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Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel

A world-renowned playwright and human rights activist, Vaclav Havel (born 1936) became the president of Czechoslovakia in December 1989, a unique position in European history. His literary brilliance, moral ascendancy, and political victories served to make him one of the most respected figures of the late 20th century and led his country to be one of the first Eastern European nations to be invited into NATO.

Vaclav Havel was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on October 5, 1936, to a wealthy and cultivated family. His father was a restaurateur, real estate developer, and friend of many writers and artists, and his uncle owned Czechoslovakia's major motion picture studio. The coming of World War II did not much disturb the Havels' lifestyle, and young Vaclav grew up amid the trappings of luxury, with servants, fancy cars, and elegant homes.

Deprived of High School Education

The 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia radically changed the Havels' lives. Their money and properties were confiscated, and Vaclav's parents had to take menial jobs. The worst deprivation for the family was that Vaclav and his brother were not allowed to attend high school. Fortunately he discovered a loophole in the system by which he could attend night school, and so for five years he combined a full-time job as a laboratory assistant with school. The busy teenager also enjoyed an active social life, which revolved around a group of friends who, like Vaclav, wrote poetry and essays, endlessly discussed philosophical matters, and sought out the company of writers and intellectuals. In the fall of 1956 he first attracted widespread attention when, at a government-sponsored conference for young writers, he appealed for official recognition of several banned poets, an act which earned him much criticism.

Became a Playwright

From 1957 to 1959 Havel served in the Czech army, where he helped found a regimental theater company. His experience in the army stimulated his interest in theater, and following his discharge he took a stagehand position at the avant-garde Theater on the Balustrade. The eager would-be playwright attracted the admiration of the theater's director and he progressed swiftly from manuscript reader to literary manager to, by 1968, resident playwright. It was while at the Theater on the Balustrade that Havel met and in 1964 married Olga Splichalova. Of working-class origin, his wife was, as Havel later said, "exactly what I needed. … All my life I've consulted her in everything I do … She's usually first to read whatever I write.…"

His wife did a great deal of reading as Havel's career took off. Heavily influenced by Theater of the Absurd playwrights, Havel's early plays were clever, rather depressing exposés of the relationship between language and thought. These plays, which included The Garden Party (1963), The Memorandum (1965), and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), were instant successes in Czechoslovakia and abroad, where they were translated and performed to critical and popular acclaim.

Human Rights Activities

The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 brought an abrupt end to the cultural flowering of the "Prague Spring" and marked a watershed in Havel's life. He felt he could not remain silent, and so began his long career as a human rights activist with an underground radio broadcast asking Western intellectuals to condemn the invasion and to protest the human rights abuses of the new and repressive regime of Gustav Husak. The government responded by banning the publication and performance of Havel's works and by revoking his passport. Although he was forced to take a job in a brewery, he continued to write, and his works were distributed by clandestine, "samizdat" means—typewritten copies and illegal tapes, many of which were sent abroad for publication.

Like many of his countrymen, and in particular many intellectuals and artists, Havel could have fled Czechoslovakia to the freedom of the West. He was offered several opportunities to leave, and the government encouraged him to do so. He declined, however, saying, "The solution of this human situation does not lie in leaving it. … " His courageous decision to remain and face what he termed the "interesting" future in his own country made him a hero to many Czechs.

Havel's human rights activities continued with April 1975's "Open Letter to Doctor Gustav Husak, " which decried the state of the country as a place which had lost all sense of values and in which people lived in fear and apathy. The "Letter, " disseminated through samizdat channels, attracted much notice and clearly put Havel at risk.

Jailed For Protest

In January 1977 hundreds of Czech intellectuals and artists, Marxists and anti-Communists alike, signed Charter 77, which protested Czechoslovakia's failure to comply with the Helsinki Agreement on human rights. Havel took an active part in the Charter movement and was elected one of its chief spokesmen. As such, he was arrested and jailed early in 1977, tried on charges of subversion, and given a 14-month suspended sentence. Havel was unrepentant: "The truth has to be spoken loudly and collectively, regardless of the results. … "

Havel and some other Charter 77 activists founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, or VONS, in 1978. The members of VONS were arrested, and in October 1978 Havel was tried, convicted, and sentenced to four and one-half years at hard labor. He served his sentence at a variety of prisons under arduous conditions, some of which are chronicled in his book Letters to Olga (1988), based on his prison letters to his wife. A severe illness resulted in his early release in March 1983.

