Letters to Olga Critical Context - Essay

Vaclav Havel

Critical Context

Stripped of their sometimes pretentious philosophical jargon (“Does not the hunger of meaning . . . derive from the recollection of a separated being for its state of primordial being in Being?”), Havel’s letters reveal him to be a secular humanist with a strongly existential orientation. His closest temperamental and speculative kinsman is probably Albert Camus: Both men meditate on an “absurd” universe in which existence has no given, absolute truth, value, or meaning. Both men regard such a world not as an invitation to nihilism but rather as an opportunity to establish a man-made, morally coherent worldview which emphasizes the primacy of human dignity, freedom, and fraternity.

As a Czech writer, Havel is indebted to Jaroslav Hasek and, naturally, Franz Kafka. Hasek’s great comic novel Osudy dobreho vojaka Srejka za svetove valky (1921-1923; The Good Soldier Schweik, 1930) is a picaresque, farcical parody of imbecile militarism in particular, despotism in general. Kafka expressed metaphysical anguish, dread, and mystery in some of the twentieth century’s most memorable works of fiction. Havel shares both authors’ bitter humor, genius for allegorical fantasies, and philosophical bent. As one of Europe’s leading absurdist playwrights, Havel has declared his dramatic affinities with Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and Stoppard.

Letters to Olga has some value in presenting discussions of the theater’s role, as well as the importance of several plays, by one of the most gifted contemporary dramatists. Its chief value, however, is as a testament to the victory achieved by a person of honor and courage over his vicious hounding by a despicably tyrannous and venomous regime.