Study Guide

Václav Havel

Václav Havel Essay - Havel, Václav

Havel, Václav

Introduction

Václav Havel 1936-

Playwright, essayist, and poet Václav Havel is a major figure in Czech culture, and he is considered his country's foremost dramatist. His plays are powerful condemnations of the bureaucratization and mechanization of modern society and their effects on the individual. His keen satires depict the prevalence of cliché and official doublespeak in a totalitarian society and the chaos brought about by the disintegration of meaning. Many of Havel's works are considered absurdist black comedies because they employ grotesque and ludicrous elements that give expression to humanity's fundamental uneasiness in an inane universe. This focus on the absurd nature of existence in the modern world gives his works a universality that goes beyond his exploration of the uniquely Czech experience.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Havel was born into a wealthy family in Prague. Once his primary education was completed, he was denied access to higher education because of the Communist government's policy of discrimination against the bourgeoisie. Havel worked in a chemical factory and attended night classes in order to finish secondary school. Havel credits this period of his life with giving him the opportunity to "see the world 'from below,' that is, as it really is." It is from this vantage point, Havel believes, that one clearly views the absurd and comic dimensions of the world. In 1959 Havel accepted his first theater job, becoming a stage-hand at Prague's Divadlo ABC (ABC Theater); the following year he moved to the highly respected avant-garde Divadlo na zábradlí (Theater of the Balustrade), eventually becoming its literary adviser. Having begun writing articles and essays in the mid-1950s, Havel wrote his first play, Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party) in 1963, and it was produced by the Balustrade. Vyrozumění (The Memorandum) premiered in 1965, and Ztížená možnost soustředení (The Increased Difficulty of Concentration) debuted in 1968. These plays were highly acclaimed internationally. The Memorandum premiered in America in 1968, and Havel won the prestigious Obie Award. The same year he was honored with the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Throughout the early 1960s Czechoslovakia had been experiencing a gradual relaxation of government controls on culture, but this abruptly ended in 1968 when troops from the Soviet Union invaded the country in order to enforce closer compliance with Soviet policies. Although Havel's works were subsequently banned and Havel himself prohibited from working in the theater, he refused to abandon his country, and he continued to write plays and political works. His resistance to the Communist regime—which included co-founding the human rights organization Charter 77—resulted in his arrest several times in the 1970s. His plays written during this period circulated privately and premiered abroad. In 1979 Havel was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his involvement in an organization that sought to defend individuals unjustly prosecuted by the state. In 1982 the 36th International Theatre Festival at Avignon, France, included a six-hour "Night for Václav Havel," and featured Samuel Beckett's "Catastrophe" and Arthur Miller's "I think about you a great deal," plays dedicated to Havel and written in protest of his imprisonment. Havel continued to write and to have his plays produced outside of Czechoslovakia, and he was awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1986. With the collapse of the Communist state in 1989, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. When that country divided into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993, Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he still holds.

MAJOR WORKS

The main theme in Havel's work is the relationship between the individual and the government. Associated with the absurdist playwrights Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett, Havel explores the power of language and its ability to alienate and overwhelm the individual. These are the central issues in The Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. Three one-act plays, written after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, are semi-autobiographical. Known as the "Vaněk Plays," they all feature a dissident playwright named Ferdinand Vaněk. In "Audience," Vaněk, unable to work as a playwright, is forced to take a job at a brewery. His supervisor there offers him an easier job in exchange for composing the weekly reports to the authorities that the supervisor must file on Vaněk himself. In "Vernisáž" ("Private View") Vaněk visits former friends, an affluent couple who flaunt the material possessions they have gained by renouncing their previous opposition to the government. They attempt to convince Vaněk to recant his dissent as well. "Protest" features Staněk, a successful script-writer whose daughter's boyfriend has been arrested. Staněk encourages Vaněk to write a petition to protest the arrest, but he himself refuses to sign it. Throughout these three plays Vaněk is a nearly silent figure who functions as an external conscience for his interlocutors, prodding them to inadvertently admit their cowardice and hypocrisy. Havel's 1984 work, Largo Desolato, is a semi-autobiographical play about a philosopher driven to abuse alcohol and pills by the pressure both from officials who want him to recant his writings and from friends who themselves are unable to support his efforts but still urge him to continue. Pokousení (Temptation), a 1985 variation on the Faust legend about a scientist who sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power, is an allegory in which the state is depicted as the true devil because it corrupts science in the service of political ends. Both Largo Desolato and Temptation develop the theme of humanity's tendency toward totalitarianism, the central issue as well in "Omyl" ("Mistake"), a play written in 1983 in response to Beckett's "Catastrophe."

