Vaclav Havel reenters the stage

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It was the literary headline of the year, when Vaclav Havel’s first play for nearly two decades was published a few weeks ago and we can be every bit as sure that the first performance of the play next year at Prague’s Na Vinohradech Theatre, will be a huge event. When Havel became president after the spectacular fall of the communist regime in 1989, many predicted that he would never write again. The new play “Odchazeni” (Leaving) proves them wrong. Not only has Havel shown that he can still write, but he has also drawn directly from his political experiences, with a plot that will inevitably make audiences look for parallels in his own extraordinary career. To talk about the play I caught up with Jitka Sloupova who represents Vaclav Havel for the literary agency Aura Pont. I asked her how difficult she thought it was for Havel to return to writing.

Jitka Sloupova
“I think it was extremely difficult for him to concentrate on writing a new play after twenty years, but I think his method is still viable, and he is able to pursue it and develop it. He found a lot of material for his play.”

People tend to separate Havel the politician from Havel the playwright, but here we have a play about a politician.

“Yes. I think he projected into the play his experience as a politician and transformed it into quite a strange dramatic world.”

Vaclav Havel himself says that he started writing the play, or had the idea for the play, long before his political career started, at the time when he was still a dissident.

“That’s true. I’m a witness because he told me twenty years ago that he was planning a play inspired by King Lear.”

Essentially, the plot is a combination of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, put into a modern context – the context of contemporary politics – mixed with a typical bit of Havel absurdity. It tells the story of a successful politician at the end of his career. The new generation of politicians want him to move out of the villa, which he had as a perk going with the job of being chancellor – a clear parallel with Havel’s own post as president. Gradually, by an inevitable process, he loses the villa and ends up becoming an “advisor to an advisor to an advisor”. Obviously people are going to be looking through the play with a toothcomb, looking for specific references to Havel’s own political career and to some of his political allies and enemies. There are plenty of nuances that people familiar with the Czech political scene of the last twenty years will identify.

“Yes, there are. They are really small hints, but I think that they are only part of the play. I think that he uses them not only in the sense of the theme, but also the music of the play, because he likes to combine the motifs in a way similar to the way musical compositions are made.”

It is quite amusing though that he talks about the “Klein affair” [viz the real-life “Gross affair” and “Tlusty affair”], and this character Klein is very identifiable as a certain type of modern politician, talking in clichés, ambitious and unscrupulous. He ends up buying the villa that Rieger, the main character, is living in. Here is the point in the play where he says what his plans are for the building:

KLEIN: Here, where this unprofitable orchard now stands, we are going to build a moderately large social and commercial centre. It will have three cinemas, five stores, a massage parlour, a hairdressers, a boutique, the editorial offices of “The Keyhole” [a tabloid newspaper in the play], a butcher shop, a gas station, a dance hall, a tattoo clinic, a cinema, an antique store, a butcher shop, the editorial offices of “The Keyhole”, and three restaurants, including a Thai establishment. Over there, in the coach house, there will be a casino. Casinos are simply a part of the times we live in, aren’t they, Victor?

This description would be very familiar to many Czechs today.

“Yes, I think so. These development plans are sometimes really horrible!”

Vaclav Havel
And as you have already hinted, Havel is a very sophisticated playwright and he goes out of his way to ensure that anybody reading – or seeing – the play will not identify the characters too much with specific people, including himself. He is not really Rieger, although there are obvious parallels: he is a politician who has left politics and Rieger is a politician who is just leaving politics, but Havel makes sure that people will not identify him directly with this character.

“Yes, of course. First of all I think Rieger is a sort of parody of himself. On the other hand I think that he is a different type of politician…”

He is more corrupted by power…

“Yes. He is also corrupted mentally. He is interviewed in the play by the “Keyhole” reporters and I think it is very funny, because of what Rieger is saying – his language.”

He talks in banalities which will be family not just to Czechs, but to people who follow the political scene in many countries today.

Rieger: That’s a good question. The essence of my policy was an effort to significantly reduce the burden on taxpayers. All taxes were gradually reduced, some were eliminated altogether, such as the tax on interest on inherited interest. Lowering taxes was meant to stimulate economic growth, which in turn would enable the government to gradually increase pensions and social security payments, so that everyone would really benefit. Is that clear enough?

Rieger is full of banalities like this.

“Yes, and I think that is the main difference between Havel and Rieger, because Havel is very careful about saying banalities. Another difference is in the structure of the play, because Havel in fact introduces himself into the play as a voice which - sort of - rules the stage and also bullies the actors, which is very funny.”

Every time the actors raise their voices or go into open conflict he steps in. There is one point where the characters are getting carried away with their banalities and the disembodied voice of the playwright comes in:

The Voice: I have the feeling that this dialogue, as important as it is to the play, might also be somewhat boring. But I don’t think it’s entirely my fault. Of course, I have an influence on my own play, undeniably, but the main thing is that as I write it, I am trying to serve the logical course of events, which seems more important to me than my own feelings about them. For better or for worse, I am only channelling something that transcends me. I can’t rule out one other possibility: that I’m merely making excuses for myself. How easy it is, after all, to blame everything on “something outside ourselves.” Whenever I see all the things that are laid at the feet of “outside” factors, I feel sincerely sorry for them.

Havel is parodying himself here, isn’t he?

“What is parodied in this play is his own dramatic method, so it’s a sort of para-Havel or meta-Havel!”

And there is also a direct reference to Havel. One of the characters says, “But as Havel once told me, popularity isn’t everything.”

“There are many references to other world politicians in the play, and he included himself in this list of politicians who are quoted and parodied.”

It is almost like slapstick at some points. There is a bust of Ghandi which is being carried around and which Rieger wants to keep, but it turns out that it is on the government’s inventory and therefore it has to go.

“The bust of Ghandi is a real thing. It is in Havel’s office! Many other things in the play are not real, but he takes one real detail from his everyday life and then composers a play around it with similar details. That’s one part of his method.”

The play has aroused a huge amount of interest here in the Czech Republic and internationally, starting with the question as to who is going to be acting in the first production. I know that Havel is very keen for his wife Dagmar to have a role in the play. I assume that she would take the role of Rieger’s girlfriend Irena.

“It’s not a main part, but it’s rather important because, if there is any opponent to Rieger, apart from one of his secretaries, it is Irena, his long-term friend. There was one very good remark, I think in the first reviews of the play, that she bears a lot of characteristics of Havel himself, for instance his punctuality. So she still hasn’t lost her senses. She knows what still is or is not acceptable from the moral point of view.”

And so Dagmar Havlova will be appearing in this role in the first production.

“Yes. She will be – in the first production at the Theatre Na Vinohradech in Prague and she will play this role. It is the theatre with which she has been connected for most of her career.”

I should imagine that normally your agency probably has difficulty getting people to show an interest in a new Czech play, but I am sure that is not the case with this play.

“Yes, you are right! We have already had many offers from abroad in staging the play. There is interest, of course, in America, and from the United Kingdom and other European countries. There are already, I think, about eight translations completed or near to completion. We have had very positive reactions from several British theatres and we have three theatres in New York interested in the play, also a theatre on the West Coast, and another theatre which has done a lot of Havel plays in Philadelphia – I think the main repertory theatre in Philadelphia – and so on…”

And can we expect more from Vaclav Havel the playwright?

“Definitely. He is now out of the city. We don’t know where, and he was planning to write a new play, with a smaller cast this time. So we expect there will be at least one more play."