Pavel Kohout is one of the most controversial figures in postwar Czech cultural and political history. A poet, author, and playwright, Kohout has been influential as a devoted Stalinist, a communist reformer, a dissident involved in the underground, and finally as a persona non grata in his homeland. He remains a highly regarded and successful European author.
Born in 1928 to a middle-class family in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Kohout was graduated from high school in 1947 and then studied arts at the Charles University in Prague, from which he was graduated in 1952. He simultaneously embarked on his literary career by publishing, in 1945, his first verses. Between 1947 and 1949, Kohout worked for the Czechoslovak Radio and, after the communist coup in 1948, experienced a meteoric rise in his career as he became cultural attaché in Moscow (1949-1950), the editor in chief of the satiric weekly Dikobraz (Porcupine, 1950-1952), and then the editor of the Czechoslovak Soldier (1953-1955). Finally, after the inauguration of television broadcasting, he worked as an editor for Czechoslovak Television (1955-1957).
Disillusioned with the West, which had ceded Czechoslovakia to the Nazis and their atrocities as part of the “Appeasement Policy” of 1938, Kohout, like many of his countrymen (including author Kundera), became infatuated with Stalinist communism. A popular figure in Prague in the 1950’s, Kohout grandstanded publicly in favor of communists, certainly aware and even approving of the terrible crimes perpetrated by communist leaders in Czechoslovakia (thousands of dissidents, including poets, were imprisoned in mining camps or executed). Kohout supported the communists by writing satirical poems and plays lambasting the enemies of “our socialist state,” even to the point of accusing his personal enemies of anticommunism and applying to join the secret police (he was declined).
During the Nikita Khrushchev years, it gradually became clear to Kohout and other Czech cultural figures that they had allowed their country to become a subjugated province of the Soviet Union and would never achieve the utopia they had hoped communism would provide. The 1960’s marked a rise in a reformist communist movement in Czechoslovakia for which Kohout became as visible and as aggressive an advocate as he had been for Stalinism in the 1950’s. This was for him a far riskier prospect because now he opposed the dangerous and murderous political regime he had helped to create.
Kohout’s first stage triumph was his play Taková láska (such a love), which became the most performed play in Czechoslovakia, with 770 performances within four years of its appearance. It ran for more than five hundred performances in neighboring East Germany and was performed abroad—in the Soviet Union, Israel, South America, and South Africa. Kohout’s surprising success has to be considered in the light of the stilted, sterile dramatic productions of dogmatic Socialist Realism, which inhibited not only theater but also all the arts in the...
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