Henceforth Havel was viewed both at home and abroad as a symbol of the Czech government's repression and the Czech people's irrepressible desire for freedom. He continued his dissident activities by writing a number of significant and powerful essays, many of which are collected in 1987's Vaclav Havel or Living in Truth. Highly critical of the totalitarian mind and regime while exalting the human conscience and humanistic values, the essays contain some splendid and moving passages. The government responded by tapping his telephone, refusing to let him accept literary prizes abroad, watching his movements, and even shooting his dog.

In January 1989 Havel was arrested again following a week of protests and was sentenced to jail for nine months. On November 19, 1989, amid growing dissatisfaction with the regime in Czechoslovakia and similar discontent throughout Eastern Europe, Havel announced the creation of the Civic Forum. Like Charter 77, a coalition of groups with various political affiliations and a common goal of nonviolent and nonpartisan solution, the forum was quickly molded by Havel and his colleagues into a responsive and effective organization.

The Collapse Of the Communist Regime

The week following the creation of the forum marked the beginning of the so-called "Velvet Revolution, " by which Czechoslovakia's Communist regime collapsed like a house of cards. With almost dizzying speed, a new, democratic republic was smoothly and bloodlessly established. Havel and the Civic Forum played a decisive role in this revolution, meeting with the government and applying pressure by mass demonstrations. On December 10, 1989, Husak resigned as president. On December 19, Parliament unanimously elected Havel to replace him. To the cheering throngs which greeted him after his election Havel said, "I promise you I will not betray your confidence. I will lead this country to free elections. … "

The new president was a new type of leader for Czechoslovakia. The long-persecuted but never silenced dissident was a modest, diffident intellectual, who, lacking a professional politician's self-conscious self-confidence, readily admitted his fears for the future and amazement at his success. In his first months in office he accomplished much. His very presence as president manifested Czech unity and freedom, and he retained his great personal popularity both at home and abroad. He was enthusiastically received in Germany and accorded respect in Moscow, where Premier Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia. He was deliriously applauded in the United States, where he addressed Congress, met with the president, and was lionized by celebrities. His government began the long, and, as he warned his people, often painful process of social and economic change to democracy and a free market economy. Most importantly, in June 1990 the promised free elections—the first since 1946—were held, with Havel's Civic Forum's candidates winning large majorities in both houses of Parliament. On July 5, 1990, Parliament reelected an unopposed Havel as president for a two-year term.

Vaclav Havel as President

Havel's government had considerable success in its first year and managed to avoid some of the awkward adjustments faced by other Eastern European countries. Nonetheless, Havel and his country faced some weighty problems. The first of these was the resurgence of Slovakian nationalism, which was stayed by Havel's popularity and a constitution which ensures a Slovakian prime minister. Then there was Havel himself, who as a dissident criticized the government but did not have—and could not have had—a realistic program as an alternative. He therefore had to do a great deal of learning on the job, a process not without its hazards. When he released prisoners, for example, he crippled Czechoslovakia's main automobile factory, which depended on convict labor, causing severe though temporary economic dislocations.

More serious was the split of the Civic Forum between those wanting a complete and rapid transformation of the Czech economy to a free market system, led by Vaclav Klaus, and Havel's more cautious followers, who believed in a gradual approach. To the surprise of most observers, and of Havel himself, Klaus was elected chairman of the Civic Forum in October 1990, defeating Havel's candidate. Many viewed this as Havel's first serious political setback, and the split of the forum into two distinct factions did not bode well for its long-term survival as a political entity.

In August 1992, the Slovak parliament passed its own constitution, and Havel resigned as president. In December, parliament passed a law dividing Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a separation Havel had tried to prevent. However, Havel's political career was not yet over. In 1993 parliament elected him first president of the Czech Republic.

Tumor Removed

In January 1995 a crisis occurred. Havel's wife of 32 years died of cancer. One year later, Havel married Czech actress Dagmar Veskrnova. In just a few months, Havel entered a clinic with what was thought to be pneumonia. While performing exploratory surgery, doctors found a tumor on his right lung. The tumor was removed on December 2, along with half the lung. During this time, his nation waited anxiously. Supporters called Havel the "chief stabilizing force in this country." Fortunately, Havel was released in good condition on December 27, and three days later was addressing the nation on Czech television.

