Play It Again, Vaclav - the Wisdom in Havel's Plays
Chamberlain, Lesley, The World and I
Czech President Vaclav Havel's plays capture the surrealism of the former communist state but still offer much insight into the nature of the human condition.
In 1986, when I reviewed Vaclav Havel's play Temptation for London's Times Literary Supplement, I wrote about an audience moved to tears of joy by a play that both ridiculed the manners of communist society and showed how difficult it was for human beings not to conform. A terrific production, it took place at the Other Place theater in Stratford-upon- Avon, just along the road from the Shakespeare Festival Theatre; both the setting and the play marked the high point of Havel's reputation as a dramatist. Only three years later the Velvet Revolution swept communism aside, and Havel became president of his country. With only a brief respite when the Czech and Slovak states split, President Havel has been at the Prague Castle ever since.
For the first few years it seemed more important to welcome him as a world statesman than to wish for another play. But then communism was over, and perhaps the plays weren't interesting anymore. To my knowledge it's more than ten years now since any of Havel's pieces have been produced in London, though they moved us so much during the Cold War and used to be so popular in fringe theater. The question arises as Havel turns sixty-five this year and the plays risk passing into obscurity. Should we let that happen, or hang on to them?
Havel's dramatic style emerged out of the leftover atmosphere of Czech modernism from between the wars. He was a surrealist poet before he had his first success as a playwright in the 1960s. His work for the stage was full of Czech humor, but it also had everything in common with Ionescu and the theater of the absurd, which dominated the Paris stage in the 1950s. What set Havel on a unique course as a dramatist was the absurdity of the communist world he lived in. The comic and faintly menacing logic of Modernist theater (which gives Havel an affinity with Harold Pinter) was not too dissimilar from the absurdity and menace of an ideologically skewed reality.
What was that reality like, which is such an important background to the plays? Let me describe what it felt like to an outsider, a visitor from the West, in 1985. I was wandering through the streets of Prague, trying to make sense of what was going on. It was a weekday, in the early evening, and a rehearsal was taking place in the Old Town Square for a huge ceremony to take place the following weekend, when hundreds of new army recruits would swear an oath of allegiance to "socialism." To see this event happening, stripped of people, with no recruits present, and fanfares being blown to no one, struck a chord in the crowd that gathered spontaneously. Here was a symbol of their ideologically hollow lives. People exchanged witty remarks and sniggered. I wrote in the book I subsequently published:
"What is irritating, even enraging in this country, is the way art, artifice, and reality have been blended to such a degree that the absurd can come upon one as readily in the street as on the stage. It is all the more irritating and astonishing because it is a manufactured absurd which clearly belongs only on the stage. Last night's rehearsal was symbolic of a way of life. But it's probably only thanks to the theater of the absurd that we in the West can readily imagine such a life: in which all occasions are only dress rehearsals for a reality which will never come; in which all fanfares are sounded to absent ears, salutes taken to invisible men, oaths sworn in empty formulae to incredible authorities. But here people live like that! You see, even as we stand here on a bright October morning, who's this coming along a side road, if not an old man with an old perambulator full of red flags. He's pausing at intervals to set them in place in readiness for Saturday. Poor fellow, a refugee from a Western play, and not even aware of it. …