Vaclav Havel: 1936-2011

By Rocamora, Carol | American Theatre, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Vaclav Havel: 1936-2011


Rocamora, Carol, American Theatre


The world has lost a great 1eader--Vic1av Ravel, one of the finest political philosophers and humanitarians of the 20th century.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

What the world may not realize is that it has also lost a great playwright.

The Czech dissident whose tenacity and courage in the face of Communist rule changed the course of his country, died in December at his summer home in the Bohemian mountains. A world-renowned politician, essayist, human rights activist, humanist and globalist, Vaclav Havel waged a quiet but determined fight for "the right to write" over two dark decades. He brought a bout dramatic change. In 1989, he led a grassroots movement called "the Velvet Revolution" that toppled the Russian-controlled Communist regime in a bloodless six weeks, a ml ushered in a new era not only in his country but also throughout Central and Eastern Europe. He served as president of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia--and later, the Czech Republic--until 2003.

The other Vic1av Havel lost to us--one lesser known, but equally as vital--is Havel the dramatist, author of 11 full-length plays and 7 one-acts, plays that have an important place in the European theatre of the absurd, plays that not only reflect his country's dramatic course in the second half of the 20th century but also played a unique role in changing it.

Havel never dreamed of becoming a politician. By his own admission, his life story reads like a fairy tale. Born in 1936 into one of the wealthiest families in the land, Havel led a life of privilege, safely sequestered on the family estate in Moravia during World War II, classically educated at a hoarding school. He began writing poetry at the age of five; he acted in Greek plays with other affluent schoolmates.

All that ended in 1948, when the Communists took over and confiscated the Havels' wealth and real estate. As a member of a "bourgeois" non-Communist family, young Vaclav was forbidden a higher education. But that did not stop him. He became a zealous autodidact, reading translations of Kafka. Beckett and Ionesco smuggled into Czechoslovakia from the West. He formed a literary circle of like-minded 16-year-olds; he published a journal, he wrote essays and poetry.

After the army, with no other professional opportunities open to him., he got a job as a stagehand in a tins "pocket" theatre in Prague called the Balustrade, and his life in the theatre began. In addition to his duties operating the lighting hoard, he began to write cabarets and soon his talent was recognized. In 1963 he wrote his first full-length absurdist comedy, The Garden Party, about dehumanized life and loss of individual identity under Communism. It was followed by The Memorandum in 1965 and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (political satires with similar themes) in 1968--by which time Havel was considered the hottest young playwright in the country, and his works began to be performed throughout Europe. In 1968, Joseph Papp, artistic director of the newly created Public Theater in New York, produced The Memorandum in his inaugural season. Havel attended, and won an Obie Award.

Euphoric, Havel returned to Czechoslovakia to greet "Prague Spring" and its promise of a thaw in frigid Communist policies. That hope was soon dashed. In August 1968, the Russian tanks rolled into Prague's Old Town Square, kidnapped the liberal Czech leader Alexander Dubcek and instituted a new regime of "normalization." Within in 18 months, Havel's plays, essays and poetry were stripped from libraries and bookstores. The doors of the Theatre on the Balustrade were closed to him. He was banned, or, as the Czechs say, one of the "silenced authors."

THE 1970S, UNDER severe, Soviet-reinforced Communism, were dark years for Havel. Hidden away in his farmhouse in the Bohemian mountains, isolated and depressed, he managed to write two full-length plays--The Conspirators and Mountain Hotel.

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