Invitation to NATO

The positive changes in the former Soviet block country under Havel's leadership led to a landmark event. On July 8, 1997, NATO invited the Czech Republic, along with Poland and Hungary, to be the first Eastern European nation to become a part of the Western Alliance. According to the Associated Press, United States President Bill Clinton told his fellow leaders, some of whom were opposed to the expansion of NATO, that "they have met the highest standards of democratic and market reform. They have pursued those reforms long enough to give us confidence they are irreversible." NATO planned to admit the new members in April of 1999, the 50th anniversary of NATO. Havel called the invitation from NATO "the crowning achievement of enormous efforts by those countries to shed their communist pasts."

Of Havel's survival as a national figure there can be no doubt. It is impossible to predict if he will remain president after his term expires or if, as he often indicated, he will return to his writing career. Whatever his plans, he will leave a formidable legacy. His career demonstrated what he called "the power of the powerless"—of one courageous writer, unable to "live within a lie, " who inspired his countrymen to overturn the oppression of 40 years despite the obvious dangers and despite a natural fear of change. Havel also inspired others, and will continue to serve as a symbol for those whose revolutions are still in progress or have not yet begun.

Further Reading

Of his own works, Disturbing the Peace (1990), set in the form of answers to an interviewer's questions, presents a great deal of otherwise unavailable autobiographical information as well as an explanation of his philosophies. For the general reader, this is the most accessible of his works. Several of his plays, notably The Memorandum (1965) and Largo Desolato (1984), provide insight into Havel's beliefs. George Galt's "Gentle Revolutionary, " Saturday Night (September 1990), is a temperate but admiring review of Living in Truth, Letters to Olga, and Disturbing the Peace

The usually silent Olga Havel eloquently describes her situation in John Tagliabue's "Prague Playwright Is Jailed Again, " New York Times (February 5, 1989). For two fascinating accounts of reporters' visits with a harassed, pre-revolutionary Havel, see TIME (May 29, 1989), and John Keane's "Rebel With A Cause, " New Statesman and Society (December 8, 1989). "The Conscience of Prague, " TIME (December 11, 1989), and Mervyn Rothstein's "A Master of Irony and Humor, " New York Times (December 30, 1989), are excellent introductions to Havel's life and careers. A good overview of the revolution and Havel's part in it is in Newsweek (December 18, 1989).

For a look at Havel as the new president, see Craig R. Whitney's interview in the New York Times (January 12, 1990), which reveals the chaotic good humor with which the new regime was initiated. More sober are Michael Meyer's "End of the Affair, " Newsweek (April 30, 1990) and Richard Z. Chesnoff's "The Prisoner Who Took the Castle, " U.S. News and World Report (February 26, 1990) which provide cogent analyses of the problems facing the new government. Finally, an important and balanced profile of Havel is given in William A. Henry III's "Dissident to President, " TIME (January 8, 1990). See also Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography (St. Martin's Press, 1993); Alfred Horn, ed., Czech and Slovik Republics (Houghton Mifflin, 1993); Vaclav Havel, "The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World, " The Futurist (July-August, 1995); Vaclav Havel, "The Hope for Europe, " The New York Review of Books (June 20, 1996); and "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (June 22, 1995). □

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Havel, Václav

Václav Havel (väts´läv hävĕl), 1936–2011, Czech dramatist and essayist, president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the Czech Republic (1993–2003). The most original Czech dramatist to emerge in the 1960s, Havel soon antagonized the political power structure by focusing on the senselessness and absurdity of mechanized, totalitarian society in plays that implicitly criticized the government, such as The Garden Party (1963, tr. 1969) and The Memorandum (1965, tr. 1967), and in various essays of the 1960s and 70s. As an organizer (1977) and leading spokesman for the dissident group Charter 77, he was imprisoned (1979–83) by the Czechoslovak Communist regime, and his plays were banned.

Havel was a founder (1989) of the Civic Forum, a human rights and opposition group, and became its principal spokesman. When it succeeded in forcing (1989) the Communist party to share power, he became interim president of Czechoslovakia. He was elected president of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of Communism in 1990, but resigned in 1992 prior to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, to which he was opposed. He was elected president of the new Czech Republic in 1993 and reelected in 1998. As president he tended toward a social democratic approach to social and economic issues, strongly supporting civil liberties and human rights and an eastward-expanding NATO. He retired from the presidency in 2003. Havel's other works include Protocols (essays and poems, 1966), Letters to Olga (1983, tr. 1989), Three Vanek Plays (1990), Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965–1990 (1991), Summer Meditations (1991, tr. 1992), and Selected Plays, 1984–87 (1994).