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Many of havel's works have met with acclaim both at home and abroad. Michael Billington, writing of a play production of The Memorandum in London, admired the play's "brutally logical satire on the use of language to enforce conformity" and observed: "The play may have grown out of experience of Czech communism: its application is universal." Similarly, Sarah Hemming, noting that The Memorandum was thirty years old at the time of its London performance, remarked: "As a political parable, the play seems almost prophetic: everything changes, and yet things remain the same." When the three Vaněk plays were staged together in New York under the title A Private View, critics praised the manner in which they effectively convey the ills of society and challenge the audience to reflect on existence in an absurd world. Overall, Havel is recognized as a powerful playwright who, as Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz has written, not only "gives shape to some of the most important issues of our time but also a thinker who from his small place in a small country in the heart of Europe sends forth an eloquent artistic diagnosis of men living in social groups East or West."

Principal Works

PLAYS

Zahradní slavnost [The Garden Party] 1963

Vyrozumění [The Memorandum] 1965

Ztížená možnost soustředení [The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] 1968

Spiklenci [The Conspirators] 1971

Zebrácká opera [adaptor; from the drama The Beggar's Opera by John Gay] 1972

*"Audience" [also known as "Interview"] 1975

*"Vernisáž" ["Private View"; also known as "Unveiling"] 1975

Horský hotel [Mountain Hotel; also known as The Mountain Resort] 1976

†Hry 1970-1976 (play collection) 1977

*"Protest" 1978

"Omyl" ["The Mistake"] 1983

Largo desolato [Largo Desolato] 1984

Pokousení [Temptation] 1985

Slum Clearance 1987

OTHER MAJOR WORKS

Protokoly [Protocols] (essays, drama, and poetry) 1966

Dopisy Olze [Letters to Olga: June 1979 to September 1982] (correspondence) 1983

O lidskou identitu [In Search of Human Identity] (essays) 1984

Dálkový výslech [Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíždala] (interview) 1986

Open Letters: Selected Writings (essays, speeches, correspondence) 1991

*These three plays were produced together in New York in 1983 under the title A Private View; they are also known by the collective title "The Vaněk Plays."

†This volume contains Spiklenci, Zebrácká opera, Horský hotel, "Audience," and "Vernisáž."

Author Commentary

Light on a Landscape (1985)

SOURCE: "Light on a Landscape," translated by Milan Pomichalek and Anna Mozga, in The Vaněk Plays: Four Authors, One Character, edited by Marketa Goetz-Stan-kiewicz, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1987, pp. 237-39.

[In the following essay, which was written in 1985, Havel discusses the experience of having other authors utilize his character Vaněk and coins the term "Vaněk principle" to describe the phenomenon.]

In the 1970's it was customary (and a good custom it was) for several of my writer-friends to spend one summer weekend with me in my country cottage every year. After 1969 they all had found themselves in a situation similar to mine; that is to say, they were banned in their native country and publicly disgraced for their beliefs concerning society. At these gatherings we used to, among other things, read our new works to each other. In the course of about two days before our meeting in 1975, and mainly to have something to read on that occasion, I wrote the oneact play "Audience." The inspiration came from personal experience—my employment in a brewery the year before—and the play was intended, as may be evident, primarily for the entertainment of my friends. Indeed, it is little more than a dialogue between the so-called "dissident" writer Vaněk (who works in a brewery) and his superior, the brewmaster. Though the latter is invented, obviously many of my own experiences—and not only those from the brewery—went into his making.

It never occurred to me that the play might be saying something (more or less significant) to other people, people who do not know me or my situation and who are ignorant of my having worked in a brewery. As it turned out, I was—as I had, after all, been a number of times before in regard to my literary work—mistaken: the play was successful not only with my friends but, also, having by various ways soon penetrated the relatively broad consciousness of the Czech public, also won its esteem. At times, it has even happened that total strangers, people in restaurants or casual hitchhikers I picked up, not only knew it but also had extracted from it pieces of dialogue, which they then used—in addition to short quotations or paraphrases—in various situations (in some cases as a sort of password among people spiritually akin). This wide domestic acclaim naturally pleased me, the more so as it occurred under conditions which made it impossible for the play to be published or performed publicly in my country. But what pleased me most is that something apparently happened which, I think, does or should occur with all art, namely that the work of art somehow exceeds its author, or is, so to speak, "cleverer than he is," and that through the mediation of the writer—no matter what purpose he was consciously pursuing—some deeper truth about his time reveals itself and works its way to the surface.

