an architect, designed Lucerna Palace; his father, a property developer, built the Barrandov Terraces overlooking the Vltava River, next to the now famous film studios, founded by Havel’s uncle.
The communist coup d’état of February 1948 brought an end to the family’s privileged position. Instead of pursuing his dream to study filmmaking at university, in the early 1950s Havel toiled away as a chemistry lab apprentice, while studying at night school and writing poetry, contributing to the literary magazine Květen.
In 1959, after two years of compulsory military service with an engineering unit in České Budějovice, where he also acted and wrote his first stage play, Havel found work as a stagehand at Prague’s ABC Theatre and the Theatre on the Balustrade. By the mid-sixties, he was writing his own plays rather than moving around sets and scenery.
Carol Rocamora of New York University is the author of Acts of Courage: Václav Havel’s Life in the Theatre, and an expert on his plays. She spoke with Radio Prague some years back about the Theatre of the Absurd tradition Havel was working in when he wrote his first two full-length plays, The Garden Party (1963) and The Memorandum (1965), while in his late twenties.
“Havel was very strongly influenced, and he is the first to say this, by Beckett and Ionesco. Of course, those works were banned in Prague at the time. But fortunately, Havel and his friends, the ‘36ers’, who hung out at the Café Slavia, sat at a table and at the adjacent table were poets of an earlier generation.
“They brought in smuggled, banned copies of Beckett and Ionesco translated from the French to the Czech. In addition they brought in Kafka translated from the German to the Czech, ironically, and gave it to these younger poets and playwrights, so that Havel had a taste of Beckett and Ionesco and loved their work.
“You might say that the aesthetic, the sensibility of The Garden Party was Kafka meets Ionesco. The audience absolutely loved it. And they said, this is not Theatre of the Absurd, this is realism, this is Czech life as it is.”
Michael Žantovský, author of the biography Havel: A Life, was 14 years old when The Garden Party – in which a young official rises swiftly by eliminating every department he works for – was first staged in Prague. He saw it some seven or eight times, and recalls the electrifying effect the play had on audiences.
“It was a revelation – nothing short of it. It was two hours of revelations about the absurdity of the system we were living in, and extremely entertaining and funny at the same time. It impressed and affected me and many people in my generation. So much so that we knew the play by heart and could quote lines from it conversation – and had enormous fun doing it.”
Two years later, Havel wrote The Memorandum, a transparent satirical take on the Orwellian-style newspeak he so loathed, and the communist system itself. It featured a formal, artificial language called “Ptydepe” imposed by a central bureaucracy for use by employees kept busy doing nothing much at all. Carol Rocamora again:
“Ptydepe was actually a made-up language that Havel and his brother Ivan – like Václav, a philosopher – made up together as a joke. Memorandum is a wonderful play about a director of some mysterious institute. Of course, we never know what it is or where it is, Kafka-style.
“The director [Mr Gross] comes into his office one day and is given a memorandum by his secretary [Hana] and finds it’s in a language that he doesn’t understand…”
- Good morning, Mr Gross.
- Oh, good morning, Hana.
- Oh, say, Hana…
- Yes, Mr Gross?
- Can you tell me by any chance what this is?
- Oh, this is a very important office memorandum, Mr Gross.
- Is it? It looks to me rather like a hodgepodge of entirely haphazard groups of letters!
- It’s written in Ptydepe, you see.
- In what?
- In Ptydepe.
- And what is Ptydepe, may I ask?
- It’s a new language which is being introduced into our organisation.
- I’d better go and get the memo…
- There’s a new language – I don’t remember having been informed!
- They must have forgotten to tell you…
“And the secretary says, ‘It’s the new institutional language we’re now required to speak. And, by the way, you have to write all your memoranda henceforth in Ptydepe’. Says Mr Gross, ‘How can I do that, I don’t know how to speak it?’ Says the secretary, ‘No worry, we’ll send you to Ptydepe classes. But first you have to write a memorandum in Ptydepe, requesting that you can take a course to learn Ptydepe.’ Hence the absurdism.”
