Havel, All at Once: A New York Festival Celebrates the Politician/playwright, with the Man Himself in Attendance

By Orel, Gwen | American Theatre, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Havel, All at Once: A New York Festival Celebrates the Politician/playwright, with the Man Himself in Attendance


Orel, Gwen, American Theatre


For the first time in many years, Vaclav Havel said, he felt inspired to write a new play.

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Playwriting had been his occupation--his obsession, more accurately, since his work was infrequently produced--long before he became a politician. All 18 of Havel's stage plays, in fact, were written before 1989, the year of the "Velvet Revolution," which hoisted the once-imprisoned writer and political dissident to the presidency of Czechoslovakia--and ultimately, in 1993, to that office in the newly independent Czech Republic.

Now the impulse was stirring again, Havel told Robert Lyons, one of the directors in the recent Havel Festival, an event in New York City to mark Havel's 70th birthday and his concurrent autumn 2006 residency at Columbia University. What was the stimulus that started his artistic juices flowing?

It was a Vaclav Havel play.

The guest of honor had just watched Act 1 of The Memo, his subversive drama about a large bureaucracy infected by a mysterious new official language. Originally titled The Memorandum, this was the play that helped bring Havel to the attention of the American public, winning an Obie in 1968 for its production at the Public Theater.

Now, watching a festival production of The Memo at Manhattan's Ohio Theater, directed by Edward Einhorn in a new translation by Paul Wilson, Havel seemed to feel the old energy. He said that seeing this new version of his own play was "like seeing a play by someone else," recalls Lyons, and it made Havel want to go back to work.

Coaxing Havel from the world's stage back to the theatrical stage was indeed one of the goals of the seven-week residency at Columbia, according to Gregory Mosher, who heads Columbia's Arts Initiative, the host of Havel's residency. Columbia president Lee Bollinger and Havel had been discussing a residency for years, not only as a way to give the author a chance to spend extended time in New York but to give the Columbia community firsthand access to his life and work.

Running concurrently with the residency, the festival (coordinated by Einhorn and his Untitled Theater Company #61) raised such questions as: What does Havel's work for the stage mean today, and can Americans appreciate it without its original context? The festival offered excitement, stimulation and frustrations, as well as some tentative suggestions about Havel's contemporary viability. All 18 of Havel's plays were assayed, including one world premiere, four English-language premieres and five new translations. In addition to the Ohio, shows were mounted at Columbia's Miller Theatre, the performance space Makor and Brooklyn's Brick Theater.

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It's impossible to produce Havel without "producing" the period in which he wrote his plays, all of which, in one way or another, demonstrate the absurdity of life in a totalitarian society. In these days of "South Park" and "The Daily Show," we're used to non sequitur as satire, and absurdism feels a little tired. Jiri Pehe, former director of the political department of Havel's presidential office and now director of New York University in Prague, suggested at a Columbia symposium that Jon Stewart's popular fake news show is "slightly Havellian."

How to address that original context for an audience distant from Havel's time, place and history was a festival challenge. By the mid-'90s, Czechs themselves were more interested in contemporary work than in producing formerly banned plays. If they've moved on, shouldn't we as well?

For Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu, who saw A Butterfly on the Antenna during the Communist period (Butterfly had its English-language premiere at the festival, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky), Havel's plays suffer without their "socio-political, subversive-dissident message." Butterfly, about an intellectual who is too feeble to wake up his guest, a sleeping plumber, despite a dripping faucet that threatens to flood the apartment, is a comment, Stanescu says, on "the socio-political importance of the intelligentsia during communism--it's about the intellectuals' inability to take action or to wake up the working class from its slumber. …

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