Václav Havel, dissident playwright turned statesman, born 85 years ago

Václav Havel

Born into a prominent wealthy family, Václav Havel came of age after the Communist coup of 1948, when to be “bourgeois” was to be part of a despised social class. As a young man, his criticism of the regime and status as a “dissident playwright” would soon land him in prison.

From those dark prison cells, Havel also gained prominence in international politics. He moved from a sort of private asylum at his country house in Hrádeček to the most important presidential and royal palaces in the world. The once-banned author saw his plays and essays published by the world’s most influential publishing house. Such was the life of Václav Havel. We will commemorate the 85th anniversary of his birth on 5 October 2021.

Václav Havel | Photo: Czech Television

Few people have lived a more varied life than did Václav Havel. He was born into a privileged Prague family. What could have been good fortune soon turned to a burden. After the Communists came to power, inappropriate (i.e., “bourgeois”) origins became a major obstacle.

All his attempts to study the humanities at university were unsuccessful: without the recommendation of the local Communist Party branch, it was impossible. He was eventually accepted to the Czech Technical University, where he studied economics. It was also a small miracle at that time (1955). He was not admitted to the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU) until 1962; for distance learning, which was considered less valuable.

Václav Havel in 1968 | Photo: Václav Havel Library / archive of Ivan M. Havel

Later a successful playwright, Havel begin his theatre career as a stagehand. The Communist regime proved an inspiration for his literary work. His first play, The Garden Party, is an excellent contribution to the theatre of the absurd genre absurd. The text is comprised of meaningless phrases from the speeches of “initiators” and “liquidators”, which at that time people listened to at endless meetings with mandatory participation. The second game of The Memorandum is about the introduction of the artificial language Ptydepe, which will become a means of bureaucratic control over society.

Václav Havel’s public engagement began in the 1960s. During the Prague Spring of 1968, he argued that reforming the Communist Party and its style of government was not enough. Instead of mere democratization, he wanted true democracy. However, all such hopes were dashed by the Soviet-led invasion and subsequent occupation.

Václav Havel in 1989 | Photo: Miloň Novotný

All those who actively supported the Prague Spring reforms a year later were branded “enemies of the people”, more precisely enemies of the new hardliners in leadership. The first secret police interrogations of and charges against Havel were soon to come – though he was not prosecuted. While his works was banned at home, they were published abroad, and he could live on royalties from his books and plays.

Havel became a leading figure in the Czechoslovak dissident movement. One of the co-authors of the Charter 77 declaration, around which the most influential human rights organization formed. He was no longer spared a prison sentence – Havel was convicted in 1979 and not released from prison until 1983. He was arrested again and sentenced in 1989, but spent only a few months in prison. In that same seminal year, there would be a major change not just in his life but in Czechoslovak society. Communism is toppled in the Velvet Revolution, and Václav Havel becomes president of a newly democratic country.

Václav Havel | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio

He will also go down in history as the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. Václav Havel enjoyed and enjoys and unprecedented level of international attention for a Czech figure – first, as a philosopher king, then as a public intellectual and global moral authority. Havel was president until 2003. He died after a long illness on 18 December 2011, at the age of 75.