‘On the Theme of an Opposition’
The Garden Party and The Memorandum were produced at a time when Czechoslovak society was enjoying a gradual relaxing of restrictive measures, including on censorship, freedom of speech and travel, imposed by hardliner Stalinists under Moscow’s direction in the previous decade.
In January 1968, when Alexander Dubček became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, he took the effort much further, famously setting the country on a course of economic and political reforms towards creating “socialism with a human face”.
For his part, Havel never believed true reform was possible, and in an article that seminal year titled “On the Theme of an Opposition,” advocated ending single-party rule. He was not yet 32 years old, when, in the wee hours of 21 August 1968, Soviet-led forces arrived to forcibly crush the Prague Spring reforms.
That very afternoon, after speaking to Dubček, Havel wrote the first of many commentaries he would broadcast clandestinely, from the town of Liberec. He appealed to his fellow citizens to engage in peaceful protests while finding ways to resist the occupation and seek justice.
“Friends, other minor regional, district and local collaborators may soon appear in your area. They will say we must be ‘realistic’, that if they do not take up certain functions, they will be taken over by even worse people from the ranks of the occupiers. They will pretend to be the saviours of the nation. Show your contempt, expel them from your community, demand they be prosecuted for treason…”
As a result of such activities, Havel was blacklisted, publicly vilified and banned from publishing and staging his beloved theatre plays. His work would be performed abroad, though, and in the living rooms of fellow Czechoslovak dissidents, and distributed as samizdat.
Banned: a very ‘fruitful’ time
Jitka Sloupová, the long-time literary agent of Václav Havel, spoke to Radio Prague in an interview a few days after his death at age 75, in December 2011, about his body of work, and how it changed when he became an underground writer:
“His plays were absurdist, but they were naturally absurdist because they reflected the reality of the ruling regime in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries. By that time, the regime was already in a crisis which made the elements of the absurd more visible; they were ridiculous at one moment and tragic at another.”
By the end of the 1960s, Havel’s plays were banned from public staging. How did he react as a writer? Did he change anything about his writing?
“In the first period, he continued with his model so to speak. I think he was hoping in secret that it would at one point be possible to stage them again. But later, he wrote very symbolic and darker plays than the previous ones.
“They were not openly political; they were about existential situations people found themselves in after some catastrophe. Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1975) and Mountain Hotel (1976) were different in this respect.”
“But what had a very positive effect was the community around Václav Havel. For example, both of his most popular plays were written in the mid 1970s: Audience (1975) and Vernisage also known as Private View (1975). Both of them are one-act plays he wrote ‘privately’ for his friends to entertain them. I think it was very fruitful because he was not writing them for a certain theatre.
“After his imprisonment came another very productive period, the 1980s. At this time, Havel wrote Largo Desolato (1984), Temptation (1985) and Redevelopment (1987). These were again very topical but at the same time very deep in relation to the existential situation of the characters.”
Michael Žantovský was Havel’s spokesman, press secretary and advisor in the early years of his presidency, and is now director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague. I asked him his impression of how Havel’s writing changed after penning The Increased Difficulty of Concentration in 1968, before the Soviet occupation.
“Well, there had been an obvious change in the tone and to an extent style of his plays. He continued writing them after he became a banned author, but he couldn’t produce the plays – and for a dramatist that is so important, so he can see how it works on the stage or doesn’t, and adapt to it.
“So, some of his efforts in the early 1970s are more complex, more serious than his initial plays, and not entirely successful. He only found his voice again – his dramatical voice – with the later plays like Largo Desolato and Temptation. And, of course, The Beggar’s Opera is a very specific part of his work.
“But as far as his non-dramatic works is concerned, the topics and the style of his later essays is to a large degree an extension of what he wrote in the 1960s. It’s more structured and some of the themes are more pronounced, but it’s very much the same authorial voice.”
