Letters to Olga Essay - Critical Essays

Vaclav Havel


While tight censorship prevented Havel from describing the most harrowing of his prison experiences, another inmate and fellow VONS activist, Jiri Dienstbier, has recalled that Havel was persecuted by the vindictive warden of Hermanice prison, a self-declared admirer of Adolf Hitler. The warden would confiscate any Havel letter he considered too cerebral. “What’s all this crap about ‘the order of the spirit’ and ‘the order of Being?’” the warden would roar. He would add, “The only order you have to worry about is the rules of prison order!” Havel’s earlier correspondence is therefore more personal and less philosophical than his letters written from Plzen-Bory.

The reader is given a vivid portrait of Olga, even though none of her letters is published. She seems to be practical, solid, reliable, unsentimental, and somewhat unimaginative. Over and over, her husband begs her for more frequent, more detailed, and longer letters. It is impossible to establish whether her scant correspondence is the result of her reluctance to write or the prison authorities’ refusal to relay all of her letters to Havel. Many of the early letters are replete with Havel’s instructions to Olga concerning articles she should include in the rare parcels he is permitted to receive: shaving cream, toothpaste, socks, nail scissors, vitamin tablets, cigarettes, and the like.

Occasionally—but not often enough to depress the reader—Havel will mention his aches and pains: lumbago, chronic hemorrhoids, recurring attacks of influenza, pain in his legs from having to stand long hours at work, and general physical exhaustion. His most charmingly personal letter is a short essay on the addiction to tea drinking which he has acquired in prison. He has come to regard it as a symbol of individual freedom: He can prepare it on his own, it stimulates him to private contemplation, it affords him leisure and relaxation, it helps him ward off a range of minor indispositions, and it fulfills his need for order and ceremony. It is, therefore, the crown of his “self-care” program.

Havel accommodates admirers of his absurdist dramas when he discusses two of his more recent works: Zebracka opera (1975; the beggar’s opera) and Horsky hotel (1976; the mountain hotel). The first owes more to Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera, 1949) than to their common model, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Like Brecht’s, Havel’s play is a cynical satire depicting a brutal and power-hungry world in which even the slightest display of altruism will lead to a person’s destruction. Its only staging in Czechoslovakia was a single performance by an amateur troupe in the suburbs of Prague. That sufficed to motivate a major police drive against the actors, some of the spectators, and, naturally, the author. Plaintively, Havel asks Olga to remind people of the play’s existence. All it needs to become popular, he tells her, is “one decent production.”


(The entire section is 1249 words.)