See his memoir, To the Castle and Back (2007); interview ed. by P. Wilson (tr. 1990); biographies by M. Simmons (1991) and M. Zantovsky (2014); collections of essays on Havel, ed. by J. Vladislav (1986) and M. Goetz-Stankiewicz and P. Carey (1999); study by J. Keane (2000).

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Havel, Václav

Havel, Václav (1936– ) Czech statesman and dramatist. He wrote a series of plays, such as The Garden Party (1963), that were critical of Czechoslovakia's communist regime. Havel was the leading spokesman for the dissident group Charter 77 and was imprisoned (1979–83). In 1989, he founded Civic Forum. Following the ‘Velvet Revolution’ (December 1989), Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. He resigned (1992) in protest at the partition of Czechoslovakia, but returned by popular demand as president of the Czech Republic. He was re-elected in 1998.

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Havel, Václav

Vá clav Havel

BORN: 1936, Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic)

NATIONALITY: Czech

GENRE: Drama, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:
The Memorandum (1965)
Audience (1975)
“The Power of the Powerless” (1978)
Temptation (1985)
Living in Truth (1987)

Overview

A world-renowned playwright and human rights activist, Václav Havel became the president of Czechoslovakia in December of 1989, the country's first leader following the fall of the authoritarian regime he had helped to overcome. His literary brilliance, moral authority, and political victories served to make him one of the most respected figures of the late twentieth century and led to his country being one of the first Eastern European nations to be invited into NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Privileged Childhood in Prague Václav Havel was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to a wealthy and cultivated family. His father was a restaurant owner, real estate developer, and friend of many writers and artists, and his uncle owned Czechoslovakia's major motion picture studio. The coming of World War II, however, with Nazi troops marching into Prague in March of 1939, shifted—though it did not destroy entirely—the family's lifetsyle. While much of Europe was in flames, Havel grew up amid the trappings of luxury, with servants, fancy cars, and elegant homes—but he also grew up in a country occupied by Nazi troops, where mass killings occurred.

After the conclusion of World War II, world-level tension increasingly took the form of animosity between Russia- and China-centered Communist regimes and the United States and Western Europe. A coup d'état in 1948 ensured that Czechoslovakia would belong to the

list of states sympathetic to—and often wholly dependent upon—the Soviet Union. The 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia radically changed the Havels' lives. Their money and properties were confiscated, and Havel's parents had to take menial jobs. Havel and his brother were not allowed to attend high school, but after discovering a loophole in the system, Havel attended school at night for five years while working full-time during the day. His friends, like himself, wrote poetry and essays and endlessly discussed philosophical matters.

From 1957 to 1959 Havel served in the Czech army, where he helped found a regimental theater company. His experience in the army stimulated his interest in theater, and following his discharge he took a stagehand position at the avant-garde Theater on the Balustrade. The eager would-be playwright attracted the admiration of the theater's director, and he progressed swiftly from manuscript reader to literary manager to, by 1968, resident playwright. It was while at the Theater on the Balustrade that Havel met, and in 1964, married Olga Splichalova. Of working-class origin, his wife was, as Havel later said, “exactly what I needed…. All my life I've consulted her in everything I do…. She's usually first to read whatever I write.” This marriage of working-class and bourgeois values symbolized perfectly the period of 1968 reforms known as the Prague Spring, when reformers in the Czechoslovak government (chief among them Alexander Dubcek) loosened restrictions on the media, on personal speech, and on travel—in effect, allowing the arts to flourish and democracy to begin to function in Czechoslovakia.

The Prague Spring Gives Way to Soviet Winter A Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968 brought an abrupt end to the cultural flowering of the “Prague Spring” and marked a watershed in Havel's life. He felt he could not remain silent about conditions under the Communist regime, especially as reconstituted in occupied Czechoslovakia, so he began his long career as a human rights activist. He ran an underground radio broadcast asking Western intellectuals to condemn the invasion and to protest the human rights abuses of the new and repressive administration of Gustav Husak. The government responded by banning the publication and performance of Havel's works and by revoking his passport. Although he was forced to take a job in a brewery, he continued to write, and his works were distributed clandestinely. He courageously refused to leave Czechoslovakia during this time. In 1975, Havel wrote an “Open Letter to Doctor Gustav Husak,” decrying the state of the country as a place where people lived in fear and apathy. The “Letter” attracted much notice and put Havel at risk.