‘The Power of the Powerless’
In 1975, Havel wrote an informal, open letter to then president Gustáv Husák, suggesting that far from being “normal”, or “normalized” Czechoslovak society was one governed by fear – and if things were now quiet, well, so too was a morgue. The most famous of his political essays, “The Power of the Powerless”, was written in 1978, a year after Havel co-founded the longest enduring human rights movement behind the Iron Curtain – Charter 77.
Paul Wilson, a Canadian who knew Havel well and has translated much of his work, lived in Prague from 1967 until he was deported in 1977, a year after the arrest of The Plastic People of the Universe, an underground band for which he wrote lyrics in English. (It was partly in protest of the Plastics’ arrest and prosecution that Havel and others had formed Charter 77).
In a recent teleconference entitled “Translating Havel: The Tricky Parts”, organised by the Václav Havel Library Foundation and Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, both in New York, Wilson spoke of the striking, ultimately hopeful tone that Havel struck in his essays, as compared to in his plays.
“Recently, I’ve had a chance to revisit the first translation of Havel that I made, which was The Power of the Powerless. And what I realised, having translated his essays and his plays, was that there’s a very deep disconnect between the kind of world view that you get from his plays and the world view that you get from his essays.
“Havel saw most of his plays – if not all of his plays – as essentially tragedies. There was no way, in the context in which they were written, that there could be a happy ending; there was no way that the hero could ever triumph because the system was just too overwhelming. And the intellectual convolutions that the heroes go through trying to adapt to the system means that he essentially condemns himself to failure.
“Whereas the essays – and especially The Power of the Powerless – are imbued with the great hope that by acting truthfully, or ‘living in truth’, that you can actually change things and the ending will not be as inevitable as it seems when you are in the middle of those circumstances.
"That system was one that claimed it would ‘last forever’ and there was no way out. Havel found a way out, and the way out was what he called ‘living in truth’. This is something that the characters in his plays never seemed able to pull off.”
Havel and ‘living in truth’
In The Power of the Powerless, Havel argued that a democratic opposition, a civil society, could prevail against a totalitarian state if people “lived in truth”. In the essay, he uses the example of a greengrocer who displays the sign “Workers of the world, unite!" not out of enthusiasm for the Communist regime but in an act of passive submission, one of a myriad of small and large compromises people made to be left in peace.
I asked biographer Michael Žantovský if, like the renowned translator Paul Wilson, he too saw the same basic tragicomic / hopeful divide in Havel’s plays and essays.
“I would agree with Paul to the extent that Havel was always much more positive than his plays, but I’ve always seen his essays and his plays as complementary. The plays are, in a sense, a negative picture of the essays – the characters in his plays struggle with the same problems, and they discuss and think about the same kind of dilemmas and ideas. But in the plays, they invariably fail. In the essays, Havel tries to show a solution, a way forward, a hope for a better future. There is no such thing in his plays.”
Havel spent a total of some five years in and out of Communist prisons. During the longest period, from May 1979 to February 1983, theatres in London, Vienna and New York officially declared him their playwright-in-residence (albeit in absentia). That period, which profoundly affected his health, is documented in correspondence with his wife, published as Letters to Olga.
His role as a dissident led to a trilogy of one-act plays (Audience, A Private View and Protest) about the plight of Ferdinand Vaněk, an artist who in one is asked to use his literary talent to write reports for the secret police on himself – but refuses, choosing to “live in truth”. As Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president, Havel would always endeavour to do the same.
The last word goes to Havel’s friend since childhood, the film director Miloš Forman, who addressed a gathering in New York of artists, musicians, actors and Czechoslovak émigrées, assembled to honour the dissident playwright-turned-president, himself fresh from addressing the U.S. Congress in Washington.
“Ladies and gentleman, if a playwright succeeds in making us laugh or cry, or both, and still feel intelligent, he’s an artist. But if a playwright succeeds to orchestrate the overthrow of a communist dictatorship without one single bullet being fired, it is – and believe me, I know what I’m talking about, I lived there – it’s a miracle.”