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?

By Caute, David | New Statesman (1996), September 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

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?


Caute, David, New Statesman (1996)


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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.