Havel, Václav (b. 1936)

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HAVEL, VÁCLAV (b. 1936)


Czech politician and writer.

In his life Václav Havel has been a child of privilege, a stagehand, a dramaturge, an author of absurdist plays, a brewery laborer, the founder of Charter 77, a prisoner of conscience, and—not long after—the president of his country. He was the mastermind behind the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia and the last president of his country, the man who managed the Velvet Divorce—the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into two nations. As the Czech Republic's first president, he helped reintegrate the country into Western Europe. He is a world-renowned author and statesmen. The playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005) called him the first surrealist president. He is regularly on the short list to receive the Nobel Prize.

Havel's life has been full of contradictions, ironies, and strange twists. He was born into an affectionate, successful entrepreneurial family. He and his brother Ivan (b. 1938) were raised with a strong sense of discipline, independence, and responsibility inspired by Masarykian humanism, a highly cultured tradition of arts, philosophy, and literature (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk [1850–1937] was Czechoslovakia's first president). But Havel was uncomfortable with the trappings of affluence, resulting in what he describes as a lifelong sense of unworthiness—which he credits with giving him a strong urge to succeed. When the communists seized power in 1948 the family fortune was confiscated; Havel became a "class enemy" and was denied admission to the Academy of Performing Arts. He claims that the discrimination he suffered—the sense of being an outsider—was the genesis of his attachment to the theater of the absurd. It was not until he started dating Olga Šplíchalová (1933–1996), whom he married in 1964, that he gained a sense of self-confidence.

Havel eventually enrolled at the Czech Technical University, where he was a lackluster student because the curriculum consisted primarily of Marxist economics. His greatest knack at that time was associating with talented people, including the writer Milan Kundera (b. 1929) and the future Academy Award–winning movie director Miloš Forman (b. 1932). Despite his shyness, during these years Havel had the temerity to introduce himself to Jaroslav Seifert (1901–1986), later winner of the Nobel Prize, and the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka (1907–1977).

Havel's predilection for telling the truth often landed him in trouble. While still a university student in 1956, he was invited to a Writers' Union conference for young artists. It was his first public address, and he found himself among writers of "socialist realism," the artificial and hagiographic style developed during Stalin's reign. Barely in his twenties and with no reputation to protect him, Havel promptly attacked socialist realism, the Writers' Union, the continued oppression of literature, and the blackballing of poets and artists who refused to copy accepted styles.

The future president began his professional life as a stagehand and eventually rose to dramaturge during the early 1960s. It was a hopeful time in Prague: the totalitarian Stalinist era had ended, and personal and artistic freedom flourished, although within some limits. That period was a particularly creative time in Havel's life: he wrote and directed The Garden Party (1963), The Memorandum in (1965), and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, winner of an off-Broadway Obie Award in 1968.

Underthe reform-minded Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček (1921–1992), Czechoslovakia became for a brief period in 1968 an open society, and Havel used the opportunity to call for a multiparty democracy. But communist authorities in Moscow feared that Dubček's brand of "socialism with a human face" threatened the Soviet Empire. In August, Soviet leaders sent the Warsaw Pact Army into Czechoslovakia to halt the reforms. In a desperate effort to rally his countrymen, the Charles University student Jan Palach (1948–1969) lit himself afire in Wenceslas Square as a symbolic protest. But the Soviets prevailed. The era of "Normalization" followed, a depressing period in which the communist government kept order and "calm" by quashing spontaneity and personal initiative—anything that deviated from the austere Soviet model. Havel's avant-garde plays were banned, and he was eventually barred from the theater altogether. But he proclaimed his defiance in an open letter to Gustav Husák (1913–1991), the secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, a bitter indictment of the posttotalitarian system whose goal was to keep the nation as "calm as a morgue or a grave."

Charter 77 was a human-rights group that grew out of the trial and conviction of the Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band whose anti-establishment lyrics infuriated staid communist rulers. When Charter 77's activities drew Western attention, the government arrested leading Chartists, including Havel. During a weeklong StB (State Security Police) interrogation, Patocǎka, whom Havel had enlisted as spokesman for the group, died of a stroke. Havel dedicated his most famous dissident essay, "The Power of the Powerless," to Patočka. Widely distributed in samizdat, the underground publishing network often consisting of little more than a typewriter and carbon paper, the essay became the rallying point for dissidents throughout the communist world.

