Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

By Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien | Commonweal, January 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011


Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien, Commonweal


I fleetingly met Vaclav Havel on June 10,1990. It was the morning after Czechoslovakia's first free elections in decades. At breakfast in our Prague hotel, my friend Marie Winn, who had translated some of Havel's plays, and her husband, Alan Miller, who was making a documentary film on Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, introduced us. The exuberance was contagious inside the hotel and out on the old town square.

After all, the voting had sealed the events of November '89. Timothy Garton Ash, chronicler and historian, arriving in Prague at the height of those events, recalls saying to Havel, "In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks: perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days!"

Garton Ash had the pace right. But the pace of that drama reflected years of preparatory work backstage, to which Havel--director, producer, stagehand, playwright, and sometime actor as well as writer and gadfly--was central. An intellectual, barred from a university education, he possessed a philosophical outlook reflective of Czechoslovakia's oft-interrupted history and his own. His eviction from the privileges of a prewar haute-bourgeois family into the economic and social struggles of a postwar bohemian life bred in him the confidence of a well-brought-up boy with the insouciance of a marginal man. His plays and essays portrayed the ironic and seditious attitudes of the Czechs toward the government and the hypocrisies it imposed, even on itself.

In 1968, on an Easter trip to Central Europe, my husband and I very briefly witnessed the effervescence of the Prague Spring; that experiment ended in August 1968, with the invasion by the Sovietled Warsaw Pact and the restoration of a Communistled government. Twenty-two years later we returned to Prague to report on the demise of the persecutions and hypocrisies exacted by what Havel called a "post-totalitarian society": no longer a regime of brute terror but one of a suffocating and corrupting miasma of falsehoods that cut off even its ruling politicians and bureaucrats from the real world.

The first of Havel's subtle and subversive letters and essays that I read was Letters to Olga: June 1979-Septernber 1982, written to his wife from prison and circulated among friends and co-conspirators in typewritten copies. The letters recounted the domestic travails of prison life (Havel was a bit of a hypochondriac) with the self-mocking but critical anxieties of a man trying to subvert the established disorder under the scrutiny of prison guards and security officials. …

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