The Leading Man: After More Than a Decade as Czech President, Vaclav Havel Has Returned to Writing Plays. Has His Artistic Vision Survived the Compromises of Power?

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It seemed out of the question for Vaclav Havel to become president of Czechoslovakia after 40 years of Communist rule. The long-haired playwright had been just a persistent dissident voice, if one making some of the most eloquent minority demands for civil liberties, notably Charter77. Everything changed when the new Civic Forum of November 1989 brought crowds to Wenceslas Square unanswerably demanding freedom from a collapsing Soviet empire. In the course of this "Velvet Revolution", the mild-mannered Havel found himself the astonished occupant of Hradcany Castle in Prague, high above the Vltava River. No flash in the pan and no mere figurehead, he liked the job enough to retain it for 13 years. Globally feted, though not always popular at home, he was loaded with do-good prizes and hailed by a joint session of the US Congress.

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Now Havel is back as a playwright. Can the artist survive the blatant compromises of executive power? The focal character of his new play, Leaving, is a deposed leader coming to terms with a melancholic void after losing the status inseparable from his sense of himself. His first new stage work in 20 years, premiered in May at Prague's Archa Theatre, Leaving is about to arrive, fittingly enough, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey, whose director, Sam Walters, loyally backed Havel and his work through the desperate years of persecution and imprisonment. Better yet, Leaving will launch a substantial season of earlier plays.

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The Theatre on the Balustrade opened in 1958 in a derelict hall close to the Charles Bridge in Prague. Under the direction of Jan Grossman, the Balustrade developed a reputation as a showpiece for the theatre of the absurd, staging Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna and--crucial to Czech culture and politics in the post-Stalin ers--a dramatisation of Franz Kafka's Trial. Here the young Havel, excited by Beckett and Ionesco, first made his name. But whereas Beckett steered clear of politics and Ionesco recoiled in disgust, Havel didn't. He was identified by the regime as dangerous, not least because his plays rapidly received international acclamation. Typical was his public salute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn after the Soviet writer had fallen into disgrace.

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The young Havel confronted theatre audiences with scathingly sardonic images of bureaucracy striving helplessly to de-bureaucratise itself by resort (of course) to abject bureaucratic formulae and automated language. At the end of The Garden Party (1963), the main character, Hugo, hurries off to visit someone he has heard is extremely important-who turns out to be himself. In The Memorandum (1965), a new language, Ptydepe, is imposed by fiat, though understood by scarcely anyone except the instructors. Havel admired the absurdists' refusal to preach, instruct or philosophise in the manner of Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertolt Brecht. By no means averse to messages, Havel however insisted that in the theatre they must arrive implicitly, through the fluid space between the lines. Although an ardent admirer of the youthful insurrections in Prague, western Europe and the United States, he insisted on a singular rule for art as distinct from agitation in the forum: "Absurd theatre does not offer us consolation or hope," he wrote in 1967, "it merely reminds us of how we are living without hope ... despair, empty hope, bad luck, fate, misfortune, groundless joy."

I first encountered the chain-smoking Havel at the Balustrade during the Prague Spring 40 years ago. At a meeting at the Writers' Union building the main item on the agenda was a manifesto by Havel eloquently challenging the union's builtin control of literary life and arguing for full democratic pluralism on the basis of free elections. Exactly right, and still Havel's credo in the early 1980s when we of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain organised a benefit performance to raise funds for the imprisoned playwright. …