In 1979 Soviet authorities cracked down: Havel was convicted of subversion and sentenced to four and a half years at hard labor. But he turned this hardship into creativity, writing letters to his wife that became Letters to Olga—one of the strangest "philosophic" books ever published. Along with lengthy theoretical reflections, Havel used the letters to bare his soul. While exhibiting extraordinary courage and steadfastness, at times he showed himself to be frightened, self-absorbed, and demanding. When he became seriously ill after three years in prison, Olga raised such a stir that Havel was released.

In 1989, as European communism was collapsing, Czech students staged a demonstration that "happened" to deviate from its approved route to pass Havel's apartment. A melee ensued; people were arrested and some hurt. Havel quickly organized Civic Forum, a loose-knit opposition group of activists, writers, and theater people. Larger and larger demonstrations occurred, including a national strike that undermined the legitimacy of the government. The "Velvet Revolution," as the movement was called, culminated with Havel on a balcony in historic Wenceslas Square above a massive crowd of people jingling their keys. The sound was the death knell of communism.

Elected president of Czechoslovakia, the poet with a self-effacing wit who rode a scooter through the halls of the Czech Castle, loved Lou Reed's (b. 1942) music, and considered appointing the avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940–1993) to a government post was an international darling. And Havel's achievements were substantial, despite his limited constitutional powers. He negotiated the departure of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia, dismantled the secret police (StB), helped reform the army, and oversaw the creation of democratic institutionswithprotectionofcitizen rights. Also—against his wishes—he guided the peaceful dissolution of the country into the Czech and Slovak Republics. He supported the difficult transition to a free-market economy and set the stage for the Czech Republic's entry into NATO and the European Union.

But no fairy tale lasts. Olga Havel succumbed to cancer in 1996. Long years of smoking and stress caught up with Havel, and he almost died of complications associated with the removal of a cancerous lung. On his sickbed, within a year of Olga's death, he married the Czech actress Dagmar Veskrnova (b. 1953)—to great public disapproval. At the same time, in 1996, the highly touted Czech economic miracle floundered, and Prime Minister Václav Klaus's (b. 1941) political party was implicated in an election scandal. Havel's popularity plummeted.

Against all odds, Havel survived, physically and politically. Thirteen years after he took office as leader of Czechoslovakia, he retired from the presidency of the Czech Republic. Although in 1993 Havel had been blamed for the breakup of the country, a week before the end of his term in 2003 Slovakia awarded him its highest civilian medal. Polls showed that he was the most respected public figure among Czechs—partly because a substantial portion of his wealth has been donated to the Olga Havel Foundation, established by his first wife.

Havel considers himself foremost a playwright, but his plays are difficult to categorize. He employs the absurdist genre to explore the loss of identity—the absence of belief in meaning beyond one's transitory existence. The plays raise the question of meaning by manifesting its absence. The works also point beyond that absurdity to the more "natural" view of life that includes transcendent principles such as love, hate, honor, justice, and friendship—virtues and vices that are never fully controlled or extirpated by those in power.

Havel is also an important social critic. He argues that the Enlightenment yearning to understand and control nature—a hope that has largely come to pass—has also resulted in the subjugation of people, whether by totalitarian communist governments that aimed to perfect human society but in fact oppressed millions in ideological straitjackets, or by Western economic entities and government bureaucracies that provide material well-being but rob people of autonomy. To counter this loss of control Havel proposes constructing and strengthening spaces in civil society where moral and responsible actions are possible. His long-term goal seems to be to restructure politics so that citizens can live in small, tightly knit communities and together create an integrated, peaceful, safe world.

See alsoCzech Republic; Czechoslovakia; Dubček, Alexander; Prague; Prague Spring; Velvet Revolution.


Havel, Václav. The Vanĕk Plays: Four Authors, One Character. Edited by Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz. Vancouver, B.C., 1987.

——. Letters to Olga: June 1979–September 1982. Translated and Introduced by Paul Wilson. New York, 1988.

——. Temptation: A Play in Ten Scenes. Translated by Marie Winn. New York, 1989.

——. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíždala. Translated and Introduced by Paul Wilson. New York, 1990.

——. Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965–1990. Edited by Paul Wilson. New York, 1991.

——. The Garden Party and Other Plays. New York, 1993.

——. Summer Meditations. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York, 1993.

——. Selected Plays: 1984–87. London and Boston, 1994.

——. The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice: Speeches and Writings, 1990–1996. Translated by Paul Wilson et al. New York, 1997.

——. The Beggar's Opera. Translated by Paul Wilson and introduced by Peter Steiner. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001.

James Pontuso

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Havel, Václav (b. 1936)

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