In January of 1977, hundreds of Czech intellectuals and artists, Marxists and anti-Communists alike, signed Charter 77, which protested Czechoslovakia's failure to comply with the Helsinki Agreement on human rights. Havel took an active part in the Charter 77 movement and was elected one of its chief spokespeople. He was subsequently arrested and jailed and tried on charges of subversion. Given a fourteen-month suspended sentence, Havel was unrepentant, stating: “The truth has to be spoken loudly and collectively, regardless of the results.” Arrested again in 1978 for similar activities, Havel was finally sentenced to four and a half years at hard labor. He served the sentence at a variety of prisons under arduous conditions, some of which are chronicled in his book Letters to Olga (1988). A severe illness resulted in his early release in March of 1983.

A Symbol of Freedom, and Its Champion From this point forward, Havel was viewed both at home and abroad as a symbol of the Czech government's repression and the Czech people's irrepressible desire for freedom. He continued his dissident activities by writing a number of significant and powerful essays, many of which are collected in Václav Havel: Living in Truth (1987). Highly critical of the totalitarian mind and regime while exalting the human conscience and humanistic values, the essays contain some splendid and moving passages. The government responded by tapping his telephone, refusing to let him accept literary prizes abroad, watching his movements, and shooting his dog.

In January of 1989 Havel was arrested again, following a week of protests, and was sentenced this time to serve nine months in jail. On November 19, 1989, amid growing dissatisfaction with the regime in Czechoslovakia and similar discontent throughout Eastern Europe, Havel announced the creation of the Civic Forum. Like Charter 77, a coalition of groups with various political affiliations and a common goal of nonviolent and non-partisan solution, the forum was quickly molded by Havel and his colleagues into a responsive and effective organization. The week following the creation of the forum marked the beginning of the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” in which Czechoslovakia's Communist regime collapsed like a house of cards. With almost dizzying speed, a new, democratic republic was smoothly and bloodlessly established. On December 19, Parliament unanimously elected Havel to replace the former Communist leader. To the cheering throngs that greeted him after his election, Havel said, “I promise you I will not betray your confidence. I will lead this country to free elections.” On July 5, 1990, Parliament reelected an unopposed Havel as president for a two-year term, and in 1993 Parliament elected him first president of the Czech Republic, following the political division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Joining Hands with the West The positive changes in the former Soviet bloc country under Havel's leadership led to a landmark event. On July 8, 1997, NATO invited the Czech Republic, along with Poland and Hungary, to be the first Eastern European nations to become a part of the Western alliance. French president Jacques

Chirac honored Havel, comparing the playwright-turned-president to Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.

Works in Literary Context

Dehumanization and Communist Modernity Havel's plays are powerful condemnations of the bureaucratization and mechanization of modern Czech society and their effects on the individual. His satires depict the prevalence of cliché and official doublespeak under a totalitarian government and the resulting disintegration of meaning. His works are political theater, but they are also recognized as being much more than that. Many of Havel's works are considered absurdist black comedies because they incorporate grotesque and ludicrous elements, giving expression to humanity's fundamental discomfort in a godless universe. Many of his plays also clearly take place in Communist Czechoslovakia, and his characters' behavior is motivated by circumstances of that time and that place.

But Havel also wrote plays such as The Memorandum and Temptation, which are more like parables than explorations of real life. Sometimes they border on anti-utopian fantasy. Instead of a realistic setting, such dramas revolve around fictitious institutions like the Orwellian office in The Memorandum, complete with watchmen hidden in the hollow walls to keep an eye on employees through special cracks, or the scientific institute at war with society's “irrational tendencies” in Temptation. What goes beyond realism in these plays, actually, is not so much the setting as the plot's starting device: the introduction of Ptydepe, the artificial language for interoffice communication in The Memorandum, and the bureaucratic forms of idolatry of “rational science” that produce the rebellion of the protagonist in Temptation. Such works owe much to the literary legacy of greats like George Orwell and Samuel Beckett. In particular, though, his emphasis on nightmarish visions of bureaucratic incompetence and dominance draws from the well of fellow Prague writer and absurdist extraordinaire, Franz Kafka.