Stimulated by this experience, I later wrote two more plays, "Unveiling" and "Protest." All three have since been staged by many theatres in divers countries, and, in spite of the rather special and unusual circumstances from which they originated, they have turned out to be generally intelligible. The third one, "Protest," however, was actually written after a discussion with my friend Pavel Kohout as a counterpoint to his "Permit" (likewise a Vaněk play). These two were originally written with the intention of having them staged together, something that eventually did happen. Later, when I was already in prison, Kohout wrote another Vaněk piece, "Morass," and at approximately the same time my friend Pavel Landovsky composed "Arrest." Later still, after his release from the prison in which we had served time together, Jiři Dienstbier, another of my friends, wrote a Vaněk play as well.

If I am to make some marginal comments on the whole Vaněk series, it might, above all, be appropriate to emphasize that Vaněk is not Havel. Of course, I have transferred into this character certain of my own experiences, and I have done so more distinctly than is usual among writers. Undoubtedly, I have also implanted in him a number of my personal traits or, more precisely, presented a number of perspectives from which I see myself in various situations. But all of this does not mean that Vaněk is intended as a self-portrait. A real person and a dramatic character are entirely different things. The dramatic character is more or less always a fiction, an invention, a trick, an abbreviation consisting only of a limited number of utterances, and subordinated to the concrete "world of the play" and its meaning. In comparison with any living person, even the most enigmatic and psychologically most rounded character is hopelessly inadequate and simplistic. On the other hand, however, he should also exude something a real person cannot possibly possess: the ability always to say something perspicuous and essential about "the world as it is"—all within the context of the few lines of dialogue and the few situations that make up his entire being.

This holds true for Vaněk as well, perhaps more so than for many another dramatic character. Vaněk is really not so much a concrete person as something of a "dramatic principle": he does not usually do or say much, but his mere existence, his presence on stage, and his being what he is make his environment expose itself one way or an-other. He does not admonish anyone in particular; indeed, he demands hardly anything of anyone. And in spite of this, his environment perceives him as an invocation somehow to declare and justify itself. He is, then, a kind of "key," opening certain—always different—vistas onto the world in which he lives; a kind of catalyst, a gleam, if you will, in whose light we view a landscape. And although without it we should scarcely be able to see anything at all, it is not the gleam that matters but the landscape. The Vaněk plays, therefore, are essentially not plays about Vaněk but plays about the world as it reveals itself when confronted with Vaněk. (This, I must add, is an ex post facto explanation. While writing "Audience," I was not aware of this, and I did not plan things that way before-hand. It is only now that, removed in time and faced with Vaněk's literary and theatrical existence of several years, I have come to realize it.)

From what I have just said about Vaněk, it of course follows that the Vaněk of different plays and, even more so, the Vaněk of different authors is not always quite the same character. While it is true that as a "principle" or "dramatic trick" he moves from play to play, the principle is used differently every time, and as a character he is therefore always someone slightly different. The writers impress on him their own varied experiences, they perceive him in the framework of their individual poetics, perhaps they even project into him their varying interpretations of the man who was the original model. In short, every writer is different and writes differently; consequently, he has his own Vaněk, different from the Vaněk of the others.

For me, personally, all that remains is to be pleased that, having discovered—more unconsciously than on purpose—the "Vaněk principle," I have inspired other Czech writers who, as it happens, are also my friends, and have provided something of a key for them to use in their own way and at their own responsibility. And if the present collection of Vaněk-plays [The Vaněk Plays: Four Authors, One Character, 1987] says—as a whole—something about the world in which it was given us to live our lives, then the credit should be given collectively and in equal measure, to all the authors involved.

Writing for the Stage (1986)

SOURCE: "Writing for the Stage," in Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvížďala, translated by Paul Wilson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, pp. 35-72.

[The following interview was first published in 1986. Havel surveys his career and discusses the origins of several of his plays.]

How many plays have you written by now? Could you give us a bibliographical overview?

… [My] first play, still juvenilia really, was a one-acter called "An Evening with the Family" from 1959. After I went over to the Theatre on the Balustrade, I worked with Ivan Vyskočil on a play called Hitchhiking, which was performed in 1961. With Miloš Macourek, I wrote a cabaret play called Mrs. Hermannova's Best Years, which was performed, if I'm not mistaken, in 1962. I wrote several scenes for a poetic revue called The Deranged Turtledove, which was also performed sometime around that period.

