The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War

By David Caute | Go to book overview

12
Squaring the Circle:
lonesco, Beckett,
Havel, Stoppard

The Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo na zábraldí) opened in 1958 in a derelict hall by the Vltava river not far from the Charles Bridge, Prague. On the basis of a promising script, Václav Havel was invited to join the company as a stage-hand in the summer of 1960, later as literary adviser. Acknowledging the influence of both Kafka and the Theatre of the Absurd on his plays, Havel adds the factor of his own bourgeois origins, the experience of ‘being excluded through no fault of my own’. The Havels were of ‘pampered bourgeois stock’ (as he put it); in 1948 the family business had been removed from their control, and later the estate was confiscated.1When Havel and his brother finished elementary school at the age of 15 they were barred by their social origin from high school and university. The young Václav worked as a carpenter and laboratory assistant for five years.

The auditorium of the Balustrade Theatre was cramped and spectators could sit where they wished. Discussions between players and audiences often went on long into the night. Under the new director, Jan Grossman, the Balustrade quickly developed a European reputation as the groundbreaking (in East European terms) showpiece of the Theatre of the Absurd. Grossman offered Havel the space and scope to thrive. For the young writer the crucially eye-opening productions in the early sixties at the Balustrade were Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, a dramatization of Kafka’s The Trial, and Ladislav Fialka’s Pantomime.The latter’s quiet influence was enormous. As with other great exponents of mime—Chaplin, Marcel Marceau—Fialka had fashioned a form of dramatic expressionism which stood back from what it expressed and from itself. Having brought two productions to the World Theatre season

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