Vanek the Recurring Protagonist One deep link between Havel's realistic and parable-like plays is their shared protagonist. In almost all of Havel's plays, a single protagonist by the name of Ferdinand Vanek pops up at the center of the plot. The now legendary figure of Vanek appears first in Audience and then reappears in Havel's next two one-act plays, Unveiling and Protest. At the same time, the underground success of Audience gave rise to a one-of-a-kind literary phenomenon: a constellation of plays employing the same protagonist but written by different authors. “The Vanek plays” therefore include works written by Pavel Kohout, Pavel Landovsky, and Jiri Dienstbier, as well as of course Havel, all reprinted in The Vanek Plays: Four Authors, One Character.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Havel's famous contemporaries include:

Tom Stoppard (1937–): British playwright, born in Czechoslovakia. Among Stoppard's many recent plays is Rock 'n' Roll (2006), about the years leading up to and including Czechoslovakia's 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” and dedicated to his friend Václav Havel.

Samuel Beckett (1906–1989): Irish playwright, a founding figure in both literary modernism and postmodernism, whose bleak dramas reveal the absurdity of life and the unavoidability of simple human determination.

Nelson Mandela (1918–): South African revolutionary and president (1994–1999). Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison for his resistance to the racist apartheid government in South Africa, becoming an effective leader and an even more effective moral symbol when he became the country's first black president.

Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007): President of Russia from 1991 to 1999. Yeltsin, always a colorful and contrary political figure, was instrumental in Russia's transition away from state Communism during the 1990s.

Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn (1918–2008): Russian writer and political activist. After spending time in prison for criticizing Stalin, Solzhenitzyn wrote an account of his experiences in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963), which resulted in his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

The Plight of the Dissident What the Vanek characters share is a position in society. All of them can be roughly defined as dissidents in a totalitarian state or cogs in the wheels of a powerful institution. This position entails a number of consequences, the most crucial of which is the character's being part of a political and moral minority. Such characters stand opposed to a way of life that privileges blind obedience to authority, thoughtless concentration on the necessities of everyday life, and a deep-seated distrust of any protester or reformer. Vanek, therefore, is by no means a valiant knight in shining armor or a modern Robin Hood who serves the poor. Despite all the words of cautious support and solidarity that some of his acquaintances occasionally dare whisper into his ear, Vanek is hated and despised. He is hated because he “disturbs the peace” of pacified minds, and he is despised because he cannot help being a loser. The forces that he opposes are too powerful. Particularly in the wake of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968, authoritarian regimes behind the Iron Curtain seemed quite nearly all-powerful: One had a moral obligation to resist, but that resistance was futile.

The Uses and Abuses of Words for Life Heavily influenced by theater of the absurd playwrights, Havel's early plays were clever, sometimes grim exposés of the relationship between language and thought. It is obvious that much of this sharp critique of language is directed against a totalitarian system. Havel reveals the vastly different ways in which language may be used. On the one hand, language can express the highest flights of man's intellect—his ability to reason and analyze the complexities of his physical and spiritual existence, defining a perception of truth. On the other hand, language can propagandize, conceal, and blur the reasoning process—jumbling analysis, burying the truth, and masking lies with the makeup of smooth rhetoric. The weight of an ideologically controlled bureaucracy smothers honest communication.

Language and Power Havel's work, which has influenced a generation of Czech authors after him, revolves around some common themes: the unwillingness to give up one thing for another, the refusal to adhere to a hierarchy of values, and criticism of the ways authority figures construct arguments to rationalize their lies. Many of these themes are interconnected and interrelated with one of the author's other major themes, the temptation to achieve goals through the manipulation of language. Havel shows how this process occurs through omission, deliberate confusion, and exaggeration. The theme of language temptation extends to other types of temptation in Havel's works, including the temptation to power. Havel relies on implied shades of meaning to simultaneously mock and “tempt” his readers, taking them through a spectrum of philosophical questions about truth and falsehood, reason and rationalization, and good and evil. Beyond his fictional work, Havel has also written a number of very influential political and philosophical essays, the most important among these being perhaps his seminal “The Power of the Powerless” (1978).