My first independent full-length play was The Garden Party, which was given its premiere in the Theatre on the Balustrade in 1963. The Memorandum was mounted in 1965, but I had started writing it in 1960, and then rewritten it several times. In 1968 the Balustrade performed another play of mine, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. I also wrote a short radio play called Guardian Angel in the sixties, and in 1968 the Czechoslovak Radio broadcast it, with Josef Kemr and Rudolf Hrušínsky̌ (I never actually heard it). Also I wrote a television play called A Butterfly on the Antennae, for which Czechoslovak Television gave me a kind of prize. They even prepared to tape it, but, thanks to the Soviet invasion, this never happened. Later it was done by West German Television. The Garden Party and The Memorandum were published sometime in the 1960s by Mladá Fronta, along with two of my essays and a collection of typographical poetry, all under the title Protocols. A separate edition of The Garden Party had already been published by Orbis, which also later brought out The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. All three plays came out as well as a supplement to Divadlo magazine, and recently they were published together in book form under the title The Increased Difficulty, by the Rozmluva press in London. To make this survey complete, I should also mention a film version of The Garden Party, which fortunately was never realized (I say "fortunately" because Barrandov Studios had hired a director whose poetics were not very close to mine); another unrealized film scenario, Heart Beat (with Jan Němec); a sound collage called Bohemia the Beautiful, Bohemia Mine created in Czechoslovak Radio but never broadcast (fortunately for the producers who had commissioned it), and A Door to the Attic, a revue based on texts by Ivan Sviták, and apparently performed later (I'm not sure about this) in Viola. In the 1970s—that is, when I was already banned—the first play I wrote was The Conspirators (1971), but I don't think it was very successful. Next came The Beggar's Opera (1972), and in 1975 two one-act plays, "Audience" and "Private View," to which I added a third, "Protest," in 1978. All three feature the same character, Vaněk. In 1976 I wrote another full-length play, called Mountain Hotel. Except for "Protest," all these plays from my "banned" period were published by 68 Publishers in Toronto under the title Plays. (Unfortunately, a working version of The Conspirators was published by mistake; it was even worse than the final version.) After my release from prison, I wrote a miniplay in 1983 called "The Mistake" (it was printed by Svědectví); then, in 1984, came a full-length play, Largo Desolato, and, in 1985, Temptation. Both were published in Munich by Poezie Mimo Domov. Largo Desolato was also published earlier in Svédectví. Considering that I've been writing plays now for twenty-six years, I haven't written a great deal. I should perhaps add that all my plays were and still are performed by various theatres in various countries of the world, and they've also been published in foreign languages.

Do you remember how you got the idea for The Memorandum and where the word "ptydepe" come from?

I don't really like to admit this, but the idea for an artificial language called "ptydepe" was not mine: it came from my brother Ivan, who is a mathematician. Of course the play was my own idea, and I wrote it in my own way; I merely consulted with my brother in the passages on redundancy.

And how did you come up with the subject for The Garden Party?

In this case, the original impulse came from Ivan Vyskočil, for a change. After the shows, we'd always sit around in some wine...

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Overviews And General Studies

Phyllis Carey (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Living in Lies: Václav Havel's Drama," in Cross Currents, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 200-11.

[Carey places Havel's drama in three major phases: "the early absurdist comedies; the Vaněk morality plays; and the psychological-prison plays."]

Americans were captivated by the 1989 election of Vaclav Havel, a human rights activist who spent almost four years in prison, as the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Many who had heard that his ideas had played a vital role in the country's "Velvet Revolution" were introduced to his thinking through interviews, partic ularly the extended...

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The Memorandum

PRODUCTION REVIEWS

Jeremy Kingston (review date 29 March 1995)

SOURCE: A Review of The Memorandum, in The Times, London, 29 March 1995, p. 28.

[In the following evaluation of a recent British production of The Memorandum, Kingston praises the play but finds its absurdist elements dated.]

Written and produced in 1965 when its author, Vaclav Havel, was a relatively free man; first staged in this country 12 years later, when he had been placed under house arrest, this famous play [The Memorandum] is being revived at a time when he appears to have become incarcerated again, although now as his...

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A Private View ("The VaněK Plays")

A PRIVATE VIEW ("THE VANĚK PLAYS")

PRODUCTION REVIEWS

John Simon (review date 5 December 1983)

SOURCE: "Farcical Worlds," in New York Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 48, 5 December 1983, pp. 149-50.

[When the three Vaněk plays were staged off-Broadway in 1983, they were given the collective title A Private View. In the following review of that presentation, Simon declares "Protest" the best of the pieces.]

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and fighter for human rights, is utterly heroic and admirable in the latter capacity. Twice jailed (once for four and a half years) and reduced to such menial...

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Further Reading

BIOGRAPHY

Kriseová, Eda. Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography, translated by Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Written by a friend and colleague of Havel, this book details the author's private and public life, touching briefly on his literary career.

AUTHOR COMMENTARY

Blair, Erica. "Doing without Utopias: An Interview with Vaclav Havel," translated by A. G. Brain. Times Literary Supplement, No. 4373 (23 January 1987): 81-3.

Critiques both totalitarian and capitalist societies and discusses the role of art in Czechoslovakia.

Havel, Václav. "Second Wind." In...

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