Works in Critical Context

From the start, Havel's politico-philosophical essays and plays were translated into many languages. The plays, in particular, were performed and appreciated by the public in a number of countries. His earliest plays, including The Garden Party (1963), The Memorandum (1965), and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), were instant successes in Czechoslovakia and abroad, where they received much popular as well as critical acclaim.

Relegation to Dissident Status When approaching a play by Havel, critics often had certain preconceptions. They knew, for example, that Havel was one of the most famous dissidents under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, that none of his plays were performed in official theaters there, and that he was harassed and imprisoned several times. Consequently, many critics have argued that as a literary figure, Havel's life and writings were so closely interwoven with the political situation in his country that they, as critics, must have been provided with a ready-made guide to the interpretation of his works. Journalists, reviewers, and academic commentators followed this obvious approach and discussed Havel's writings largely as the direct outcome of what he was observing in his society. The “dissident playwright” label stuck hard and fast to Havel's image.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Creative writers are often intensely aware of the power of language, and not only for its capacity to describe and open up new thoughts. Language can also hide the truth and limit the freedom of thought. Here are some works that focus not only on the power, but also on the dangers of language:

1984 (1949), a novel by George Orwell. In Orwell's notso-imaginary world of a totalitarian dictatorship, the government invents a language called “Newspeak” designed to shut down common sense and independent thinking.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a novel by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury uses science fiction to satirize the ways repressive governments limit human thought by banning works of literature. The hero of the novel is a “fireman,” or book burner, who starts hiding books to share with a group of underground readers.

“On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations” (1932), a decree by Joseph Stalin. This was the decree that made “Soviet Realism” the official artistic policy of the Soviet Union. Writers and artists of all kinds were to reject all forms of “decadent bourgeois art,” especially anything that was abstract or impressionistic, in favor of plain-spoken texts that glorified the working class and Soviet society.

Temptation Often, however, how critics responded to Havel's dissident works depended on where they were from, telling perhaps as much about the assumptions and the degree of receptivity of the critics' culture as about the plays themselves. For example, responding to a flashy but shallow production of Temptation, New York critics regarded the play largely as the manifesto of someone who opposes an oppressive political regime. They appreciated the author's wry insights on the broader nature of dogma. The Viennese papers, on the other hand, were mostly concerned with Havel's allegedly unsatisfactory treatment of other literary figures, such as the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe, they complained, was put into the service of antitotalitarian criticism. The reaction of the British papers and other media was remarkably different. Brought up on William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard, the British critics were aware that “the play's the thing” and regarded the drama as an “intoxicatingly”

theatrical piece. Although they recognized that the workings of evil that was depicted sprang from a totalitarian system, they believed Havel succeeded in going beyond this and did not confine the play to that system. In Britain, critics concluded that Temptation was one of the great artistic adventures of its day.

Responses to Literature

  1. What is “Theater of the Absurd”? Is it a fair description of Havel's plays? What are some of the absurdist themes and situations in Havel's works, particularly The Memorandum?
  2. What are the pros and cons of reading Havel's plays through the lens of his political life? What has Havel himself said about this in interviews?
  3. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once said that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What did Shelley mean by this? What do you think of poets and playwrights becoming political leaders, or political leaders becoming poets and playwrights? What are other examples of politicians who have become creative writers, or vice versa?
  4. Read “The Power of the Powerless” and consider the arguments about freedom and responsibility Havel makes there. In your assessment, to what extent are these arguments plausible. Support your thesis with detailed analysis of the logic and rhetoric of Havel's text.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Esslin, Martin. Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

———. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Havel, Václav. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Knopf, 1990.

———. Summer Meditations. Trans. Paul Wilson. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Keane, John. Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Kriseova, Eda. Vá clav Havel: The Authorized Biography. Trans. Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Symynkywicz, Jeffrey. Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Minneapolis.: Dillon Press, 1995.

Web Sites

Bishop, Roger. “Review,” in Book Pages. Retrieved June 29, 2008, from http://www.bookpage.com/0007bp/nonfiction/vaclac_havel.html.

Havel, Václav. The Official Website of Václav Havel. Retrieved May 11, 2008, from http://www.vaclavhavel.cz. Last updated on May 11, 2008.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism,” in London Review of Books. October 28, 1999, retrieved June 29, 2008, from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n21/zize01_.html.

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